Round the Twist on Rainy Days: In Praise of Paul Jennings

When I was in pri­ma­ry school, there was no day so dread­ed as wet-weath­er day. It trou­bled me per­haps less than some, as I spent much of the break time in the play­ground or school library debat­ing or cre­at­ing fan­ta­sy worlds and games with friends. We were obsessed with Dou­glas Adams, Dun­geons and Drag­ons, Fight­ing Fan­ta­sy, Warham­mer, Mon­ty Python, Mon­key, Star Trek, Doc­tor Who and X‑Men.

Your author with dear friend, Lach­lan, at Book Week ’93. We’re still great friends.

In ear­ly 1990s Aus­tralia, the tri­umph of the nerd was a long way off, a future that we did not even dream could be some­where just on the hori­zon. In the mean­time, chlo­rine-scent­ed teach­ers wear­ing win­ter shorts looked down upon our bor­der­line Satan­ic inter­ests with sus­pi­cion, as watch­ing the watch­ers from afar were sleep­er cells of fel­low trav­ellers, like Mrs Har­ris the librar­i­an and Car­los the Clean­er (with his mag­ic tricks). I would swap Ter­rance Dicks nov­els with one Year 5 teacher like spies in Zagreb Station.

For the most part, though, the ener­gy that coursed through the buzzing bod­ies of my peers was chan­neled into balls: hand­balls, foot­balls, tip foot­balls, bas­ket­balls. Shaq and Michael Jor­dan were trad­ing card and TV gods, while the best among us hov­ered high above the asphalt on cloud­like Reebok Pumps. Some­times – when the teach­ers looked away – mar­tial arts offered a release for our enthu­si­asm. This was the height of Street Fight­er II and Mor­tal Kom­bat mania in Syd­ney schools. The play­grounds of ’93 rever­ber­at­ed with cries of, “Hadouken!” and “Get over here!At the same time, the Ter­mi­na­tor films were prized on VHS – sear­ing our brains with James Cameron’s night­mare vision – so there were T‑1000s sprint­ing around the play­ground too, order­ing hud­dled Year Three boys to “call to John.”

So when the rain came and drove every­one indoors – God help us! – all togeth­er, the sporty kids, the Dun­geon Mas­ters, good kids, bad kids and polymimet­ic machine men from the future, the teach­ers had to find some­thing to unite the play­ground clans. 

In Keating’s Aus­tralia, there was only ever one thing for it: Round the Twist. The Aus­tralian Children’s Tele­vi­sion Foundation’s adap­ta­tion of Paul Jen­nings’ beloved tales had become the glue that held our school togeth­er when­ev­er it was tee­ter­ing towards a clam­my and dilu­vial decay. Once the teach­ers tried screen­ing The Five Doc­tors, a fea­ture length 20th anniver­sary spe­cial of my favourite Time Lord. I was one of a jun­ta sat­is­fied, explain­ing points of Dalek his­to­ry to any­body kind enough to lis­ten. That exper­i­ment was not repeated.

Hence­forth, rainy days were Twist and Grib­ble days. The light­house of Port Niran­da was our bea­con of warmth and heart and humour in the damp of ’93. Not since Peter Viska’s Far Out, Brus­sel Sprout and Unre­al, Banana Peel! was there a temp­ta­tion so uni­ver­sal­ly delight­ing to so many of my class­mates. On page or screen, Jen­nings tapped into the heart of a pri­ma­ry school uncon­scious, enter­tain­ing stu­dents and teach­ers alike. In his com­pa­ny did the wolf lay with the lamb, young lion with the fatling, Raiden, Ryu, Blan­ka, Shaq and Michael Jor­dan along­side Mar­vin the Para­noid Android and the Knights of Ni. On a rainy Syd­ney day, only Jen­nings could unite the play­ground clans. 

“Have you ever… ever felt like this?” asked Tam­sin West as she sang the famil­iar theme. I’m not sure we had. In fact, I think we some­times want­ed it to rain so that we could watch Round the Twist togeth­er as a com­mu­ni­ty of chil­dren who — despite our dif­fer­ences — all loved those tales. I don’t think this made Jen­nings a bet­ter writer than the authors I pre­ferred read­ing in my own time, nor do I think it made him in any way a worse one to com­mand such wide appeal. Rather, I think it made — and makes — Paul Jen­nings spe­cial, per­haps even blessed, to be able to write, prophet like, in a way that res­onat­ed with a gen­er­a­tion, when I was ten in ’93, and many mil­lions more read­ers since.

Chan­nel­ing 1993 at Iza­kaya Yebisu in Feb­ru­ary 2018.
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