With the new ST TRINIANS movie due in British cinemas on the 21st, and an article on British writer-producer-directors Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat due from me immanently, I decided to watch three of the original films last night. Having seen the original BELLES OF ST TRINIANS a few years back, I decided to jump straight into the sequels, omitting only the last, WILDCATS OF ST TRINIANS, because it is a dreadful thing and anyway I don’t have a copy.
British comedy series are an odd lot, often functioning on inertia and raw acting talent rather than anything resembling good material, and yet they inspire tremendous warmth and attachment in the public here. Take the CARRY ON films — arguably three of them are consistently entertaining, out of a total of twenty-nine. Twenty-nine.
Twenty-nine films on the theme of sexual frustration, filled with closeted gay men, hefty spinsters, and sex-obsessed nitwits apparently suffering from what Schrader and Scorsese (who, presumably, know all about it) call D.S.B. (Deadly Sperm Back-up, where the unused sperm backs up to the brain and induces idiocy).
Then there are the lesser-known DOCTOR films, which made a star of Dirk Bogarde and thus prepared the way for DEATH IN VENICE and THE NIGHT PORTER, and managed to carry on for several entries even after their star had graduated to working with Basil Dearden and Joseph Losey. That’s a common trait of these series, they outlive their stars, their creators, their reasons for existing in the first place…
Such as the CONFESSIONS movies, inaugurated by British film legend Val Guest, who had been working since the thirties and earlier brought us the excellent Hammer cop thriller HELL IS A CITY. Here he took the saucy comedy format into the seventies, where suddenly you could actually SHOW full nudity and intercourse, so he did. He complained later that if these films had been subtitled they’d have been acclaimed as arthouse smashes… but aside from Verhoeven’s TURKISH DELIGHT I can’t think of any “art film” they resemble. Actually, CONFESSIONS OF A WINDOW CLEANER is like the Verhoeven movie with all the serious bits removed, and yet it still manages to be more ugly and depressing.
The fact that that film’s star, Robin Askwith, was cast in BRITANNIA HOSPITAL (and he’s very good in it) probably accounts for a decent percentage of the rotten reviews BH garnered on release: sheer guilt-by-association.
Anyhow, back to our rampaging schoolgirls. The first St Trins film is based on the cartoons of Ronald Searle, which are in turn derived from stories Searle heard about the real St Trinnean’s, a “progressive” boarding school right here in Edinburgh where the girls were allowed to run wild as nature intended. (Hey, listen, another Edinburgh girls’ school inspired the source material of William Wyler’s THESE THREE and THE CHILDREN’S HOUR!)
Edinburgh connection 2: that superb eccentric actor Alastair Sim stars in the first film and cameos in the second, dragging up to play Miss Fitton, the dithering, corruptible headmistress, as well as her ne’er-do-well brother. Here we see the British love of drag combined with that fondness for multiple role-playing later developed in DR. STRANGELOVE and O LUCKY MAN!
(Sim’s very best work for Launder and Gilliat is in the marvellous GREEN FOR DANGER, available now from Criterion).
Sim declined to be confined to a film series, and so the later films import a succession of star comedians in a vain attempt to replace him. First into the breach is Terry-Thomas, who obviously I’m a fan of, and if BLUE MURDER AT ST TRINIANS used him more thoroughly, things might have gone better. But all the sequels seem to divide their energies and plotlines to damaging effect, and the rot sets in right here. Although hearing T-T say things like “That’s a bit adjacent, isn’t it?” is never less that a pleasure, there isn’t enough rigour in integrating him into a storyline that needs him.
Stars from the first film are back, notably Joyce Grenfell, whose entrance in the first film had established her as a brilliant film comedian and a sympathetic presence. Curiously, Launder and Gilliat seem to have fixed on the idea of mistreating her character, goody-two-shoes Police Constable Ruby Gates, as their main approach to her character. In the first film the abuse all comes from the rampaging schoolkids, which makes sense, but her two sequels tend to separate her off into unproductive sidetracks.
