We, too, imagined boarding school as endless midnight feasts.
Documentary maker Louis Theroux has been in some extraordinary situations for his documentaries - spending time in one of the US’ most notorious prisons, hanging out with white supremacists and porn stars, and interviewing the late, disgraced Jimmy Savile.
But there’s one thing where we can definitely relate to Theroux, and that’s in his reading tastes as a child.
Appearing on Desert Island Discs, Theroux revealed that he and his brother went to boarding school partially because of their love of the Malory Towers and St Clare books by Enid Blyton.
Despite living half an hour’s cycle ride away from Westminster, the school Theroux and his brother Marcel lived half an hour’s cycle ride from Westminster school, but boarded there. Theroux said: “I don’t know for sure, but I think it was partly due to us reading books by Enid Blyton. We started with the St Clare books and then we moved onto the Malory Towers books.
“They’re all set in girls’ boarding schools, and they’re about girls having midnight feasts and sometimes they start pranks… I think based on that, maybe we thought that’s what boarding school’s like, endless midnight feasts and French teachers.”
We can definitely relate. As children, we grew up reading Malory Towers and dreaming of going to boarding schools where we imagined idyllic lives full of japes and larks, interspersed with a little bit of learning.
And is it any wonder, given the picture Blyton was painting? Describing both series, Theroux said: “They are a bit like Harry Potter but with no magic… Always there’s an episode where a girl swims too far out to sea and nearly drowns, or some gypsies - her [Blyton’s] term, not mine - I think they ended up helping catch someone, or [there’s] a child pretending to be an aristocrat and turning out to just be - again, her term - low-born. I could go on and on. There’s always a wacky French teacher, they play pranks on her, that kind of thing.”
Of course, we know now that boarding school isn’t like that, much as we know that Blyton and her writing is problematic. As evidenced by Theroux’s crediting certain terms to Blyton, the writer’s work was full of sexism, xenophobia and racism, and later editions of Blyton’s books have featured revisions to make them less controversial.
Theroux also addressed his complex feelings about Savile, who is now widely known to be a paedophile. Savile was the subject of one of Theroux’s documentaries in 2000. The pair kept in touch, and after Savile’s abuse of children was exposed, Theroux made another documentary.
Speaking on Desert Island Discs, Theroux said: “I’d remained in contact with him [Savile] a little bit after I’d made the first programme.
“So, while I’m still quite proud of the first programme, I’m still a bit confused about how was I able to experience him as a somewhat likeable person in the year or two after making it.”
Theroux said he made the second documentary so he could “figure out how it was that I’d missed what I’d missed”.
“I wanted to do a personal and professional stock-taking and to sit down with victims and talk to them about their experiences,” he continued, adding that there was something “very conflicting about reading about crimes and predatory activity while also knowing that this was someone who you, sort of, quite liked, and trying to square that in your own mind”.
“And sometimes…victims of serious sexual assault experience a similar ambivalence,” said Theroux.
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