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4 – BRINGING BACK BUNTER

Herbert Leckenby, the Yorkshireman who had founded The Collectors’ Digest in late 1946 had something of a scoop for his second issue: not only did he have a letter from Frank Richards himself, but in that letter Richards admitted, "I should have written sooner to thank you for this but I have been up to my venerable ears in Greyfriars."

Little wonder that Leckenby preceded the letter with the comment that it contained "some surprising and remarkable news. I will set his army of admirers agog with excitement." This was the first time Charles Hamilton had publicly mentioned that he was once again writing about Billy Bunter and Greyfriars, and Leckenby was able to boast in the following issue "the news of Billy's return has been announced in several National and Provincial newspapers, but remember the C.D. got it first."

Hamilton had been overwhelmed with correspondence following the publication of the article in Picture Post the previous May, revealing to Leckenby:

I was astonished indeed, that is putting it mildly, by the shoals of letters that followed the Picture Post article almost all of them asking for Greyfriars again. I don't understand it even yet. Nine to one want Greyfriars, not more than ten per cent asking for St. Jim's and not more than two or three per cent for Rookwood. In view of this Greyfriars had to come back, but you can guess that I was very glad to hear from the A.P. that they had no objection. (Letter to Herbert Leckenby, 2 Dec 1946)

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As pleased was the young publisher who had approached Hamilton with the idea of bringing Bunter back. Charles Skilton was twenty-five years old and had suffered his own privations in early part of the war when he was imprisoned as a conscienscious objector. Later, whilst working in a hospital, he launched his own publishing house, Charles Skilton Ltd. and as Torchstream Books produced the Library of Modern Sex Knowledge with a volume on Venereal Disease by George Ryley Scott in October 1944.

One evening a few months later, a young nurse tapped on the window of his office, looking for someone to chat to. The two became friends, and kept in touch after Skilton had left the hospital to run his new publishing business full-time and the nurse had returned to her home in Stornaway. It was whilst visiting her later that Skilton met his wife-to-be, and it was during their honeymoon in Oban the following year that he picked up a copy of Picture Post in the hotel lounge.

In that particular issue was an article about Frank Richards and it at once struck me that a series of books about Bunter and Greyfriars would be a very safe bet for a publishers only comparatively recently established.

Reckoning that Mr. Richards would be flooded with fan-mail I waited a few weeks before approaching him (I would not be so green now as to let the grass grow!). Probably I was very diffident too about the reception I, an unknown publisher, would get from a very well known writer. In that respect, at least, I need not have worried, for later, in his Autobiography, Frank Richards disclosed that he "regarded a publisher as of infinitely more importance than the whole of the Baronetage." I have noticed, too, in the years that have passed since, that Frank Richards has always been willing to discuss business arrangements with anyone who does not mess about, however unknown they may be – and at that time there must have been no publishers more unknown than myself! One does not have to be Monster, Million & Co. Ltd., to get a friendly reply from Frank Richards.

Within a month everything had been settled, the Amalgamated Press who at one time were cavilling at the idea of Bunter being published else-where, having withdrawn their objection. I see from my files that the contract was signed on October 4th, 1946 and on December 4th I had the manuscript in my hands, had chuckled with laughter over it and knew that I had a winner of a book in Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School. (Charles Skilton, "The Beginning of the Bunter Books", Collectors’ Digest 134, Feb 1958)

The other surprise Hamilton noted in his letter to Leckenby was that, "Merretts I expect, will be putting out 1s.0d Bunter volumes. Now that the fat old bean is coming back there will not be a Bunter shortage in the future." In fact, Hamilton had been very busy with Bunter and had him appear in the final Sparshott novel Pluck Will Tell, which appeared in December 1946, Bunter’s first starring role (as a visitor to Sparshott) since the sudden disappearance of The Magnet in May 1940. As fate would have it, Pluck Will Tell was to be the last Frank Richards book to appear from Merrett, although under the imprint of W. Taylor they did briefly try to revive the characters by reprinting The Hero of Sparshott and Girls of Headland House (as Hilda Richards) in 9d. editions in May 1948, following the success of the new Bunter novels.

