My childhood memories of sick days and back holidays are filled with St Trinian’s School for Girls and the wonderful series of films that started with The Bells of St Trinian’s in 1954 (just don’t watch the fifth one from the 80s).
The school is full of wonderfully indisciplined tearaways and the debauched indifference of the staff had, I’m sure, many children longing for their own school to be run along similar lines. The traditional idea of female gentility is turned on its head, creating nothing that had been seen before in 1954!
Adapted from Ronald Searle’s cartoons about the school, the plot is simple: using their educational establishment as a front, the outrageous schoolgirls of St Trinian’s get mixed up in a plot to steal a racehorse. In the pantheon of British comedy, the film holds a special place. From the anarchistic, hocky-stick wielding younger girls to the suspender-belted allure of the “older” girls (pretty much all played by 25 year olds).
Searle first invented the horde of unruly schoolgirls in 1941 while serving in World War II, producing a series of ascerbic cartoons for satirical magazines Lilliput and Punch. Theirs was not the innocent public school japery of dodging prep and breaking windows as depicted in Just William. These amoral girls smoke, fight, gamble and generally run riot over their slipshod educational establishment. Creating their own Mafia to the exasperation of headmistress Miss Fritton…
played with motherly exasperation by Alastair Sim.
These whimsical, darkly comic films certainly encapsulate a warm, fuzzy England that… probably never existed… but there is some bite to them. Miss Fritton might not be able to control her girls, but Sim is more than capable of commanding the screen. He-slash-she is the epicentre of the film: a mix of misplaced pride, questionable fiscal habits and creative cunning. Although quite clearly a man in drag, the role is written and played straight. Humour here does not come from a wig or false chest. It comes from from a character with a preternatural ability to sidestep and overlook the various mantraps and madnesses that ricochet around her.
Sim also plays Clarence Fritton, the headmistress’ twin brother, in one of the central comedic hooks of the film. Hot on the trail of insider racing tips — new girl Princess Fatima’s father has top horse Arab Boy running in the Cheltenham Gold Cup — he exhorts his sister to reinstate his oft-expelled daughter Bella.
We barely see any of the other girls singularly. They fall into two camps: the aforementioned screaming banshees of the fourth form and the over-sexed succubus sixth form. The teaching staff, a dissolute bunch of wrecks, alcoholics, ex-cons and lesbians (because let’s throw that in there), played by a group of wonderful British comediennes, take centre stage instead. Also unforgettable is George Cole as cockney spiv Flash Harry. A silver-tongued rogue who dwells in the bushes in the school grounds, drawing the girls into various nefarious pursuits… please think ‘bootleg gin and racing bets’ rather than anything truly salacious!
For the star of the St. Trinian’s movies is a mythic Englishness of wood panelled public school nicety and eccentric “grown-ups”, completely sabotaged by a pack of street-wise urchins and long-legged lovelies.