The Writings of Ingrid Pitt

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Just William vs Violet Elizabeth Bott

Deliciously non-PC, the only one who could defeat William Brown was Violet Elizabeth Bott who claimed excellence in the Projectile Vomit department as her Weapon of Mass Destruction.
Dress William and Ginger Book Cover

William and his best mate Ginger.

When Johnny Garrett was bidding his executioners farewell in 1991 he gave an Oscar award winner’s speech. He had been sentenced to death for the murder of a nun. When he was asked if he had any final words he allegedly said: “I’d like to thank my family for looking after me and taking care of me. And the rest of the world can kiss my arse.” Terse, sweet, to the point and just about summed up how he felt. Another murderer, debonair ex-RAF pilot, Neville Heath, facing the hangman, Albert Pierrepoint, was asked if he would like a whiskey. “Considering the circumstances,” he quipped. “You had better make it a double.”

King George V also had a nice line in departee. Told by his doctors that he would soon be up and about and able to take the air at his beloved Bognor Regis he is reported to have gasped out before expiring. “Bugger Bognor.” Has a nice ring to it. The mild expletive was also a part of Prime Minister Winston S Churchill’s favourite exhortation. When things were not going to plan he would urge his staff to “keep buggering on.” It obviously worked a treat. Charles Dickens gave his fictional character, Sidney Carton, a rather pompous parting bon mot to accompany him up the steps to the guillotine in A Tale of Two Cities. “It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done, it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever had”. Seems that the prospect of imminent death can produce a sense of literary timing in those about to go. King of the Undead, Dracula, polite as ever when he didn’t actually have his incisors buried in somebody’s jugular, when asked if he would like a drink replied “I never drink - wine”. But you don’t have to be contemplating the hereafter to coin a memorable sentence. Take Friedrich Nietzsche the 19th Century German philosopher. “Whoever fights Monsters should see to it that in the process he doesn’t become a monster. When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” An apt metaphor for the present international situation I would think. Then there is lisping Violet Elizabeth Bott. When things weren’t going her way she let those around her, particularly William Brown, know the consequences of non-compliance with her wishes. “I‘ll thcream and I’ll thcream ‘til I’m thick. I can you know”. And it always worked.

Just William

That's Just William

Richmal Crompton’s Just William books have been around since 1922. Not natural reading fodder in my childhood. It took actor John Bentley of Crossroads fame to introduce me to the little rascal. John, although looking everyones image of a dashing hero and was called ‘Safari Ned’ by comedian Harry Secombe because he looked so good in a Safari jacket, was a boy at heart. I met him when I was touring with a play called Woman of Straw. His dressing room was amazing. Every venue he opened up a huge packing case and decorated the entire room with Teddy Bears. The days can be long and boring waiting for the curtain to go up in the evening. We were at Cleethorpes and John suggested a raid on the shops. I was up for it but was a little disappointed when I found myself trudging around Junk Shops. Amongst the jumble he found a battered book entitled William the Outlaw. He insisted on buying it for me and then persisted in asking every day if I had read it. Just to shut him up I decided to read it. And found it highly amusing. Richmal Crompton was a prolific writer, not only of children’s books but also for adults. Her 40 William books were matched by around the same number of adult books with other childrens’ books thrown in. Featured were ‘Jimmy’, for younger children, and ‘Patricia’ for girls. 12,000,000 books sold in the UK alone puts Miss Crompton well in there with the likes of JK Rowling, Beatrix Potter and Enid Blyton. Who says children’s books don’t sell? Well, my agent for one.

Just William Book Cover

The book that started it all.

The perennially eleven year old William is what would now be categorised as a hyperactive child. Probably with some sort of schizoid element thrown in for good measure. The product of a well-off middle class family in the Roaring Twenties he enjoys baiting his elder sister, Ethel, and does his best to make the life of any boy friend she might bring home, a misery. His father, a banker and would-be stern disciplinarian, is completely at sea where his younger son is concerned. Only William’s elder brother, Robert, a pompous would-be man-about-town, has any influence over him and this is mainly because he is always good for the odd ‘tanner’ or ‘joey’. (Sixpenny and three penny pieces.) His mother dotes on her wayward son but even she gets a little weary of having to act as back stop for him at times. His gang of like minded scoundrels, Ginger, Henry and Douglas meet in a cow-shed owned by a local farmer who is considered the great enemy. Spoiling their fun by wanting to join them is the daughter of the owner of the local Bott’s Digestive Sauce factory, Violet Elizabeth Bott. She is a mega sized pain but able to foil William’s attempts to dislodge her by threatening to vomit. An unusual weapon but very useful where William is concerned. William is absolutely positive that the sauce made in Violet Elizabeth’s father’s factory is made from crushed beetles and never misses an opportunity of spouting his conviction if he can find a receptive ear. In spite of the never ending trouble he finds himself in, William is a well-intentioned boy and most of his problems arise from his efforts to right a wrong. This is reflected in the titles of some of the William books. William the Good, (1928) Sweet William (1936), William Does His Bit (a war efforts saga from 1942), William the Bold (1950) and William the Explorer (1960). Other titles show his other side. William the Outlaw (1927), William the Rebel (1933), William the Lawless (1970). The last book published posthumously. The author died in 1969. Most of these books in the hardback edition are still available and can cost anything from £25 - £300-400. Even a 1st edition William the Superman with illustrations by Henry Ford Green, not published until 1968, can fetch a couple of hundred quid. Not unexpectedly a 1st edition of the original Just William approaching anything like mint condition can get the Reichter Scale quaking.

