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Whack-O! (1956-60, 1971-72)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Whack-O! (1956-60, 1971-72)
BBC, tx. 4/10/1956-27/12/1960, 7 series of 50 x 30 min episodes total, black and white; then 27/11/1971-26/2/1972, one series of 13 x 30 min episodes, colour
Production CompanyBBC Television
ProducersDouglas Moodie, Eric Fawcett, Douglas Argent
WritersFrank Muir, Denis Norden

Cast: Jimmy Edwards (Headmaster Professor James Edwards), Arthur Howard/Julian Orchard (Asst Head Oliver Pettigrew), Edwin Apps (L. J. Halliforth), John Stirling (Lumley), John Hall/Gary Warren (Taplow), Greg Smith (Potter)

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Headmaster Edwards runs an antiquated public school almost as an adjunct to his own money-making schemes.

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Not strictly a children's series, this sitcom nonetheless appealed hugely to younger 1950s viewers. Chiselbury School 'for the sons of Gentlefolk' was a draughty old English public school run by one 'Professor' Edwards, in robes, mortar board and a handlebar moustache that twitched as much as the cane he was often seen brandishing. Jimmy Edwards played the larger-than-life character: "I think that the schoolmaster joke is ageless. It's a traditional English kind of humour which comes right down from The Magnet and Billy Bunter... Will Hay did the same sort of thing."

Corporal punishment as a source of humour offended no-one in the 1950s, and was commonplace in children's comics like The Beano (Dennis the Menace from 1951, The Bash Street Kids from 1954). The Head's persistent boozing was likewise considered good fun. Often starting the day with a beer poured from a teapot, in another favourite gag he would say: "I must gain myself some refreshment from the Arts", then fetch down a volume of Shakespeare, hollowed out with a whisky bottle hidden inside.

Storylines revolved around farcical attempts by Edwards to feather his own nest with school funds, and as the series continued it grew to resemble a school-set counterpart of Sergeant Bilko's exploits in The Phil Silvers Show (US, 1955-59), first shown here in 1957. Immensely popular, the series featured cameos from the day's stars, including Eamonn Andrews and Vera Lynn. It concluded in 1960, followed by a film, Bottoms Up! (d. Mario Zampi, 1959), and a 1961-63 BBC radio version.

Revived in 1971 for Saturday teatime TV, old scripts were superficially updated (the school name somehow corrupted to 'Chislebury') to include mention of the contemporary likes of Top of the Pops (BBC, 1964-) and emphasised roles were given to the school pupils Taplow and Potter, presumably to increase child appeal. Nevertheless, this colour remake must have seemed dated to young viewers now less familiar with the setting being sent up.

Alistair McGown

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Video Clips
1. Winning the pools (3:57)
2. Spending the money (2:55)
3. Hotel party (2:23)
Complete episode (28:51)
Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School (1952-61)
Grange Hill (1978-2008)
Edwards, Jimmy (1920-1988)
Children's Entertainment and Comedy