Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

The Lure of St. Trinian’s

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 16th May, 2020

Ronald Searle St. Trinian'sThe years immediately after the Second World War in Britain were fairly grim and grey, despite the relief of victory. The physical damage of war was still visible in cities and some rationing was in force, as a new Labour government set about establishing the Welfare State. But as welcome relief from the shortages and financial hard times there were the wickedly satirical drawings of cartoonist Ronald Searle, in particular his depiction of life in a hellish girls’ school of his imagination, St. Trinian’s, where the girls are little monsters and the teaching staff delinquent. Although Searle’s first showcasing of St. Trinian’s was in Lilliput magazine in 1941, carried in many a serviceman’s jacket pocket, before the artist himself joined the army, his output was stopped by being captured at the fall of Singapore and his incarceration in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. On his release and repatriation, the cartoon strips really took off, leading to a series of books, but the caricatures were now darkened by truly horrific scenes of mistreatment and slaughter in the bedlam of a school that had lost all vestiges of morality and humanity — yet drawn in such a way that one could only laugh at the little girl horrors, with their wild hair, disheveled uniforms and fiendish grins. All very different from the jolly hockey sticks schoolgirl world of popular novelist Angela Brazil.

Blue Murder at St. Trinian'sBetween 1954 and 1966, four feature films were made by the brilliant team of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, inspired by the stories, several of which can be seen on BBC iPlayer for the next few weeks. My favourite by far is Blue Murder at St. Trinian’s (1957), as it has a strong plot as well as the finest line-up of actors playing the adults, most of whose lives are tormented in one way or another by the miniature demons of the St. Trinian’s fourth form. A young George Cole, splendidly dodgy as Flash Harry, is running a variety of shady businesses with the help of the older girls, including an illicit marriage bureau. Richard Wattis is in his element as the bespectacled, bowler-hatted civil servant from the Ministry of Education, totally out of his depth. And although Joyce Grenfell is a recurring  character in the film series it is in Blue Murder that she is given the greatest opportunity to be her lolloping, ridiculous best as Police Sergeant Ruby Gates, besotted with her handsome but caddish superior officer and fiancé, who is determined not to tie the knot. By a dastardly trick, the girls of St. Trinian’s win a competition whose prize is a trip to Rome. With faux upper class conman Terry-Thomas at the wheel of their battered coach, what could possibly go wrong? Plenty, of course, with hilarious results. It must have been a welcome cathartic experience for many who saw the film when it first came out and it remains a true gem of British Lion comedy to savour against the backdrop our bizarre world of COVID-19 New Normal.

3 Responses to “The Lure of St. Trinian’s”

  1. Tony Harms said

    We used to say, these are films they could never make today. But they did. And Russell Brand made a surprisingly good fist of the George Cole part.

  2. Paddy Briggs said

    My father was a POW with Searle. They were in the same camp as Jim Swanton. Some stories there.

  3. We were shown ‘The Pure Hell of St Trinians’ at my convent boarding school in the 1960s. The nuns didn’t realise what it was. My strongest memory (apart from the nuns’ horror) is the schoolgirl stripping while reciting Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy!!

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