This is the original quartet of films we’re talking about here, not the woeful remakes in which Rupert Everett reprise the roles (especially Miss Millicent Fritton, later referred to as Amelia for no obvious reason) for which Alastair Sim was justifiably renowned in The Belles of St Trinians (1954.) Sadly Sim was barely seen in the sequels (1957, 60 and 66), but the anarchic spirit of St Trinians lived on, courtesy of George Cole, Joyce Grenfall, Richard Wattis and a host of other well known British comic actors. Oh, and the girls, very definitely the girls. Imagine the early Carry On franchise in gym slips and you’re not far from reality.
The films were based on Ronald Searle‘s glorious cartoon strips about the residents of an infamous school for girls, the antithesis of the Enid Blyton jolly hockey sticks image of girls’ boarding schools in the 50s, though 50s morality remains firmly at the helm – even if everyone is terrified of the evil little girls. Everyone, that is, except the head who sees their games as natural exuberance and high spirits, and the spiv Flash Harry who schemes with them for a piece of the action. The cast of characters include the mandarins of Whitehall (and the working class lift man), the sadly bungling and ineffectual police, army and assorted other officialdom, criminals and shady sorts, wealthy foreign princes and potentates, among other vaguely loveable eccentrics.
Truth be told, this is sweet and innocent stuff by the standards of modern movie-making, U-certificate all the way, though with more violence, fraud, larceny, blackmail, bribery, arson and all-purpose wickedness than you can shake the proverbial stick at, but all in the best possible taste and with very many posh accents to show the characters are still respectably and frightfully English, no matter how abominably they behave.
The plot lines are straightforward and accompanied by tunes worthy of music hall to emphasise the innocent denuded translation of naughty nudge-nudge wink-wink seaside postcard humour that runs like a coal seam through the scripts. Even the odd striptease is tame – though doing so to the bard’s greatest soliloquy adds a charming touch. In a parallel universe these could have been truly wicked schoolgirl movies, appealing to paedophiles everywhere, but Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat keep the moral compass very much the right side of acceptable for fear of offending the very many “shocked of Tunbridge Wells” who loved nothing better than to wield their pens in letters of complaint.
Of the four, the first (The Belles) is by far the truest to its raw material, but then it is also setting the scene – along with betting of the school funds and the theft of a racehorse; the second includes studio recreations of scenes set in Rome and stolen diamonds; the third, Pure Hell, perhaps the weakest of the quartet, begins with the girls in the dock for burning down the school – and later a cruise, desert island and escape from the Arabic lands; and the final chapter pertains to the proceeds of a bank robbery, and is the only film in colour and with Frankie Howerd and Dora Bryan starring respectively as criminal gang leader and new headmistress of the school, both in roles barely distinguishable from their normal screen personas – money for old rope is the correct expression, I believe.
The humour begins at slapstick and by the end veers towards farce and a glorified chase scene on rails in The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery. On balance the joke fades towards the end of the series as the ideas begin to run out, but there are little gems in all – such as the men from the ministry doing their stress-relieving dance in the Blue Murder instalment. Maybe they are dated, but then this is recognised by the inclusion in the final episode of a Labour Education secretary whose role is to wipe from the face of the map all public schools – with the exception of St Trinians, since he is one of several gentlemen consorting with the Headmistress. He is apparently the only person in the country who would not choose to banish St T’s to eternal torment.
All of which is almost incidental since this series definitely falls into the category of much loved and cherished British comic movies, the sort that perhaps live best in the memory with a touch of rosy-tinted hindsight but retain nonetheless sufficient spark and freshness to warrant a repeat viewing, perhaps some years later.