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.’



5 comments on “Cinema Museum Picks 1”

  1. I love the original ST films; adore them (except Wildcats of course). I actually think first modern ST movie was extremely good, staying true to the original ideas whilst updating it for the 21st century. The second was a dreadful mistake, best avoided. I think Blue Murder is my favourite of the original run.

  2. Brian Evans says:

    I’ve never understood the put-downs the British Film Industry has had to endure. I love British films, and always have. Even as a child I preferred them over Hollywood pictures. Granted, there was often too much in the way upper middle-class accents with strangulated vowels, which tried the patience of the working-class audiences, so this of course did work against them.

    Take the Quota Quickies-cheap and cheerful fodder with a guaranteed showing, created to boost the Brit Film Industry of the 1930’s. They have not been seen for years and were universally derided by all critics and film books alike. But….many have now been put on DVD by the “Network” company, and in reality they are all more or less delightful. To mention just one example, have a look at “Cheer Up”, a musical comedy of 1936 starring (the then prolific) Stanley Lupino. To me it is a charming picture. And that, I can assure everyone, is just the tip of the iceberg.

    I love the St Trinian’s films. However, I do find the middle two mentioned above are curate’s eggs. They have wonderful individual scenes, but as a whole they are poorly structured, and both build up to something of an anti-climax. Re the Cecil Parker line about being a Muslim and the Joyce Grenfell character (Ruby Gates) having to wait in a queue to marry him: to make sure he really puts her off he says his six wives share a caravan on Canvey Island. Then, when she walks off in a huff, he turns almost to the audience, and says: “Canvey Island-that was a touch of genius.”

    I can highly recommend Admin’s “Film Freak”, which is all about his work done (in another life) promoting British films. I read a bit in the BFI book shop. It was about when he was having to promote the gay themed “Can’t Stop the Music” starring Village People. They were all made , incl Admin, to wear tight shorts and roller skates at a press showing. I laughed out loud at this in the shop, and went off to buy the book.

  3. SteveB says:

    I do agree that the films to pick are the ones with a personal impact.
    Train Robbery was one of the first films I saw at the cinema as a child, I think Incredible Journey was the very first, and of course everything stays with me a lot from those first films.
    I think Chris has a bit of a love-hate relationship with British Film. What about Michael Powell /Peeping Tom, written by Leo Marks who also wrote Twisted Nerve and wrote the poem in real life from Carve her Name. Or Canterbury Tale? Kind Hearts? One-way Pendulum (scandalously not on dvd), Brighton Rock, David Lean, Noel Coward, Terry Thomas, Alastair Sim, Hammer Horror, …

  4. SteveB says:

    By the way, Admin’s comments about Britain in the 50s remind me of Denis Norden’s story about when he and Muir were shown US sitcoms by their BBCboss and asked, why cant you do stuff like that. And Norden replied, look, these peoplehave fridges and washing machines. It’s a completely different life, we cant write that for here in the UK.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Steve B- to say nothing of the fact the the American’s War didn’t start until Dec. of 1941, they were never bombed and they only had 4 years of rationing. They lost crowds of young men and fought a lot in Asia but it wasn’t the experience Britain had and when the war was over they were receiving payments from Britain for the Lend-Lease agreement.

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