Prisoner of the Bell (1979)

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Prisoner of the Bell

Publication: 20/1/79-28/4/79

Artist: Phil Gascoine

Writer: Unknown – but see thoughts

Plot

Susie Cathcart and Lorraine Kent are notorious at school for being the class clowns who come up with all sorts of “screwy” dodges to get out of schoolwork. They can’t be bothered with education; their attitude is that life is for fun and they will manage fine without O Levels. The only lesson Susie does care for is gym and she has a natural talent for gymnastics. Their work-dodging tactics are the talk of the staff room, but neither the school nor the parents seem to do anything to sort them out.

Then Grandmother Cathcart comes to live with the family because she is now infirm and wheelchair-bound. Dad had run away from her because she was domineering and hard, and he is not scholarly while Grandmother Cathcart lives for it. In fact there is a warning that she takes it a bit far, what with the piles of academic books she brings with her.

Gran has brought something else with her too – a bell that she uses to summon Susie. The bell soon seems to have a strange power over Susie; every time she hears it, she goes into a trance. Gran has learned about Susie’s attitude to education and begins to use the bell to force her to do her homework. Susie becomes bewildered by her mysteriously done homework that she cannot remember doing. The teachers are pleasantly surprised. Lorraine is furious and then becomes suspicious and starts investigating. And she soon notices things, such as Susie apparently sleepwalking to Gran and having the vocabulary for a French test drilled into her. Lorraine begins to suspect what Gran is up to. She tries to warn Susie, but Gran realises Lorraine has become suspicious and is keeping one step ahead.

But Gran is not doing it just to improve Susie’s schoolwork. She means to force Susie into her own mould of being an assiduous, dedicated, brilliant scholar. She will make no room for Susie’s gymnastics, which she considers “nonsense”. So in addition to using the bell’s power to force Susie into doing her homework, Gran starts interfering with Susie’s gymnastics, such as implanting suggestions into Susie’s mind to turn her off gymnastics. As a result, the PE teacher is furious when Susie says gymnastics is bad and must not waste time on them, and Susie becomes scared of heights and begins to lose her nerve and confidence for gymnastics. This has consequences that Gran did not foresee, such as Susie losing her nerve at the top of a tree and going through the humiliation of being rescued by the fire department. And the PE teacher books Susie for a gymnastics course at Harford Manor to get her nerve back.

But Gran is not having that. She nearly has having Susie spending the money Lorraine raised for Susie’s course on books. Lorraine stops this in the nick of time and applies to come on the course too in order to protect Susie. At Harford Manor, Susie begins to break through the suggestions and regain her nerve. But Gran will not let up and books herself for a holiday to the disabled to get up to the village near Harford Manor. She plays a trick to get Susie expelled. Lorraine takes the blame to save Susie but gets herself expelled and unable to protect Susie any further on the course. When Gran finds out, she posts the bell to Susie. Its power has Susie packing her bags instantly, which has her walking out on British selectors.

Susie begs to know why Gran is doing this to her. Gran explains that when she was a girl she had a thirst for knowledge but was denied education because she was female. So she taught herself, which led to the accumulation of her books on every subject. And one subject is…hypnotism.

Gran says she now intends to teach Susie everything she knows and, through Susie, achieve the greatness she had been denied. Susie now bends to Gran’s academic drive completely. Susie’s parents, who had not done much about Susie’s laziness at school before, come over to Gran’s side.

Lorraine is horrified, particularly when she sees how ill and tired Susie looks from the way she is being pushed by her Gran and how terrified Susie gets when she even thinks of gymnastics. Lorraine persuades Susie to come on a trip to Crystal Palace in the hope the Russian gymnasts will restore Susie’s nerve. But when Gran tags along, Lorraine gives up on breaking Gran’s power.

Then stormy weather causes the bus to crash into a river. Gran is knocked unconscious. The girls are ordered to climb out, but Gran’s power over Susie has her too terrified to do so. Lorraine tries to force Susie, but in the end carries her out after she faints. Meanwhile, Gran suddenly realises that her interference with Susie has nearly killed her. She agrees to go into a home and stop interfering with Susie’s life. Susie returns to her old self in terms of schoolwork and gymnastics, and is selected for the British junior team.

