IV. Schoolgirls & Situationism


At the beginning of the 1980s, by which time the genre of girls' school stories was regarded as not only anachronistic but effectively dead, artists Dick Appleyard and Dave Robinson set up the Recycled Images postcard publishing company. This was quickly to become known in some British sub-cultures for publishing a series of heavily ironic postcards, combining illustrations from 1930s children's annuals, including many from girls' and boys' school stories, with new titles and speech bubbles. The captions dealt with subjects such as:

The perceived innocence and naivete of the world of the original stories combined with the cynicism or surrealism of the captions to create a dissonance which immediately became popular, and by 1996 more than a hundred different cards had been published.
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Like Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell, Appleyard and Robinson were part of the "Dinham Road School" - they were originally teachers in Exeter, and some of them shared the same house in Dinham Road. As a group, these satirical graphic artists

The "reactionary"" humour here, then, is quite different to that in the St Trinian's films.
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Appleyard and Robinson's inspiration came from the Situationists, whose work had been highly influential on the British punk movement of the late 1970s, and was already reflected in postcards published by Glen Baxter and by BIFF, a company co-founded by another member of the Dinham Road School, Chris Garratt. Situationism was an art movement which began in Italy in 1957, founded on the belief that:

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In this case, Robinson was attracted by the textual possibilities which the 1930s illustrations offered, while Appleyard was more interested in the images themselves. Robinson - the "paste and scissors expert" of the pair - found the images which they were to "recycle" in Schoolboy and Schoolgirl annuals and collections of short school stories of the 1930s. As with many of the women who collect girls' school stories, he discovered the books in jumble sales, car boot sales and secondhand shops, building up a collection which by 1996 numbered around a hundred. In a telephone interview in May 1996, Robinson explained that he had always been intrigued by the crisp, clean drawing style of the 1930s images - post-war, he claimed, the line deteriorated and became cruder and coarser. He has a formalist interest in drawing, and was initially impressed by the fact that the original artists were "trained in old-fashioned ways and worked hard, with the result that they captured form and line in the same style for years in a very confident way".
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Unlike other male critics and parodists, Appleyard and Robinson have not distinguished between girls' school stories and those written for boys. Instead, they perceive all such stories as presenting their readers "with a highly idealised picture of the lives and adventures led by a few rich boys and girls at English public schools". This critique is related to Robinson's preference for the images of the 1930s, by which time when critics were congratulating girls' school story authors for reflecting the "public school spirit" which had originated in the boys' schools: class and colonial rather than gender values are uppermost in them. Many of the illustrations used in the Recycled Images cards therefore come from annuals and collections aimed at boys, and cover a wider arena than school.
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In many ways, Appleyard and Robinson treat girls' stories more gently than the boys' stories. For example, the fourth card to be published, taken from a girl's school story, shows a "study tea", with two girls preparing tea while one girl is reading with her eyes cast down. A speech bubble from one girl reads "OH FOR GODSSAKE ANGELA, DON'T BE SUCH A SPOILSPORT", while the caption reads: "Angela still thought it was sexist - HIRING A MALE STRIPPER FOR THE END OF TERM DISCO". In contrast, the fifth card in the series, with the illustration taken from a boy's story, is heavily political, showing an Eton schoolboy punching and knocking out a more poorly dressed man, whose newspaper - falling out of his pocket - is titled Militant (the name of a breakaway socialist group within the Labour Party). The schoolboy's speech bubble reads "TAKE THAT YOU DAMNED TROT", while the caption reads: "MERRIDEW KNEW THAT WORDS ALONE WERE NOT ENOUGH TO DEFEND THE PRIVATE SECTOR."
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In the catalogue to "The Dinham Road School" exhibition, Appleyard and Robinson write that the stories from which the images are taken:

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The appeal of this type of parody was to outlast Thatcherism, however, for it was in 1990, the year when Margaret Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister, that a similar company was set up by Paul Nixon, Committed Cards. In a letter written in May 1996, he explained that:

In fact, the resemblance between the cards produced by Recycled Images and Committed Cards is less than is at first apparent, and this is probably related to the historical periods in which the companies were launched. The humour in the cards produced by Recycled Images relies primarily on political satire, while the postcards produced by Paul Nixon reflect only alternative, "green" politics - the "single issue" politics of the 1990s - and rely much more heavily on the joke of the sexually aware schoolgirls which was a theme of the St Trinian's film comedies.
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The differences between the cards reflect the fact that Committed Cards was launched at a time when awareness of HIV, Aids and safe sex practices was at its height, whereas Recycled Images was launched before awareness of Aids existed. Thus, while Appleyard and Robinson's cards refer to the innocent voyeurism of male strippers, Nixon's refer to sado-masochism, transvestism and condoms designed for oral sex, reflecting a knowledge of the need to avoid infection, and of sexual practices such as sado-masochism which have grown in popularity as part of safer sex practices. In both cases, the schoolgirls come out on top, and in that sense they owe more to Searle's cartoons than to the film comedies. Unlike the previous parodies, though, the humour in the cards is avowedly non-sexist. While there are obvious similarities between the humour in the cards and those of the previous male parodists, then, the target of the humour is very different. But at the same time, the cards reinforce the widespread belief that the stories themselves are only fit to be laughed at, and in that sense the Situationist parodies are very little different to the other parodies which have been produced by men.
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However, the success of the postcards published by both Recycled Images and Committed Cards demonstrates first the widespread familiarity among members of some British sub-cultures in the 1980s and 1990s with the genres of girls' school stories and boys' school and adventure stories, and a similar awareness of the perceived political weaknesses in the genres on which the humour rests. Awareness of, and indeed affection for, school stories in the 1980s is not dependent on class and political background. Second, it is noticeable that the cards are immensely popular among fans of girls' school stories themselves, who seem to welcome the opportunity to laugh at the elements in the books which are now considered to be politically undesirable. I have obtained some of my own copies of the cards via personal correspondence, and have seen many others displayed by fans. This seems to show that an inability to recognise the real, as opposed to supposed, political undesirability of girls' school stories is not among the reasons for the genre's continuing popularity.
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Next: 8: V. Women's Parodies
Return to: 8. The Parodies of Girls' School Stories Index
Return to: Virtual Worlds of Girls Index

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