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    The Belles of St. Trinians

    Universal/Universal . R4 . B&W . 87 mins . G . PAL


    First came Ronald Searle. In the opening year of the second World War he drew a little cartoon which introduced the world to the wildest bunch of schoolgirls in existence - the girls of St Trinian's.

    That first cartoon carried no hint of what was to come. Searle used his time in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp to develop the schoolgirl theme. And as soon as he was released, the fully-fledged girls were launched onto the world.

    These were not the girls of the famous chalet, or St Clare's or Malory Towers schools of childhood lore. These were girls who smoked, drank, exploded each other and their teachers, used torture racks on girls from lower forms - these were delicious, spindly-legged monsters.

    And what fodder for the cinema! In 1954 came Belles of St Trinian's, followed three years later by Blue Murder at St Trinian's - the best two of the five St Trinian's movies.

    The third St Trinian's outing, Pure Hell at St Trinian's was still thought by St Trinian's fans as a respectable offering.

    The fourth and fifth films in the cycle, The Great St Trinian's Train Robbery and The Wildcats of St Trinian's are generally regarded as celluloid rubbish.

    Universal have released the first, second and fourth in the cycle. We should be grateful for the first two - but why release the fourth in the cycle instead of the superior third?

    Anyway, here we are at the start. The Belles of St Trinian's is a wonderful old black-and-white British comedy, acted splendidly by a vintage cast of great strength.

    Dominating the casting is sinisterly avuncular Alastair Sim, who plays the double role of St Trinian's Headmistress, Miss Fritton, and her seedy bookmaker-brother Clarence.

    The quite complex plot revolves around Miss Fritton's need to have a racehorse owned by the father of a pupil win an upcoming race, to save the school from bankruptcy.

    However, Miss Fritton's brother needs the steed, Arab Boy, to lose, to save him from prison. The lower remove of the school need Arab Boy to win. The upper form, headed by Clarence's daughter, needs Arab Boy to lose. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education needs someone, anyone, to tell them just what is going on at this school. They keep sending inspectors there - and the inspectors keep disappearing.

    Enough of the plot. The acting, from Alastair Sim, from his real-life adopted son George Cole as the cockney spiv Flash Harry (remember him in Minder?) from Beryl Reid and Irene Handle as teachers, and from the ever-glorious Joyce Grenfell as the games mistress who is really an undercover policewoman, is something to relish. The big and the little girls all manage to look remarkably like Ronald Searle's inspired creations - this is a romp which captures much of the spirit of his wonderful cartoons.

    Remarkably, Ronald Searle is still living and working in the South of France. He long ago left the girls of St Trinian's behind him - but how good for us to have them as a permanent part of our DVD world.


    This vintage black-and-white film has been transferred impeccably. There is not the full palette of black and white tones we see in some of the best Region 1 releases, such as in the Criterion Edition Hitchcocks, but the relative grey scales do suit the grey English landscape.

    There is some image fuzziness at times, especially when Alastair Sim is on screen simultaneously in both his personas as Headmistress and bookmaker-brother. But this is probably due more to the technical processes of the time than to any transfer deficiencies.


    The soundtrack, though mono, is clear and dialogue is always crystal-clear. The shrieking harpie-like girls are rendered with enough fidelity to put a shiver up any parent's spine.


    There are no extra features.


    The lack of extra features is a disappointment - there surely would have been a wealth of material to let a documentary be developed tracing the evolution of the St Trinian's theme from cartoons to cinema.

    But the film is the thing. For most people, renting would be the best option, to make sure you're attuned to this peculiar world. If you are, you'll then have to buy. The disc is worth having for the acting performances of Alastair Sim and Joyce Grenfell alone. They are to be treasured.

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      And I quote...
    "There never were girls quite like the girls of St Trinian's - thank God. Here they are in all their fiendish, Searlian glory."
    - Anthony Clarke
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