‘The Happiest Days of your Life’ (1950) is a total joy to watch. This is because it showcases three of my all time favourite film stars – Margaret Rutherford, Alastair Sim and Joyce Grenfell. Launder and Gilliat’s action of taking these three and putting them in a school setting was rather genius. According to Margaret Rutherford’s biographer Andy Merriman (“Dreadnought with Good Manners”) putting Rutherford and Sim in a film together was a cracking move. The relationship between the two became a competitive one, and the pair began to try and wrestle each shared scene from the clutches of the other. The beneficiary of this tussle is the viewer, who is presented with a festival of comic timing and expressive gestures. Grenfell meanwhile delivers comic pathos in lacrosse-net loads as Miss Gossage, imploring Richard Wattis to “call me Sossage” in her search for affection in a world seemingly devoid of it. She doesn’t succeed, poor old thing.
|Alastair Sim by @aitchteee|
The story is set in World War Two and involves a girls’ school being mistakenly evacuated to the all-boy Nutbourne College. From the distance of 64 years, it is easy to assume that this story is entirely contrived for our entertainment. But we shouldn’t be so sure. As part of the mass evacuation of children from inner cities in the war years, public schools were also compelled to make arrangements for the safety of their pupils. Some schools were turfed out of their premises as they were required for official use. One such school was Penrhos College from north Wales, whose pupils were moved to Chatsworth House by the Ministry. It seems that this new use for the country house was common. Castle Howard, Longleat and Blenheim Palace all served time as schools during the 1940s. Some schools also shared premises – Malvern moved in with Harrow for example. These are just the big names that have been written about in the mainstream history books. What ‘The Happiest Days…’ reminds us of is that there were hundreds of small independent schools serving the wealthy middle classes that couldn’t quite afford Eton or Harrow. How they were affected by World War Two has not received a lot of coverage. But I think that this film holds clues to the trials that some of them must have faced.
In the grand scheme of things, their problems probably didn’t add up to much, but it is interesting all the same to consider what their problems were. It is ably demonstrated that to the head of each school, their domain was their entire existence. The interference of war and the Ministry of Education must have been disruptive to a way of life that had been held sacred over many years. If some of the more famous schools had to move in together then it is fair to assume that it happened among the lower echelons too – quite possibly more so as their pupil numbers would have been smaller. This must have required a great amount of effort on the staff of the hosts and visitors and also must have led to many a petty squabble and domain building. It is also evident that the Ministry was not held in high esteem, as they are the butt of so many jokes and are portrayed as being utterly useless. I get the feeling that someone derived immense satisfaction from this portrayal.
Another problem indicated by the film was staffing. It must have been very difficult to retain and employ teachers at this time. Domestic staff also felt able to walk out without any worry of not finding another job. Schools ended up with teachers of retirement age and beyond, along with those unable to fight due to medical reasons and those invalided out. This doesn’t sound like a recipe for success in handling a hundred boisterous boys. And even with all these problems to overcome, they still had the fee paying parents to answer to, who still insisted that war or no war, their little darlings should receive a good education. I realise now that to have been the headteacher of such a school during these times must have been one of the most stressful civilian jobs going.
At the end of the film, due to yet another cock-up by the Ministry (and an indication of their infuriating methods) a rabble of lower class children descend on Nutbourne – a sneaky indicator of war levelling the classes. Sim and Rutherford realise that the game is up and that there is no longer any point in pursuing a life that they once held sacred. War encroached on every corner and backwater of Britain and secure livelihoods were turned upside down. I can’t imagine anyone better than this crew to teach us that.