"Not very inspired," said Miss Hibbert, after
the first few pages had been read. "Turn to the part where Juliet
comes on. Zerelda, are you ready?"
Was she ready? Why, she was waiting on tenterhooks to begin! She was full of it! She was Juliet to the life, poor, tragic Juliet.
Zerelda launched herself into the part. She declaimed her lines in a most dramatic manner, she flung herself about, she marched up and down, she threw her head back, imagining herself to be beautiful and most lovable.
"Stop, Zerelda," said Miss Hibbert, amazed. But Zerelda did not stop. Heedless of the giggles of the class she ranted on.
(Enid Blyton, Third Year at Malory Towers, Methuen, 1948, p127)
With a thriving British film industry in existence by
the 1950s, and with the huge success of the St Trinian's cartoons, it was
inevitable that Searle's creations would be further fleshed out on celluloid.
The first St Trinian's film, The Belles of St Trinian's (1954),
was duly made by London Films at Shepperton Studios. It was directed by
Frank Launder, who also produced it with Sidney Gilliat and scripted it
with Val Valentine. With the exception of Valentine, this was the same
combination which in 1951 had made The Happiest Days of Your Life,
an immensely successful comedy based on the play by John Dighton about
what ensued when St Swithun's, a girls' school, was mistakenly billeted
on Nutbourne College, a boys' school, during the Second World War.
Like The Happiest Days of Your Life, The Belles
of St Trinian's included among its stars Alastair Sim, who played both
the St Trinian's headmistress Millicent Fritton and her bookmaker brother
Clarence (Sim having played the headmaster of Nutbourne College in the
previous film) and Joyce Grenfell as Policewoman Sergeant Ruby Gates (Grenfell
having previously played a St Swithun's teacher). Grenfell, whose character
is that of the overgrown schoolgirl who never grows up, was also to star
in the following two films, as was George Cole as Flash Harry, the grown-up
boot-boy engaged before the war who remained with the school as its only
(avowedly) male character. The film's opening and closing music was composed
by Matthew Arnold and directed by Muir Mathieson, and as with the The
Happiest Days of Your Life and the rest of the St Trinian's films,
background and title graphics were provided by Searle.
Launder created two groups of schoolgirls: the Fourth
Form, who most closely resemble Searle's schoolgirls, and who parody the
fact that many girls' school stories are set in the Fourth Form; and the
Sixth Form, sexually mature young women whose uniforms exaggerate their
sexuality. This marks one of the key differences between Searle's cartoons
and the films: the closest Searle's girls get to sex are a few Cupid-inspired
jokes which have as much to do with the comic possibilities of the arrows
as anything else;
and all are shown as being relatively childish. In the films, however,
the Sixth Formers are sexually aware young women.
The Belles of St Trinian's opens with a scene set
in the home of an Arab Sultan, assisted by two Englishwomen who act as
governess and secretary. Owing to the building of a US air base nearby,
Prince Makyad (played by Eric Pohlemann) has decided to send his daughter,
Princess Fatima (played by Lorna Henderson), to school in England. St Trinian's
is recommended by his governess, and he agrees as it is in the same county
where his racehorses are trained, allowing him to visit both them and his
daughter at the same time. The racist humour which was to characterise
the films is introduced here: the joke is made that the Sultan does not
know who his daughter's mother is, since he has so many wives. The scene
does echo the genre of girls' school stories to the extent that a foreign
princess is often seen in the character of the New Girl, but here, rather
than being a romantic heroine, Fatima is only of interest for her wealth.
The following scene resembles Searle's cartoons and the
genre more closely, since it shows the mayhem caused by the St Trinian's
school train journey. Searle produced a number of cartoons which show the
girls travelling to school,
arriving and unpacking;
the journey to school is also commonly depicted at the beginning of girls'
school stories. As the St Trinian's train arrives, station personel run
away, shops and banks are locked up, and the police are frightened and
take refuge in drinking alcohol. As with the cartoons, the St Trinian's
girls' activities are well-known throughout the community.
