The Penny Dreadful, the Ha’penny Dreadfuller – will we ever learn?

One of the education blogs I follow is that of Alex Quigley, Hunting English. He, like me, read today’s headlines on the BBC website and in the Guardian about a new English A level syllabus being steered to approval, involving some modern populist writing: “Today the newspapers were awash with stories to make our great British population wince with embarrassment and raise a fist in fury. Our hallowed tradition of literature is apparently under threat of being sullied by the dumbing down of a new A level qualifications. It is sure to send our nation spiralling into inexorable decline. Shakespeare and Austen paired with Dizzy Rascal and Russell Brand. Oh, the horror, the horror!”

The original Guardian article is here, and started as follows:

“A-level students will study Russell Brand‘s views on drugs and Caitlin Moran’s Twitter feed alongside more conventional literature in a new A-level that was immediately denounced as “rubbish” by sources at the Department for Education.

The OCR exam board said it had teamed up with an educational charity, the English and Media Centre, to develop the A-level in English language and literature to study unorthodox texts, such as a BBC Newsnight interview with rapper Dizzee Rascal and the work of former Guardian columnist the Secret Footballer.

OCR said the exam – a separate course from English or English literature – would include an anthology which included extracts from Brand’s testimony on drug use to a parliamentary committee and tweets by Times journalist Caitlin Moran, as well as more conventional fare such as Samuel Pepys’s diary entries.

But the education department launched a scathing attack. A senior DfE source said: “Schools should be aware that if they offer this rubbish in place of a proper A-level, then pupils may not get into good universities. We will expect other exam boards to do better.

“It is immensely patronising to young people to claim that they will only engage with English language and literature through celebrities such as Russell Brand.”


My younger son studied English at the University of Leicester last decade, read from Old English’s Beowulf to 20th century slang and everything inbetween. His writing and examination covered Literature, Language and Linguistics too. Have you ever tried reading Old English? I remember Ed bringing a facsimile of BeoWulf home during a reading week, throwing the tome onto the sofa and in pure frustration demanding that the graduate home team of parent/teachers provide some genuine academic support. “I can’t make head or tale of it” he almost wept! Because his mother and father loved him, we picked up the book, opened the pages and in turn each read the first stanza or two. “Nope, makes no sense to us either!” we both declared, “It’s your degree, son, yours to earn”.

Later on, when his third year collaborative project was coming to an end, he shared with me his 10-author modern slang dictionary of 2000 words. “Complete rubbish” I declared, ” I don’t know 90% of these, you’ve made them up”.

Now, he is a highly successful Business Analyst working in the Digital insurance space, having to make sense of other peoples needs, ambitions and perhaps business gibberish, then to translate in such a way that in-house programmers can deliver a business platform that showcases on screens around the world a specific company’s insurance products in an interactive and adaptive manner. Now that’s a job in an industry that simply did not exist when he started his degree. What his education provided, starting at our school and continuing through University to the present day, was the encouragement to be diligent, learn how to organise work effectively, persevere, propose and  explore ideas with independence and confidence. Success comes through being able to collaborate effectively, and access to diverse opportunities to show initiative, think critically and express oneself both creatively and convincingly.

That’s not to say that I would advocate reading Dizzee Rascal or Russell Brand, any more than I would similar ‘populist writing of previous eras. ‘Chacun à son goût‘ as the French might say. The Penny Dreadfuls of the Victorian era introduced an adolescent peer group of new, emerging male readers to lurid tales of daring do and worse; and the educated classes of the time railed at the very idea of the illiterate working man learning to read and finding entertainment in trash, serial fiction. I quote from Wikipedia The term “dreadful” was originally assumed to express societal anxiety or moral alarm over the new profitable innovation directed at the youth. In reality, the serial novels were over-dramatic and sensational, but generally harmless. If anything, the penny dreadfuls, although obviously not the most enlightening or inspiring of literary selections, resulted in increasingly literate youth in the Industrial period. The wide circulation of this sensationalist literature, however, contributed to an ever greater fear of crime in mid-Victorian Britain”. Yep, you’ve got it, Crime, Sex and Sensation sold papers.

The Guardian costs today £1.60. Taking the paper digitally does not cost me quite so much, but actually digital papers were not around in the 19th century. Given the paper has 80 pages, that makes each page 2 pence. If the Guardian article covered half of a page, could we not suggest that Richard Adams’s article worthy of the title ‘Penny dreadful’? The growing volume of incredibly lazy journalism around tiny chunks of non-news providing lurid stories in serial form is certainly worth the title. Unless of course, only a quarter of a page was covered, in which case we have the halfpenny dreadfuller. The target audience over a hundred years ago was adolescent. I wonder now whether the audience that responds to this trite rubbish is any the wiser? As Alex Quigley comments back in the 21st Century, the formula has move on; “Celebrity sells and Educational decline sells. Put them together and you spark 1000 comments!

Trash populist literature of the 19th century spawned the emergence of a literate working class, the heartbeat and muscle, imagination and perspiration that led the world’s Industrial Revolution here in the UK. I might be stretching my point a little, but could not the same be said of 21st century populist writing, be that by musicians or comedians, Twitter feed or Blog post? Is not the study of such diverse variety of the written and spoken word  likely to assist in developing the skills and intelligence to harness the post-industrial revolution in our favour. For one young Wilding in London, it certainly seems to have done just that.

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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