Wednesday, 1 June 2016

A Foreign Country

‘A French Mistress’ is a Boulting film dating from 1960.  It is not one of their better known ones, yet it is full of familiarity. Cecil Parker, James Robertson Justice, Irene Handl and Thorley Walters fill the screen with their usual personas. The scene is a private boys’ school – and on the subject of familiar names and faces Michael Crawford is listed as being one of the pupils. I have to say that I didn’t actually notice him while I was watching.

Thorley Walters when he was little more than a school boy, thanks to Richard Hope-Hawkins from my Facebook page In Search of Thorley Walters

In some respects, this is a fun film with a fair bit to recommend it – not least Irene as the stressed school cook.  But it is also desperately old fashioned and, in my view, this overrides any sense of nostalgia.  The French Mistress of the title is a 20-something Mademoiselle who takes up the vacant position of French teacher at the school.  The previous incumbents of the post have all been sent galloping back home due to Irene’s cooking, and Mlle Lafarge is consequently the only applicant for a job that has become notorious. This causes all kinds of hoo-ha at the bastion of chauvenism that is the 1950s/60s boys school.  There are only four female characters in total, and I thought that these served to illustrate the four ages of woman as seen by the patriarchy at this time.
1)   Totty. (Agnes Laurent as Mlle Lafarge) The French mistress is 22 years old, is good to look at and responds positively to romantic overtures.
2)   Matron. (Edith Sharpe as just Matron. She doesn’t even get the dignity of a name) The school matron is caring, efficient and good in a domestic crisis. She no longer regards her looks as important and concedes that she is not as good as category 1) anymore.
3)   Widow. (Irene Handl as Sgt Hodges) The cook is a widow who needs to work but finds the whole thing a bit too much at ‘her time of life’.
4)   Bitter old hag. (Athene Seyler as Miss Peake) She has never married and is dependent on her brother.  This makes her interfering and small minded.

Four good reasons to be glad you weren’t around in 1960.


  1. Isn't it strange how some 1960s films date so badly and some 1930s films can feel very modern. In a film I really love otherwise 'Great Day' I think it is Margaret Withers who plays the stereotypical bitter spinster who is dependant on her brother. It is the only character that bothers me!