St Trinian's belles to ring once more

They were the stocking-clad schoolgirls whose riotous antics brightened up 1950s Britain. Now Rupert Everett is to star in a revival of the fondly remembered films. Guy Adams reports
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The Independent Culture

They coined the phrase "jolly hockey sticks", and inspired a generation of schoolgirls to throw stink bombs and flash their stocking-tops at authority. Now, after a quarter of a century's orderly silence, the girls of St Trinian's are making a comeback.

The classic boarding school capers of the 1950s and 1960s are to be updated for this less innocent age. They will return in a series of multimillion-pound revamps filmed at the spiritual home of British slapstick, Ealing Studios.

Details of the ambitious project emerged on Sunday, when the actor Rupert Everett revealed that he will take on the role of Millicent Fritton, the harassed headmistress made famous by the late Alastair Sim.

According to Everett, the updated St Trinian's films are likely to be more controversial than the riotous originals, which were once described by a film critic as "nostalgic hymns to a golden age of juvenile delinquency".

In contrast to their gymslip-clad forebears - who typically made catapults from knicker-elastic and chased men around the lacrosse pitch - today's St Trinian's girls will be faced with teenage pregnancies and the temptations of drugs.

Everett said the decision to "sex up" a genre hitherto associated with bun fights, gymslip rebellion, and elaborate plots to blow up the school had been the subject of heated behind-the-scenes debate.

"I disagreed with everyone over whether to retain some of the innocence of the original, or to update it," he told an audience at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature.

"I, of course, wanted to make the schoolgirls into drug-dealers and prostitutes and what have you. Others disagreed. But in the end it was decided that my way is how it will be."

The spirit of the St Trinian's series is to break taboos, he added. In the 1950s, the genre set many a moustache twitching with scenes of stocking-clad teenage girls disappearing for what, in Ealing parlance, was known as a "slap'n'tickle" behind the bike sheds.

"I think the new films will be shocking, but you've got to remember that the original St Trinian's films were also shocking in their day. People didn't think girls would actually behave like that. We've decided that the films should be as dangerous today as they were back then, which means having to pull out all the stops."

However shocking it eventually proves to be, the decision to reprise the St Trinian's genre will delight fans of the original series, which began with The Belles of St Trinian's in 1954, and spanned an era considered to be the golden age of the Ealing Comedy.

The four original films - together with a poorly-received 1980 revival, Wildcats of St Trinian's - were based on a fictional boarding school that had previously featured in illustrations published by the reclusive cartoonist Ronald Searle during the 1940s.

Searle had in turn been inspired by the real-life St Trinnean's, an Edinburgh "school for young ladies" which closed in 1946, and is now part of the University of Edinburgh's Pollock Halls of Residence.

St Trinnean's had already achieved notoriety thanks to its headmistress, Catherine Fraser Lee, a progressive figure who once insisted that pupils eat their meals backwards for an entire term, starting with pudding and ending with soup.

Inspired by Miss Lee, Searle created a series of cartoons that portrayed a dark and anarchic institution. He drew vultures circling over girls who had been murdered with pitchforks, or succumbed to violent team sports. Other pupils would drink, gamble and smoke.

Meanwhile, the famous "gym-slip" uniform worn by pupils in both the Searle cartoons and later films was based on that of James Allen's Girls School in Dulwich, south London, an independent school where Searle sent his daughter, Kate.

In the early 1950s, Searle was approached by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliatt, a prolific writing and directing duo who made more than 40 films, including Green for Danger, The Happiest Days of Your Life, and the Dick Emery vehicle Ooh ... You Are Awful! Launder and Gilliat toned down Searle's cartoons for the silver screen.

In addition to Alastair Sim (in drag) their principal stars were George Cole, who played the local n'er do well, "Flash" Harry, and Joyce Grenfell, as the beleaguered policewoman Ruby Gates.

"There had previously been a strong tradition of schoolboy romps in film, but having girls gave it a further farcical edge." said Dick Fiddy of the British Film Institute, an expert on the Ealing Comedies.

"It was a clever move. After the war there was a general relaxation of standards, and people wanted a sort of farcical escapism."

Escapism was exactly what they got. The four original St Trinian's films followed a well-worked pattern: thanks (mostly) to the efforts of "Flash " Harry, the school would become embroiled in a shady enterprise; it would be threatened with closure by the Ministry of Education; and then the girls would attempt to outwit the ministry, often with hilarious consequences.

"The whole joy of the St Trinian's series was the way that the girls behaved like hoodlums," Mr Fiddy said. "In scenes where they attack someone, they were literally like a horde of rampaging barbarians. The films were fantastically jolly, and although they don't look shocking now, probably were at the time."

