Cinema Museum Picks 1
It came as a shock to be flicking through a copy of BFI Monthly (now called Sight & Sound) to discover that the first British colour feature film was made just 16 years before I was born. For me, ‘British film’ was a tautology, the punchline to a national joke on a par with ‘British car industry’. So it was ironic that I ended up working in it for so long. Film freaks rarely turn their obsessions into successful careers because they have no objectivity at all and will work for nothing. Even hookers don’t do that.
When I attempted to whittle down half a century of filmgoing into 10 films to talk about at London’s wonderfully quirky cinema museum in the Elephant & Castle last year I ended up picking ones that affected me in some way, even though they were mostly risible in terms of critical quality. Over the next week I’ll run a few I perversely picked.
The original St Trinian’s films, especially Blue Murder At St Trinian’s
The Background: Artist Ronald Searle enlisted a surprisingly highbrow group of people to help him bring his anarchic schoolgirls to the screen, including the author D B Wyndham-Lewis, the composer Sir Malcolm Arnold, Johnny Dankworth, the Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, Bertolt Brecht, Flanders & Swann, Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder.
The Serious Side: The school in question is financed on stolen money and immoral earnings, but is seen as a more decent institution than the inert, corrupt government because at least it’s honest about how it earns its money.
The Funny Stuff: ‘The school goes back to 1630,’ says Headmistress Alistair Sim, ‘but according to the bank it goes back to them.’ An Arab Sheik looks through a catalogue of sixth-form girls in bikinis, deciding which one to buy. ‘What’s this girl’s background?’ he asks Flash Harry, who replies ‘I think that’s Brighton Pier.’ And lovestruck WPC Ruby Gates misses an important police broadcast because she’s retuned the police transmitter to the Light Programme. She harasses her sergeant; ‘Oh Sammy, you used to call me your little Blue Lamp Baby.’ This is only funny if you know what she looks like. Corrupt councillors take their lift-man (played by Michael Ripper) along on a European fact-finding mission. The English attitude to Europe is summed up by Ripper in Naples, who taps the barometer and complains ‘If it gets any hotter, I shall have to take my pullover off.’
The Point: Everything about the films captured the conniving state of the postwar nation, the supposedly non-partisan civil servants singing ‘The Red Flag’, the horse-nobbling, gin-making, subsidy cheating shoddiness of life. Cecil Parker’s sinister wooing of Ruby Gates climaxes in his reveal that he’s a muslim and she’ll be at the back of the queue behind his other wives. The last of the four original films reached a natural conclusion with the Great Train Robbery loot finding its way to the school. The newer ones weren’t bad, the only one to avoid being the non-canonical ‘The Wildcats of St Trinian’s.’