To Serve Them All My Days by R.F.Delderfield

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BBC Radio 4, 23 April 2008

R.F.Delderfield’s To Serve Them All My Days begins with David Powlett-Jones (Oliver Milburn) returning from the Western Front in 1917 to work at a minor public school in Shropshire. He has never taught before, and his experiences of war have left him permanently scarred. The thought of adjusting to school life, with its meaningless rituals and childish slang (Powlett-Jones becomes ‘Pow-wow’) appals him. Nonetheless he becomes accustomed to the pace of life in an institution whose teachers are emotional cripples and the boys endure a Spartan existence. The novel was memorably broadcast on television in the 1980s with John Duttine in the title role. Marc Beeby’s radio version (the first of a five-part adaptation) confirmed that the role of Powlett-Jones is a thankless one; he is a post-1918 Everyperson whose experiences parallel those of many others who were alive at that time. Delderfield seems far more interested in the rogues’ gallery of eccentrics comprising the teaching staff. There is the apparently genial head teacher (John Wood) with a penchant for Machiavellian intrigue concealed beneath a civilized exterior. Two assistant teachers are either cynical or world-weary (John Rowe) or obsessed by school rules (Anthony Calf). Nonetheless To Serve Them All My Days is a compelling tale, as it evokes a version of English identity (based on stoicism and leadership) which might have declined with the passing of the British Empire, but still casts a shadow over contemporary educational life, particularly in the older public schools.