The St Trinian’s girls are back on screen, and the gymslip sirens have been updated with chavs, geeks and posh totty. It’s a class act — and proof that female camaraderie has never gone away.
by India Knight
Could there be room for Ealing Studios’ anarchic ethos in Gordon Brown’s prudent Britain? I’ll say. What could be a more appropriate – and welcome – corrective than the risqué jokes and wild exuberance of the new St Trinian’s film? Its stellar cast includes Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Mischa Barton, Russell Brand, Celia Imrie, Girls Aloud, Stephen Fry, and an army of schoolgirls aged 11 to 18. The film draws inspiration from its predecessors (The Belles of St Trinian’s, 1954; Blue Murder at St Trinian’s, 1957; The Pure Hell of St Trinian’s, 1960; and The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery, 1966), but also from Ronald Searle’s darkly funny cartoons, which are often – incorrectly – used as shorthand to suggest provocative schoolgirlhood, as though they occupied the same territory as a teenaged Britney Spears writhing saucily in her school uniform for the 1998 video of …Baby One More Time (which sold 9m copies. There’s nothing like girls in uniform for bringing in the punters, especially if the uniform suggests jail bait).
In fact, Searle’s drawings were conceived while he was held in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, in particularly horrific conditions: the “girls” are the prisoners and the “mistresses” their jailers and tormenters. In one drawing, a school mistress hangs from a tree (captioned “Okay, now where’s old Stinks?”). Vultures sometimes circle overhead. Jolly hockey sticks and Thelwell ponies seem a million miles away. As well as echoing some of this darkness, the old St Trinian’s movies were startlingly full-on, all stocking-tops and anarchy where one might, given their subject matter, have expected demure gentility and angst about prep. Searle’s schoolgirls and their cinematic counterparts were the antithesis of nicely brought up, middle-class young “ladies” – they were the equivalent of Asbo-wielding, gin-guzzling, fag-loving chavs who happened to be boarders; brash, mouthy, aggressive, and precociously sexually confident – alarmingly so, one imagines, in the context of the times. Plus ça change.
With this in mind, and given the fascination gangs of girls exert on the public, one can see how Barnaby Thompson and Oliver Parker, the film’s directors (Thompson and his business partners bought Ealing Studios in 2000), found themselves thinking that a St Trinian’s remake might be more than an exercise in nostalgia, and might have real resonance in 2007 – for 15-year-old girls, but also for a broader public, aware of
St Trinian’s place in English cinematic history. Thompson credits Rupert Everett, who plays both the headmistress, Miss Fritton, and her brother Carnaby in the new film, with the initial idea: “We’d worked with him on a couple of films – when we did The Importance of Being Earnest, he suggested he play every part, which actually he’d have done very well. He’s a lovely boy, and he makes a lovely girl. He’s so wonderful in this film – it must have been fairly terrifying to follow in Alastair Sim’s footsteps, but he’s made it his own. Anyway, he said, ‘You should do a remake of St Trinian’s.’ And it was a brilliant idea. The problem was always going to be the script. The old St Trinian’s films have maintained their edginess, so coming up with a modern version was tricky – it needed to be sufficiently authentic, so people could relate to it, but also sufficiently comedic. We kept going back to Searle’s cartoons for inspiration.” Did they meet Searle, who lives in France? “We got his blessing. We nearly went to see him when we were in Cannes,” says Parker. “But he’s old, and he’d been quite sick. I’d love to meet him.”
Were the directors not put off by the boarding-school setting of the story – or, rather, with the class-ridden baggage the words “boarding school” trail in their wake today? “In the old movies, the school had a kind of classlessness,” says Thompson. “We’ve adopted that. You’re not for one moment under the impression that it’s posh, and when you meet the girls, they come from a variety of backgrounds. One reason that the school is always in financial trouble is that Miss Fritton brokers a kind of socialism, where those who can pay do, and those who can’t don’t. She has the almost impossible task of uniting all these disparate characters – in our film they break down into the chavs, the emo kids, the geeks, and the posh totty – you know, the Kate Middleton types: young, but with expensively styled hair. The story is about them all coming together to pull something off.”
It is this girl-power element that will, I think, ensure the success of the film and give Ealing Studios mark II their biggest hit to date. When I went on set in the spring, they were filming a scene where one of the girls gets a makeover in the dorm. I was milling about watching on a monitor downstairs, relatively peacefully, until they broke for lunch. Suddenly, schoolgirls were everywhere – tiny little 11-year-old ones, chic 18-year-old ones, tall ones, short ones, geeky ones, emo ones, a lone posh one, chavvy ones, and the model Lily Cole, looking like a giraffe with her hair in bunches – “there’s a clique for everyone to connect with,” as Juno Temple, 18, who plays “loner trustafarian” Celia, told me.
Gemma Arterton, 21, who plays the head girl, Kelly, agreed: “The film is partly a detailed look at teenage tribes – you get a good sense of British teenage culture.” They were all running about chatting and giggling, huddled against the rain, and for one mad moment it felt as though I was at an actual school. “It does feel like that, because you’re working with people your own age,” said Arterton. “It’s lovely and cosy; between takes we’re chilling out on the dorm beds, talking about boys.” Talulah Riley, who plays Annabelle Fritton, a square posh girl, says the same thing: “The casting is genius. We all get on really well.” “The energy on set is just extraordinary,” Oliver Parker agrees. “We were shooting a scene in Leicester Square, and the girls had to come out of a bus and convey that energy. We wondered if they’d do it. Then the bus doors opened, and they came tumbling out and raaaah… They’re a force of nature. You have to stand back so you don’t get mowed down.”
