Educating Marmalade – It Was the ’80s
1981 was a very different time. Few things exemplify that more than the anarchic children’s television series, Educating Marmalade.
Marmalade Atkins (Charlotte Coleman) is the “naughtiest girl in the world.” She is naughty enough to go to prison (S01E08: Short Sharp Shock) where she finds “Head Screw” Mr. McCrum, played by Patrick Malahide. That’s what happens when you vandalize a nanny. Even “mealy-mouthed do-gooders” (aka, social workers) realize there is no hope for such a naughty girl.
Written by Andrew Davies, (yes, the man who gave us that adaptation of Middlemarch with the best Casaubon ever) Educating Marmalade is anarchy for children. From the opening punkish sounds courtesy of those clown princes of ska Bad Manners, to Marmalade’s tendency to call authority figures “cock” (the old time Sam “young bantam” Weller use of the word) it is absolute, unabashed, ill-mannered mayhem. You know – plenty of fun. 🙂
RFodchuk points out that the humor and the portrayal of adults and authority figures owes a fair bit to Roald Dahl. It isn’t a Dahl pastiche, but the similarities are certainly there. The judge who sentences Marmalade to prison is seated comically high in a very tall chair and is disturbingly taken by the social worker’s “fat, little legs.” The whole thing is pretty creepy, really. Mr. McCrum is actually quite reasonable compared to most of the adults Marmalade copes with.
The entire series is coming out on DVD (Europe, Region 2) this August. I am very amused to see that it has an 18 rating. That kind of gives a clue on how much things have changed from the early ‘80s to today.
Tough As Old Boots
But enough of that, this is about McCrum. Mr. McCrum’s position is made clear with the words “Head Screw” (“screw” is prison slang for guard) emblazoned on his cap. McCrum’s introduction has some very funny dialogue from Davies and Malahide’s intense Scottish burr really adds to the scene:
McCrum: “My name is Mr. McCrum and I am as tough as old boots, laddie, and I am here to make you or break you, and I dunna very much care which.”
Marmalade: “I’m Marmalade Atkins, cock, and I’m here to muck about.”
McCrum: “I am here to muck about, SIRRRRR”
Marmalade: “That’s funny. So am I”
McCrum: “Just you watch your step, laddie. No one meddles with Mr. McCrum.”
Yeah, he seems pretty imposing at first, getting her in the prison uniform, and locking her up (complete with an evil laugh) with a dangerous (not really) cell mate named Bonzo Brown who Marmalade quickly wins over.
McCrum’s ramrod perfect posture, stern demeanor, and jutting jaw never alter, not even when Bonzo plays a joke on him by tweaking his nose. Oh, and the hat is great. It is tipped low over his eyes so you can’t always see them, but when you can they are madly piercing. It is by no means a subtle performance, but considering an earlier episode had school nuns played by a bunch of gruesome men I’d say subtlety is neither expected nor welcomed.
At first you could think McCrum might get Marmalade under control. His fierce laser stare nearly kills poor Bonzo after that nose-tweak gag (included in video below). “Ya mad brute…Head Screws office!” Bonzo cracks and blames an alarmed Marmalade, “’Ere, I don’t want to get my head screwed!”
And in his office the intensity continues, “Right, so you want to play tough? Very well, you may both clean out the mess hall…using toothBRUSHHHES.” I love the way he bellows that; it is so funny. 🙂
But, Marmalade ultimately turns things around and nearly takes over the place. Bonzo and the boys tell her that McCrum doesn’t allow tomato sauce. He also edits all the good bits out of the newspapers leaving them only a few scraps of torn paper. So she instigates near riots (truly – their table thumping is rather loud) demanding sauce and comics. McCrum finally takes the easy way out after the men demand teddy bears and Easter eggs and facilitates Marmalade’s escape. Poor Bonzo, he’ll really miss Marmalade. 🙁
Wrap-up and Dear Enemy Connection
It is a very funny program. It may have been originally intended for kids, but anyone who likes madcap and surreal comedy could find a lot to enjoy. It is disappointing that Mr. McCrum is only in one episode, but it isn’t called Marmalade Goes to Prison, so one episode will have to suffice.
I’ve got to point out that Mr. Malahide played McCrum the same year he played Dr. Robin MacRae in the distressingly impossible to find Dear Enemy. Both are Scottish. Both work in institutions. But, I don’t think MrCrum comes close to MacRae in terms of real toughness despite his assurances of being “tuff as auld boots.” 🙂