6 ways the Spud movies reflect 90s boarding school life
Spud is the beloved chronicle of John “Spud” Milton, played by Troye Sivan, a teenage boy trying to fit in at a prestigious private boarding school. Loosely based on the experiences of John van de Ruit, who authored the books, the Spud trilogy (with 2010’s Spud, 2013’s Spud 2: The Madness Continues and Spud 3: Learning to Fly from 2014 now streaming on Showmax), is a delightful romp and coming-of-age tale about a teenager’s growing pains in high school.
The movies are semi-autobiographical and were filmed at real-life South African schools, so it makes sense that they’d be true to life. Here are the ways they show what life was really like for boarding school students in SA in the 90s.
Spud features recurring roles for John Cleese as “The Guv” with Jason Cope as “Sparerib”. As much as we hate to admit it, boarding school wouldn’t be as much fun without having teachers to admire or ridicule. Quirks, walks, sayings, teaching styles, disciplinary stances, hygiene… as campus celebrities, they’re constantly under the microscope!
Having been a student and school master, Cleese found plenty of nostalgia in his role, and goes full carpe diem as Mr Edly, better known as “The Guv”. A lovable spirit guide and adoptive father figure, he becomes Spud’s fireside mentor and silent champion.
Cope is a great example of a “prison warden” school master in Mr Wilson. Prone to losing his temper, constantly surveilling students and generally irritated to be on the school campus at all – Sparerib’s the perfect target for roving gangs of school menaces.
Gecko, Rambo, Rain Man, Mad Dog or Spud… at boarding school, your nickname chooses you. Teachers get nicknames so students can openly talk behind their backs. Teetering on the tightrope of respect, these nicknames can immortalise worthy teachers or cast them in eternal detention.
Nicknames can be coined from your surname, a heroic act, a foolhardy blunder, a physical attribute, an off-colour remark or a personal taste – someone can get one or even a hundred nicknames (we counted)!
Often replacing your real name, except during roll call, they can become intertwined with your identity. In a more callous time of unmodulated body shaming, young Spud’s moniker was determined by a physical attribute. While at first utterly humiliating, withstanding the insults and teasing can eventually turn a nickname into a badge of honour and validation from your peers.
Awkward teen romance
Always subject to time constraints, boarding school romance lives for the weekends and holidays, as Spud discovers with Mermaid. From flowery dot-the-i-with-hearts love letters to cringe-fest school socials, the game of lockdown love can be heaven or hell, depending on who you ask or what finds its way to the ripe and flourishing grapevine.
Boarding schools make it easier for you to visit your sweetheart. The campus is your world, where you can roam freely and live independent of your all-too embarrassing parents. The school rules mean you have boundaries and serious travel restrictions, having to sign out and wear a straw basher to restock your tuck box or toiletries in town.
However, in between visits to the dining hall and prep bells, there exists a time to woo… under strict supervision of course!
The Crazy 8s quickly discover there’s a gaping spectrum of privilege at the school that ranks students according to their grade. Boarding school is a microcosm where paying your dues earns you respect and even resilience.
Juniors are often tasked with menial jobs, from managing laundry and making beds to delivering milk or biscuits to a doting sweetheart. It’s a rite of passage designed to put you in your place with the lofty promise that you too will receive the same privilege one day.
The respect-your-seniors hierarchy is layered, determining where you can or can’t walk and whether you get jam and peanut butter or toasted cheese and tomato sandwiches. Beyond these politics, there’s even an invisible turf war between day scholars and boarders, especially when one side has a clear majority.
Being a “day bug” means you have visitor privileges but aren’t on the inside as much as a permanent resident!
John Milton undergoes a traumatic initiation, which serves to underscore the hard-knock life and dramatic side of Spud. It’s an act that closely aligns the trilogy with the untold hardships of boarding school life, where peer pressure and old school lore collide. While not openly tolerated, these “Lord of the Flies” type rituals often continue in the name of outdated tradition.
Initiations range from the boisterous high jinks of a night swim to the painful humiliation of a shoe polish scrubbing. Love or hate them, secret societies, rites of passage or acts of survival to create oneness within the group persist all over the world, and flourished in boarding schools in the 1990s.
Pranks and shenanigans
From torch-lit bunking and pile-ons to boosting Sparerib’s car into the quad, the Crazy 8s had expect non-stop fun and games as boarders. All of these Spud moments happen at your typical boarding school, sometimes at the risk of detention or expulsion. Teenagers come up with all sorts of crazy, creative and daring ways to pass the time, and to make their names immortal.
While typical rebellion involves smoking behind the scoreboard or breaking out of the hostel at night to go streaking, every scenario calls for new hysterical ways to be naughty. Turning on cold taps while people shower, flipping beds at midnight, playing dorm room cricket or relocating a boarder’s entire cubicle to the middle of the rugby field – there’s never a dull moment!