On January 8, 1976 there was but one topic of conversation for schoolboys aged 13 and over. The big question heard in Britain’s playgrounds that morning was ‘Did you see “Tomkinson’s Schooldays” last night?’ To admit that you hadn’t seen the bit where Tomkinson picks up the ball in a rugby game and keeps on running, long past the point where he should have stopped to score a try, with the cries of his classmates and teachers fading into the distance, was as shameful as saying you liked the Bay City Rollers.
The show was the pilot of a series called ‘Ripping Yarns’, set in a bygone era when the British schoolboy was expected to show pluck, even if his elders did celebrate the end of term by nailing him to the school walls. That was the kind of thing that happened in “Tomkinson’s Schooldays”, the ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ spoof written by ex-Pythons Michael Palin (who played the lead) and Terry Jones, who stayed off-screen. School Bully was not an accusation but an official rank and Ian Ogilvy looked far more at ease as a cad that he had as the new Simon Templar.
This being a satire of a certain kind of British adventure yarn, it all worked out well in the end, with Tomkinson rising through the ranks to become school bully. But the misery, the indifference – even the punishment – struck a chord with millions of 1970s schoolboys who had never got closer to a public school than reading the Tom Brown novel.
The best of the other yarns was ‘The Testing Of Eric Orthwaite’ about the most boring man in Yorkshire whose Mum and Dad run away from home because he’s so boring with endless talk about black pudding (“even the white bits were black”), fire shovels and rain gauges (“It were hard to accept I were boring. Especially with my interest in rain fall”), and ‘Golden Gordon’, a tragic tale of the last days of Barnstoneworth United, supported by Gordon Ottershaw (Palin) who comes home each week after their latest thrashing to wreck the living room in disgust. With its tales of forward lines of yore (“the mighty Davit once scored a goal with the back of his head from 28 yards”) this yarn is familiar to anyone who asked their Dad what football was like in their day.
The yarns ended after nine instalments. The policy of shooting on real film (and Palin and Jones’s attention to period detail) meant they were just too expensive. Palin’s likeable (if undemanding) ‘The Missionary’ is a kind of companion piece. The untimely end did, at least, mean that the ripping yarns remained gripping to the last.