by Mark McKay (from LAUGH MAGAZINE #17, 1997)
England was still recovering from five years of an arduous and bloody war when she found herself in the throes of a new relentless wave of terrorism. Striking naked fear in the hearts of policemen and shopkeepers, inducing nervous breakdowns through all levels of the Ministry of Education, this evil manifested itself in the ostensibly innocent form of an English public school girl. .
The horrific institution which turned out this daughter of Beelzebub was an impressive Gothic pile situated in picturesque rural surroundings, known as St. Trinian’s. The ancient stone walls rang out with tormented cries of agony, the clamour of drunken revelry and the rat-a-tat of heavy artillery.
The whole sordid affair can be traced back to just one man – cartoonist Ronald Searle – on the brink of a brilliant career. In October 1941, he set the ball rolling with a submission to Lilliput magazine. It was a sketch of five schoolgirls equipped with hockey-sticks crowding around their school noticeboard. The caption read: ‘Owing to the international situation, the match with St. Trinian’s has been postponed.’
Interesting then, that the original drawing featured only pupils from another (unnamed) seat of learning. The second and subsequent cartoons did not appear until five years later. The reason for the delay becomes apparent when it is explained that they were produced in furtive conditions while the artist was enduring appalling hardships in the notorious Changi Japanese prisoner of war camp.
Now the characteristic violence was evident in Searle’s work, as the students set their teachers dangling from make-shift nooses and burnt down substantial portions of their beloved Alma Mater.
One hopes that the young ladies who regularly attended St. Trinnean’s school in Edinburgh (founded 1922) were con-siderably better behaved, for this was the inspiration behind the phenomenon.
The following years saw the gym-slip and black stockinged terrors popping up in hardback collections of illustrations, assorted poems, revue songs and even a roman-tic novel. By 1954, the movies beckoned. The Belles Of St. Trinian’‘5 was written and directed by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, who had enjoyed earlier cinematic success with The Happiest Days OfYour Life, the story of a girls’ school under the command of Margaret Rutherford forced into sharing facilities with a boys’ school, much to the distaste of headmaster Alastair Sim.
For the new film, the lugubrious Sim slipped on a twin-set and pearls to portray snooty headmistress Millicent Fritton, reduced to backing horses to pay off the outstanding school debts. In a tour de force performance he also played her twin brother Clarence, a disreputable bookmaker. It proved quite an achievement from a technical point of view as well, as they both appear in frame simultaneously, even interacting with each other.
Miss Fritton is touchingly protective of her young charges, explaining to three new girls the unique qualities of a St. Trinian’s education: ‘In other schools girls are sent out quite unprepared into a merciless world, but when our girls leave here it is the merciless world which has to be prepared’. When things start to get a little out of control and a firm hand is required, she can rise to the occasion. Fed up with firebugs wreaking havoc, she delivers this ultimatum to the class: ‘I can no longer afford to have continual arson about in my school’ (a clear case of ‘slipping one past the censor’).
The standard ingredients from the cartoons are all transferred to celluloid. The children smoke like chimneys, brew illicit gin in chemistry class, brandish dangerous weapons and inflict torture on their fellow students. All their nefarious activities are overseen with complete indifference by the members of staff.
But it could be argued that the common room is unlikely to boast the cream of the teaching profession when advertisements for new mistresses proudly announce ‘no previous experience necessary’. . This may explain why Miss Rose Waters (Scripture and needlework), a sinister figure in the Morticia Adams mould with a criminal record as long as her arm is on the payroll. Or why English literature is taught by Miss Gale (Irene Handl), an uneducated cockney and geography lessons given by Miss Drownder (Hermione Baddeley), an incurable dipsomaniac, seem . to be largely concentrated on wine-growing areas of France.
Another incongruous member of the establishment is Harry (George Cole), a former boot-boy engaged by the headmistress in 1940. This Arthur Daley-prototype spiv (no doubt inspired by similar creations of Sid Field and Arthur English), who sports a pencil moustache and check-suit, assumes the role of shop steward to the students. The latter refer to him affectionately as ‘Flash’.
Mere mention of St. Trinian’s (school motto, in flagrante delicto) causes the bowler-hatted men at the Ministry of Education to come over all of a quiver. With nervous systems delicately poised on a knife-edge, they seek solace in booze, pills or specially prescribed therapeutic exercises.
However, enthusiastic police superintendent Sammy Kemp-Bird is anxious to put a stop to the prevalence of criminal activity in the area. He sends his fiancée, gawky sergeant Ruby Gates (Joyce Grenfell), on an undercover assignment to investigate the goings-on at the school, assuming the post of games mistress.
The same combination of freaky teachers, rebellious children, harassed ministry men and hopelessly outnumbered officers of the law, gave Launder and Gilliat enough scope for four further St. Trinian’s features.