Arriving at the school by car, Alastair Sim as the headmistress's brother, Clarence Fritton, brings back his daughter Arabella (played by Vivienne Martin), who was expelled the previous term for burning down the uninsured school sports pavilion. Arson is a common theme in Searle's cartoons, which perhaps parodies the fact that incidents of fire are frequent in the genre of girls' school stories (only Elinor M. Brent-Dyer created an arsonist, though: Emerence Hope, in Shocks for the Chalet School, 1952). But while the genre's heroines rescue others from fires, Searle's girls start the fires in the first place. Clarence wants Arabella to return to school in order to get racing tips from the Princess Fatima, but Millicent, also played by Sim, refuses to accept her until Clarence threatens to tell "Mummy" - a formidable Victorian portrait is shown - that Millicent has mortgaged the family home (we presume to subsidise the school). Millicent explains to Clarence why the school is in so much trouble:
When poor Frieda [we are left to wonder what has happened to Frieda] and I started this school during the General Strike of 1926, we vowed to make it the happiest, most carefree establishment in the whole of Britain. And what a gay arcadia of girlhood it was, until the war broke out and such things as good manners and good taste were replaced by your blackmarket values.
It is significant that the war is mentioned as the point
where a sea-change took place in the school, given that this marks the
point when cultural opposition to real girls' schools became more overt.
Millicent also comments that Arabella is over school age; but Arabella
replies that so are many of the Sixth Form, including one, "Pogo"
Williams (note the sexual reference and thus the double joke), who is married.
St Trinian's girls do not refuse to grow up, only to leave school.
The girls are then shown arriving back at the school; all are pleased to be back, and their love of the school, as with the genre of school stories, is a constant in the films. There is a parody within a parody here, when a teacher is seen posing dramatically outside the gothic-looking school à la Morticia Adams from Charles Butler's cartoons: "If only I had the courage to give myself up". Life at St Trinian's is worse than in prison. Inside, Miss Butler brings in a group of new girls, including Princess Fatima - as with normal schools and school stories, they are neat, tidy and well-behaved - to be welcomed by Millicent. (The welcome from the headmistress is another common scene in the genre of girls' school stories.)
You'll find us all one big happy family here. Perhaps a teeny-weeny bit unorthodox but there, that's better than being old-fashioned, isn't it? You see, 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. That is why we set great store here on physical fitness - lots of games, lots of exercise, a certain amount of food and, above all [shivers], lots and lots of fresh air.
Here Launder mocks not only the progressive education
movement, which St Trinian's continued to parody in succeeding films, but
also the preoccupation of girls' boarding schools - and the genre of girls'
school stories - with sport and a healthy lifestyle.
He also highlights the financial difficulties faced by many private boarding
schools following the Second World War (which eventually led most to close),
meaning that essentials such as food and fuel were often in short supply.
The girls leave the study, and Miss Holland enters to tell Millicent that
there is not an ounce of food in the school. It becomes apparent that the
school is in serious debt and the school's cups have been pawned, but Millicent
is undaunted: "Sometimes I think it's just the frustrated mother instinct
in me which urges me on." Here Launder reflects the widespread tendency
to regard women teachers as frustrated spinsters, deprived not only of
sex but of motherhood.
Millicent leaves for the staffroom, neatly dodging a booby
trap set over her door to the disappointment of the watching Fourth Form
girls. The difference between Millicent and Miss Butler are illustrated
by the fact that Miss Butler, following behind, is caught in the trap:
Millicent is more than capable of surviving in the world of the school;
Miss Butler is not, but has no other choice as an unmarried woman. In the
staffroom, the other teachers are shown to be drinking, smoking and practising
golf. (Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's Chalet School staff, of course, are frequently
pictured smoking.) Millicent informs the staff that the Ministry of Education
is threatening to shut them down. From this portrayal, of course, there
is no reason to wonder why: the previous scenes have already illustrated
that the school is anachronistic and badly run; with the suggestion being
that women are unfit to run their own schools, as well as a more general
criticism of the private school system compared to the state-controlled.
