Everone knew one at school. A classmate who was slightly barmy and regularly got into trouble but was basically a good sort. Anthony Buckeridge certainly did. And his name was…
“Jennings. He was a bit of a nutcase and did a couple of very odd things when he was at school,” says the 87-year-old author. “He was the initial inspiration for the character. But after school I never saw him again. Then a couple of years ago we managed to get in touch with him. He was in a nursing home in New Zealand and didn’t know anything about the books at all. I think he was quite amused.”
He must also have been astonished. Since their schooldays together, the 25 stories of J.C.T. Jennings’ escapades with his friend Darbishire (one of playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s favourite characters in his youth) have sold more than six million copies worldwide and been translated into French, German, Spanish, Dutch, Welsh, Swedish, Finnish, Indonesian, Chinese and Modern Hebrew. In Norway, there have been three full-length Jennings films and his adventures appear regularly on Norwegian State Radio. There has been a stage play (Jennings Abounding in which Buckeridge played the blustery teacher Mr Wilkins), television programmes and a talking book version read by Stephen Fry. Mr Jennings has become one of the most famous little boys on the planet.
The public first met John Christopher Timothy Jennings and his prep school friends from Linbury Court on Children’s Hour in 1948. After a brief stint in a bank, Anthony Buckeridge became a school teacher at St Laurence’s prep school in Ramsgate and began writing radio plays after the end of the Second World War. “It was very different in those days. If you had an idea for a play, you sent it to the BBC and you’d hear back from them very quickly, usually within a week. Now there’s all sorts of nonsense with commissioning editors and so on,” he says. “Jennings was only meant to be a one-off but the BBC suggested a series of six more, then six more and it just went from there, year after year. I used ideas from the plays for the books but they obviously had to be completely rewritten.”
There were 62 plays produced in all, most of them sadly lost now. The first book, Jennings Goes To School, was published in 1950 and the mix of gentle humour and schoolboy misadventures was an immediate hit. “There was so much inspiration
just walking around the school,” recalls Anthony Buckeridge. “Children are always talking about what they’re going to do or not going to do. One of them gets some particularly crazy idea and continues until a teacher spots it and prevents it getting out of hand. But if you imagine letting it go one step further than in real life you get an entertaining situation.
“Children do things rather differently. Their behaviour can be extraordinary. On the whole, adults don’t understand children very well. They do things that would be inconceivable to an adult but which make absolute sense to them. There were situations like that at school every day.”
It’s that ability to understand children that has made the Jennings books so popular. For example, the nicknaming of Jennings’ schoolfriend Atkinson – Atkinson’s initials are C.A.T. which his friends naturally change to Dog, then shorten to Dogsbody which is obviously too much of a mouthful so they alter it to Bod. Form master Mr Wilkins, perpetually confounded by the workings of his charges’ minds, would never follow that reasoning.
Of course Jennings was not the only accident-prone schoolboy with a heart of gold. Anthony Buckeridge also created Rex Milligan, a day boy at a London grammar school who was not unlike Jennings but a bit older. Rex made it into The Eagle, was the star of four books (Rex Milligan’s Busy Term, Rex Milligan Raises the Roof, Rex Milligan Holds Forth and Rex Milligan Reporting) and also appeared on television. More famous is Richmal Crompton’s William who has been around for 80 years and is still remarkably popular. But right from Jennings’ first appearance there have always been fundamental differences betweeen the two boys. “William is a rebel,” says Jennings’ creator. “Very engaging, but a rebel. Jennings is not. He usually causes trouble by trying too hard to please. He’s not deliberately difficult – Jennings does something because something else has gone wrong and he tries to rectify it and then makes things worse.”
further titles appeared, they were quickly translated into foreign languages.
Naturally, the books were adapted for each market. Jennings was renamed
Fredy in Germany, Stompa in Norway and Bennett in France. “The name of the
hero was supposed to be difficult for French lips,” says Thierry Chevrier,
a dedicated collector of Jennings editions from around
“In fact Olivier Séchan, who translated the books into French, told me that his main challenges were those pretty little puns, sometimes so delicate to turn into French.” Anthony Buckeridge is particularly pleased when I mention this to him. “I’ve always felt the language was very important, to capture the essence of children’s conversation. In the first book I used slang which was in vogue at the time but a year later it was already dated and it looked so embarrassing that I started making up my own such as ‘Fossilised fishhooks.’” One of my personal favourites is ‘clodpoll’ a mild term of abuse used regularly by Jennings (fans of the books will remember one of its most memorable appearances as ‘Llopdolc a si selbanev’) . Another marvellous invention? Mr Buckeridge smiles. “Ah, now ‘clodpoll’ is actually an Elizabethan word but it just seemed to fit perfectly.” Sadly, like Enid Blyton, Jennings has been updated for present day consumption and purist Jennings fans should avoid the newer editions from John Goodchild Publishers.
Anthony Buckeridge still finds it difficult to explain Jennings’ worldwide popularity (“What does a young Chinese boy make of 11-year-old English schoolboys playing cricket? It baffles me.”) and indeed the fortunes of his creation at the moment are decidedly mixed. Last June saw the third Annual Jennings Meeting in Sussex where fans compared collections, enjoyed talks on life at Linbury Court and had the chance to meet the author and his family.
Meanwhile, a new website dedicated to Jennings (www.linbury-court.co.uk) has recently been launched and a collection of the first radio plays broadcast in 1948 and 1949 has just been published called Jennings Sounds The Alarm. However sales in the UK are dropping and the publisher’s Macmillan report that the books are nearly out of print.
“It’s much more dated than William,” a spokeswoman told me. “William’s world is very separate. It could be any time. Its just a series of pranks, like a fairytale. Jennings is more grounded in a time period.” It’s not an assessment with which I agree and Thierry Chevrier points out that since 1996, no less than ten Bennett books have been issued in France (“and in paperbacks with rather beautiful covers.”). “At the moment the publishers don’t want any more,” says Mr Buckeridge. “I wish they would. I would do another one if they asked.”We know all about Jennings the schoolboy, but parts of his life remain cloudy. Kindly aunts apart, his family rarely enter the stories, perhaps a reflection of the author’s own life. “I was a First World War boy and my father was killed in 1917 as soon as he got to the front. I only vaguely remember him. Then I went to boarding school and grew up with very little family except my mother and she was working.” Indeed, is the kindly and understanding teacher Mr Carter drawn from his own creator? “It’s very nice that some people think I was Mr Carter who was something of an ideal teacher but I was not nearly so unflappable,” laughs Mr Buckeridge. And Jennings the grownup? “I’ve not pursued that one even though people have suggested it. Jennings would perhaps have become an engineer, Darbishire a librarian. But really I only see Jennings as he is, 11 years old, timeless.”