Monday 6 March 2017

The Great St. Trinian’s Train Robbery (1966)

Directors: Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat
Writers: Frank Launder and Ivor Herbert, from the story by Frank Launder and Sidney & Leslie Gilliat, inspired by the original drawings of Ronald Searle
Stars: Frankie Howerd and Dora Bryan

Index: 2017 Centennials.

By the time I was born in 1971, the infamous St. Trinian’s boarding school for girls had been shuttered for half a decade, but it had already become enough of a British institution that the name, and what it represented, hadn’t gone away and, in fact, still hasn’t to this day. I saw this feature at some point during my childhood, probably on television, and parts of it were still lounging around in my memory, but it’s less a film now than it was. In 2017, a decade after the franchise was rebooted, to adopt modern terminology, it’s more of a time capsule than a movie, because the writers wrapped up the original series with a wallop by throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the script. In fact, this is more of a caper film, a spy picture and a chase flick than it ever is a school story, odd for a series that’s inspired by, named for and set in a school. In short, it highlighted that times had changed and it was surely the right moment for the girls to hang up their hockey sticks and call it a day. Well, at least for a while.

For those who don’t know St. Trinian’s, they began as a set of cartoons created by artist Ronald Searle and published in a magazine called Lilliput. The first was published in 1941, but after Searle had been called up for service and sent to Singapore. It was a polite cartoon without a hint of the brutality and delinquency that would soon come to characterise the school; that change was because of how Searle spent the Second World War. Officially listed as missing, he was confined to the Changi prison camp by the Japanese, then sent to work on the Siam-Burma railway, now famous as the setting for The Bridge on the River Kwai. He suffered from malaria, beri-beri, skin disease and ulcers, he shrank to eighty plus pounds and he was temporarily paralysed at one point by a pick-axe to the spine. Yet he continued to draw throughout this time, mostly documenting his war experiences in drawings that he hid under the mattresses of prisoners dying from cholera. He survived the war and so did three hundred of those drawings.

It’s impossible to imagine what Searle must have gone through but it’s easy to see how it must have shaped his cartoons. The next few St. Trinian’s cartoons were drawn during his captivity and they took a much more brutal aspect. They saw print after the war, five years after the first, and they quickly became famous. Many authors wrote stories set in girls’ schools, but they were always of well-behaved children doing something positive, like solving mysteries. Searle’s girls were murderous vixens who drank, smoked and caroused their way through school life, and their teachers were no different. By 1953, Searle had published five collections of these cartoons and done very well with them, so naturally the British film industry wanted to tap into that. In a way, they already had, with The Happiest Days of Your Life in 1950, officially based on a play by John Dighton but very much a proto-St. Trinian’s flick, not just because of the script but because of the producers, director and regular stars like Alastair Sim and Joyce Grenfell.

The series proper began in 1954 with The Belles of St. Trinian’s and progressed with 1957’s Blue Murder at St. Trinian’s and 1960’s The Pure Hell of St. Trinian’s. This film was a late stab at a fourth entry in that trilogy, showing up six years late and changing the content considerably. Sim and Grenfell were both long gone, though other regulars like George Cole, Eric Barker and Richard Wattis were still in the cast. However, the leads were new: Dora Bryan as the new headmistress, Amber Spottiswood, and the comedic legend, Frankie Howerd, who would have been one hundred years old today. And here’s where the time capsule aspect of this film comes in. Howerd plays a crook by the name of Alfred Askett, who is masquerading as a high-class barber, Alphonse of Monte Carlo. He’s part of a gang who rob a Royal Mail train of £2.5m in a caper called Operation Windfall; their base is his barber shop, well equipped with spy gadgets so that the absent mastermind can communicate by television, barber’s chair and even shower head.
After all, it was 1966 and the world had changed. It had been a quarter of a century since the first St. Trinian’s cartoon, but James Bond was riding high with four films since 1962, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin had just made it into colour in 1965 and, maybe most important of all, a gang of fifteen men, led by Bruce Reynolds, known as Napoleon, had stolen £2.6m from a Royal Mail train in 1963. This was the Great Train Robbery, hardly the first use of that term given that Edwin S. Porter had made an influential film of that name in 1903, with its pioneering final shot of a robber shooting his gun directly at the audience, but the one of resonance to U.K. viewers. Great Train Robbers Buster Edwards and Ronnie Biggs later found themselves in pictures, under rather different circumstances: Edwards saw his life story adapted into a comedy drama called Buster, with Phil Collins playing the lead, and Biggs appeared in the Sex Pistols mockumentary, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, even singing a couple of songs with the band.