The new Bunter novel – Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School – was 60,000 words long and was due to be published in the spring of 1947, and Hamilton kept his potential readers informed of the book’s progress through letters to Story Paper Collector, the Collectors’ Digest and any other medium he could – even a radio broadcast to Australia on the Pacific Service on December 23, 1945 (which the BBC repeated for South Africa on Xmas Day). Yet he coyly feigned surprise when this publicity generated a response:

I have been continually astonished by the interest taken in the revival of Billy Bunter. I should never have dreamed that so many people had even heard of him. If you read the Daily Herald or the News Review you may have seen the articles on the subject. Even our local reporter blew in one day for an interview for the local paper – having heard that W.G.B. had come to life again. They sent me some reprints of his article, and I enclose no, as it may amuse you. Don’t bother to return it – I have a dozen.

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Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School was to have illustrations by old-time Gem artist R. J. Macdonald, and the air about it and of Hamilton’s comments was that it was a return to the old days: "Altogether the outlook seems ‘set fair’ and I am feeling very cheery these days," he told Leckenby. The only fly in the ointment was the rising cost of production which pushed the price up from the hoped for 6s. 0d. to 8s. 6d. and the publication back to May. Although his appearances in Pie continued, and new stories of Topham and St. Olive’s crept into Woolworth’s through the spring of 1947, everything else seemed, to Hamilton, "to be in a comatose state – owing to the ups and downs in industry – that is, the hold-ups and the slow-downs! One must hope that this business of cutting everything and everybody will not be carried to the Chinese length of ‘death by a thousand cuts’…" (Letter to Herbert Leckenby, 7 Apr 1947)

To pass the time, he even spent some time away from the Remington and gravitated towards the Bechstein "so instead of the click of the typewriter, the air here is often filled with consecutive fifths and augmented umpteenths."

Not that everything about Bunter was moving slowly: the idea was floated that Bunter might become a picture strip in a daily paper, and Hamilton was visited by the Features Editor to discuss the idea; but the agreement they reached was scotched by the Amalgamated Press who already had their own comic strip running in Knockout. Still unhappy with them, Hamilton wrote, "I wish they would forget my existence! I should be happy to forget theirs."

Hamilton also wrote a Bunter short story for Odhams entitled "Billy Bunter’s Booby-Trap" in around March 1947, although printing delays kept the book from the shelves.

As April turned to May with still no sign of Bunter being at Greyfriars or anywhere else for that matter, Hamilton was still fielding offers. The latest was for a Billy Bunter’s Christmas Annual. "This will be a miscellany, containing stories by Frank and Hilda Richards, Martin Clifford, Owen Conquest, Ralph Redway, etc., with some verses and cross-word puzzle, and so on – all the work of my own fair hands! It is not settled yet whether it may not be called ‘Frank Richards’ Christmas Annual but as our old friend from Stratford remarked, ‘What’s in a name?’" (Letter to Herbert Leckenby, 14 May 1947). The idea was quickly dropped, and by the 17th Hamilton was writing (to Leckenby) "on second thoughts, proverbially the best, there has been a change of plan: attractive fellow as W.G.B. is, it is possible to have too much of a good thing!"

Yet another project was a book of cross-word puzzles. Many years before, Hamilton had compiled a cross-word in Latin for Modern Boy and one in French for an early Greyfriars Annual, and his facility for foreign languages had never deserted him. The idea, as he explained it, was for a Frank Richards’ Cross-word Puzzle Book. "This, if it materialises, will contain about two dozen cross-word puzzles in English, and one each in Latin, French, Italian, German, Spanish and Portuguese, by way of variety. I have always thought that cross-word puzzles in foreign languages would be very useful to students; indeed I think they might very well be used in schools. It will be an interesting experiment anyhow." The book was under consideration by a publisher "with one eye on the public and the other on the paper problem" in June of 1947, but no more came of the idea.

