Friday, 1 December 2017

Fortune Favours - A Short Story

I shined my spotlight on St Trinians in the hope that it would inspire a short story or two to add to my collection. In the end, I came up with just one, inspired by the ideas that I formed about what it might have been to be an innocent young actress in the 1950s.

My new short story, ‘Fortune Favours’, turned out to be rather topical. When the Harvey Weinstein news and all the following revelations broke, I had already completed my first draft. But my story proves not that I have clairvoyant properties, but that it was ever thus. The casting couch and predatory men in power over young girls are as old as cinema itself. We all know this. It only became news again when we discovered that it was as bad as ever when we thought we were more enlightened.  Although, under the surface, I think we all knew that it still went on.

My story hints that my actress character got a small part in a St Trinians film – but this is not based on a real person. Some readers might lift an eyebrow at the innocence that I have portrayed, but that side of her character is based on historical fact. During my reading and researches into the 1950s it became evident that many people went into the prescribed relationship of marriage innocent of the mechanics of reproduction. Sex education as is taught in schools today didn’t exist, and in many families it was just not the done thing to discuss such matters. Jessica Mann, in her excellent book ‘The Fifties Mystique’ (Quartet, 2012), says

“I don’t remember being taught anything about sex at school…many of us understood nothing about sex, nothing about what men and women did in bed.”

The 1950s St Trinians films, which turn the sixth formers into be-stockinged sirens, is an interesting juxtaposition to this. It prompted me to explore it a little after my investigation into what happened to the young actresses who played St Trinians pupils See Spotlight on St Trinians - Girls, Girls

So, I hope you will download my new short story. Click here

Here’s the blurb:

It’s 1957 and Molly Bilsthorpe, a young repertory actress, travels to London. There, she becomes Stella Bishop and wins a place on the books of an agent. This agent, spotting a shapely young innocent, persuades Stella to pose for nude photographs…and to join him for a day out in Brighton. Soon, she moves into his flat and finds herself on film sets and on stages close to, if not actually in, the West End.  When Stella finds that she is in trouble, she turns to a fortune teller that she has been visiting. Help comes in the form of a change in career and a move to Devon…but there are consequences for more people than just Stella.

A 9,000 word story about the innocents and the predators of the 1950s, with a liberal dose of palmistry and tea leaves.

(Thanks to Howard Taylor for sorting out the cover, using a vintage French postcard)

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Spotlight on St Trinians 18

These are a few of my favourite scenes

I’ve been focussing on the first three St Trinians films – ‘Belles’, ‘Blue Murder’ and ‘Pure Hell’. Basically, it is my opinion that they are the best ones, because they are the ones that feature Joyce Grenfell. I also think that in this series, each subsequent film is not quite as good as the one that went before it. So at the top of the tree we have the 1954 ‘Belles of St Trinians’, the one that I like the most. And if you were to ask me which was my favourite scene in this film, I would have a think, and then probably plump for one single line, delivered by Alastair Sim in the most devastatingly funny way. It happens during the hockey match. Joyce Grenfell’s ‘Creepy Crawley’ character has just been belted over the head with a hockey stick, leaving the match without a referee. The headmistress of the opposing team protests vociferously and then bustles in to take control.  Inevitably, she too ends up on a stretcher. At this point, our Miss Fritton leans into nobody in particular and states “I did warn her.” It always makes me laugh and I wait for that line with a sense of anticipation. Though perhaps it shouldn’t, this violence perpetrated to mature single women who, because of their unmarried status, are fair game as ‘old hags’.

Moving onto ‘Blue Murder at St Trinians’, one of my favourite scenes is a re-occuring one. Near the beginning of the film, the delinquent girls drill a large hole in the floor at the Ministry of Education in the process of securing the school’s victory in a writing competition. After discovery of this hole by the unfortunate ministry staff, workmen are brought in to make repairs. We then regularly see them through the rest of the film – and not once are they doing any work. They are on a perpetual tea break! There’s a bit of business between them and the suited ministry staff in passing each other the sugar that makes me laugh every time. It all goes to prove that the cliché of the English workman sitting by the side of a hole in the road, never doing anything to repair it, is one that has been around for some time now. This attitude to our labouring classes was only going to get worse, culminating in the 1971 film ‘Carry on at Your Convenience’. Today, I think that things have changed because the trade unions don’t have so much influence on our working conditions, yet we haven’t quite shaken off this feeling that the British workman isn’t working quite as hard as he might. Especially when we are sat at temporary traffic lights and there is no sign of any movement…