So, in 1966, it must have seemed like a fantastic idea to mix all of this together into a comedic romp that adds the St. Trinian’s girls to the stew, especially as they become the heroes pretty much throughout. Sure, we watch them misbehaving at points, usually at night when they should be asleep, but every misbehaving scene ends with a heroism scene, like turning the fire hoses that they’re conveniently keeping upstairs on burglars. This is fun, but it’s really not what St. Trinian’s was all about. That angle is mostly used up by the twenty minute mark, when the school moves into its new home at Hamingwell Grange, courtesy of the new Minister of Education, who’s in the headmistress’s pocket (and other things). The teachers are assembled from their holiday jobs: the deputy head is being released from prison, while the maths mistress is a card sharp, the art mistress is a stripper and the games mistress is a pro-wrestler. Once the maths teacher steals the fighting fund from a town meeting protesting their arrival, we’re set.
The primary story here is the caper, which is conducted in sixties spy-fi style by an absent ringleader talking in random gibberish, lines like: ‘Target past junction X9 at 02:25’, ‘Activate GP28’ and ‘Remove windfall to temporary base Ajax’. Echoing the real heist from three years earlier, they rob a Royal Mail train of £2.5m in sacks full of bills in small denominations and they get away clean, stowing the loot under the floorboards of a large estate that’s currently for sale: Hamingwell Grange. Of course, by the point that things have calmed down and they return to pick it up and transport it away, the grange has been sold and the St. Trinian’s girls have moved in. The robbers are promptly fought off with eggs, tomatoes and flour, not to mention darts, hockey sticks and those upstairs fire hoses. It sets up our story, with the robbers against the girls, but it soon escalates. On Parent’s Day, undercover civil servants investigating the school, the local police and Flash Harry join the robbers in searching the place for the loot.

What’s more, the writing team of directors Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, legendary names in British comedy, and the latter’s brother Leslie, with Ivor Herbert helping Launder turn their story into a screenplay, decided to take potshots at what often seems like every possible British institution. This doesn’t just make fun of boarding schools and bank robbers, it takes on the civil service, the police force, the weather, bad caterers, even morris dancers. It’s fair to say that British viewers will certainly get more out of this than those without a solid grounding in British culture. Some jokes are universal, but others will fly over the heads of anyone who didn’t go to school in the U.K. For instance, Alphonse takes his daughters to see Miss Spottiswood, with the aim of becoming spies within the school. They learned the three Rs, he tells the headmistress and she notes, ‘It’s always nice to have your Rs to fall back on.’ The three Rs are reading, writing and ’rithmetic, while Rs sounds rather like ‘arse’, the British version of ‘ass’.
The peak of the humour may be the performance of Dora Bryan as Amber Spottiswood, who proves she can stumble around with impeccable drunken style on high heels. Her face is incredibly expressive and her voice gains and loses airs, depending on who’s listening. While I’m watching for Frankie Howerd, she gets the better lines and the better scenes and, frankly, she does more with them. Sadly, Howerd contributes to the other end of the quality spectrum, which has to be the pair of blackface performances: an unknown actor portraying an Indian station manager and Alphonse joining him as part of an escape attempt, once he realises that the game is surely up. His Indian accent is truly awful and these scenes are cringeworthy. It’s hard to believe that this was deemed acceptable as late as 1966, but then The Black and White Minstrel Show, a variety show with all male performers in blackface, was still huge on British television, running as late as 1978, though a petition was launched against it in 1967.

