English as a Strange Language: Slim John


Out of Print


At Bókin, the used bookstore in 101 Reykjavik where Bobby Fischer spent his endgame, the clutter goes all the way up to the ceiling, from which hang collages of magazine clippings picturing Halldor Laxness and the great beauties of the world (an eighties-era Miss Iceland poses with the collected works of her favorite author, William Shakespeare). Christmas-tree lights adorn a waist-high pyramid of hardcovers next to the register. The English-language section, right by the door when you come in, is half blocked off by unsorted boxes and piles of new acquisitions with pages already curling, glue already dissolving.

In Iceland, it’s traditional to open presents on Christmas Eve: a new article of clothing, so the Yule Cat doesn’t get you, and a new book to curl up with. So it was that last December I angled my way into the English stacks, scanned the green spines of Fay Weldon novels and Van Der Valk mysteries sold on by British backpackers, and found Slim John.

Published in 1969, with a cover betraying the influence of Penguin under the swinging, Saul Bass-esque art direction of Germano Facetti, Slim John is in fact the companion volume to a serial of the same name produced by the BBC for overseas broadcast as part of their English by Television initiative. The book is part textbook with exercise sheets, and part shooting script with accompanying stills. Slim John, building on the previous English by Television program, Walter and Connie, is a course for “near-beginners” in English; this means, explains English by Radio and Television head Christopher Dilke in his foreward, “that a coherent and life-like situation can be created from the start.” Though under the supervision of a linguist, the episodes were penned by four veterans of TV thrillers, including Brian Hayles, who wrote thirty episodes of Doctor Who during the tenures of Doctors One through Three. The serial format, which “tends to make the viewer come back for the next lesson just because he wants to know what happens,” per Dilke of the BBC, was undertaken because “fashions change in teaching as well as in dress.” In order to integrate narrative sophistication with regular language pedagogy within Slim John, Dilke explains, “a situation has been invented which makes it necessary for robots planning a take-over of the world to learn English.”

The foreigner who acquires a fluent if comically filtered command of English through televisual osmosis is a mostly apocryphal case. It is not just for reasons of faddishness that TV as a language-acquisition tool has been superseded by newer technologies, like CD-ROMs and, lately, apps, which are more naturally interactive.

Still, World War II, and the interdependent postwar world, required a scaling-up of Britain’s ELT (English Language Teaching) efforts abroad. The BBC’s English by Radio (later English by Radio and Television), begun during the war and continued after, developed in tandem with an influential, more systematic teaching method. The Structural-Oral-Situational approach, or S-O-S, replaced the earlier grammar-translation and limited-vocabulary models with an emphasis on the repetition of basic grammatical constructions that could be varied and built upon (structural); an assumption of the primacy of oral communication as opposed to reading and writing as a gateway to a new language (oral); and the use of conversational scenarios as a teaching method (situational). Slim John, like the BBC’s earlier ELT efforts, widened the reach of S-O-S within the commonwealth and the continent. Hence the show’s contrivance of robots who regularly pause in their dastardly business to take English lessons—thus providing an interactive component for viewers.

Additionally, Slim John the show was accompanied by gramophone records—in which the viewer acts out excerpts of dialogue from the show, reinforcing through activity the oral and social aspects of language-acquisition—and by this book, with its exercises reinforcing the structural element. (ELT in television and radio, along with the dialogues then becoming common elements of language textbooks, may have hastened the evolution of the “situational” out of the strictly pedagogical classroom-scenario model of S-O-S, and into the more socially oriented “communicative approach.”)

The book, whose page numbers are spelled out in addition to being counted numerically, is organized into thirteen lessons, corresponding to chapters of the serial. Each begins with an overview of its “teaching points,” and preliminary sentence-formation exercises accompanied by pen-and-ink illustrations; the script is augmented by still photos and illustrations demonstrating actions from the dialogue and stage directions, and is followed by a vocab list, comprehension questions and more advanced exercises. In Lesson One, the “near-beginner” pupil works primarily with the verb to be, including its plural, negative, and question forms; by Lesson Thirteen, the learning outcomes include the conjunction when and the expression “May I …?”