It becomes apparent that the staff have not been paid
for some time, and when Millicent discloses that Princess Fatima has been
given £100 pocket money by her father, a chase ensues to get to it
first. However, the staff discover that Millicent already has the cash
and Fatima has only the receipt; this again illustrates Millicent's survival
skills. Later Millicent and Miss Butler smile benignly as riots erupt in
the dormitories while they patrol the school corridors: "Term has
begun." Like Searle's headmistresses, they are unflappable,
and the scene also parodies the first nights in girls' schools and school
stories, when the rules are relaxed to allow girls to "visit"
in other dormitories and so on.
The next scene is set at the Ministry of Education. Mr
Bassett (played by Richard Wattis), a senior official, reveals that the
local police are concerned about a crimewave in the area around St Trinian's;
as no crime takes place during the school holidays, the blame has been
laid on the girls. Meanwhile both of the education inspectors sent previously
to the school have disappeared, although they have continued to draw their
salary. The police wish to place an officer in disguise on the staff; a
newspaper advertisement shows that there are permanent vacancies. At the
local police station Ruby Gates (played by Joyce Grenfell), is reluctantly
persuaded - "It's a terrible place" - by her police officer
boyfriend Sammy (played by Lloyd Lamble) to be disguised as games teacher
Chloe Crawley; she immediately recognises that she will be called "Creepy
Crawly" by the girls. These scenes introduced the two institutions
which the following films were to continue to parody, the Ministry of Education
and the police, as well as the characters of Bassett, Sammy and Ruby. The
Ministry had already been a target for satire in the novel The Terror
of St Trinian's (Searle, Ronald and "Shy, Timothy" [D.B.Wyndham
Lewis], Max Parrish, London, 1952), where Inspector Rover ends by marrying
Arriving at the school, Ruby is
escorted around by Millicent, who leaps over another booby-trap in the
process to the further disappointment of the Fourth Form. Ruby spots Harry
(George Cole) through the window, but Millicent does not know who he is,
although she thinks that he might be the boot-boy she employed in 1940.
This stresses that, unlike the girls, Millicent has little to do with the
world of men. She takes Ruby into the chemistry lab, telling a pupil: "You
will be careful with that nitroglycerine, won't you? - I told you, they're
frightfully advanced". Girls are also shown making St Trinian's Gin;
this is lowered out of the window by the girls and labelled and packaged
by Harry. The girls themselves are more than knowledgeable about and capable
of surviving in the outside world. As Millicent and Ruby leave an explosion
follows them out: "Poor little Bernie, I warned her about the nitroglycerine."
(A number of school stories, including Brent-Dyer's, feature explosions
in the chemistry laboratory.) Next is a French lesson, where the girls
are being taught about Champagne. The scene's function is summed up by
Millicent's "Well Miss Crawley, I think that gives you a fair picture
of the school."
The plot continues as Clarence phones Arabella and asks
her to get details of the racing form of the Sultan's horse, Arab Boy.
She is overheard by a Fourth Form girl who hints about her knowledge to
the rest of the class; they force her to tell them by twisting her arm.
Although Searle's cartoons feature girls being extremely cruel to each
it was evidently decided that this was unacceptable in the film comedies,
and the "torture" depicted throughout the series was only that
which would occur in real life. In order to find out about the racing form
of Arab Boy, the Sixth Form girls, dressed in tightly fitting riding clothes,
watch a racing trial legitimately and chat up the jockey, while the Fourth
Form, dressed in oversized Girl Guide uniforms, watch the trial during
a nature ramble and calculate the weight being carried by the horse themselves.
The Fourth Form, of which Fatima is a member, then decides to back Arab
Boy in the forthcoming Cheltenham Gold Cup, and they whistle for Harry
to come and take their bets.
