Archive for June 30th, 2010

“I want to go to school! I want to go to the Chalet School!” so said one Carola Johnston, fictional 14 year old English girl utterly under the spell of the Chalet School and she wasn’t the only one.

Alpine adventures, kidnapped princesses, jolly mistresses, brown and flame uniforms and Kaffee und Kuchen; the Chalet School series was everything life in rural Ireland was not and a 9 year old me adored it.

Originally set in Austria, the series of about 60 books written by Elinor Brent-Dyer was based on a school which opened in the Austrian Tyrol in the 1920s and spanned right through to the late 1960s, moving to Guernsey, Wales and finally Switzerland.  The books crossed an era of British and European history covering colonial India, Prussia, post World War I, the rise of Nazism, World War II and a post- World War II Britain all through the veiled eyes of a privileged private boarding school for girls.

As with most girls’ books there was a riotous cast of heroes and villains. The Chalet School series recounted tales of generations of girls from the original it-girl ‘Joey’ to her triplet daughters and included one token Irish pupil – the ward of the school ‘Biddy Ryan’ with her cringe-inducing stage Oirish, ghost stories and ‘black flowing hair to her knees’.  Begorrah.

Reading them now these books are wildly inaccurate, hugely racist, incredibly sexist and played on stereotypes to a lamentable degree but they also dealt with multi-culturalism and a multi-religious setting not usually found in children’s books at the time. Looking at the social context is also an eye-opener: the school was run in tandem with a sanatorium where ‘delicate’ children went to be treated for consumption – it was the 1940s before effective drugs to treat TB were readily available – not to mention the acceptance that women would only teach ‘until they married, of course’.

The real fascination for me lay not in the actual stories, though tales of storms in the mountain tops and tragic toboggan accidents were gobbled down with much delight – once I’d found out what a toboggan was – but in the foreignness, the otherness of it all. Those books were probably my first introduction to continental Europe and I was smitten.

Ice cold baths from spring fed water, milky coffee drunk from porcelain bowls, hikes over alpine plains, glaciers, drinking goats’ milk from friendly Tyrolean shepherds (which no doubt I would have detested in real life and refused point blank to drink), the gloomy glow of polished wooden parquet salons and hearty fires in pot bellied stoves during winter. The girls ate brioche, danced local Tyrolean dances, spoke fluent French and German. I couldn’t fathom a more amazing thing than to be able to babble in more than one language, quite forgetting the Irish we all used every day. I was enthralled by the detail and the pure exoticism of their day to day schooling, the accounts of scenes at snowy railway stations, the guttural names of the villages, and the descriptions of sunsets over unpronounceable peaks.

This early love affair with all the delightful differentness of foreign climes has remained with me – and maybe inspired my own subsequent European adventures –  as impressions from often innocuous childhood books often do. I’m sure I’m not the only ‘Chalet schoolgirl’ present but if so what children’s book made a big impression on you?

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Blame it on my dad, who basically brought up his four daughters to have the cultural tastes of someone who was a small boy in the 1950s, but I have a weakness for retro radio.

The Carey family spend a typical evening together during my 1980s childhood

Yes, along with William Brown, Jennings and our family hero Nigel Molesworth , I grew up enjoying the delights of Hancock’s Half Hour (which I still love), the Goons (meh) and Round the Horne (bits of it haven’t aged well, but I can’t resist Julian and Sandy). Basically, if it was available in Charleville Mall library in the North Strand in the ’50s or aired on the BBC Light Programme, it was part of my childhood.

This is probably why I’m now such a big fan of BBC Radio 4 and, in particular, radio drama. I’m addicted to the Archers, I can’t resist Charles Parris’s adventures and mere words can’t describe my love for recent comedies like Fags, Mags and Bags and Bleak Expectations, which show that what you can’t see is often much funnier than what you can. But I particularly love the old radio programmes often repeated by Radio 4’s digital sister BBC 7.

