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How Just William was the Harry Potter of his day, with book series selling 12 MILLION copies

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He was the Harry Potter of his time and had a red-haired friend too.

Although the first story featuring schoolboy William Brown appeared in a magazine in 1919, it was the release of author Richmal Crompton’s first book about the 11-year-old schoolboy that sparked a phenomenon.

Just William, which was published in 1922, began a series of 38 books which Crompton, a former schoolteacher, continued to write until 1968, a year before her death at the age of 78.

Its title has become synonymous with the entire series and by the time of Crompton’s death accounts of William’s escapades with his friends Henry, Ginger and Douglas had sold over nine million copies. Now that figure stands at 12 million.

As fans mark the 100th anniversary of Crompton’s first book this year, the story of Just William’s impact on the literary world and society was told in a BBC radio documentary broadcast on Sunday.

Narrated by comedian Edward Rowett, the program features actor Martin Jarvis, whose voice became known to millions of fans after he began reading the Just William books on the radio in the 1970s.

Speaking of Crompton, Mr Jarvis, 80, said: “I think she was a genius.” I think her sense of comedy that was in her and her observation of people and characters was just immense.

“And what I find remarkable is that she put her genius into this character called William Brown. Because William Brown is a genius.

He was the Harry Potter of his time and had a red-haired friend too.  Although the first story featuring schoolboy William Brown appeared in a magazine in 1919, it was the release of author Richmal Crompton's first book about the 11-year-old schoolboy that sparked a phenomenon.  Above: The cover of the first book

Crompton's image that featured on the cover of his biography

He was the Harry Potter of his time and had a red-haired friend too. Although the first story featuring schoolboy William Brown appeared in a magazine in 1919, it was the release of author Richmal Crompton’s first book about the 11-year-old schoolboy that sparked a phenomenon. Above: The cover of the first book; the image of Crompton which featured on the cover of his biography

Born Richmal Lambburn in Bury in 1890, Crompton was the daughter of a vicar and the middle of three children. After studying classics at Royal Holloway in London, she turned to teaching.

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His first tale featuring William came in 1919, with a story in the then popular Home magazine called “Rice Mold Pudding.”

It told the story of William’s mission to steal a cream blancmange and deliver it to the girl next door who was fed up with rice pudding.

He saw him lock himself in a pantry with the family cat, before escaping and discovering that, rather than steal a blancmange, he had taken an almost inedible rice pudding.

In addition to delighting children of all ages, the tale made parents laugh.

Part of the enduring appeal of Crompton’s initial narrative and subsequent books was William’s refusal to bend to the rules established by adults. His run-ins with his nemesis Violet Elizabeth Bott were also a regular feature.

When she wrote the first William story, Crompton was a popular classics teacher at Bromley High School for Girls in Kent.

She used the pseudonym Crompton because there was then an unwritten rule that teachers should not have second jobs.

But the growing success of the tales meant that she had to tell the headmistress of the school what she had done. To her surprise, her boss told her that she already knew that and praised her instead.

Just William's stories have also been adapted for television and film.  The 2010 BBC television series starred Daniel Roche - who had previously starred in the hit show Outnumbered - as William

Just William’s stories have also been adapted for television and film. The 2010 BBC television series starred Daniel Roche – who had previously starred in the hit show Outnumbered – as William

Just William was first read on the radio in 1946. Above: Crompton is seen reading one of his stories alongside his brother John Lambburn (left) and original William actor, John Clark (right).

Just William was first read on the radio in 1946. Above: Crompton is seen reading one of his stories alongside his brother John Lambburn (left) and original William actor, John Clark (right).

Because Crompton was unmarried and had no children, it has long been debated who inspired William. Some, including his niece, thought it was his nephew Tommy.

Speaking on Women’s Hour in 1968 about William’s origin, Crompton said: ‘Well I was writing magazine articles and I happened to write one about a little boy, a group of little boys.

“And I remember when I was five years old I thought ‘I really have to stop these kids and start another batch of kids’ ‘because there was no way they were going to be published then. in book form.

“These were just passing magazine articles. However, he gradually took over the whole show.

In addition to his stories about William and the outlaws, Crompton has also published 40 novels and 12 collections of short stories. During a particularly prolific period, she published six books in one year.

At its peak, the Just William series featuring the voice of Mr. Jarvis attracted 18 million listeners. The series has also been adapted for television and film.

The 2010 BBC television series starred Daniel Roche – who had previously starred in the hit show Outnumbered – as William.

A total of 38 Just William books have been published.  The above, William - The Showman, was the 19th in the series

A total of 38 Just William books have been published. The above, William – The Showman, was the 19th in the series

Actor Oliver Rokison portrayed William in a 1990s television series. The series continues to be popular with children and adults alike

Actor Oliver Rokison portrayed William in a 1990s television series. The series continues to be popular with children and adults alike

Dennis Waterman plays the young rebel, William, in a 1975 television adaptation of the popular book series

Dennis Waterman plays the young rebel, William, in a 1975 television adaptation of the popular book series

The books were originally written for adults, and Crompton believed that this fact – that she did not patronize her readers by writing “for children” – was part of what made them so popular.

Among Just William’s high-profile fans was John Lennon of the Beatles, while the book Good Omens – which was co-authored by literary superstars Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett – was inspired by the stories.

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Mr Gaiman told Rowett: ‘For me and for Terry it was such a pleasure to go ‘okay, here’s that thing that shaped us, here’s that thing that shaped us, here’s an author whose plot and prose style actually built what We do.

“And now we will leave with love”. The first draft of Good Omens was a book by William.

Part of the appeal of the books was the fact that the elements they contained changed over the decades. During World War II, William and the Outlaws were seen putting on shows to raise money for the Spitfires and to help their local Home Guard and Air Raid Wardens.

In the 1950s, William began calling his father ‘Dad’ – Crompton’s nod to the changing relationship between children and their parents.

Crompton was forced to give up teaching at the age of 32, after contracting polio. Then, when she was in her 40s, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

However, even though her health deteriorated and was confined to a wheelchair, it was the escape provided by the tale of William’s adventures that kept her going.

Mr Rowett adds in the programme: “I can’t remember the first time I read a story by William. They have always been there. William performing Hamlet, William tearing up his report card, William taking a dog to his dance class.

“They are more like things that happened to me than stories I read. Over the years, as other beloved books have passed into memory, William has remained a constant companion.

“And as 2022 marks the centenary of the publication of Just William, the first collection of stories, it seems like the time has come to wish him a happy birthday and try to understand the enduring appeal of the constantly muddy schoolboy who does good and right wrongs.’

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