Finally, ‘Pure Hell of St Trinians’ brings us a Ruby Gates who is finally preparing for her wedding. For her gown, she visits Myrtle’s West End Modes (above the fish shop) – a business I long to patronise. Not for a wedding gown you understand, I see myself being fitted for a twin set to wear at the Cheltenham Literary Festival. But as a favourite scene, this is pipped at the post by Ruby’s well-provisioned lifeboat.  While hiding away on the boat that has been used to carry our unsuspecting St Trinians heroines to their arranged marriages in the Middle East; Ruby has made herself a home beneath the tarpaulin. Not only are some of the items that she has packed rather amusing (a live chicken, a tea service, a recorder, asparagus tips – it’s like The Generation Game) they are also historically interesting. What would the 1950s housewife pack for a desert island? I particularly like to see the old Kelloggs packets.

But don’t just take my word for it. Revisit the films yourself and make your own mind up about the best bits of St Trinians.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Spotlight on St Trinians 17

The Team of Our Dreams

I recently treated myself to a month’s subscription to the British Newspaper Archive in order to do a bit of research. While I was in there, of course I looked up the St Trinians films to find out what the contemporary press were saying about them.  Much of what I found was cinema listings. Remember when you would look in your local newspaper to find out what was on at the flicks, and what time the show started?  Ah, those were the days, when you didn’t have to take out a bank loan to buy a local newspaper and you would get to see more than the main advertised feature with the supporting shows before it started.

Anyway, I found this little snippet in a Hartlepool newspaper from 1957.

It shows us that the teaming of Joyce Grenfell with Terry-Thomas was a deliberate publicity tactic, inspiring tongue-in-cheek press releases about scorching lovers playing sizzling love scenes. This is all quite pleasing to see, at least the film wasn’t being entirely sold using gymslip hotties, as became increasingly more frequent as the series progressed.

This must have piqued the interest of the public, as Joyce was again paired up with a love interest in the following film. In ‘Pure Hell’ she is wooed by a scheming Cecil Parker – same story, different actor really. Newspaper reviews of ‘Pure Hell’ suggest that Cecil was viewed as slumming it rather with this one, and that even he failed to lift it from mediocrity. Shame! Some things are better in retrospect, including these films. 

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Spotlight on St Trinians 16

Thorley Walters and the Dual Personality

Thorley Walters appears in both ‘Blue Murder’ and ‘Pure Hell’, but unusually, he plays different roles. Clearly there is meant to be continuity between the films – Flash, Ruby and Sammy all appearing as the same characters in the first three installments. Although there is the classic clanger of Miss Fritton’s change of first name (she is Millicent in ‘Belles’ and Amelia in ‘Blue Murder’).  But for some reason, Thorley was allowed to appear as the army major in ‘Blue Murder’ and then Butters the education department man in ‘Pure Hell.’

The only reason that I can think of for this is that Thorley went down well with Launder and Gilliat, and they thought him well suited to the role of a man in authority who is brought to his knees by delinquent girls. Having carried out some research on Thorley Walters (read my potted biography here) it seems that he was a very easy actor to work with. He was never out of work and this is testament to his talent and his employability. No tantrums, no ego, no scandal (apart from the delightful rumour that he was Cecily Courtneidge’s toyboy) Thorley was simply a grafter. His aptitude for comedy roles shows that he was not afraid to make himself look daft – I bet he was a dream to work with compared with wrangling Alastair Sim and a gang of adolescent girls.

Both of Thorley’s roles are made to look ridiculous by femininity. In ‘Blue Murder’ his army Major enters the school to give the girls a jolly good talking to. He is sent out again dressed in a gym slip. Meanwhile in ‘Pure Hell’ he is turned into a gibbering wreck by the Shakespeare striptease and turns to a few effeminate dance moves to calm his ragged nerves. The clear message is that girls who do not behave are emasculating and if a man lets them win then he degrades himself by becoming feminine too. So you’d best keep your girls under control. The same could be said of Lionel Jeffries’ role in ‘Blue Murder’ – he has to pose as a headmistress because the St Trinians mob have him over a barrel – if he doesn’t do as they say then he will be turned over to the police as a jewel thief. By being check-mated by the girls, he too becomes feminine and finds it degrading.