The following scene is where George Cole as Flash Harry
is properly introduced. He talks broad Cockney dialect - some of it undoubtedly
made up by Launder - and his appearances are always accompanied by a tune.
The girls then ask Millicent for Fatima's money; she refuses but discovers
why they want it. She then summons Harry herself with a whistle (she is
enchanted to discover that she can whistle) and asks how to go about
placing a bet, as a win would save the school. This scene stresses again
Millicent's lack of familiarity with the world outside of the school; the
only Fourth Form girl who is not familiar with the betting process is the
one who lets the plan slip to Millicent. It reflects as well as parodying
contemporary criticism of real girls' schools: that they did not prepare
girls for "real life" because the staff were unfamiliar with
the world of men, preferring to retreat into their own world of the school.
Meanwhile Arabella contacts Clarence and suggests "nobbling"
Arab Boy to allow his own favoured horse to win.
The following scene shows Ruby preparing for her first
lacrosse match. (Although girls' school stories have a "jolly hockey
sticks" image, in fact lacrosse was the game most often played by
girls' schools and it is commonly represented in the genre.) Ruby finds
that one goal is two feet narrower than the other and the Sixth Form girls
use a double-headed coin to ensure that they always win the toss; this
underlines the fact that the St Trinian's girls do not, unlike the
popular image of the schoolgirl and the schoolgirls represented in girls'
school stories, "play the game", and reflects the parodic view
that in reality girls are not to be trusted. When the girls disappear,
Ruby discovers them with the French mistress in the summer house, entertaining
the two former education inspectors who are now the school's gardener and
fencing master. She reports this to Millicent, but Millicent already knows
about it and sends her back to prepare for the match. It is interesting
to note that Millicent has defused the previous threats by the Ministry
by subsuming these men into her own staff, but Harry, who began as a member
of staff, has in turn become independent of her.
Harry reveals to Millicent that Ruby is a police officer;
and Arabella and her father agree to kidnap Arab Boy, once more overheard
by the Fourth Form girl. The lacrosse match ends in carnage: a Fourth Form
girl takes bets on the result; the Guides stretcher off the bodies of the
opposing team, including Ruby and the games mistress from the other school
who have been hit on the head with a croquet mallet; and the cup, won by
St Trinian's in the first half as predicted, ends up joining the others
at the pawnbrokers. Here Launder parodies a set scene from the girls' school
story as well as echoing Searle's cartoons, but his Sixth Form girls play
the match in gym knickers, emphasising their sexuality. (The idea may have
been taken from real life, since some schools continue to make girls wear
knickers for sport today.)
The Fourth Form find out about Arabella's plan, again
"torturing" their friend in order to do this. They have already
managed to amass enough money to place their bet, and are concerned to
protect their investment. The Sixth Form duly kidnap Arab Boy with the
cooperation of its jockey, knocking the jockey out with a croquet mallet
in the process, but when Clarence's men go to collect the horse, it has
disappeared. Sammy orders Ruby to look into the theft: "If I pull
it off, could it be wedding bells?" "If you don't, it'll be curtains!"
Meanwhile, one of the former inspectors and the French mistress return
to the summer house after a date to discover Arab Boy inside with members
of the Fourth Form. Harry enters and warns the girls that Arabella is coming
and so they should move the horse; he bribes the ex-inspector to keep silent
about the horse's presence.
Millicent has discovered from the bookmaker, "Mr Alf", that her bet is not refundable if Arab Boy does not race - the fact that this comes as a surprise to her stresses again her lack of knowledge of the outside world - and has been advised to look for the horse herself. Ruby asks her about the Sixth Form girls who were seen riding at the time the horse was kidnapped, suggesting that they might like to help the police find him. This scene also parodies Ruby's overgrown schoolgirl character.
"We're all Girl Guides, aren't we?"
"Are we? Some of us may have aspired beyond that happy state, Miss Crawley."
