Sunday 11 December 2016

On St Trinian's

In the current TLS Libby Purves, reviews Terms and Conditions - Life in girls' boarding schools 1939--1979 by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. It's a terrific review of what sounds like a wonderful book. Contributions from many ex-boarders are rich and strange . . .

The louche prize, however, goes to Caroline (Lady) Cranbrook’s 1940s memories of a place called Wings: a grand house, and a drunken headmistress with a fag and crème de menthe ever at hand, encouraging the school sport of rugby (“Jump on me, girls, jump on me!”). She made them dance with her armless, First World War veteran father, whose stumps without prostheses they had to cling to. Biology in the old kitchen involved dissecting an aborted foal. So many teachers left that Cranbrook at fifteen taught two subjects herself and put the five-year-old boarders to bed. When inspectors came she was given make-up so that they would think she was a teacher. Eventually, with difficulty, she smuggled out a letter “betraying” the school. After Wings closed, rumours spread – one had the headmistress knocking out a girl’s tooth in assembly “because she didn’t like the way she was looking at her”.

Are the St Trinian's films much watched these days? These blissfully funny, endlessly re-watchable comic masterpieces catch something of the social upheavals of Britain in the 1950s as we negotiated the momentous social changes that came with peace time and the post-war Labour settlement. Before you read on, listen to Malcolm Arnold's  magnificent theme song (and credits with illustrations by Ronald Searle, who invented the whole St Trinian's myth in 1941). It will add to the experience.

Part of the appeal - to a section of the audience at least - was the dramatic and unnerving transformation that took place between the Fourth Form and the Sixth form, when the girls mutated
from pint-sized matt-haired gap-toothed she-devils (faithfully reproducing  Ronald Searle's original cartoons) into svelte glamorous debutantes, capricious and sexually potent incarnations of male desire,  and fear. Their essential moral depravity remained intact, but they acquired a veneer of class (and a veneer got you a long way in post-war Britain - vide Lady Docker).

The first three St Trinian's films are perfectly cast: Alastair Sim in drag as the trilling, cooing, unflappable headmistress Millicent Fritton; George Cole (in real life Sim's adopted son) as the cockney wide boy 'Flash' Harry (who appears to live in a shrubbery and sports the most hilarious coat in movie history - a shoulder-padded ankle-skimming camel hair creation, flapping unreliably in all directions, the ensemble topped with a dodgy pork pie hat); the sublime and very sexy Joyce Grenfell as the lovelorn policewoman Sgt Ruby Gates ('But I've had a bath specially!' she wails to her betrothed, shrewdly underplayed by Lloyd Lamble).

Cameos are by reliable stalwarts of mid-century British cinema: Richard Wattis, Eric Barker, Dennis Price and John le Mesurier all play Whitehall mandarins from the "Ministry of Schools". Then there's Raymond Huntley, Cecil Parker, Sid James, all turning in their best performances. Look out for Beryl Reid as the monocled lesbian chemistry teacher and - well, I could go on, and on. The St Trinian's staff room is populated with Britain's equivalent of The Addams Family. There's an illicit gin distillery on the premises, and a hotline to the the local bookmakers. It's heaven.

Best of all, for my money, is Terry-Thomas, the absolute non pareil of caddishness and a superb comic actor. In Blue Murder at St Trinian's (my favourite, I tend to think) he plays Captain Romney Carlton-Ricketts, sole owner and proprietor of the Dreadnought Motor Transport Co. He is employed by Miss Fritton to take the girls on a UNESCO-sponsored tour to the Continent (or 'Continong') with (as they say) hilarious results. He's the bounder's bounder, an unscrupulous and opportunist ladies' man out for all he can get. I've always loved the visual rhyme of the gap in his front teeth and the baffling hyphen in his name.

There are four films in the original series, and they should be watched in order:

The Belles of St Trinian's (1954)
Blue Murder at St Trinian's (1957)
The Pure Hell of St Trinian's (1960)
The Great St Trinian's Train Robbery (1966, the last and the least of them. Shot in colour, which doesn't help, and with Frankie Howerd drafted in, unhappily.)

There followed a succession of horribly crude and witless updates culminating in a 2009 travesty directed by Oliver Parker. Avoid this charmless horror and its lurid sequel at all costs.

In her TLS review Libby Purves adds an irresistible note (and this is what prompted my thoughts of St Trinian's).. In 1971 a sociologist collected nicknames used in girls. boarding schools and among theme were: Baggy, Bambam, Bouncy, Bubbles, Doodles, Farto, Flea, Kipper, Moo, Pawpaw, Pussy, Tick, Turnip and Wopsy. 

Lost worlds!

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