The “St. Trinian’s” girls get a modern makeover

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If I told you that the new British
boarding-school comedy St. Trinian’s, released in the U.K.
on Dec. 21, has aspects of the Kristy McNichol film Little
Darlings
crossed with Tina Fey’s comedy Mean Girls,
you might think that you ought to be excited about seeing it. Unfortunately,
it’s nowhere near as good as either of those movies. But it does begin
with a similar premise: the female of the species — and particularly
the teenage female — is much, much more deadly than the male.

Although I don’t think they’re
really known of in the U.S., the fierce and fictional schoolgirls of
St. Trinian’s have been iconic in the U.K. for over half a century.
They first sprang from the brain of the cartoonist Ronald Searle, who
in 1941 was a soldier stationed in Scotland near a friendly family
whose daughters attended a school named St. Trinnean’s. Encouraged
by the success of his early cartoons within the family, Searle sent
them off to a magazine. By 1947, the series was a national hit, being
published in book form as Hurrah for St. Trinian’s!

From the beginning, the joke was
that the St. Trinian’s girls were the antithesis of everything young
British roses were supposed to be: depraved, devious, manipulative,
gin-swigging, cigar-smoking, and physically aggressive. Through sheer
force, they would always get what they wanted. There was a dark side
to these cartoons, as Searle had suffered from 1942 to 1945 as a prisoner
in a Japanese war camp. Though the cartoons were meant to be lighthearted,
it’s difficult not to think that that experience must have influenced
his portrayal of the girls as bullying and torturing each other:

When the popularity of the series
led to the first St. Trinian’s film, The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954), this torture aspect was minimized. Instead, the
girls were divided into two types. There were the Fourth Formers, who
were tough tomboy hoodlums with freckles, huge untidy hair, and a talent
for distilling their own liquor and blowing things up:

Then there were the Sixth Formers,
glamourpuss pinups with perfectly waved hair, stocking tops showing
beneath their skirts, and a habit of using their sexuality to get what
they want. (This portrayal might have seemed more creepy if it hadn’t
been for the fact that the actresses playing the Sixth Formers were
usually obviously in their twenties).

How the freckly, dumpy Fourth Formers
grow up into the sexpot Sixth Formers is never quite explained by the
films (of which three more were made during the ’50s and ’60s), but the
result is a slightly depressing view of female life: No matter how scruffy,
deviously clever, and anarchic the girl is as a child, she is destined
to grow up into an interchangeable Barbie doll, whose assets are all
on the outside rather than on the inside.

Despite all this, there is an undeniable
appeal to the films for female viewers, in seeing girls who will always
survive and come out on top. As the school’s headmistress, Millicent
Fritton, puts it in Belles: “You see, in other schools girls
are sent out quite unprepared into a merciless world, but when our girls
leave here, it is the merciless world which has to be prepared.”

The current film — which was the
idea of out gay actor Rupert Everett, who also stars in it —
combines aspects of the old films with some of the clichés of moden
American high school comedies: the different social groups (geeks, emos,
etc.), and the new girl who gets a makeover. The new girl in question
is Annabelle Fritton, played by Talulah Riley, whose last film
appearance was as Mary Bennet in the Keira Knightley Pride

& Prejudice:

Initially posh and uptight, Annabelle
has to be formed into a true St. Trinian’s student by the other girls,
including Head Girl Kelly (played by Gemma Arterton):

Among the school staff are former
Bond girl Caterina Murino and Jekyll actress Fenella Woolgar, who plays
a distinctly lesbianish, deep-voiced, khaki-wearing P.E. teacher. (Ronald
Searle is recorded as saying of St. Trinian’s that “the staff, behind
an extremely old-fashioned facade, conceal equivalent excesses [to the
students] and plenty of lesbianism.”)

AfterEllen.com favorites in the cast
include Lena Headey as a frumpy, hopeful English teacher, as
well as Mischa Barton as former Head Girl JJ French:

Despite the strong female presence,
the film is honestly too feebly scripted for me to really recommend
shelling out money for it if it comes to cinemas in the U.S. But you
can check out a trailer here:



And the British girl group
Girls Aloud
sings the theme song:



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