Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The strange case of the prisoner of St Trinian's

Not long after Searle celebrated his last milestone decade this article by Miles Kington appeared in the Independant:

'RONALD SEARLE turned 80 years old not so very long ago, and his biographer Russell Davies was asked on Radio 4's Front Row to sum up Searle's reputation today.  His reply was blunt.
Searle has two reputations, he said. One is the reputation he enjoys on the continent, where he is considered to be a very fine artist who has long ago outgrown his roots as a cartoonist.
The other is the reputation he has in Britain, where he is still remembered chiefly as the person who invented the girls of St Trinian's. Not many people, he said, know anything about what he has done since then ­ and that was 50 years ago!

I felt quite proud at that moment, because I knew at least one thing he had done since then. It was a cover for a book of mine, a selection of translated pieces of the French humorist Alphonse Allais. I could think of other things Searle had done since then ­ books, prints, paintings, illustrations ­ and I had even read the life of Searle by Davies, so I could remember vividly his account of how deeply Searle came to hate the whole St Trinian's trap.

He had first started drawing the girls in the mid 1940s, and 10 years later already felt imprisoned in their success. It's not uncommon for cartoonists to be stereotyped (Thelwell's girls on ponies, Giles's family and Granny) but they usually accept their fate and the money that goes with it.

Searle rebelled. At first he rebelled by sharing the load with someone else. When humorist Timothy Shy (real name DB Wyndham Lewis) suggested to Searle that he, Shy, should write an entire novel set at St Trinian's, Searle agreed quickly; it meant that he wouldn't have to think of any new ideas, just illustrate Shy's ideas. The book, The Terror of St Trinian's, came out in 1952, dedicated, rather unexpectedly, to Max Beerbohm, and did very well, but Searle was still determined to kill the girls off, and did so in 1953 in a book called Souls in Torment. In this book there was a last helping of St Trinian's drawings, labelled clearly "ST TRINIAN'S 1941-1953", in which Ronald Searle explained that the school had been blown up by nuclear experiments and would not be reappearing in his drawings ever, ever again.

Searle kept his word (unlike Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes), and there St Trinian's might have ended had it not been for the first St Trinian's film, which appeared the following year, and with which Searle had nothing to do. How he must have cursed this spectre clambering out of the grave! Never mind ­ he got on with his life, and other people got on with making increasingly feeble St Trinian's films, which had so little to do with Ronald Searle that they are not even mentioned in Russell Davies's biography.

Why am I mentioning all this? Well, because it would have been nice to say that when Searle turned 80, there were some celebrations over here. But apart from Russell Davies's little spot on Front Row, I noticed nothing. Was it really true that we British thought that there was no life in Searle beyond St Trinian's?

Then, last week, at last, I spotted a programme with the word Searle in the title, on Radio 4.
Alas, it was called Searle's Girls.
Alas, it was about nothing more or less than the girls of St Trinian's.
I listened to it, on the off chance that it was better than it sounded.
Alas, it was even worse.
Searle was barely mentioned. Oh, yes, we heard the story of how he started the drawings in the war, in and out of Jap POW camps, but almost immediately the film St Trinian's took over, and most of the programme was a gushing tour by Annabel Giles of endless clips from the increasingly dreadful St Trinian's films which would have been incomprehensible if you had never seen them, and which left you with the impression that Alastair Sim was somehow a lot more important than Ronald Searle.

Nothing that I have mentioned in this piece found its way into the programme. No mention of any of Searle's books, no mention of the novel by Timothy Shy, no mention of Searle's hatred of his monsters, no mention of the fact that Searle never did more than a couple of dozen Trinian's drawings and had purposely destroyed the school long before the first film came out.

Still, look on the bright side. It means there is still room for someone to do a decent programme on Ronald Searle.'

Miles Kington, The Independant Monday, 14 May 2001

Since then there has been one decent film on Searle-LionTV's 'Searle's Progress' presented by cartoonist Martin Rowson.
Films on Searle are difficult to track down.  Lion TV refused me permission to screen 'Searle's Progress' at the CTN-X animation festival in November. The BBC archive wouldn't grant me access to the 1975 Omnibus documentary 'A Step In The Jungle'.  On my last visit with Searle he dug out his old vhs copy & we watched it together.
There are films on Searle buried away in the archives of French and German TV companies too.
Searle told me that a French film-maker hopes to make a definitive documentary but is struggling to find funding.


Peter said...

A very interesting article, Matt.
Thanks also for providing the link to The Times article which was even more illuminating.

I hope we can toast Mr. Searle's 90th with Beetles bubbly - interesting to read that Searle won't speak to him. I can guess why.

Matt J said...

That could be mis-interpreted though- They've never met in person & Searle doesn't have a phone so I guess the occasion to speak doesn't arise. . .