Oi, oi, pin back your lugs for the next couplet of Ian Dury’s England’s Glory in our attempt to establish the quintessence of Englishness.
“With Billy Bunter, Jane Austen/ Ray Ellington, George Formby”
For some reason, which these days is rather difficult to fathom, stories about public school life were all the rage in the 50s and 60s. One of the most popular of the public school larrikins was Billy Bunter from the Remove at Greyfriars School, an invention of Frank Richards. Bunter was a rather unpleasant character, fat, greedy, lazy and conceited. He called his contemporaries beasts. His role in the stories was essentially comedic and occasionally his hidden qualities of generosity and courage would come to the fore. An anachronism to be sure but I suppose the majority of schoolkids stuck in the state education system looked on him with a sense of pity and admiration – the underdog who came through in the end, the epitome of the British spirit. There is a nugget of gold in even the most obnoxious person, it would seem.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen (1775 – 1817) is one of the pre-eminent English novelists. Her works, including Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma, are pieces of romantic fiction set amongst the landed gentry and acclaimed for their realism, sense of irony and social commentary. She is not really to my taste, I’m afraid, but as an iconic representative of the English literary scene, Jane is up there with the best.
One of the most popular radio shows after the end of the Second World War was the Goon Show featuring the manic talents of Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers and Michael Bentine. A feature of the radio show was the musical intermission allowing the listener to recover from the sensory assaults of the previous ten minutes and from 1951 to 1960 this was provided by the Ray Ellington Quartet. Ellington (1915 – 1985), whose real name was Henry Pitts Brown, played the drums and sang. He was of mixed race which was quite unusual for the time, although most of the audience would have been oblivious of the fact, even if it bothered them, because it was a radio show. Sadly, the Goons played on his ethnic origin by getting him to play bit parts as African, Native American or Arab characters, as the plot demanded, As well as being the unsung member of the Goons Ellington moved the cause of racial integration forward.
George Formby (1904 – 1961) was a popular actor, singer and entertainer who found fame and fortune in the 1930s and 1940s. Born in Wigan Formby played the ukelele and sang comedic songs, his stage persona that of a gormless Lancastrian who overcame some form of villainy. Rather lame and dated by today’s tastes it is rather hard to imagine what a major star he was at the height of his fame. The English love and see themselves as cheeky chappies, none more so than the great Ian Dury whose quasi-music hall, comedic style owes much to the likes of Formby.