The fashion which Slim John is cut to fit, per Dilke’s foreward, is the then emergent field of Chomskian structural linguistics, which provided an of-the-moment academic gloss on S-O-S’s grammatical principles, developed from the experience of ELT scholars teaching abroad during the prewar years. Icons—a plus sign for plurals, arrows pointing right to left for past tense and left to right for future tense—highlight recurrent constructions in the exercises. And Slim John was conspicuously of its moment in other ways as well.

Richard D. Lewis, in his magnificently titled The Road from Wigan Pier: Memoirs of a Linguist, recounts his development with Dilke of Walter and Connie, the Beeb’s first English by Television program, in 1962:

[I]t was in black and white, low level, dealt with certain “stereotyped” aspects of the English character and was driven by tongue-in-cheeck humor.

Each episode was to deal with a different topic, e.g. Walter and Connie on the Farm, At the Bank, At the Races, etc. and was to be linked to a main structure e.g. the Present Perfect Tense, plus two secondary structures, for instance, comparative and superlative adjectives. The task facing the scriptwriter was to match up structures and topic so that the former were not only smoothly integrated with the latter, but would often appear as essential for dealing with the topic. If the subject and grammar did not suit each other, stilted English would result. If we take the episode At the Races, the most appropriate main structure would be the Future Tense (Will he win, or won’t he?) whilst the secondary ones might well be adverbs of probability (perhaps, maybe) and the Present Perfect (Thunderbird has won!). Not the least difficulty of the scriptwriter was the injection, in each episode, of the humour which was to drive the series. Dilke and I discussed this at length. Humour, as we all know, crosses frontiers with difficulty, particularly when heading East. The BBC were targeting a large and disparate audience, including sensitive Arabs, volatile Latin Americans and bewildered Chinese. Jokes and punch lines were out of the question. Humour would have to arise from the situation, be easily (and universally) recognised and give no offence to the viewer whatever his or her sect, creed or culture. It is not easy to find 39 different items that a Chinese will laugh at. The low level language strait-jacket helped in a way, for if we had been allowed more subtlety, we would have lost our audience. In the end I settled for Connie dreaming winners, jockeys falling off horses, Walter breaking jewellers’ windows with a brick wrapped up in old brown paper with his address on, and similar inoffensive subterfuges.

Departing from these quaint scenarios, Slim John concerns Robot Five (an early role for Simon Williams, who a few years later would grow a mustache and begin to play James Bellamy on Upstairs Downstairs). Robot Five is found in a cupboard by London schoolteachers Richard and Stevie in Lesson One, “The Man in the Cupboard”:

(There is a noise)

STEVIE: What’s that?

RICHARD: It’s in this box.

STEVIE: In the box?

(Richard looks in the box.)

RICHARD: It isn’t in the box. Is it under the table?

(Stevie looks under the table.)

STEVIE: No, it isn’t. It isn’t under the table. It’s under the bed.

RICHARD: Under the bed?

(Stevie looks under the bed.)

STEVIE: No, it isn’t there. It isn’t under the bed. Where is it?

RICHARD: Stevie … it’s in there! It’s in the cupboard!

(Richard opens the cupboard)

RICHARD: Stevie, it’s a man! There’s a man—here—in the cupboard!

The man in the cupboard quickly reveals himself to be a robot, distinguishable by the “power-point” on his wrist, the source of his robot super-strength, and by the “videograph” that plays his periodic English lessons. (The writers seem at times to project some irritation over the lesson breaks onto Richard and Stevie, who sigh irritably when a lesson interrupts a suspense sequence.) Learning that Richard and Stevie have names, first and last, Robot Five picks out “John” in episode two, and appends “Slim” in episode three; despite not needing to eat human food, he wills himself a fondness for the buns offered to him by Richard and Stevie in episode two, once Stevie establishes that “Richard, this man is your friend.”

The sci-fi device of a robot cultivating a personality through overliteral mimicry of human traits proves an apt way of integrating the variation and “spaced repetition” important to foreign-language learning. In episode three, Slim John attempts to do the shopping:

ASSISTANT: Some butter. (He picks some butter up)

SLIM JOHN: Some butter.