Blue Murder At St. Trinian‘s depicted a European invasion, as the hellcats journeyed across the Continent, leaving a trail of mayhem and destruction in their wake. Transport of an uncertain age was provided by the seedy Capt. Romney Carlton-Ricketts (Terry-Thomas at his caddish best). Sabrina (famous in the 1950s for her well-developed embonpoint) made a mute contribution as school swot, Virginia.
An unusually dishevelled Cecil Parker (playing shady Professor Marcus Canford, late of the University of Bagdad) found himself stranded on a desert island with only Ruby Gates and Flash Harry for company in the third offering, The Pure Hell Of St. Trinian‘s.
Unfortunately, by this stage the anarchy and immorality ofthe original concept had been noticeably watered down. The Searly girls of the 60s were merely a trifle high-spirited compared with their demonic predecessors.
For the next film, released in 1966, it seemed reasonable enough that the girls should become embroiled in the crime of the decade. The Great St. Trinian’s Train Robbery became the first in the series to be filmed in colour. Frankie Howerd, as a gang leader doubling as a ladies’ hairdresser (reminiscent of roles portrayed by Peter Sellers in The Wrong Arm Of The Law (1963) and Norman Wisdom in On The Beat (1962)), and good-time-gal headmistress Dora Bryan dispensed the laughs.
And so ended the classic run of St. Trinian‘s films. Fourteen years later Frank Launder directed an ill-advised final project before retiring, the unmemorable Wildcats Of St. Trinian’s. Sheila Hancock added to the gallery of teaching grotesques a most peculiar Dutch Headmistress, complete with eye-patch and chocolate addiction. George Cole wanted no part in the production, which featured two of the girls in a topless photo shoot, so his Flash Harry part went instead to Joe Melia.
For a quarter of a century the hallowed grounds of St. T’s fell silent, but late 2007 saw the girls back on the big screen, disporting twenty-first century sensibilities. Cliques of chavs, posh totty, emos and geeks had developed and new girls now suffered the embarrassment of naked exposure on YouTube. Quirky casting led to Rupert Everett taking over Alastair Sim’s dual role, and Russell Brand as Flash Harry. Despite mixed reviews, the film has proved a modest success and hopes are high for a sequel.
Hurrah For St. Trinian’s
by Ronald Searle (Macdonald & Co. 1948)
The Female Approach
by Ronald Searle (Macdonald & Co. 1949)
Back To The Slaughterhouse
by Ronald Searle (Macdonald & Co. 1951)
The Terror Of St. Trinian’s
by Timothy Shy & Ronald Searle (Max Parrish & Co. 1952)
Souls In Torment
The St. Trinian’s Story
Compiled by Kaye Webb (Perpetua 1959; Penguin 1961)
Ronald Searle’s Golden Oldies 1941-61
by Ronald Searle (Pavilion 1985)
adapted by Pippa Le Quesne from a screenplay by Piers Ashworth & Nick Moorcroft (Penguin 2007)
St. Trinian’s: The Soundtrack
with movie cast, Girls Aloud et al
(Polydor CD 1755140)
THE BELLES OF ST. TRINIAN’S
British Lion (September 1954)
Starring Alastair Sim (Millicent & Clarence Fritton), Joyce Grenfell (PW Sgt Ruby Gates), George Cole (Flash Harry), Hermione Baddeley (Miss Drownder), Betty Ann Davies (Miss Waters), Beryl Reid (Miss Wilson), Renee Houston (Miss Brimmer), Irene Handl (Miss Gale), Richard Wattis (Manton Bassett), Lloyd Lamble (Supt Kemp-Bird)
The Sultan of Makyad, owner of Arab Boy, a racehorse entered in the Gold Cup, enrols his daughter at St. Trinian’s School for Girls. The headmistress’s shady bookmaker brother. who also has a horse in the race, persuades his sister to take his street-wise daughter, Bella, for a term. When Bella sees the form of Arab Boy, she attempts to kidnap the animal. However the fourth form, who have money riding on the sultan’s horse, have stowed him away in their dormitory for safe-keeping until the big day.
BLUE MURDER AT ST. TRINIAN’S
British Lion (December 1957)
Starring Terry-Thomas (Capt Romney Carlton-Ricketts), George Cole (Flash Harry), Joyce Grenfell (PW Sgt Ruby Gates), Alastair Sim (Millicent Fritton), Sabrina (Virginia), Lionel Jeffries (Joe Mangan), Eric Barker (Culpepper Brown), Richard Wattis (Manton Bassett), Lloyd Lamble (Supt Kemp Bird)
Flash Harry, acting on behalf of St. Trinian’s marriage bureau, travels to Rome to visit Prince Bruno, who is seeking a bride. The Prince insists on seeing all the girls in person, but can’t wait till the end of term. So, back in England, the girls fix a UNESCO examination offering a continental bus trip for the school scoring the highest marks. Accompanying them on the journey is Myrna’s father, “Gelignite” Joe Mangan, who has pulled a diamond robbery, and now assumes the guise of the new headmistress. The stolen jewels are secreted into a ball intended for an Italian water polo game.