Earlier posts in this blog series laud Launder and Gilliat for being feminist film makers, but here’s where they let themselves down. Being like a woman isn’t that demeaning, is it chaps? After all we’d been though in the war?  In the 1950s it was time to put us in our place again…have we recovered yet?

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Spotlight on St Trinians 15

The History of Superintendent Sammy Kemp Bird

Joyce Grenfell’s Policewoman Ruby Gates is one of the undisputed stars of the first three St Trinians films, but she would be nothing without her Sammy.  We learn in ‘Blue Murder’ that the policing pair have been engaged for 14 years, but despite Ruby’s desperate entreaties her Sammy refuses to make an honest woman of the poor old girl. This backstory really adds meat to Joyce’s role. Everything she does, she does for Sammy but her envisaged future happiness is continually thwarted. To some extent we can sympathise with him, obviously he has dug himself into a hole that he doesn’t know how to get out of. And you can see how Ruby might be hard work. But still, he’s a big old coward and a rotter for leading her on for so long.  Let’s find out some more about the actor behind the old stinker.

Lloyd Lamble was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1914, which explains the very slight accent behind the otherwise standard 1950s diction. Listen carefully, you can hear it. Lloyd came from a musical family – his father was secretary of the Musicians’ Union of Australia. Lloyd went straight into entertainment as soon as he was old enough, and he worked as a radio announcer and as an actor. He also opened his own acting school. His first film acting credit according to IMDB is in an Australian film ‘The Farrer Story’ from 1949.

Lloyd left Australia when the work dried up in the early 1950s – and by this point he had also been married three times! Perhaps he didn’t need to dig too deep to find a man trapped in a relationship that he didn’t want anymore…His first British film was called ‘Island of Desire’ and this was released in 1952. It also featured other soon-to-be household name Peter Butterworth. By the time that ‘Belles’ was released just two years later, he had appeared in 16 previous films. He obviously had something that British film-makers wanted. This was probably his voice. It had always been considered solid and reliable and it had been used by the Australian Government during WW2 to deliver propaganda messages. I recently watched a film called ‘No Trees in the Street’ and up popped Lloyd – as a policeman of course – being calm and strong in a crisis. A typical British attribute that we liked to see back in the 50s.

 Lloyd appeared at the Edinburgh fringe in the 1970s and acted in the West End. His career continued on into the 1980s – according to IMDB his final role was in soap opera ‘Howard’s Way’ in 1985. But he lived on to the staggering age of 94, dying in 2008. There was certainly more to him than a mean old Barsetshire Superintendent!

Monday, 11 September 2017

Spotlight on St Trinians 14

Girls, Girls

I have written about some of the stars of the St Trinians films, but of course they would be nothing without the delinquent schoolgirls. Some of the young girls did go on to become stars, including in the Carry On films. ‘Blue Murder’ features both Dilys Laye and Rosalind Knight as sixth formers. Dilys went on to feature in four Carry On films among many others; while Rosalind was in Carry on Teacher and Nurse. Rosalind (the daughter of Powell and Pressburger actor Esmond Knight) also had a distinguished theatre career and seems to have rarely been out of work. Back in the 1990s, I blush to say that I never realised that it was Rosalind playing landlady Beryl in the sitcom ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’. A huge “penny drop” moment when I found this out years later. Barbara Windsor also had an uncredited role as a St Trinians pupil before her career took off.


I went on the ever-helpful IMDB website, and I looked at all of the schoolgirls credited in ‘Belles’ and ‘Blue Murder’.  By clicking onto their names, you can then get to see a page dedicated to that particular actress. This lists all of their film and television roles. This made for an interesting bit of analysis. Of 22 young actresses credited with a St Trinians pupil role:

·        7 had careers that stretched out towards the end of the 20th century, or had further roles that increased their level of fame. These girls include Dilys and Rosalind, as well as Patricia Lawrence and Vivienne Martin, who both had busy television careers well into the 1990s. I also include Sabrina in this list, who was more of a glamour girl than an actress.
·        7 appear not have pursued an acting career at all. There are four who have a St Trinian’s film as their only credit, while the others only appeared in a couple of other films while they were still children. I would guess that these were ‘extra pocket money’ actresses rather than people with a strong attraction to the profession.
·        8 took their acting careers a little bit further, only for them to end later on. I have identified at least 4 who carried on until the 1960s. This will have been the decade when they hit their 30s. The explanation that I would guess at is that they chose marriage and children over career. One sad exception is Belinda Lee, who had a busy and promising career until she was killed in a road accident in the US in 1961. She was just 25 years old.