Millicent, who is far from being simply an overgrown schoolgirl,
is alerted to the truth by this exchange, and she discovers Arab Boy in
the Fourth Form dormitory, along with Harry. The girls tell Millicent what
has happened, and she suggests that they ride the horse back to its stable
at dawn to avoid the school being implicated: "St Trinian's expects,
that every Fourth Form girl, will tomorrow do her duty." But the Sixth
Form see Arab Boy's head looking out of the dormitory the next morning
and barricade the Fourth Form in. Millicent calls the staff together and
tells them that they will not be paid unless Arab Boy is rescued. The men
lead the advance but all are repelled by the Sixth Form; this illustrates
the girls' violence and their physical superiority over men. Millicent
then asks Ruby to question the girls; Ruby is knocked out by them within
thirty seconds, as predicted by Millicent.
It is Parents' Day - a set scene at the end of many girls'
school stories - and Clarence arrives with his men dressed as parents.
Harry alerts Millicent that her brother and "his hoppos" are
there. Ruby comes round and overhears Clarence and Millicent talking; Millicent
will not forgive him for letting this happen on Parents' Day. Mr Bassett
from the Ministry arrives and Harry directs him to the Brownies' camp fire,
along with the parents. The staff hold a crisis meeting and receive a message
from the Fourth Form asking them to create a diversion. At this point the
Old Girls arrive (in real life many women were encouraged to keep in touch
with their schools, and in Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's Chalet School series
former pupils continue to be important). We do not see their faces, but
know that they are a very diverse group of women by seeing their differently
dressed legs trampling Harry underfoot; the facade of any woman can conceal
a St Trinian's girl. While the Old Girls advance on the Sixth Form and
Clarence's men, the Fourth Form lower Arab Boy out of the dormitory window
and swap him with the milkman's horse before driving him away. Ruby escapes
and rides off on the milkman's horse, thinking that it is Arab Boy.
In the penultimate scene, the race is shown on television
in the summer house; Mr Bassett the inspector is there too, having fun
and tempted to join the other officials at the school. Arab Boy wins, and
the Fourth Form are delighted, as is Millicent. Harry bursts into Millicent's
study, where parents are threatening to take their daughters away, with
the news. Millicent is delighted: "In that case, ladies and gentlemen,
courtesy forbids me to tell you exactly where you can send your daughters."
Finally, Millicent gets the cups back from the pawnbrokers in order that
the Sultan can present them to the winners, but during the presentation
the lights go out and the cup for good conduct is stolen. (There are a
number of scenes in girls' school stories where the lights are switched
off at the mains for a prank.) Millicent has the lights switched off again
in order that the culprit can return the cup anonymously; when the lights
come back on all of the cups have disappeared. The Fourth Form's booby-trap
finally succeeds, and the table on which the bases are left collapses.
The film ends with Millicent looking resigned.
As can be seen from the detailed discussion above, The
Belles of St Trinian's does reflect Searle's cartoons closely as well
as parodying many of the plot elements of girls' school stories. As a film,
though, its greatest strength lies in the character performances of Alastair
Sim, Joyce Grenfell and George Cole, particularly since the characterisation
in the Searle cartoons is very slight and Launder had to create the adult
characters almost from scratch. Janet Montefiore, who has studied the camp
elements of girls' school stories and their parodies, notes that "Literary
camping-up of school stories rarely results in full-length narratives;
it is usually found in glancing moments of parody and illusion, most notably
in the reviews and skits of the humorous writer Arthur Marshall".
In creating a full-length narrative, Launder had in any case to extend
the joke considerably. It should be noted here that the girls remain relatively
characterless, the focus is in the films is on the adults.
