Russell Baker on Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Former New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Russell Baker has been the host of Masterpiece Theatre since 1993. Mr. Baker introduces each program episode, and his personally researched and written comments add context and background to our understanding of the film we're about to watch. His comments frequently provide a uniquely American perspective on the mores and lifestyles of the British.
More commentaries by Russell Baker, as well as commentaries by his predecessor in the hosting chair, Alistair Cooke, can be found for select programs in The Archive.
When there was still a British Empire, sons of the ruling class were scarcely out of short pants before being packed off to boarding schools to start learning how to run the world.
These schools were operated by all-male hierarchies of headmasters, teachers, and senior students who had the power to tyrannize the younger boys, sometimes with considerable cruelty. Brookfield, the school setting for tonight's story, is the fictional creation of the novelist James Hilton -- but it's meant to remind us of such famous schools as Rugby, Harrow, and Eton.
The time is the 1870s and in addition to Latin, the boys are expected to learn respect for the hierarchies that govern not just Brookfield, but the world. Occasional brutality may be necessary to drive home the lesson. Ruling an empire is not for the soft.
Young Arthur Chipping, who has his heart set on teaching, is perfectly at home with Cicero and Caesar. But he doesn't seem a natural fit for teaching in the Brookfield tradition, which calls for readiness to apply stern discipline.
As we meet young Arthur on his first day at Brookfield he seems an unlikely candidate for teaching the muscular imperialism the school promotes.
Now, Goodbye Mr. Chips.
James Hilton later said it took only four days to write Goodbye, Mr. Chips.
He had promised a short story to a British magazine -- but hadn't a notion what to write about. So he went off on a bicycle tour and the idea for a tale about a schoolmaster came to him as he wheeled through Epping Forest.
After four days at the typewriter Hilton had over seventeen thousand words, far too much for a short story, but his editors knew they had something special and published it anyhow as a special supplement in their magazine. Has any writer ever had a more profitable four days work?
Since 1934, when it first appeared, Mr. Chips has been dramatized for the London stage, filmed by Hollywood, and filmed again as a musical. Tonight's show is the second done for television. The first was by the BBC in 1984.
Hilton was born in 1900. He started writing fiction as a schoolboy, did freelance journalism, and published some short stories and a couple of novels that didn't sell a lot. Mr. Chips changed his life.
He was invited to Hollywood and loved the life. He became a highly paid screenwriter. For the script of Mrs. Miniver he won the Academy Award. Two of his other novels became successful movies: Random Harvest and Lost Horizon, the story set in the lost paradise he called "Shangri-La."
The name was made famous by Franklin Roosevelt during World War II when he applied it to the presidential mountain hideaway we now call Camp David.
For Masterpiece Theatre, I'm Russell Baker.
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