Young literature about boarding schools is a British tradition that continues to this day, and one of its finest examples is Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky & Co series, based on the writer’s own school experiences and friends. In 1982, Stalky & Co, a mini-series of 6 episodes, arrived at the BBC screens, directed by Rodney Bennett and produced by Barry Letts.
Tucked in their private study at Room 5, Stalky (Robert Addie), M’Turk (Robert Burbage) and Beetle (David Parfitt) read books, avoid cricket matches and plan mischief. Everything would be much easier, of course, if Professor King, the Latin teacher, wasn’t so keen on catching them in flagrante delicto. Not that they are wicked in some way – just a little bit different, and too smart for school, something that the Head of College and the other teachers seem to understand and turn a blind eye to. As they go from putting a dead cat over the dormitory of the other House boys, who called them stinky, to finding a new place to read and smoke outside the school grounds, Stalky and his two mates, thanks to their brains, originality, and gentlemenly skills, always win the day, dancing and singing together at the end of each episode.
Despite its age (usually unforgiven in television matters), Stalky & Co. still retains much of its charm. The three boys are very different between themselves (Stalky is the leader, Beetle the poet, and M’Turk the gentleman), and their refusal to follow conventions, giving them a sniff of the anti-hero, translates very well into the 21st century. The stories themselves are unusually dark for children’s literature – there’s an episode about bullying, hints of sex, and even talk of war and death. The only aspect that may not be that welcome to a modern audience is related to the fact that nowadays well-off boys in private schools have a somewhat tainted reputation. But this is no Lone Scherfig’s The Riot Club – yes, there will be some black eyes at some point, but Stalky & Co. is more about three boys finding (and fighting for) their own individuality than submitting into peer pressure.
With an unusually good rhythm for the time, great dialogue, and actors (particularly the late Robert Addie) that give the extra mile to characters that could have so easily fallen into stereotypes but don’t, Stalky & Co. deserves a view and probably some attention. Its discrete subversiveness could even deserve a remake.
Stalky & Co was released on DVD on 28th March 2016, and is available now, courtesy of Simply Media.