By the following film, Blue Murder at St Trinian's
(1958), there were few links left between Searle's cartoons, the genre
and the film's content. The Ministry of Education plays a much more prominent
role in this and subsequent films than in The Belles of St Trinian's,
with Launder turning away from girls' schools and setting his sights on
post-war officialdom in the shape of the police, the army, the prison service
and Whitehall. The film was made by the same team as before, but Sim made
only a brief appearance. (His character, now called Amelia rather than
Millicent Fritton, is imprisoned for an unspecified offence at the beginning
of the film and only returns triumphantly to the school at the end.)
As the film opens, the staff have all resigned, removing
most of the female characters, and the army has been called in to keep
order, adding more male characters. Harry is running a marriage bureau
with the cooperation of the Sixth Form and is in Rome to discuss possible
wives for a Prince Bruno; the Prince asks him if he can bring a group of
the girls to Rome before the end of term. The remainder of the action takes
place away from the school, and the Fourth Form's role is reduced to a
minimum in favour of a still-more-sexualised Sixth Form.
Blue Murder at St Trinian's also features some strong character performances by Joyce Grenfell and George Cole, joined by Terry Thomas as Captain Romney Ricketts, who drives the school coach, and Lionel Jeffries as Joseph Mangan, the wanted criminal who disguises himself as the St Trinian's headmistress, Maud Hackshaw. The film's other strength lies in its introduction of the St Trinian's School Song, written by Sidney Gilliat to the theme music by Malcolm Arnold which had been used in The Belles of St Trinian's. (The school song was a common feature of both girls' schools and girls' school stories, and was intended to stir the "school spirit"). At the end of the film, the words are reproduced for the audience to sing along with in the manner of a pantomime, with a ball marking each word as it is sung. The song shows that the girls will stop at nothing to get their own way, continuing to reflect cultural fears about the implications of girls and women's independence.
Maidens of St Trinian,s
Gird your armour on.
Grab the nearest weapon
Never mind which one!
The battle's to the strongest
Might is always right,
Trample on the weakest
Glory in their plight!
St Trinian's! St Trinian's!
Our battle cry.
St Trinian's! St Trinian's!
Will never die!
Stride towards your fortune
Boldly on your way.
Never once forgetting
There's one born every day.
Let our motto be broadcast
"Get your blow in first,"
She who draws the sword last
Always comes off worst.
(Shout) St Trinian's! St Trinian's! etc
The third film, The Pure Hell of St Trinian's (1960),
was again made by the same team, with the addition of Leslie Gilliat as
associate producer, and also features the St Trinian's School Song in the
title credits. The action takes place largely outside the school setting,
while the female characters are marginalised in favour of male characters
and the girls are represented largely by the ever-more-sexualised Sixth
Form. Racist humour is central to the plot: the Sixth Form are kidnapped
by an Arab Emir for the "white slave trade". But although the
girls play minor roles in the film itself and do not appear in the final
scenes at all, they are still shown to have triumphed, and bring the Ministry
and the army as well as the Emir to their knees. To this extent at least
the film is faithful to Searle's creations.
The fourth film, The Great St Trinian's Train Robbery
(1966), was the first St Trinian's film to be made in colour. It was made
by many of the same team as before, with Leslie Gilliat writing the story
with Launder and Sidney Gilliat as well as producing, and Ivor Herbert
collaborating with Launder on the screenplay. The film also featured the
return of Richard Wattis as the ministry official Bassett, but although
much of the humour is once more at the expense of the police, the characters
of Sammy and Ruby are now absent. Unlike the previous two films, though,
the action returns to the school itself, and the plot again features Parents'
Day. There are also far more female characters in the shape of the mistresses,
but unlike the staff in Searle's cartoons and the preceding films, the
majority of them are heavily sexualised. (Previously this had only been
true of the French mistress in The Belles of St Trinian's, the stereotyped
"mamselle" of girls' school stories.)
