Absolute classics

7th January 2005 at 00:00

Clearly defined learning outcomes *

Health and safety at work **

Cosy Sunday afternoon entertainment *****

"In other schools girls are sent out quite unprepared into a merciless world, but when our girls leave here it is the merciless world which has to be prepared." So says Millicent Fritton (Alastair Sim in a frock) of child-centred boarding school St Trinian's.

Frank Launder's comedy emerged from the charming cartoons of Ronald Searle, whose sketches transformed school into a slightly sinister laughter riot that combined medieval combat with Heath-Robinson devices.

Launder first translated this vision to the big screen in his The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950), which supplied the template - a farce that put two schools under the same roof during wartime evacuation. It also assembled the core of the St Trinian's team: Alastair Sim, Guy Middleton and Joyce Grenfell, who treat parental visits and Ministry of Education inspections as a crushing nuisance. But Belles cranks up the tempo by having two school inspectors disappear, prompting local police to smuggle in officer Ruby Gates (Grenfell) disguised as a teacher.

George Cole is notable as Flash Harry, rehearsing for his future role as Arthur Daley. Distributing the girls' bootleg gin, produced in science class, he also acts as their bookie. This leads to a conflict of interest.

The cartoon-like fourth form bets on the Sultan's horse to win the Gold Cup. Meanwhile, members of the sixth-form (apparently women in their mid-20s - perhaps child actors were rationed back then) have teamed up with shady gambler Clarence Fritton (Sim again) in order to nobble the horse.

For his sister, Millicent, betting is an alternative to pawning the school's endless supply of hockey trophies, won through sheer brutality. A successful punt on the sport of kings will mean that wages get paid and pupils fed.

Endless scheming, bullying and extortion pave the way for a climactic battle, transferred from the hockey pitch to the schoolyard. The older girls lay waste to the visiting team while the fourth form assault racetrack gangsters. Trademark images include exploding bags of flour and adults, including Grenfell, knocked unconscious with a croquet mallet. No wonder endless 1970s TV screenings of Belles instilled a real fear of girls' boarding schools in many boys.

Four progressively inferior sequels appeared between 1957 and 1980, losing key cast members along the way. But for striking imagery and a good sense of proportion - images of smoking and bullying did not upset 1950s audiences in the way they might do today - St Trinian's is in a class of its own.

Graham Barnfield

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