Some films could only have been made in England, during a certain era and with a particular cast. The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) – newly released by StudioCanal to mark its sixtieth anniversary – is one such film. Though its popularity led to a string of sequels throughout the 1950s and 60s – as well as an unfortunate revival in 2007 – it is the original film, directed by Frank Launder and starring Alistair Sim, George Cole and Joyce Grenfell, which remains the archetypal celluloid visualisation of artist Ronald Searle’s comic creation. It’s the new term at St. Trinian’s – the girl’s public school in the heart of England’s home-counties, where anyone, other than the pupils themselves, fears to go.
With their own brewery, an illicit betting syndicate and a stolen racehorse to take care of, the pupils have little time for lessons. However, when everything is overseen by the somewhat unorthodox headmistress Miss Millicent Fritton (Sim), usual conventions of society are of little importance. Originally appearing in the British humorous arts magazine Lilliput during the 1940s, Searle’s boisterous and anarchic schoolgirls were an instant hit. They embodied a sense of mischievous fun and disregard for authority which simmers deep within most of us during our school years, whether we’d admit it or not. It was only a matter of time before the characters found their way to the big screen, and the film’s screenplay along with Joseph Bato’s art direction captured perfectly the subversive wit of Searle’s original cartoons.
Even these elements though would not have had the impact they did without a cast of British thespian grotesques, who appear on screen as if they themselves stepped straight out of another world. From Cole’s two-bit dodgy dealer ‘Flash Harry’ – a character he would later recreate so perfectly in the television’s Minder – and Grenfell’s scatty undercover policewoman Ruby Gates, to appearances by stalwarts like Beryl Reid, Joan Sims and Irene Handl as school mistresses, here is a cast who capture on screen that certain undefinable eccentricity which is uniquely English. It is Alistair Sim however, in the dual role of the school’s headmistress and her ne’er-do-well brother, the bookmaker Clarence Fritton, who stands out.
In a testament to Sim’s expertise as a character actor, never once does the viewer consider Millicent as anything less than all woman – albeit in a ‘horsey’ home-counties mould – and a benevolent matriarch to her wayward brood of pupils and teachers alike. In his book, St. Trinian’s: The Entire Appalling Business, Searle summed up his most famous creations by referring to a St. Trinian’s pupil as, “Sardonic, witty and very amusing. She would be good company. In short: typically human and, despite everything, endearing.” This is probably as good a description of The Belles of St. Trinian’s as any, and explains why the film is as magical today as it was when it was first released.