The film opens with the robbery taking place and the proceeds
being hidden under the floor in an old manor house, where, unknown to the
criminals, the school is about to relocate. The opening song - also composed
by Malcolm Arnold - and credits also tell the story of the train robbery,
which is depicted by Searle's cartoons. Racist "humour" is introduced
early in the villagers' reaction to St Trinian's moving in; a departing
Black family is seen to number more than a dozen people. Later a railway
signalman's poor command of English is the target of the humour, and at
the end of the film the chief train robber, Alf, escapes by stealing a
spare uniform, blacking his face with coal and accompanying the signalman,
who is too stupid to realise Alf's true identity. It is interesting to
note that, while the genre has been criticised for its "political
undesirability", it was quite acceptable for racism to play a prominent
role in the film comedies.
Great St Trinian's Train Robbery appeared to be
the last of the St Trinian's films, but in 1980 The Wildcats of St Trinian's
was released. This was again written and directed by Frank Launder, but
George Cole - now a highly successful television actor - was replaced as
Harry (renamed Hawkins, running a Chinese takeaway from the school lodge)
by Joe Melia. The film is once again set in the school, and female characters
are prominent. Racist humour is also present, with the introduction of
another rich foreign princess, Roxanne. Roxanne is the daughter of Prince
Narouz of Merbuta, a fictional oil state, and at the end of the film is
accompanied by a bus-full of her sisters (as with The Belles of St Trinian's,
the "joke" is that the Prince has many wives and children). Parodying
the union strife of the late 1970s which culminated in the "Winter
of Discontent" (a wildcat strike is one which is sudden and unofficial),
the girls decide to form a schoolgirls' union. Harry points out that they
need a "closed shop" to succeed, and should therefore involve
all of the other girls' schools in the country. Needless to say the girls
succeed brilliantly, and eventually the Ministry concedes to all of their
At the time of writing (1997) there have been no more
St Trinian's films, but in 1992 Ronald Searle wrote in the foreword to
the cartoon collection The Curse of St Trinian's (Pavilion, London)
that he had just signed another St Trinian's film contract. It seems possible,
then, that the St Trinian's saga will continue until at least the end of
Isabel Quigly's claim that: "With St Trinian's the girls' school story took off into pure farce and has never come down again" is true in that St Trinian's became the over-riding popular image of girls' boarding-schools and girls' school stories during the post-war period. (In carrying out the research for Virtual Worlds of Girls, I was often greeted with "Oh, you mean St Trinian's!" when I described my work.) While the critics used literary criteria to denounce the genre as being "bad" (see 7. The Critics of Girls' School Stories, 1949-1995 for details), St Trinian's used satire to denounce, not only the genre, but what it represented as being ridiculous and unworthy of respect. There was a huge difference between the pre-war schoolgirl image of "the curly-haired Captain of Games who looked clean through you with those straight, fearless grey eyes before which a fib shrivelled and died of shame" and the post-war image of the schoolgirl:
whose uniform never fitted, whose hat looked permanently on loan, whose mother worried silently and sighed audibly, whose report commented on Absence of Team Spirit, whose arrival was marked by a volley of sharp reports as elastic burst in all directions, whose appearance suggested an abandoned Christmas parcel on which the temporary staff at Mount Pleasant had worked off their grief and frustrations.
And whereas the critics' influence was felt most directly
by the librarians and teachers who attempted to control children's reading,
the influence of St Trinian's was felt by the population at large; schoolgirls
and their parents could not fail to be aware of it.
It is worth stressing here that there have been no similar parodies of boys' schools and school stories. For Montefiore:
This suggests to me that the pleasure of these texts, both for the girls who read them "straight" and the adults who laugh at them, is tied up with their representations of feminine identity. But for neither audience is this identity a straightforwardly "given" fact: the characters in the all-female world of the story can actually be construed - and in a camp reading are so construed - as shifting the terms of gender in ways that bring into question the notion of gender identity as fixed and stable. (Alastair Sim's drag performance as the headmistress in The Belles of St Trinian's  is an obvious example of camp humour unfixing gender categories) . . . camp humour brings out the uncertainty and ambivalence of sexual identity by emphasising the taboo subjects of sexuality and violence which the girls' school story at once denies and indulges.