It was there, several years ago, that I discovered the glorious Paul Temple, mystery novelist and amateur sleuth, and his lovely journalist wife Steve. Yes, Steve. I can’t remember why she’s called Steve, but she is, so there you go. Paul, whose radio adventures were hugely popular from the 1930s to the ’50s, is urbane and prone to expressing any surprise by exclaiming “By Timothy!” in a dashing sort of way. Steve is prone to using her “woman’s intuition” to solve the crimes. Sometimes she’s actually right. Paul and Steve basically spend their time jetting around the place having a fine old time (he never seems to do any actual novel-writing and she never seems to do any journalism work), but every so often Paul’s Scotland Yard chum Sir Graham Forbes turns up at the house to ask for Paul’s help in solving some fiendish crime and another six part series will commence.

These crimes never make perfect sense – there are a lot of red herrings and people turning out to be blackmailers and then getting murdered –  but they’re very exciting, with dead bodies turning up at least once per episode (“By Timothy, Steve, it’s Harry Marx! And….he’s dead !”). If I had seen as many murdered corpses as Paul and Steve, often left by the murderer in the back of our heroes’ nippy little sports car, I’d be in therapy for years. Or I’d at least buy a new car.

Anyway, because Paul and Steve are such talented sleuths, criminals are always trying to kill them, often by luring them into deadly traps over the telephone. Someone will basically ring up Steve and pretend to be Paul (or vice versa) and tell them to come to the Calypso Club in Soho or a yacht club in Portsmouth or something. This happens so often that eventually Paul and Steve develop code words to ensure they’re talking to their real spouse and not an evil criminal holding a hanky over the phone receiver and talking in a funny voice. The one who has been telephoned will ask “Where’s Charlie fishing?” and if the other doesn’t answer “In the Thames” they’ll know it’s a fiendish mastermind. Charlie, by the way, is Paul and Steve’s devoted servant whom they basically treat as a slave. He never seems to get any time off, he has to stay up all night waiting for them to come in from their crime-solving jaunts and he frequently ends up getting bashed over the head by the aforementioned evil criminals whenever they break into Paul and Steve’s flat, as they regularly do. Poor Charlie. I hope he voted Labour in the 1945 election. At the least the NHS would look after his various injuries.

Anyway, Paul and Steve always find the blackmailer/evil crime lord/corrupt night-club owner and bring him or her to justice. Then it’s back to their luxury flat for a drink with Sir Graham and some jolly banter, usually including Steve’s claims that her intuition saved the day (One episode actually ended with Paul crying “By Timothy, Sir Graham, women are extraordinary!”, which even made the BBC7 continuity announcer laugh). Every series seems to involve Steve doing some investigating by buying elegant hats (several of the victims or perpetrators of crime seem to work in the fashion and retail business). As you can tell, the whole thing is totally brilliant, and I salute creator Francis Durbridge and the various actors who have played Paul and Steve over the years.

I also salute the BBC, because since 2006, they’ve been broadcasting brand new productions of old Paul Temple series whose original recordings were lost long ago.  Using the original scripts and vintage microphones and  sound effects, they’ve managed to produce something which sounds absolutely and utterly authentic. Part of the joy of the new series is hearing the actors perfectly reproduce the mannerisms and style of vintage radio acting – I actually don’t know how they do it without sounding like they’re in a comedy sketch, but they do. And the result is pure bliss. The current series, Paul Temple and Steve, originally aired in 1947, but the new version is now airing every Friday on Radio 4. Of course you can hear it online here. Don’t worry about missing the first few episodes – there’s a fantastic summary at the beginning of the most recent one. So if you’re in the mood for some (very) old school crime,  Paul, Steve and the hapless Sir Graham are even more entertaining than Poirot. Though not, of course, as wonderful as my beloved Lord Peter Wimsey (whom I praised in last year’s post on fictional crushes). But then, who is?

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