THE PURE HELL OF ST. TRINIAN’S
British Lion (December 1960)
Starring Cecil Parker (Prof. Marcus Canford), George Cole (Flash Harry), Joyce Grenfell (PW Sgt Ruby Gates), Eric Barker (Culpepper-Brown), Thorley Walters (Butters), Irene Handl (Matilda Harker-Packer), Dennis Price (Gore-Blackwood), Sidney James (Alphonse O’Reilly), Julie Alexander (Rosalie Dawn), Lloyd Lamble (Supt Kemp Bird)
Following a devastating fire, Professor Canford offers to reestablish St. Trinian’s at Hannington Manor. His appointed headmistress is mutton-dressed-as-lamb Tilly Harker-Packer. Together they stage a school Festival of Culture, featuring a performance of the soliloquy from Hamlet as striptease, and send the sixth form on an educational trip to the Greek Islands. But the chartered yacht makes its way instead to Arabia, where the young ladies are to be recruited for an emir’s harem. Happily, a rescue team is on its way — the fourth form girls, policewoman Ruby Gates and a British army mobile bath unit!
THE GREAT ST. TRINIAN’S TRAIN ROBBERY
British Lion (February 1966)
Starring Frankie Howerd (Alphonse Askett), Dora Bryan (Amber Spottiswoode), George Cole (Flash Harry Hackett), RegVarney (Gilbert), Raymond Huntley (Sir Horace), Richard Wattis (Richard Bassett), Portland Mason (Georgina), Terry Scott (Sgt), Eric Barker (Culpepper-Brown)
The new Labour Minister of Education provides funding for St. Trinian’s to relocate to Hamingwell Hall, where the loot from a £2.5 million railway haul happens to be hidden. Following an abortive attempt to reclaim the cash, gang leader Alphonse Askett enrols his daughters in the school. Acting on their information, Parents’ Day is chosen for the grab, with the crooks masquerading as caterers. A complicated train chase sees criminals, schoolgirls, staff and police in a mad scramble for the bounty.
THE WILDCATS OF ST. TRINIAN’S
Enterprise (March 1980)
Starring Sheila Hancock (Olga Vandemeer), Michael Hordern, (Sir Charles Hackforth), Rodney Bewes (Peregrine Butters), Maureen Lipman (Katy Higgs), Joe Melia (Flash Harry), Thorley Walters (Hugo Culpepper-Brown), Julia McKenzie (Dolly Dormancott), Rose Hill (Miss Martingale), Luan Peters (Miss Adams)
Princess Roxanne of Mabuta is kidnapped en route to Highdown School, and Matilda Harcourt of St. T’s is sent on in her place. When the principal of Highdown discovers the substitution, she orders the immediate expulsion of the insolent Matilda. This leads to industrial action across three schools by the newly-formed student union. Various ministry officials are sent in to break the strike, but it appears the only solution is to accede to the girls’ humiliating list of demands. So the Minister reluctantly agrees to pose in the nude for live art classes.
Ealing (Decmber 2007)
Starring Rupert Everett (Camilla & Carnaby Fritton), Colin Firth (Geoffrey Thwaites), Russell Brand (Flash Harry), Mischa Barton (J.J. French), Lena Headey (Miss Dickinson), Talulah Riley (Annabelle Fritton), Stephen Fry (himself)
The headmistress’s brother enrols his reluctant daughter Annabelle at ‘Hogwarts for Pikeys’. Initially tormented by the other girls, she is eventually accepted into the school community. When they discover that St. Trinian’s may be forced to close with financial problems, the students organise a heist to steal Vermeer’s Girl With The Pearl Earring from the gallery during a broadcast of ‘School Challenge’, in which they are competing against their rivals, Cheltenham Ladies’ College.
Videos and DVDs
The Belles Of St. Trinian’s
Warner Home Video PES 38077 / Studio Canal DVD 8211953
Blue Murder At St. Trinian’s
Warner Home Video / Studio Canal DVD 8211954A
The Pure Hell Of St. Trinian’s
Warner Home Video PES 38080
The Great St. Trinian’s Train Robbery
Warner Home Video PES 38079 / Studio Canal DVD 8211991A
The Belles Of St. Trinian’s/Blue Murder At St. Trinian’s
Warner Home Video S038333 / Studio Canal DVD
The Pure Hell Of St. Trinian’s/The Great St. Trinian’s Train Robbery
Warner Home Video S038334 / Studio Canal DVD 8230477
Ealing DVD EDV 9557