It should be noted here that, in my reading of the film,
Sim's performance is being used to satirise the single women who ran girls'
schools as being "unfeminine"; the qualities which were required
of them were regarded as being male. And while camp is a queer strategy,
the St Trinian's film comedies represent a heterosexist parody which results
from fear of lesbian sexuality. Rather, the boys' stories were not parodied
because they were taken seriously by the critics: they represented
what Auchmuty describes as "compulsory heterosexuality"
rather than threatening it.
Montefiore has concluded that:
It is obviously not enough, then, to praise camp readings of school stories for the mocking deconstruction of sexual stereotypes, or even to note their potential for satire on imperialist identities, without asking whether and how women actually benefit from such mockery. There clearly can't be a single, prescriptive answer to this question; it must depend in particular instances on whether the feminine identities are being problematised to make repressive language and reactionary institutions look silly, or whether, as in Private Eye's notoriously misogynist humour, the joke is on the female victim.
So who is the joke on in St Trinian's? In terms of the
representations of feminine identity in the films, there are five stereotypes:
the Fourth Former; the Sixth Former; the Overgrown Schoolgirl; the Schoolmistress;
and the Headmistress. The Fourth Former, like Searle's girls, is indeed
more than capable of looking after herself: "it is the merciless world
which has to be prepared". Fourth Formers are better incarcerated
in institutions; they are too great a threat to men outside. Following
adolescence, though, the majority of Fourth Formers turn into "real
women" and Sixth Formers, potential wives and mothers. This is underlined
by the fact that Harry opens a St Trinian's marriage bureau. Sixth Formers
still get their own way, but wherever possible by using their sexuality;
women who use their sexuality are also not to be trusted.
If she does not become a typical Sixth Former, the Fourth
Former will never grow up, but turn into the overgrown schoolgirl typified
by Ruby. She may desperately want to become a wife and mother - Ruby's
lengthy engagement to the less-than-enthusiastic Sammy is a long-running
joke in the films - but she is unfit and it is denied her, she is totally
ridiculous. Overgrown schoolgirls, like all those women who have grown
up but who are unable nonetheless to get married, have little choice but
to become Schoolmistresses, and to remain in the company of Fourth Formers
for the rest of their lives. Rather than becoming lesbians - this was obviously
not thought to be a fit subject for a "family" film - Schoolmistresses
are either sexless, if they are obviously destined never to marry, or sexual,
in which case they will leave their job as soon as they find a husband.
Headmistresses, meanwhile, become "mannish", because they are
fulfiling a role which is believed to be the sole province of men.
There are, of course, a number of ways to read St Trinian's.
As Hugh-Jones has pointed out, despite the ridicule to which they were
exposed, for many 1940s schoolgirls: "Searle came as a prophet of
liberty and new self-respect",
particularly at a time when the effects of war and rationing meant that
many uniforms were indeed ill-fitting, shabby, second-hand and often home-made
from black-out material. Searle's girls were strong young women, united
around their school - which, as in the school stories, was the focus of
their lives - against the rest of the world. The image may have changed
radically from that of the curly-haired Captain of Games, with her straight,
fearless grey eyes, but it was a strong one, better suited to coping with
post-war life; the joke for the girls was on the old pre-war myth.
However, by the 1950s and 1960s, when the film comedies
were made, St Trinian's was used to mock post-war institutions such as
the civil service, the police and the army alongside girls' schools and
school stories. Rather than being the main focus of the satire, the female
characters and their school were increasingly marginalised in favour of
male characters, becoming ever more sexualised and passive in the process.
The intended audience for the humour was both adult and male. Perhaps unsurprisingly,
the humour was also reactionary in its political perspective. The films
reworked the St Trinian's myth and thus its place in popular culture, and
it is this reworked image which persists as the image of St Trinian's today.
When St Trinian's went on the films - as so many schoolgirls of the day
desired to do - the joke was as much on Searle as it was on them.
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