William the brand

The commercialization of children’s culture is often seen to be a recent development, although in fact it has a long history. When we compare William with Harry Potter – currently ‘the most popular boy in fiction’ – the latter might initially appear to be much more commercialized. While the first Harry Potter book was published in a small print run, the series quickly took off, not least when Warner Brothers bought the film rights. In addition to the films and books, there have been Harry Potter computer games, trading cards and Lego models, as well as toys, clothing, and a whole range of other merchandise. There is also an extensive – and for some, quite lucrative – fan culture. At the height of Harry Potter’s success, the author J.K. Rowling was reportedly the highest-earning woman in Britain, bringing in more than the Queen.

William may not have been quite such a money-spinner, but he was a lucrative commercial brand in his time, and he has gone on to enjoy a long after-life in media of various kinds. As I have noted, the stories were first published in women’s magazines, and continued there in comic-strip form until the late 1960s. Like other children’s series fiction, the books themselves were intended to be collectible: the back covers frequently included a list of all the titles published to date, with the legend ‘How many William Books have You got?’

There were three William films, released in 1939, 1947 and 1948, and a stage play in 1947. The first William radio series ran from 1945 to 1956, and there have subsequently been numerous radio and audio-book versions. The audio versions of the 1970s and 1980s were narrated, with a considerable dose of camp, by Kenneth Williams; while those of the 1990s and 2000s (no fewer than 180 stories overall) were read by the rather more deadpan, but still drily ironic, Martin Jarvis. Both were broadcast on BBC Radio 4, suggesting that they would have enjoyed a substantial adult audience. The first television adaptation arrived in 1951, and William has regularly featured on television since that time, with series in 1956, 1962-3 (starring Dennis Waterman), 1977-8 (featuring Bonnie Langford and Diana Dors, no less), 1994-5, and most recently in 2010-11. In several cases, the television adaptations have prompted the release of tie-in book publications.

Meanwhile, there have been William jigsaws, toy theatres, card games, board games, figurines, dress-up books, magic painting books, maps, diaries, calendars, and many other products. In the 1940s and 1950s, William was used to advertise Hercules bicycles, chocolate and (somewhat less plausibly) Lifebuoy soap and National Savings Bonds. He has even featured on a set of Post Office stamps. While by no means as extensive in this respect, or as lucrative, as the work of Crompton’s contemporary Enid Blyton (whom I intend to consider in a later essay), the William franchise represented a considerable commercial enterprise in its time.

Over the years, there have been several William fan clubs, some catering to adult nostalgia, but others clearly directed at children: as recently as the 1990s, the Children’s Marketing Department of Macmillan publishing was advertising a ‘new Outlaws Club’ in its inexpensive paperback versions of the books. For a small subscription, members would receive a special Outlaws wallet containing a badge, a pencil and writing pad, the club rules and membership card, and most importantly ‘a letter from William giving you the secret password’. Meanwhile, adult fans remain active online, and the ‘Just William Society’ holds annual meetings. There is a small but busy trade in original merchandise, and first editions of the books can sell for as much as £750.

The books remain in print to this day, and (as I have noted) have also been successful in international markets. William is ‘Guillermo’ in Spain (where the books were apparently censored during the Franco regime) and ‘Bill’ in German and Swedish. Interestingly, the books have never been successful in the United States – a phenomenon that Crompton and her publishers struggled to understand. The US critic Betty Greenway suggests that this may be a result of the ‘Englishness’ of the books’ social world, and the complexity of the vocabulary and the satirical writing style – although similar points might be made in relation to Harry Potter. Apparently, the UK office of the US company Marvel once planned a William comic book, but it never appeared.

Interestingly, few of these versions of William have shown much sign of adaptation to changing times. One attempt to reissue the series in the 1970s (perhaps as a TV tie-in) seems to have failed, and it was suggested that this was because of the lack of Thomas Henry’s original illustrations. Subsequent reissues by Macmillan, which began in the late 1980s, returned to the original illustrations, with more success; although their most recent editions (currently being published in 2016-17) have new, more modern covers as well. Likewise, the television versions have shown marginal signs of updating across the years: the BBC series broadcast in the 1990s appears to be set in the 1920s or 1930s, while the most recent BBC series (a short run of four, which was not re-commissioned) was set in the 1950s.

Reading reviews of the books on Amazon, and accounts of Crompton’s fan mail (now held at Roehampton University in London), it seems clear that William has always appealed to both adult and child readers, at least partly for the reasons outlined earlier. The latest editions combine sharply contemporary cover designs with the original stories and illustrations, and reviews suggest that this appeals to adults and children who may be reading the books together. For this grown-up reader, the humour remains entertaining, even if the formula becomes rather tiresome. Yet despite the books’ occasional references to the cultural developments of the 1950s and 1960s, the social world they depict seems light years away from that of most children today. Perhaps they are now understood as sheer escapism; but it would be interesting to know how far Crompton’s rather irritable conservatism even registers with contemporary children and their parents.

See sources and references…           Return to Growing Up Modern homepage…