Blu-ray Review: The Belles of St Trinian’s 60th Anniversary Edition

Starring: Alastair Sim, Joyce Grenfell, George Cole
Director: Frank Launder
Rating: 6/10

Quite why Ronald Searle’s cartoons of delinquent, half-savage schoolgirls were so hugely popular in the late ’40s and 1950s now seems a bit mystifying – although one suspects that maybe it had something to do with public unease about the increasing assertiveness and independence of women during World War II. Writer/directors Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat (who penned the screenplay of Hitchock’s The Lady Vanishes) cashed in on the craze with this energetic comedy, which spawned many sequels.

There’s a busy plot to do with a stolen racehorse (played, very nicely, by a steed belonging to Launder himself) and a policewoman (Joyce Grenfell), prompted by a crime wave in the vicinity, going undercover in the school posing as a games mistress, but what’s peculiar is how uninterested the film seems in the girls themselves. Screeching around en masse, the formidable Fourth Form remain strangely unindividualized, while the Sixth Formers, all tiny shorts, perky sweaters, tousled hair and bedroom eyes, seem to have escaped from a contemporary under-the-counter cheesecake magazine.

Nonetheless, there’s still plenty to enjoy – the theatrically tatty and tarty costumes, the seedily Gothic sets, a manic third act that finds the school turned into a battleground on parents’ day, and the sight of various national treasures of yore doing their thing. In particular, there’s the fun of seeing Alastair Sim sashaying around in drag as Miss Fritton, the headmistress, an Edwardian grand dame who has been reduced to steeling the girls’ pocket money to keep St Trinian’s afloat (he also plays her horseflesh-fancying brother, Clarence). But he in turn is upstaged by the wonderful George Cole as Flash Harry, a black market spiv who becomes Miss Fritton’s unlikely helper.

The HD transfer is just slightly grainy, but it packs plenty of detail and is free of artefacts. The extras include a bunch of illuminating talking head-style interviews. The very nice ladies who played the horrid schoolgirls chat about how lovely everyone was to them on set, and we also learn about their later careers (one of them ended up being Diana Rigg’s body double on The Avengers). Film historian Geoff Brown talks about the career of Launder and Gilliat and their long-standing collaboration with Sim, and about Sim’s close relationship with Cole, who was almost like a son to him. And professor of cinema Steve Chibnall describes Sim’s deteriorating relationship with Gilliat, who thought that Sim’s lengthy pauses were slowing down the pace of his films. All in all, extremely educational.

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