The rest however serve to illustrate contemporary society and an emphasis that can be seen in the films themselves.  In the St Trinians films there are two sets of girls: the young delinquents with plaits and a wild look in their eye; and the sixth form sirens.  They are eligible to join Flash Harry’s marriage bureau, where the aim is to snare a rich husband and take him for every penny. A demonstration of the narrow opportunities seemingly available to women then, that this should be their best chance of becoming rich and powerful.  Girls had to expect marriage and children to take precedence over any other opportunity. And so, I presume that when the retiring actresses left their profession, it was pressure of society that won out over personal ambition.

Those St Trinians girls were not quite so progressive as they seem.

Thursday, 7 September 2017


My new novella is now available as a Kindle download and a paperback. It’s called ‘Temporary Accommodation’. Here’s the blurb:

It is the late 1940s and Old Vic Theatre trained actress Marigold Walbrook is languishing in a suburban repertory theatre. Having lost her home and parents in a V2 attack, her landlady is the nearest she has to a family. When Marigold's half-forgotten and reclusive Great Aunt dies, she inherits Donkey End Cottage in the Hampshire town of Bishop's Wallop. Deciding to abandon her acting career, she takes up residence in the cottage, planning to become a playwright.

Marigold finds that the residents of Bishop's Wallop are preoccupied with a new development of prefab houses that are being built in a field near to Marigold's cottage. They are intended to house bombed-out families from Portsmouth. Locals are worried that this influx will spoil their little town and their quiet rural lives. Knowing what it is to be homeless, Marigold determines to do something to bring together the old and new residents. As it looks increasingly likely that gardening will take over her life, she decides to launch a gardening competition, with prizes to be awarded by an old acting friend at a summer garden party. The competition meets many obstacles along the way, including the might of the local Women's Institute. But with a small group of new friends and her old landlady, she digs deep to build a community.

This novella will appeal to those interested in post war life in Britain. With reference to films, acting stars, prefabs and rationing (and a cameo appearance from Thorley Walters) it evokes a different and difficult time in our history with humour and warmth.

Twitter: @agathadascoyne
Instagram: @Adventureswithword

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Spotlight on St Trinians 13

Britain in the Time of St Trinians – Culture

A glimpse into what else was happening in the realm of books, films and theatre in the year that ‘The Belles of St Trinians’ was released (1954).

Other cinematic releases and their stars:

·        Doctor in the House (Dirk Bogarde)
·        Eight O’Clock Walk (Richard Attenborough)
·        An Inspector Calls (Alistair Sim)
·        The Maggie (Paul Douglas)
·        The Weak and the Wicked (Glynis Johns)

New books published:

·        Lord of the Flies (Golding)
·        Lucky Jim (Amis)
·        Live and Let Die (Fleming)
·        Bonjour Tristesse (Sagan)

New plays produced:

·        Separate Tables (Rattigan)
·        Sailor Beware! (King and Cary)
·        The Burning Glass (Morgan)
·        The Dark is Light Enough (Fry)

·        Spider’s Web (Christie)

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Spotlight on St Trinians 12

The History of Flash Harry

George Cole was born in South London in 1925, but was abandoned by his natural mother and adopted by the Cole family. They were not well off, and George joined the acting profession as a means of escaping a life of drudgery. This upbringing in downtown Tooting served him well – he specialised in playing the kind of character that dodges and cheats his way out of trouble or into a bit of cash. No doubt he came into contact with several people like this as he was growing up. In the 1950s, if the role called for a spiv, George Cole was called in. For a great example of this, see the 1955 film ‘Where There’s a Will’.

George was 29 years old when he first played the role of Flash Harry, and he stuck with this character longer than Alastair Sim or Joyce Grenfell stuck with theirs. I get the feeling that this was more for financial reasons than dedication – he wasn’t hugely famous and handsomely paid.  Every role is a gift to a jobbing actor who is worried about falling back into the poverty he once knew.