Howerd does better in the scenes at Alphonse of Monte Carlo, because he’s in charge there. His henchmen are suitably varied but less interesting than he is, so he’s the one who gets to play with the gadgets littered about the place. The props budget apparently didn’t stretch particularly far, so these crooks mostly pretend that the regular equipment they’re acting around is enhanced with spy-fi extras. The automatic sterilizer acts as a messaging alert, the oversize sixties hairdryers serve as two way communicators and, in the most ridiculous example, the shower head acts as a radio receiver, at least until it becomes a shower head again, with comedic effect. These are fun scenes for Howerd, who often seems lost elsewhere because he’s not in charge and so feels rather like the week’s guest star, here to get a few choice moments and then sit back so the regulars can do their thing. He had far more opportunity in his next film, Carry On Doctor, in which he again played the lead in a series film full of regulars.
Howerd’s career was an unusual one because he continually fell in and out of fashion, one minute a tired hasbeen and the next a rediscovered genius. Barry Cryer appropriately described it as ‘a series of comebacks’ that lasted over six decades. He wanted to be a serious actor, but comedy seemed much more natural. His early years were spent on the stage and on radio, but he found his way to film in 1954 with a picture that was written for him, The Runaway Bus. Surely his best film was his next one, The Ladykillers, at Ealing, but he was in a minor role a long way down the credits. It was only here that he really started to build a film career, as he’d been far more successful on stage, especially with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which had finished a three year run in 1965, and on television, in a variety of variety shows and the pioneering satirical comedy, That Was the Week That Was. Of course, television would prove to be his biggest audience, especially with Up Pompeii in 1969.

That show had a long history. Originally a play on Comedy Playhouse in 1969, it promptly became a TV show, then a film with spin-offs both on the big and small screens. These feel very dated today, but they were perfect for Howerd’s particular style of comedy; his delivery felt entirely improvised, full of asides, backtracks and jabs at the audience, but was impeccably crafted. If you’ve ever seen a pantomime performed live on stage, that’s what Howerd could do better than anybody else. Up Pompeii cemented his fame, bolstered by two Carry On movies, Carry On Doctor and Carry On Up the Jungle, which were rarely far from British television screens, whether as the movies themselves or excerpted into clip compilations, and this St. Trinian’s picture. All these films are as British as it gets and he wrapped up his film career with two more perfect examples of that, The House in Nightmare Park and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. With such a British career, mostly risquĂ©, it’s unsurprising that his fame didn’t travel well.
The same goes for St. Trinian’s itself (and the Carry On films and Up Pompeii). This was a ‘fourth in the trilogy’ sort of movie, a way to end a series of three films that had ended perfectly well already. The school returned in 1980 for a surprise entry in the series, The Wildcats of St. Trinian’s, which didn’t do well, probably because it chose to poke fun at the trades union movement, a fair target at the time but not a popular one with filmgoers; the writers really should have learned from Carry On at Your Convenience almost a decade earlier , which was a funny film but the first box office failure of the series after 21 previous hits. After that, the school was dormant until 2007 when a new generation of stars appeared in St. Trinian’s, a fresh reboot of the series with Rupert Everett taking the dual role previously played by Alastair Sim: in drag as the headmistress and out of it as her brother. Other major stars included Colin Firth as the Minister of Education and Russell Brand in the part George Cole plays here, of Flash Harry.

A second film, St. Trinian’s 2: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold, followed two years later with many of the same stars, sans Brand, and with Doctor Who star David Tennant added for good measure. It did reasonably well, though not as well as its predecessor, but garnered almost entirely negative reviews and the expected third in the new series, St. Trinian’s 3: Battle of the Sexes, confirmed as far back as 2009, still hasn’t been made. We can only assume that it won’t ever be made until such time as it is. Such is this series. St. Trinian’s is a cultural icon in the U.K. and it’s unlikely to ever truly close. It may be boarded up for a decade or two, but the girls will always find a way to pry those boards loose and run riot one more time, updated a little, of course, given that their debaucheries are not the trigger for public outrage that they used to be. If they can reboot Spider-Man every ten minutes, telling the same origin story, merely with a new lead actor and better CGI, they can reboot St. Trinian’s every ten years too.

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