Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Spotlight on St Trinians 10

The History of Ruby Gates

Joyce Grenfell was born in 1910 and was therefore 44 years old on her first St Trinians outing.  In ‘Belles’ she played the local police sergeant, Ruby Gates, who was sent to work at the school undercover. Her “teacher” name, given to her under protest, was Chloe Crawley (“But they’ll call me Creepy Crawley!”). Parallel to the main story, we learn about Ruby and her long term engagement to the less than enthusiastic Superintendent Kemp-Bird. Frankly, he uses her romantic adoration of him to get her to do his dirty work.

Creepy Crawley
Ruby Gates returned in two sequels – ‘Blue Murder’ then ‘Pure Hell’. In the first, she goes undercover again, this time on a school European bus tour where she and Terry-Thomas string each other along. In ‘Pure Hell’, she has to stow away on a lifeboat as some of the schoolgirls go on ‘a tour of the Greek Islands’. In this final outing she does get Kemp-Bird as far as the church…until news of further shenanigins at St Trinians reaches him just in the nick of time. Poor Ruby.

The character of Ruby Gates is endearing and also amusing. Old fashioned with a plummy turn of phrase, you root for the poor old girl even though she is not on the side of our St Trinians heroines. I think that this is a particularly clever trick, to be able to draw out our sympathy in this way. This is down to Joyce’s loveable talents. She patently liked people and was acutely observant, being able to poke fun at different types without being unkind. I suspect that Ruby is an amalgam of many women that Joyce had come across, particularly in her war work and through her attendance at Womens’ Institute meetings.

Just a crazy, mixed up policewoman
Joyce was born in London to an American mother and British/American father. Her mother was the sister of Nancy Astor and so Joyce was well connected yet not snobbish. In the early days of her marriage she was not rich and often depended on the kindness of her Aunt Nancy…who would then take advantage of this control to try and smother Joyce’s early forays onto the stage. But those monologues that she began with were soon in demand in revues and on the radio. Her career was cemented during World War Two as she tirelessly toured for ENSA, singing and reciting to troops in the Middle East and beyond. There were a few brief early film parts before St Trinians, most notably in ‘The Happiest Days of Your Life’ which took Joyce directly to the part of Ruby Gates.

I wrote a collection of short stories inspired by moments in Joyce's career - you can get them on Amazon here

Monday, 19 June 2017

Spotlight on St Trinians 9

Locating St Trinians

I’ve been looking at places where ‘Belles’ was filmed, thanks to websites such as the excellent Reel Streets. There are three stand out locations:

All Nations College, Easneye, Stanstead Abbots, Herts
Littleton Park House (Shepperton Studios), Middlesex
Great Dunmow, Essex

The first two locations stood in for the school itself, while Great Dunmow provided the location of the unfortunate nearby village.

All Nations College was previously known as Easneye mansion, and was built in the mid 19th century to a design by Alfred Waterhouse (also responsible for the Natural History Museum and the magnificent Manchester Town Hall). The mansion was commissioned by a brewing family called Buxton – one of whom was responsible for pushing the Emancipation of Slaves Bill through Parliament.
To me, the best bit is that the Buxtons popularised beer as a healthier alternative to gin…and then we see the St Trinians girls using the place to make their own moonshine!
 A familiar looking Lodge House - remember Ruby Gates galloping by?

Littleton Park House has a lengthier early history, being the home of local nobility dating back to the 17th Century. It is an integral part of Shepperton Studios and was therefore not a stranger to the camera back then – and it remains a photogenic backdrop today. The house was first involved in the embryonic industry in the 1930s, having being bought by a businessman for the sole purpose of making films. As an interesting aside, during World War Two the studio’s expertise in prop building was put to excellent use when it was commissioned to build dummy aircraft to baffle the Luftwaffe. These days, you can get married there, probably if you have lots of money…I bet Flash Harry’s behind that idea…an extension to his marriage bureau?

 Great Dunmow has a long and very British history. In the mid 20th Century there was a nearby airbase, used by both the RAF and the US Airforce. Seems rather a fitting location for Flash Harry and the Six Formers…

Back to school preparations...

Please have a look at my might like them...

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Spotlight on St Trinians 8

The History of Miss Fritton

Alastair Sim was born in 1900, and so was 54 years old when headmistress Miss Fritton was gifted to the world in ‘The Belles of St Trinians.’ He also played her brother, Clarence Fritton and made a much reduced return in the 1957 sequel ‘Blue Murder at St Trinians’.  As Miss Fritton – and Clarence - Sim brings a wonderful air of genteel crookedness to delight us throughout the film. In terms of drag roles, nothing could ever surpass this one, in my opinion. Sim doesn’t pile on fake femininity, he remains the character actor that we love except with a string of pearls and a softer voice. We believe wholly in Miss Fritton as a female character, which is tribute to the talent behind her.

Sim began making films in the mid 1930s – a stalwart of the quota quickies. In 1936 he appeared in six films! As war broke out he was appearing in the ‘Inspector Hornleigh’ films, where he first came into contact with Launder and Gilliat. He was also a stage success – here’s a programme from the wartime play ‘Cottage to Let’ from my own collection. Note fellow St Trinians actors in the cast – George Cole and Thorley Walters.

Sim made his most memorable films in the post war years including the first of the Ealing comedies ‘Hue and Cry’ (1946). I recommend ‘The Green Man’, ‘The Happiest Days of Your Life’ and ‘Scrooge’. In 1954, the year of ‘Belles’, Sim also starred in the film of the fantastic JB Priestley play ‘An Inspector Calls’. Compare the two roles and marvel at his versatility. 