Parker and Thompson visited a series of real schools – state and private – when they were researching the film. “What’s interesting,” says Parker, “is that when you talk to the various girls, they’re obviously different for the first couple of minutes – some are clearly posh, some less so. But the moment they began talking about the delineation of the various groups in their particular schools – the emos, the chavs, whatever – there was a huge amount of overlap, and the girls’ attitude to life was broadly similar. It was fascinating spending time with them, because they were all so strong-minded.”
On set near Henley-on-Thames, all the girls I spoke to made a point of mentioning how pleased they were to be playing powerful girls who were masters of their own destiny, not sidekicks or love interests. “The most amazing thing,” says Thompson, “is it’s been 50 years since the old St Trinian’s movies, and girls have come a long way, but in the film world they’re still basically playing girl friends. It’s hard to name five movies that are just about girls. Ours isn’t just that, it’s also a heist movie [the girls steal a painting to save the school]. It’s probably the first girls’ heist movie, which seems incredible in 2007.” Parker adds: “I think it was Godard who said, ‘All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.’ We’re saying, ‘Give the girl the gun.’ ”
It would be overly coy to deny that some of our fascination with gaggles of teenage girls is to do with what creepy old men like to call “burgeoning sexuality”. How do the directors, who both have 11-year-old daughters, marry that to an anticipated 12A certificate and a family audience? The original films were hardly tame.
“The first one was, relatively,” says Thompson. “They got worse as they went along. You put girls in school uniform and suspenders and it’s difficult for that not to be sexy. But there’s a sharp divide between the first-formers, who are just a cloud of energy, and the older girls, who are around 18 and very confident with their own image. Hopefully, what one is doing is empowering them by making them look so good, accentuating the fact that they are the ones running the show.”
Nevertheless, didn’t they occasionally feel like pervs? “We had to be very careful,” says Thompson. “We surrounded ourselves with as many women – adult women – as possible: editors, costume designers, make-up artists and so on – and we kind of let them run with it. So they’d go away with the actress and present her to us, and one or two times we said, ‘That’s a bit much, tone it down.’ There are jokes that seem risqué on the page but less so in the delivery and within the boundaries of the film. Both our daughters are in the film, so we tried to be conscious of how they would experience it. And we have strong mothers, and strong wives/girl friends, who’d be all over us if we crossed that line. It’s hard enough to explain getting up at 6am to spend the day with schoolgirls. It was a delicate area, but I think we got it right.” Parker adds: “The main thing is, the film is about the girls being in charge, and as long as they’re in charge, then it’s okay. But it’s also, of course, about creating the right degree of glamour. The message of St Trinian’s as delivered by Miss Fritton is ‘Our job is not to turn you into what we are, but into what you are.’ It’s important.”
This leads us neatly to girl power. Thompson directed the Spice Girls’ film Spice World, in 1997, and observed the phenomenon first-hand.
“They changed a lot,” he says. “They were the first representation of ordinary girls [as opposed to politicised adult women] doing it for themselves. I remember going to one of their concerts with my wife, who’s American. She said when she was growing up, there was only boys’ music, and she would try and force herself to like it, to keep up with the boys. What happened with the Spice Girls, and for that generation of young women, was, suddenly, it was all about girls, expressly for girls. Suddenly, they were dressing for each other, not for men. You’d go to a club and see girls dancing on tables and realise they weren’t doing it for you, or for the men in the room – they were doing it to please themselves. I know girl power has become a cliché, but it marked a huge change in the way girls thought about themselves.”
True, but even the Spice Girls had male managers, male accountants and male advisers. “Of course. And there are still a lot of men selling the same concept in different forms. It’s murky water. What we wanted to try and do with St Trinian’s was to be a clear, refreshing pool. We’ve also got people like Lily Allen, Kate Nash, Remi Nicole on the soundtrack – girl singers who are 100% themselves, singing these vignettes of girl life. They’re just fantastic.”
The film couldn’t be more British, not least in how it very Britishly – or perhaps Englishly – plays around with class and gender. “Well,” says Thompson, “we did initially go and see Harvey Weinstein [co-founder of Miramax, now at Weinstein Company]. He liked the concept, but asked why we couldn’t have Judi Dench playing the headmistress, instead of Rupert in drag. He just didn’t get it, and if people don’t get it, there’s no point trying to explain. But, certainly, part of our point was to celebrate the Englishness of it, the eccentricity.”
“There is this amazing dichotomy in the English,” adds Parker, “where on one hand they’re tremendously Establishment, but on the other they’re completely anti – that old thing of wearing both the bowler hat and the frilly knickers. We wanted to celebrate that, and St Trinian’s is the perfect expression of it.”
It is also the perfect expression of the enduring appeal of gaggles of girls. If you’re female, you want to be part of the gang. If you’re male, you want to sleep with half of it – but that’s not all: there is something about female camaraderie that appeals enormously to men, stuck as they are with the rather truncated (beer, sex, sport, jokes) male version. It is interesting that films that involve male friendships seldom involve the heroes actually achieving anything as a result of their intimacy: they defuse the bomb, win the girl, save the planet despite having friends, not because of it – though, more often than not, they’re friendless loners in the first place. Films about female friendships, on the other hand, use that camaraderie to illustrate the point that, provided you have your girl friends by your side, anything is possible. Men going to see St Trinian’s to check out the eye candy may be surprised to find themselves awed into timidity by it, because while there’s no denying that the girls look wonderful – and, yes, sexy – the film’s chief concern is celebrating grounded, powerful, self-knowing girls doing exactly as they please, palling up, and triumphing against the odds.
The school uniforms may look cutely retro; what’s going on underneath is anything but.
From The Sunday Times November 25, 2007
St Trinian’s is released in the UK on December 21