When John van de Ruit wrote Spud, it’s unlikely he envisioned the book gaining almost a cult following around the world, let alone becoming a much anticipated movie starring one of the greatest British comedic actors of all time: John Cleese.
Spud is similar to The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ in that it tells the tale of a young boy on the cusp of adolescence as he tries to figure out this crazy thing called life. But that is where the similarity ends.
Spud is a uniquely South African tale and is coloured by the politically interesting times of the early 1990s, when Nelson Mandela was released from jail and white people had to get used to the idea of losing their totalitarian grip on the country. It tells the story of John “Spud” Milton, who has won a scholarship to a prestigious private boarding school in the KZN Midlands. Unlike most of the boys at the school, Spud’s background is humble. His family is not rich and the blurb on the back of the book describes his parents as “beyond the lunatic fringe”, so the lad feels hobbled before he’s even begun.
In coming-of-age books such as these there are some formulas which have to be followed. The young hero makes some strange and unlikely friendships, there is young love and there is a mentor. In Spud, the mentor is The Guv, the school’s English teacher and under 14 cricket coach. He and Spud bond over writing and classic novels. Of course The Guv has problems of his own – alcoholism and a rocky marriage – but the two manage to keep each other going.
John Cleese plays the role of The Guv. Casting Cleese in the role was a coup for director Donovan Marsh, who tried to use local talent as much as possible, but who needed a big name to attract interest overseas. Cleese is most well known for stint in Monty Python, Britain’s cult comedy group, as well as Fawlty Towers, another UK comedy classic, but he also has a string of movie credits to his name, as an actor, writer and producer. He fits the role of The Guv perfectly, giving him just the right amount of gravitas and eccentricity.
Marsh cast a relevant unknown in the role of Spud. Troye Sivan was born in South Africa but lives in Australia. Sivan is a talented musician but only had one previous full length movie credit to his name before he landed the role of Spud; he was Young James Howlett in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. He has, however, starred in a number of theatrical productions. Perhaps most importantly in terms of Spud; he played Oliver Twist in a production of Oliver! at Perth’s Regal Theatre (Spud plays Oliver in a school play).
Spud: the movie will resonate with all audiences not only South Africans and everyone will be able to identify with certain aspects of the tale, even if they never attended boarding school themselves.
One can only hope that Marsh has plans to continue with the franchise, as van de Ruit has already explored more of John “Spud” Milton’s life in Spud – The Madness Continues and Spud – Learning to Fly.