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Spotlight on St Trinians 7

Launder & Gilliat – Feminist Icons?

Launder and Gilliat were the two men behind the first St Trinians films. Both wrote and produced ‘Belles’, and Launder directed it. The prolific pair had a long and successful career in films – as screenwriters, producers and directors in various combinations. There are far too many films to list here. But have a look at some of their work in the 1940s and 1950s:

·        Millions Like Us (1943)
·        Two Thousand Women (1944)
·        The Happiest Days of your Life (1950)
·        The Belles of St Trinians (1954)

‘Millions Like Us’ concentrated on the war effort of the women in the factories. The men are incidental. ‘2000 Women’ follows a group of female prisoners of war using a stellar female cast and hardly any men that you’ve ever heard of. ‘Happiest Days…’ shows a solid female teaching staff who have more sense and resourcefulness than their male counterparts. Then along comes ‘Belles’ where the male lead plays a female character and the entire population of a girls' school sticks two fingers up to authority and expectations.

Would a modern film studio come up with a new story idea that is so female orientated, I wonder?

Given the period, this is all quite remarkable. Despite war efforts, women were still ‘the weaker sex’ and were expected to retreat back into the home in 1945 and be good wives and mothers.  Launder and Gilliat often reminded the world that this ‘weaker sex’ thing was poppycock.  Thanks, lads.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Spotlight on St Trinians 6

Britain in the Time of St Trinians 2

‘Blue Murder at St Trinians’ was released in December 1957.  Harold Macmillan was the Prime Minister, representing the Conservative Party.  Looking at lists of notable events in this particular month, the first televised Queen’s Speech on Christmas Day is the most eye-catching.

Scrolling back, this was a year for technological advances.  Jodrell Bank Observatory became operational and the television programme ‘The Sky at Night’ was broadcast for the first time. The first Premium Bonds were also drawn by ‘ERNIE’. No doubt much was learned from the fire that broke out at Windscale nuclear plant.

Elsewhere, it was a year of embryonic development. This was the year when Lennon met McCartney and when the Wolfenden Report was published, recommending legalisation of homosexuality.

Things were happening that, though it was not immediately apparent, would lead to major changes further down the line. We were at last starting to look beyond little Britain…and to reflect that, St Trinians school went to Rome!

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Spotlight on St Trinians 5

The Great St Trinian's Mystery...

In the book of letters between Joyce Grenfell and her friend Virginia Graham (‘Joyce & Ginnie’), there is something rather odd. On 12 September 1949, Joyce is recorded as writing:

“…I spent the afternoon packing in order to come down here [Hindhead] for filming St Trinian’s.”

As the letter goes on, it becomes clear that she is talking about the filming of “The Happiest Days of Your Life”. The notes, written by Janie Hampton, state that “Happiest Days…” was the first of the five St Trinian’s films directed by Frank Launder.

This is all very confusing. If you were to include this film then the total would be six. But I would not include “Happiest Days” in the St Trinian’s list. Neither of the schools that this film is about is called St Trinian’s. The children are not the stars and they are far too well behaved. It is the headteachers and the teachers that the farce revolves around.

The mystery is why did Joyce refer to it as one? Is this down to the editor of her letters getting confused and making a slip? Or did Joyce really write this and did Launder and Gilliat see “Happiest Days…” as their St Trinian’s launchpad?

At any rate, although I would never include it as part of the series, it’s a fantastic film and essential background viewing to see an embryonic “Chloe Crawley” making herself at home in a gymslip.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Spotlight on St Trinians 4

Classic British cinema has long been the inspiration for my writing. Two of my short story collections have focussed on the audience for a specific film (‘A Canterbury Tale’ and ‘I Know Where I’m Going’). Another collection was peopled by a range of characters all affected in some way by the work of Joyce Grenfell.
My intention is that my next short story collection will be connected to Launder and Gilliat’s earlier St Trinians films. These are much loved and also, I think, quite important in their own little way. This time, I also hope to take a step closer to the films in the stories that I write. Rather than focussing on the audience, I’d like the films and their stars to take a bow in some way. How I will do this, I’m not quite sure yet. This proposal is more challenging to me as a writer and involves research into the making of the films, those involved in this and the contemporary scene.
So from this point onwards, The History Usherette will shine her torch on four films in a series of posts, perhaps lasting for a year. I’ll share all my discoveries on here and hopefully bring us all a bit of classic film joy along the way.

Britain in the Time of St Trinians 1

‘The Belles of St Trinians’ was released in September 1954. Winston Churchill was Prime Minister again, representing the Conservative Party. But change was in the air. Coincidentally, in the same month as the film was released, Britain’s first purpose-built comprehensive school was opened. Modernist architecture fans will be interested to know that the Smithsons’ Hunstanton School also opened at this time.
In the same month, The Wolfenden Committee sat for the first time, looking at the issues of homosexuality and prostitution. It was a long road, but legalisation of homosexuality over a decade later had its roots here.

However, earlier on in 1954, while the film was in production notable events included the final end of rationing and the Donald McGill trial (July). Donald McGill is the man behind those iconic saucy seaside postcards. They are Carry On films in one innuendo-laden cartoon. We all love them now but back then, McGill was actually accused of pedalling obscene publications, tried and fined £50. Many postcards were sadly destroyed. Both of these events serve to illustrate what a different place 1954 was. Despite the baby steps towards a more liberal society, Britain was a place where you still couldn’t just go to the shops and buy whatever you wanted. A place where certain members of society thought us lower echelons would be corrupted by seeing postcards like the one below.
Yet people went to the pictures and watched a cross-dressing man run a girl’s school full of delinquents while illegally gambling on the horses….