Better use is made of George Cole, a younger actor mentored by Sim, who appears in four of the films as Flash Harry, an archetypal fifties “spiv” character (basically, a Cockney black marketeer, a sort of Teddy Boy version of Harry Lime) who for some reason became the series’ only essential figure (he’s back in the new version, portrayed by comedian and sex god Russell Brand). Cole is very zestful, firing off malapropisms at speed (‘I don’t want to appear inhospital,’ and ‘Greek Archie-pelly-logo’) but the best thing about the character is his theme tune, a pub piano leitmotif which strikes up with mechanical regularity whenever Harry takes more than a couple of steps, like a proletarian James Bond theme. This, and the jaunty St Trinians theme itself, are the work of Sir Malcolm Arnold, best-known for arranging the Colonel Bogey March for BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI.
BLUE MURDER takes the girls to Rome, where the sixth form all aim to marry an Italian prince, and the filmmakers blagged permission to shoot in the Forum and Colisseum on the grounds that they were making a “cultural documentary”.
PURE HELL AT ST TRINIANS does not take place at the school at all, it having been arsoned to oblivion, and again transports the riotous kids abroad, with the sixth form abducted into a Sheikh’s harem. One of the very strange things about the series, and about British culture generally, is the mainstream media’s use of school uniforms as fetishwear, while our moral guardians shriek about pedophiles hiding in the shrubbery. The St Trinians films mine this imagery while serving up slapstick comedy for little kids — it’s quite disturbing, or almost.
This movie includes Cecil Parker as guest star, but for some reason he’s insufficiently larger-than-life to really hold it all together. He’s perfectly good, but to see him really shine it’s better to check out his work in Gilliat’s THE CONSTANT HUSBAND, where he’s a sports-obsessed psychiatrist treating an amnesiac bigamist… The other strongest element in PURE HELL is Irene Handl, an adored character actor who can be seen to great effect in MORGAN and THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. Here she’s a teacher with a background in lunatic asylums. “Soon I may be the only one around here with a certificate proving my sanity!”
With THE GREAT ST TRINIANS TRAIN ROBBERY in 1966 the series shunted into Technicolor and adopted comic Frankie Howerd as a hairdresser-turned-trainrobber. It’s a very very colourful film indeed, which proves to be a Bad Thing, and Howerd is again underused. Really Howerd isn’t a team player: he mugs and scene-steals atrociously, but the best response to this is to encourage it, since he’s so good, yet Launder seems determined to integrate Howerd into an unpromising ensemble.
Howerd’s best film scenes are usually his big public speeches: he got a great one at the start of CARRY ON DOCTOR, but there’s nothing like that here, so he mainly entertains just by presenting his impossibly large, pendulous face to the camera and squinting evilly.
TRAIN ROBBERY features a few half-hearted nods to sixties fashions, music, crime, and film-making: the speeded-up chase sequence maybe owes something to Richard Lester, but as it’s conducted back and forth over the same hundred feet of track about fifty times, it doesn’t really generate any pace and the gags are unimaginative. There’s no Joyce Grenfell in this one and the series still neglects to develop any of the schoolgirls themselves as proper characters, which is odd, really.
But there was worse to come. Described by my screenwriting friend Colin McLaren as the “you-can-see-it-going-in, hard porn version”, WILDCATS OF ST TRINIANS ups the raunch factor enough to make it a queasy experience, although Colin does exaggerate the penetrative aspect considerably. But there’s a line in the sand, or should be, between the mild seaside postcard comedy of the first films and the naked schoolgirls served up in this travesty, which actually came out in 1980, after British smut had basically rolled over and died at the box office anyway. It’s the equivalent of CARRY ON EMMANUELLE, a depressing extension of a fundamentally innocent series into more explicit territory.
I need to wash that memory away with some good old-fashioned British toilet humour:
The great Dudley Sutton (who was in my first short film).