ASSISTANT: Some cheese. (He picks some cheese up)

SLIM JOHN: Some cheese.

ASSISTANT: Some tea. (He picks some tea up)

SLIM JOHN: Some tea.

ASSISTANT: Some jam. (He picks some jam up)

SLIM JOHN: Some jam. And have you got any buns?

It transpires Robot Five is one of many robots placed around London in preparation for an attack, almost like a sleeper cell, by one Dr. Brain, under the orders of the unseen Control. But under the influence of his new English friend, Slim John goes rogue. (The 1960s was also the decade during which ELT began to be seriously organized for subjects within the UK, as “teaching English to immigrants”; is there a subtext about assimilation here?) Slim John struggles to blend in—with power-point powered up, he kicks some boys’ football all the way up a tree—while other robots carry out a slapstick dragnet at movie theaters, parks and grocers (providing the “situational approach”). The other robots, often disguised as normal Englishmen in service professions—shop assistants, park attendants—can be singled out by their body-snatcher dialogue, and by their compulsive breaks for language lessons. Dr. Brain’s control-room directives invariably demonstrate the imperative (“Don’t attack now. Robot Four and Robot Fifteen are coming to the shop. Wait for them. Don’t attack now”), just as Slim John’s tabula rasa permits the chirpy narration of successive nouns.

By episode ten, “We’re Going Away,” the pupil is ready to use the present-tense continuous to describe events in the future: the post-episode exercises prompt the composition of sentences about Richard, Stevie, and Slim John’s flight from London, and Dr. Brain’s proliferating robots (“Now make twelve true sentences: Richard, Stevie and Slim Jon are/aren’t going away; going out of London; getting a car;” et cetera). And Dr. Brain, emboldened by the introduction of the days of the week, gloats over his organization’s power: “Yes, Control is always there. He’s there on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.”

At last, in episode thirteen, Richard is captured at a garage outside London, and Slim John and Stevie plan to rescue him. Will Slim John save his newfound friends? Will they foil the robot invasion? The resolution to such cliffhangers, alas, seems likely to be permanently deferred. For the book I found at Bókin is Slim John 1. There is a Slim John 2, which contains Lessons Fourteen through Twenty-Six. Slim John’s Google trail is, even at this late date, admirably spoiler-free. The show’s well-written Wikipedia page, obviously composed by a single individual, contains one external link, to a bare-bones Finnish fansite.

There is, however, a single clip on YouTube:

It is weirdly gratifying to finally hear the sound effect for Slim John’s power-point, as well as the incidental music cues generated from the same synthesizer. It is also fascinating to observe the contrasting approach different actors take to the literally ESL dialogue, from the naturalism attempted by Juliet Harmer as Stevie, to the villainous-declamatory affect of Valentine Dyall, as Dr. Brain. (Dyall, a voice-over actor and bit player in several Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger films, is best known for his role in Brit-horror films like the enduring cheapie City of the Dead.)

This clip, which may be from Lesson Nineteen, “Copies of Robot Five,” does resolve some of the suspense: we know that the English-language learner will have gotten at least as far as comparatives (“Slim John? Oh yes, Robot Five … A clever robot, but not as clever as I am.” “Come on, Slim John, open this door! I can’t open it, it’s too difficult for me. You’re strong. You’re stronger than I am. You can open it”).

Though broadcast throughout Europe and beyond, Slim John is a sort of limnal artifact, neither native to the culture of its intended audience, nor truly a part of its target language’s shared heritage. The comments on that YouTube video—the ones not in Italian or French—suggest a show remembered, to the extent that it’s remembered at all, with more vividness than precision, not so unlike the outlandish premise of a noncanonical YA novel. I love this one, for the glimpse of how fine, how personal the margins between here and complete mildewed obscurity:

Bloddy Hell – i have not seen this since it was in Danish TV way back in the 70¥s – that was one of the first sci-fi series on telly here […] – i remember learning a bit of english from it – even remember the sound of slim John turning the dial on he’s wrist to get stronger – we played Slim John at school […] lol good memories˛ˇ : )

Mark Asch, formerly an editor at The L Magazine in Brooklyn, is currently a graduate student at the University of Iceland.