The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954 Review

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These schoolgirls are more interested in racing forms than books as they try to get-rich-quick. They are abetted by the head-mistress' brother, played by Alastair Sim, who also plays the head-mistress.


A bastion of school holiday morning TV viewings (and sickies),theSt. Trinian's saga (a sequence of four movies: Belles, Blue Murder, Pure Hell, Train Robbery, plus a latter-day disaster Wildcats in 1980) holds a special place in the pantheon of British comedy. Be it the hockey -sticked anarchy, the suspender-belted allure of the "older" girls, the motherly exasperation of Alastair Sim in a wig or the genial bumbling of the outside authorities, they are whimsical and darkly funny movies encased in a warm, fuzzy England that probably never existed.

Artist Ronald 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 right through to 1953. This wasn't the innocent public school j apery of broken windows and dodging prep as depicted in Just William or the Jennings series. This amoral, pre-pubescent rabble were the punkettes of their day; smoking, gambling, fighting and running riot over their slipshod educational establishment like prototype Mafiosa in ill-fitting gymslips.

The duo of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat (director and producer and co-writers), hot off the relatively tame school comedy The Happiest Days Of Your Life (1950), honed in on the delicious possibilities for mayhem and satire to first make Belles. In so-doing, they provided a template for the paradoxically quaint but subversive style of British comedy that worked its way into the Doctor and Carry On franchises.

St. Trinian's School For Girls, a less than august public school in countrified England, seems to be made up of only two discernible years (although others are mentioned in passing they never appear). We get the sexually predatory, self-serving sixth form (assayed by girls 25 if a day) and the disreputable force of nature that is the fourth form (characterised by a signature banshee wailing every time they move en masse). While the girls are portrayed more as a huddle than individuals — we only get to properly meet sixth form boss Bella (Vivienne Martin), fourth form leader Jackie (Diana Day) and resident school snitch Florrie (Jill Braidwood) — it is the teaching staff and extras who are the central comedy figures.

Immediately, it's Alastair Sim's show. He is the wonderfully stoic epicentre of the movie as headmistress Miss Fritton — a sterling mix of benign, if misplaced pride ("We're one big happy family."), dubious fiscal habits and creative cunning. Although ostensibly a man-in-drag, the role is written straight; the humour isn't about the wig or false chest but the richly invented character and the slippery charm Sim applies to her. It is implicit that it's a bloke in a skirt but somehow irrelevant. Miss Fritton's preternatural ability to sidestep and overlook the various mantraps and madnesses that ricochet around her is one of the film's central comedic hooks. Sim also plays her twin brother, the crooked Clarence. 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.

Unforgettable too is George Cole as cockney spiv Flash Harry, a silver-tongued, pencil-'tached rogue who seems to dwell in the bushes in the school grounds, abetting the girls in various nefarious pursuits (bootleg gin, racing bets). Characterised by the shiftiest walk in film history, Cole made an entire career out of this under-the-law persona (Flash grew up to be Arthur Daley).

The teaching staff are a dissolute bunch of wrecks, alcoholics, ex-cons, ingenues and insinuated — but not openly declared (this was 1954) — lesbians, played by a cadre of (underused) great British funny-ladies. Into the mix that includes Irene Handl, Beryl Reid, and Joan Sims strides Joyce Grenfell as the bumbling undercover police officer Ruby Gates whose precision-timed horsy exuberance and pratfalling is about the only genuine innocence on show.

Events — and the plot is tidily lean — crescendo into ribald farce as the fourth formers kidnap Arab Boy to stop the sixth formers (in league with Clarence) knobbling him. Meanwhile Miss Fritton goes into business with Harry, betting the school funds on the outcome of the race, before war breaks out when the fourth form (plus Arab Boy) are besieged in their dorm by Clarence's bower boys and the errant sixth. The day is saved by the timely arrival of the Old Girls (a formidable mass viewed from their ankles down). Launder delivers the knockabout thrills with real vigour, cutting back to Miss Fritton's long-suffering eyes, Harry's padded-shoulder shrug and Ruby's lanky ineptitude. The school is, of course, saved from disaster and the natural disorder of things resumes.

What endures and still beguiles about 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 in a hail of flour bombs and lacrosse sticks. It's kind of radical when you think about it.

A British institution.