In a television interview given to Michael Aspel in the 1980s, George acknowledges the direct line travelling from Flash Harry to Arthur Daley, his most famous spiv role of all. And he is on record as stating that although Arthur Daley served him well, he personally found him an abhorrent character, pitying anyone who has someone like him as a husband or father.  You could say the same about Flash Harry. Flash is a funny character – as long as you don’t analyse his actions. If this sort of person was to appear on screen today, there would be questions asked. On paper, he is a sleaze - hanging around a girls’ school, selling on their contraband and arranging lucrative weddings for the sixth formers. But of course, in a film from times that are considered to be more innocent and with the loveable George Cole in the part, you have to like him. When you hear that lopsided music hall tune and see the shrubbery tremble, you know you’re in for a chuckle.

I recently wrote a blog on some of my film and theatre favourites for the delightful Carry on Blogging – have a look here:

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Spotlight on St Trinians 11

In Flagrante Delicto. Again.

Back in 2012 I wrote a History Usherette blogpost on ‘The Belles of St Trinians’. I gave it the title ‘In Flagrante Delicto’ and it got an increased amount of page views than was usual. This, I concluded, had to be down to the cheeky title. I called it this because it is the St Trinians school motto – as shown in a scene in the film. Strictly translated from the Latin, this motto means ‘In blazing offence’ or to give it a more straightforward meaning ‘caught in the act’. The more cheeky aspect of this phrase related to divorce cases – it was a coy legal term to state that one of the parties to the divorce had been caught in the physical act of adultery. This was in the days where, if you wanted a divorce, you had to demonstrate adultery - whether it had actually been committed or not. People were often paid to pretend that they’d seen you at it; or to be a fictional third party.

But the original Latin term led me to muse on the theme of arson in the St Trinians films. It is the catalyst for two of Alastair Sim’s best lines in ‘Belles’. Firstly, when Miss Fritton’s niece is threatened with expulsion for burning down the Sports Pavilion and the young lady complains that the girl who burned down the Gym wasn’t punished:
“The Gym was insured, the Sports Pavilion was not.”
And then:
“I WILL NOT have continual arson in my school!”

Then of course, ‘Pure Hell’ begins with the schoolgirls on trial for burning down the school, where they are eventually acquitted of arson. Why did Launder and Gilliat repeat this motif? I suppose it is because fire is the ultimate destructor. In the 1950s, little girls were meant to be anything but destructive. The female was meant to be nurturer, creator. The most outrageous thing contrary to this is to depict them as a wilfully destructive bunch, using fire to achieve their desired outcomes. I wonder if this was a little bit shocking to contemporary audiences? Did Launder and Gilliat use the motif to grab attention for their films? Was this their feminism coming to the fore again, showing the metaphorical lengths that girls had to go to in order to escape their prescribed role in society?

Do visit my new Instagram account @Adventureswithword

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….

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Spotlight on St Trinians 3

Only Connect

In the last blog post I talked about the St Trinians films being the link between the Ealing comedies and Carry On.  Here’s my notes on which actors appeared in St Trinians who had also appeared in the Ealing films; or who went on to appear in a Carry On film.  In the list of Carry On films, unless it is blindingly obvious, I have noted just one of their appearances, there may have been others.

The big question is…was anyone in all three???


Ealing films:
Alastair Sim (Hue and Cry)
Hermione Baddeley (Passport to Pimlico)
Sid James (Lavender Hill Mob)
Richard Wattis (Uncredited in Lavender Hill Mob and Kind Hearts & Coronets)

Carry On films:
Joan Sims
Sid James
Irene Handl (Nurse)
Renee Houston (Convenience)
Richard Wattis (Spying)
Shirley Eaton (Sergeant)
Dilys Laye (Cruising)
Barbara Windsor

Blue Murder

Ealing films:
Cyril Chamberlain (Lavender Hill Mob)
Judith Furse (Man in the White Suit)

Carry On films:
Terry Scott
Cyril Chamberlain (Cruising)
Judith Furse (Regardless)
Rosalind Knight (Teacher)
Eric Barker (Spying)

Pure Hell:

Ealing films:
Cecil Parker (The Ladykillers)
Dennis Price (Kind Hearts & Coronets)
Raymond Huntley (Passport to Pimlico)
George Benson (The Man in the White Suit)

Carry On films:
Liz Fraser
Warren Mitchell (Cleo)
Edina Ronay (Cowboy)
Sally Douglas (Screaming)

The Connection Kings and Queen?

Sid James, Cyril Chamberlain and Judith Furze – they had credited appearances in all 3 genres!