All of the Just William booka were originally published by Newnes. Soft back edition were usually handled by MacMillan. The very first time that William Brown was conjured into life was in a story called Rice Mould written for Home Magazine in 1919. Richmal Crompton also wrote for Happy Magazine where she kept her favourite leading boy alive. A 1926 first edition of the magazine with a William cover can be picked up for around £80. The character of the errant but well meaning schoolboy was sympathetically received and two years later Newnes published the first William story in book form Just William. This was to be the generic name for all the William books to come.

Richmal Compton

Richmal Compton admitted to having many of the characteristics of her schoolboy hero.

The first attempt to exploit Just William on the silver screen happened in the year which saw the start of WW2, 1939. Dicky Lupino, cousin of Ida Lupino, and an American to boot, was William and another American, Roddy MacDowall was Ginger. The only leading member of the cast to suggest that the movie might be British was the marvelously louche Fred Emney. Radio beckoned in 1945 and the BBC ran a 35 episode series which was finally scuttled in 1956. As a healthy reminder that William was British to the core and not to be confused with the American product, Tom Sawyer, Just William’s Luck, in 1948, had Gary Marsh, as Mr. Brown, and A.E Matthews in the cast. And you don’t get more Brit than that. William Graham was William and Audrey Manning turned in a gut wrenching performance as Violet Elizabeth. William Graham was again up for our hero the following year in William Goes to the Circus. The title alone conjures up some wild images. Marsh was back as Papa Brown and Jon Pertwee turned in a great performance as the police Superintendent giving William a hard time. William got his big break on the telly in 1960 when the BBC decided that Saturday evening could be perked up with the insouciant adventures of an 11 year old boy. They ran a six episode season with Dennis Waterman as William. Waterman went on to star in The Sweeney, Minder and many other top rating TV shows. Ten years later London Weekend picked up a contract to air 13 episodes on Sunday evening with Adrian Dunnatt in the lead, still pestered by Violet Elizabeth, this time in the diminutive form of Bonnie Langford. TV virtually spurned William Brown for the next 20 years until the Beeb decided to have another bash at it in 1990 with Oliver Rokison wielding the catapult and Tiffany Griffith threatening the projectile vomit. With the appearance of the Audio Book there was a stirring of a new life. Notably read by the outrageous Kenneth Williams and latterly by Martin Jarvis, the rebel Peter Pan is finding a new audience. Probably not with the younger family members too busy with their latest Play Station to care about what a real childhood was like, at least in the Brown household, before living became a virtual reality.

William’s antics were not always looked on with favour. Catapults, bows and arrows, ten inch Boy Scout knives, to be worn on all occasions, and energetic, no-holds-barred conker bouts might be frowned on, if not illegal, now but, in the twenties and thirties, were an everyday part of a healthy boy’s outdoor life. Richmal Crompton was at times chastised for going a bit too far and had at least two books withdrawn. If you have one of these in the attic you will find you have reached the end of your own, personal Rainbow. Williams sins? Well at one time he painted his dog blue and charged other kids to have a look at it claiming in was a wild dog never seen before. Another time he had a bet with his mates about how many rats his dog could kill in a certain time. But he really got it in the neck when he and his chums harassed a Jewish shopkeeper. Mr. Isaacs, for being a cheat and giving short measure when he weighed up the humbugs. This was a story, William and the Nasties (read Nazis,) in William the Detective which survived through the ‘thirties but was excised from later editions.

Violet Elizabeth Bott

Violet knew exactly how to get William's undivided attention.

Commercial exploitation of book or film characters didn’t really get going until the ‘60s. That being the case it wouldn’t be surprising to find there were very few William collectables around. The surprise is that they are many and various. First traceable items date from the early 1940s. Among other intriguing items there is a Toy Theatre with a script and a cast of cardboard characters to act it out. (Who said that?) The last one that was sold, in 1982 as far as I can gather, went for the reasonable sum of £25. Times have changed and money softened so at a guess if there is one hiding out somewhere it could easily command a three figure price. There is also a real, live stage play in three acts called Just William by Macdonald and Young. A script can be picked up for as little as £15. Unfortunately it had a problem finding an audience when it was first staged. The war over and a new sense of awareness produced an increase in the sales potential of the William franchise. There was a 3D board game entitled, what else, The Just William Board Game. Again not something that changes hands often but I am reliably informed it would have the collectors drooling. A number of jigsaw puzzles based on TV series were a very popular addition to any 11 year old’s Christmas stocking. Without the usual piece missing could go for £25 or so. Earlier examples of Williams fame are a series of figurines. One as William the Gangster with a Tommy Gun toted under his arm has an asking price of £120. The other three more nondescript pieces are models by Coalport. Very unpopular were a number of ‘dressing up’ books where the reader was invited to dress William, Ginger and Violet Elizabeth. Too sissy for the born again William worshippers. Even at the beach it was hard to avoid William. A very fetching bucket and spade were on sale in every souvenir shop. There was an early attempt to launch a Just William Fan Club which for some reason seems not have survived. Later the Outlaws Club offered a very interesting starters bundle but that also seems to have gone beyond recall. But don’t despair. In 1995 the Just William Society was spawned and you can attend meetings or keep up with Williams exploits on info@justwilliamsociety.co.uk

If you are not an addicted William watcher perhaps now is the time to suck it and see. There does seem to be a gathering interest in the rogue from another age - if the writers can just get around the fact that William has a non-PC streak running through him like a stick of rock and anyone wanting to recycle him would re unwise to try and remove. In the meanwhile I guess we will just have to settle for the boxed set including Just William, More William, William Again, and William the Fourth, that has just been put on the market by MacMillan’s Children’s Books. It reached the shops for Christmas ‘05 but the local book shop said they had to reorder for ‘06 and the pick-up has been interesting. It retails around the twenty pound mark. It would seem a great time to search around in the junk and jumble for discarded William ephemera. You never know what goodies you might come up.

Model Mart January 2007

The Writings of Ingrid Pitt