They were also highly profitable films. Like most Ealing Comedies of the time - including most of the Carry On franchise - Launder and Gilliatt's St Trinian's films were all produced to tight budgets and in a matter of months. "They were successful in the same way as a lot of other directors of the time were," Mr Fiddy said.

"They made films at a gallop. There was a factory element to it, but it ran like a well-oiled machine, and they were technically very sharp. I would say that The Belles of St Trinian's, in particular, is a very, very well made farce."

That film begins with Barchester police attempting to break up an illegal betting ring being run by the schoolgirls, by getting Ruby Gates to infiltrate the school posing as a new teacher.

Its sequel, Blue Murder at St Trinian's has an equally preposterous premise.

With their headmistress jailed - and the police and army called in to keep order - the girls win a competition with a European "goodwill" trip as a prize, allowing them to visit Italy, where they hope to snare a rich playboy as a husband.

It proved to be a winning formula, and as the series prospered, a generation of comic actors came of age in the fictional school. Terry Thomas, Sid James, John Le Mesurier and Frankie Howerd took cameo roles in later films, while a young Barbara Windsor cut her teeth as an extra in The Pure Hell of St Trinian's.

The star of the show, however, was Sim, who occasionally stepped out of the unconvincing drag he wore as the booming Millicent Fritton to portray her endearingly dodgy brother, Clarence.

Everett, who will take on Sim's mantle, may be helped by today's higher production standards. He said on Sunday that he is likely to be fitted with elaborate prosthetics and make-up to transform him into a convincing female lead.

"My role as the headmistress is made difficult because of the fact that I have a very angular neck and nose," he said.

"What will probably happen is that I will have to spend four or five hours being fitted with prosthetic body parts. We will then spend a day filming me in front of a blank screen from every angle. With a decent budget, the technology these days will then allow the whole thing to be transferred on to the final film."

Searle has rarely commented on his role in the St Trinian's films, believing that he created something of a monster. However, his literary agents, the Sayle agency, are currently involved in negotiations concerning the new project.

Heading the project is Barnaby Thompson, who directed Everett in The Importance of Being Earnest. His firm, Fragile Films, part-owns Ealing Studios, and bought production rights to the St Trinian's series in 2002.

Mr Thompson's office said yesterday that final details of the films' finance deal were being tied up this week and it was unwilling to comment further until contracts had been signed.

Everett, meanwhile, is looking forward to the new era of St Trinian's with cautious optimism: "It's a very difficult project partly because the first two St Trinian's films were real masterpieces, and one of the rules of thumb of the film industry is that you never remake a masterpiece."

Yet aficionados of the films remain intrigued. Mr Fiddy said: "There is something peculiarly British about St Trinian's, and in that respect, having a peculiarly British star like Everett makes perfect sense. But with talents like Alastair Sim, it will be a very hard act to follow."

What happened to the original stars?

Joyce Grenfell: Played the hapless policewoman - and later sergeant - Ruby Gates in the first three St. Trinian's films. Grenfell appeared in three more films, but after The Yellow Rolls-Royce in 1964 she switched to television, performing songs and satirical monologues in a one-woman show. Grenfell's final performance was before the Queen at Windsor in 1973. She died aged 69 in 1979.

Terry Thomas: Thomas took a cameo as the coach driver, Captain Romney Carlton-Ricketts, in Blue Murder at St Trinian's. He played the rake-cum-rotter in School for Scoundrels, and reprised this role in Bachelor Flat and Rocket to the Moon. He died in 1990, having had Parkinson's disease for 20 years.

Frankie Howerd: Howerd played Alphonse of Monte Carlo in The Great St Trinian's Train Robbery, before coining the catchphrase "titter ye not" in TV's Up Pompeii series in the 1970s. Up Pompeii returned for a special in 1991, but hopes of a new series were dashed when Howerd died in 1992.

Lisa Gastoni: Pneumatic Lisa played Myrnain Blue Murder at St. Trinian's. She took bit-parts in American TV films before returning to Italy in 1961 to headline melodramas with titles like Scandalo and la Seduzione. Now 71, last year she starred in the Italian film Cuore Sacro.

George Cole: Cut his teeth as the wheeling, dealing lovable rogue "Flash " Harry in four St Trinian's films between 1954 and 1966. Subsequently appeared in The Sweeney and countless television roles, before striking gold playing Arthur Daley in Minder. Now 81, Cole is still going strong and next year he stars with David Jason in Diamond Geezer 2.

Alastair Sim: One of the best-known character actors of his generation, Sim's performance as Millicent Fritton is a classic of its genre. Sim starred in more than 50 films, notably alongside Terry Thomas in the 1960 classic, School for Scoundrels. Having drifted out of fashion in the Sixties, Sim returned to stage roles. He died in 1976, aged 76.

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