Thoughts

This is one story where our feelings for both the protagonist and antagonist are mixed. We can’t help feeling that Susie is overdue for a comeuppance of some sort for the way she dodges her schoolwork and laud Gran for being the one who actually steps in to do something about it. And Gran does have a point about the Cathcart parents having been too indulgent about allowing Susie to become too slack in schoolwork (perhaps it was the father not being scholarly himself?), and Susie has serious attitude problems to schoolwork that need to change. She and Lorraine think only of enjoying themselves and reckon they will manage fine without O Levels. That is not how it is in the real world where good school results are key to making your way in the job market.

But as Gran’s motives unfold, it becomes apparent that she is not doing it all for the right reasons or going about it the right way and we get increasingly worried about Susie. We become even more sympathetic for Susie as we see the effects on her, physically and psychologically, as she loses her nerve and confidence, and is utterly confused and frightened by the changes in her behaviour that she cannot explain. She looks as if she is on the verge of a mental breakdown. And in the final episode, Susie is looking ill and tired because of the way Gran keeps driving her to study, but only Lorraine seems to notice.

When Gran reveals why she is driving Susie this way, we have some sympathy for her as it is quite understandable that she wants to achieve what she had been frustrated in her girlhood because her gender was against her. From the sound of things, she failed to achieve it through her son because he was a non-scholar. But she sees more promising material in Susie; hence her relentless drive to achieve it by training Susie’s brain into more academic thinking.

Unfortunately Gran takes it too far with Susie because she is too relentless and demanding. She is far too consumed with academia and makes no room for other things in life, hence her intolerance of Susie’s gymnastics. She considers it nonsense because it is not academic and to her mind it is detracting from academic study. Moreover, she is by nature a domineering, hard woman. Her domineering personality drove her son away when he was younger and she has not learned from that mistake.

We see so much of Grandmother Cathcart in real life: people who get bitter because their dreams were denied; demanding parents who drive their children too hard; parents who want to achieve ambitions or frustrated dreams through their children; parents who won’t allow their children to be themselves and keep forcing them into what they want rather than considering what the children want. To say nothing of people who get fixated on particular things and take them to extremes.

Those extremes include consequences that the antagonist did not foresee because she was too one-tracked to think through the consequences of her actions. When Gran starts implanting suggestions to turn Susie against gymnastics, this leads to serious consequences when Susie loses her nerve for heights and climbing, and it nearly takes her life because she is unable to take the climbing action that would have saved her. This has Gran waking up at last, and she realises what can happen when you interfere with someone’s mind with hypnotism. This is a lesson that another hypnotist, Madame Margolia, learns several years later in Tammy’s “Slave of the Clock”. Madame Margolia is an obsessive ballet teacher and her idea of curing reluctant ballet students is to implant suggestions into their minds to dance when they hear the ticking of a clock. She does this  to Alison Thorne, who has the talent to become a top ballerina but is not interested in a ballet career. Madame Margolia believes the hypnotism will make Alison more devoted to dancing, but of course it just causes a lot of distress and trouble for Alison, particularly as she can’t stop dancing when she hears a clock. Madame Margolia did not mean the effect to go that far, and once she sees it, she undoes the hypnotism. Jay Over was credited with writing “Slave of the Clock”, and it has me wondering if Over wrote “Prisoner of the Bell” as well. Both stories have similar themes of interfering people who try to instil dedications of various types into girls by means of hypnotism, but end up causing nightmares for these girls because they did not consider the consequences of their actions. Over was credited with writing “Pam of Pond Hill”, so there is no doubt he was a Jinty writer.

Gran’s sudden realisation as to what she has done does seem a bit too quick and a bit jarring. After all, how did she know that it was her hypnotic suggestions that prevented Susie from making the climb to save herself? She was not there to see it and Lorraine was still life-saving Susie in the river at the time Gran made her exclamation of remorse. Maybe someone saw the difficulty the girls were having in evacuating and told Gran? Or perhaps it was the bump on the head? Such things have been known to do incredible things in girls’ comics, particularly when it comes to the resolution of a story.

It is a bit disappointing that in the end Susie returns to her old self in terms of schoolwork. You would think something had changed, such as Susie becoming more mature and serious. But then again, Gran’s interference may have put Susie even further off schoolwork, and there is the old adage that leopards do not change their spots. And it does avoid a more clichéd ending of having Susie learn her lesson and becoming more dedicated to schoolwork, which is refreshing. And if Jay Over did write the story, perhaps Lorraine and Susie are forerunners of Fred and Terry, the class layabouts in “Pam of Pond Hill”. But some may question what messages Jinty is giving here.

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11 thoughts on “Prisoner of the Bell (1979)

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