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With Billy Bunter at Greyfriars School now definitely due in June – and then August, and then September – Hamilton busied himself with a new book-length story of Tom Merry & Co. and plans for the second Bunter novel were already underway. Richards found himself starring in a news reel taken by Moore-British Film Productions Ltd. which featured both Hamilton and artist Macdonald (he had been filmed by Pathe Pictorial the year before)… and there was even some interest from a film Producer in turning the as-yet-unpublished Bunter novel into a movie. Hamilton was clearly impressed by their meeting in early July: "I liked him and his ideas very much," he wrote to John Robyns (3 Jul 1947), "but I wonder what would be the public reaction to Billy Bunter on the silver screen."

The interest in the book was certainly incredible and stretching publisher Skilton’s resources. An initial printing of 10,000 had been taken up by the trade by early June, and a second printing of another 10,000 copies was underway by August. The delay now was at the bookbinders where progress was slowed by summer holidays. But then Bunter was never known for his punctuality.

The date was finally set: September 26th. Writing to Herbert Leckenby only weeks before publication, Hamilton was nervous that "the bare idea of copies being ‘rationed’ to the booksellers makes me feel like what Huree Singh might describe as terrifically infuriated. But it cannot be helped. So far, I believe, only 20,000 have been printed, and these will not go round or anything like it. There will be, of course, further printings, as and when the exigencies of paper permit. Everybody who wants W.G.B. will be able to get him in the long run. No good grousing, for books generally take even longer than this to produce – all the same, I put in a spot of grousing every now and then. Without being unduly conceited, I think Billy Bunter is more interesting reading than blue-books, white papers, and Form 12/X/3975/XYZ/894/ABC-/2,998/546/XX/II,230 – and there seems to be ample paper for this sort of thing. (Letter to Herbert Leckenby, 7 Sep 1947)

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The book did appear, to generally positive reviews from writers pleased to see Bunter and Harry Wharton & Co. and the rest of the Greyfriars cast back. The reviews were cast in nostalgic mood, pleased that Frank Richards had returned to his most famous creations but still wishing for the longer serials of the Magnet where Richards could indulge in reams of banter yet still carry along a complex plot over eight issues and almost a quarter million words. Even a novel 60,000 words long, the plot seemed thin, the read too swift – and readability was always one of Hamilton’s’ strengths – and no time given to developing his characters, which was usually the mark of his best stories. It was written with his long-term fans in mind for sure – the scene where Bunter actually receives a postal order only has any significant impact with the folk who knew Bunter of old, for instance – but also had to introduce a new generation of young library-goers to the characters. To a newcomer the book may have been wholly successful, I imagine, but it was something of a thin Bunter for his older readers. But thin Bunter was better than no Bunter, they concluded, and most of the criticism was reserved for nit-picking minor problems – having Bunter centre-stage for the whole book when Harry Wharton & Co. really only get one chapter, the lack of checks on Bunter’s trousers on the cover illustration…

The reviews put Richards in a reflective mood:

As a rule my thoughts turn to the future, not the past: I don’t know why, unless because I am a born optimist. But this time I couldn’t help running over in my mind the intervening years between the first number of the Magnet and the first Greyfriars book – thirty-nine years in all! What has – or rather what has not – happened in that space of time? Two big wars, and a few little ones: and a world so changed and unstable, that hardly anything seems as it used to be – except Billy Bunter! It hardly seems possible now that Frank Richards, when the spirit moved him, could pack a bag and a typewriter, and catch a train or a boat – writing a few Magnet chapters in Paris, a few more in Lausanne, and finishing the story in Venice – no permits or visas, not always even bothering about a passport! I hear people now sometimes speaking of the "bad old days", but I can’t help thinking that the world went very well then. I think of newsprint at £10 a ton, and as much as you wanted! They were jolly old days when the Magnet and Frank Richards were both young. Actually, I had been writing for less than twenty years when the first Magnet came out. Curiously enough, I don’t feel a day older while sitting at the typewriter – though when I get up, I am reminded at once that Time has marched on! (Letter to Herbert Leckenby, 17 Nov 1947)

Time may have marched on, but so did Hamilton: at the back of Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School was the note that "Charles Skilton Ltd. have great pleasure in announcing that Mr. Frank Richards has in preparation another Billy Bunter story." In fact, Hamilton had already completed it. And many more were to follow.

 

© 2001, Steve Holland

Last Updated: 12 April 2001

 



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