If there was an award for the most charming film ever made, this would be high on the list; it was produced in 1950 but looks and feels as if it had been concocted in 1925. A perky new teacher arrives at Nutbourne College, to be shown around by a sarcastic, cynical Richard Wattis, who gives him the lowdown…’Nutbourne College goes back to the Tudors, but according to the bank it goes back to them.’
Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat based this comedy on a play by John Dighton, the co-writer of ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’
and ‘The Man in the White Suit’. It comes from a situation that occurred in WWII, when whole schools were sent to different locations at very short notice.
Here, a mix-up at the Ministry of Education causes St Swithin’s School for Girls to be sent to the strictly-boys-only Nutbourne College, with disastrous results – especially when a simultaneous inspection from two different groups leads to a split-second cover-up, with classrooms and sports fields switching from male to female at the blast of a whistle.
Alastair Sim’s headmaster Wetherby Pond is one of his greatest creations. Kindly and decent, he requires order and discipline achieved by mutual respect and, ideally, a complete absence of the opposite sex.
Instead he’s faced with Miss Muriel Whitchurch (Margaret Rutherford), who has no respect for anyone. A feminist before her time, she has no truck with convention or protocol and is quite comfortable taking over Pond’s office, living quarters and indeed his entire school.
Great as they are together, Sim and Rutherford are upstaged by Joyce Grenfell. As the gawky, love-lorn Miss Gossage (“Call me Sausage”), little more than an overgrown schoolgirl herself, she effortlessly steals every scene she’s in, whether over-enthusiastically banging gongs, idly writing her name in the dust or staging impromptu lacrosse matches.
The film was a massive success, and inspired ‘The Belles of St Trinian’s', which reteamed all three leads and created a franchise still running today. But this first and best version was eclipsed by the films it inspired. ‘I was showing the older girls around the delphiniums,’ says suave sports master Leslie Phillips. ‘I’m afraid they’re rather past their best.’ ‘They’re not the only things past their best,’ Rutherford replies drily. It’s a monochrome charmer from a lost world.