Saturday, 2 August 2014

St Trinian's, St Trinian's, will never die...

Flash Harry in teddy boy garb, hanging out with the 6th form
 Ah! Mr Robot has just put up with me watching The Great St Trinian's Train Robbery*. It may be the weakest of the original films, nonetheless I enjoy it greatly. Many, many years ago, when I was just a little guttersnipe and we had only a black-and-white telly, Channel 4 broadcast the films and I loved them. That must date it to the early 1980s. Anyway, something about the anarchy of the films appealed to me, and does still to this day.
The original drawings of St Trinian's were done by Ronald Searle, who also created the mighty Nigel Molesworth, terror of St Custard's. St Trinian's was a school, perhaps the worst or the best of girls' schools. Its teachers were unqualified, unfit to teach or simply on the run; its younger pupils were violent, criminal and opportunistic while its older ones were violent, criminal, opportunistic and nubile... carrying bottles of scotch in their school trunks and toting knuckledusters, robbing banks and beating their opponents to a pulp with hockey sticks.

First created in 1941, the cartoons became darker after the Second World War. Searle was a prisoner of war in Asia, yet continued to draw, even when his weight fell below six stone and he was half-dead of cholera. After the war he was court artist at the Nuremburg trials. It's no surprise that these ghastly experiences affected his work, though I have to say I find the St Trinian's cartoons much harsher than the Molesworth ones, which are brimming with the enthusiasm of the 1950s 'New Elizabethan' and the joy of the possibilities of the future, so I wouldn't assume the war completely darkened his outlook.

Miss Frinton sampling the distillation in a smoky Advanced Chemistry lab
The smoking, gambling, drinking young 'ladies' of the private school** got up to all sorts of mischief in the cartoons, and the films turned the cartoons into a legend - a British icon, even. Four films were made as a sequence in the 1950s and 1960s: The Belles of St Trinian's, Blue Murder at St Trinian's, The Pure Hell of St Trinian's and The Great St Trinian's Train Robbery. Another was made in 1980, and two more in the noughties, but I really think you have to go back to the first four for the most fun. The cast lists are roll calls of midcentury British comedy talent, from Alistair Sim as headmistress Miss Fritton (we Brits like good drag) to Terry-Thomas, Joyce Grenfell, Frankie Howerd, Sid James... and bringing the glamour, Blue Murder even featured the 41-19-36- charms of Sabrina. (She's shown reading a book.)

And, of course, there's George Cole as pencil-moustached spiv Flash Harry. Nowadays people might wonder what a grown man is doing hanging around with a bunch of schoolgirls, but these were more innocent times and besides, Flash is no fool. If you're in the spivving business, a source of good hooch to sell and a pool of habitual gamblers are not things to be passed up - and when St Trinian's girls leave school, it'll be to go on to good marriages, careers in the demi-monde or possibly even in (a thoroughly corrupt but powerful branch of) government: all places it helps a dodgy geezer to have friends.

If you are new to St Trinian's, start with The Belles, the first film, made in 1954. The school is deeply in debt, so Miss Fritton is overjoyed to take the wealthy daughter of a sheikh as a new pupil. Fatima's father owns a racehorse, and it's rather good at that, so all her gin-distilling classmates put their money on it. However, Fritton's brother is a bookmaker with a daughter at the school, they get wind of the horse's abilities and so she and the older pupils decide to kidnap the horse so her father can make a massive profit. Meanwhile, a policewoman masquerading as the new gym mistress is investigating the school. It's sixth form versus fourth form! Old girls versus sixth form! All girls versus the Ministry of Education!

St Trinian's, St Trinian's, will never die...





*In Train Robbery there is a station master with an Asian accent; the Anglo-Indian (Eurasian) community tended to work the trains in India, and I've always seen this green-eyed chap as AI. My grandfather McDonald was Anglo-Indian/Anglo-Burmese (complete with accent!), and I personally am pleased to see this community represented as working within an industry that they were a stalwart part of, and to think it was enough a part of British culture that an AI comedic character could be created and appreciated by the wider community alongside comedic white characters. Not all people with Asian ancestry would feel that way, and as a white person I'm lucky not to have had people be expressly racist to me personally, so I accept that different people would feel differently about that character. But for me it's a sign of integration and recognition rather than exclusion. 
**In the UK you pay to go to private school, and public schools are a very select group within that. The ones everyone can go to - and I did - are state schools. So public ones are very elite, and I don't think St. T's falls within that bracket. Mmmkay?

8 comments :

  1. Watching these films began my undying love for Joyce Grenfell.

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    1. She is good, isn't she? Though I'm not sure I have a favourite character in all of them.

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  2. The Great St Trinians Train Robbery was filmed around where I live, we even drove past a particular lane just last week :)

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    1. Really? And the area is still recognisable? That's great!

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  3. Heh, heh, love it! I adore Joyce Grenfell, and Alistair Sim. My son's a big fan, and of most old films.
    I collect Searle's books, have a number of the orange penguin editions. They are fabulous.

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    1. Aaaah, orange Penguin envy! They're so hard to find now. We have all of Thurber, and an Addams Family book in orange Penguin, but no Searle. They must be great treasures of yours.

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  4. I love these old school films, not just St Trinians, but I saw another one earlier this year about a bus load of girls moved to a boys school, 'The Happiest Days of Your Life', also with Joyce Grenfell and Alastair Sim I think. It must have been a popular format! Px

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    1. Indeed. I have friends who collect vintage children's books, and girls' school stories were massively popular. Though the films appealed to adult nostalgia as much as school-aged viewing, where the books were, I think, mainly read by young people. I was quite intrigued to find there is an eager readership for fanfic set in some of the 'worlds', for example - I never got beyond Malory Towers, but it's made me very keen to read others.

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