on 6 April 2003
I sincerely hope that "The Last Ealing Comedy" is not the last novel we have from Matthew Baylis!
This is a perfect treasure-house of quick-witted observation, pithy remarks, estuary vernacular, skilful word-play and much else.
Baylis has a wry view of human frailties and especially of sexual frailties. This is not a book for grandma, although perhaps it is . . . as long as you're prepared to answer questions like "what exactly ARE nads dear?"
Like "Stranger than Fulham" is is essentially caring and gentle. Two aspects we are in desperate need of at present. Matthew Baylis could do for caring and gentleness what Frederick Forsyth has done for brutality and militarism.
His clever intermingling of the Ealing comedies with the life and times of Alistair, an almost reuctant film-buff, is done with great skill and leaves one with the impression that Baylis, if he had to, could write a novel on practically anything.
One day - when these grainy old films to which the title refers, are given their just recognition, perhaps even being treated so that they can be properly viewed (as had some early Errol Flynn which I grimaced at last week), then perhaps Baylis's novel may even come to share their cult status!
Whether or not this is the case, it is to be hoped that Baylis continues to write. I see he is still young and the wider canvas that life alone can bring could make his a name to remember.
Tremendous good fun, with a genuinely witty phrase or idea on almost every page, this novel is as light and fresh as an cool shower on a hot day. Alastair Strange is persuaded by an old friend, extremely rich but flaky Tara, to try for a job at St John Lorimer, a posh, but also flaky, boy's school in Ealing. Alastair thinks this is going to be a job teaching English, but it turns out that he will be teaching Culture and Media Studies, which is quite handy actually, because Alastair has a stash of old Ealing comedies on video, which loom rather large in his sentimental past, due to his mum having died and he and his dad watching them obsessively for several months.
The boys' school scenario has rarely been so deftly plumbed for pathos, comedy and downright hilarity - the fey but completely barmy librarian, the crazed little deputy head, the headteacher with a penchant for Dutch-based management-speak and his wayward wife. There are also some genuine eccentrics among the boys, of course, not to mention the fellow-teacher Davenport with whom Alastair lodges, only to find in his room a telescope permanently focused on the next door girls' school tennis court. There is also a large incontinent and unruly dog - who likes the ladies quite as much as his master.
The comedy comes not just from the situations poor Alastair finds himself in, but also from the writing - which is beautifully poised between exaggeration and desperation. Here's the code the teachers work out for various types of boys in the school: PFTs are boys who deserve Points For Trying and then there's the NTBs (Not Terribly Bright), the RQBs (Really Quite Bright), and the PIAs (Pain In Arse), whose parents, Alastair explains, "would prefer, on principle, to send their children to local state schools, but are too nervous of the end product." Then there are the Ferals - the less said about them the better.
This is an excellent read right the way through, raising chuckles and smiles of pleased recognition. In true comedy, it might be said, much is funny because it is true to a kind of culturally shared experience, and that mixture works wonderfully here.