Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Spotlight on St Trinians 11

In Flagrante Delicto. Again.

Back in 2012 I wrote a History Usherette blogpost on ‘The Belles of St Trinians’. I gave it the title ‘In Flagrante Delicto’ and it got an increased amount of page views than was usual. This, I concluded, had to be down to the cheeky title. I called it this because it is the St Trinians school motto – as shown in a scene in the film. Strictly translated from the Latin, this motto means ‘In blazing offence’ or to give it a more straightforward meaning ‘caught in the act’. The more cheeky aspect of this phrase related to divorce cases – it was a coy legal term to state that one of the parties to the divorce had been caught in the physical act of adultery. This was in the days where, if you wanted a divorce, you had to demonstrate adultery - whether it had actually been committed or not. People were often paid to pretend that they’d seen you at it; or to be a fictional third party.

But the original Latin term led me to muse on the theme of arson in the St Trinians films. It is the catalyst for two of Alastair Sim’s best lines in ‘Belles’. Firstly, when Miss Fritton’s niece is threatened with expulsion for burning down the Sports Pavilion and the young lady complains that the girl who burned down the Gym wasn’t punished:
“The Gym was insured, the Sports Pavilion was not.”
And then:
“I WILL NOT have continual arson in my school!”

Then of course, ‘Pure Hell’ begins with the schoolgirls on trial for burning down the school, where they are eventually acquitted of arson. Why did Launder and Gilliat repeat this motif? I suppose it is because fire is the ultimate destructor. In the 1950s, little girls were meant to be anything but destructive. The female was meant to be nurturer, creator. The most outrageous thing contrary to this is to depict them as a wilfully destructive bunch, using fire to achieve their desired outcomes. I wonder if this was a little bit shocking to contemporary audiences? Did Launder and Gilliat use the motif to grab attention for their films? Was this their feminism coming to the fore again, showing the metaphorical lengths that girls had to go to in order to escape their prescribed role in society?

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Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Spotlight on St Trinians 10

The History of Ruby Gates

Joyce Grenfell was born in 1910 and was therefore 44 years old on her first St Trinians outing.  In ‘Belles’ she played the local police sergeant, Ruby Gates, who was sent to work at the school undercover. Her “teacher” name, given to her under protest, was Chloe Crawley (“But they’ll call me Creepy Crawley!”). Parallel to the main story, we learn about Ruby and her long term engagement to the less than enthusiastic Superintendent Kemp-Bird. Frankly, he uses her romantic adoration of him to get her to do his dirty work.

Creepy Crawley
Ruby Gates returned in two sequels – ‘Blue Murder’ then ‘Pure Hell’. In the first, she goes undercover again, this time on a school European bus tour where she and Terry-Thomas string each other along. In ‘Pure Hell’, she has to stow away on a lifeboat as some of the schoolgirls go on ‘a tour of the Greek Islands’. In this final outing she does get Kemp-Bird as far as the church…until news of further shenanigins at St Trinians reaches him just in the nick of time. Poor Ruby.

The character of Ruby Gates is endearing and also amusing. Old fashioned with a plummy turn of phrase, you root for the poor old girl even though she is not on the side of our St Trinians heroines. I think that this is a particularly clever trick, to be able to draw out our sympathy in this way. This is down to Joyce’s loveable talents. She patently liked people and was acutely observant, being able to poke fun at different types without being unkind. I suspect that Ruby is an amalgam of many women that Joyce had come across, particularly in her war work and through her attendance at Womens’ Institute meetings.

Just a crazy, mixed up policewoman
Joyce was born in London to an American mother and British/American father. Her mother was the sister of Nancy Astor and so Joyce was well connected yet not snobbish. In the early days of her marriage she was not rich and often depended on the kindness of her Aunt Nancy…who would then take advantage of this control to try and smother Joyce’s early forays onto the stage. But those monologues that she began with were soon in demand in revues and on the radio. Her career was cemented during World War Two as she tirelessly toured for ENSA, singing and reciting to troops in the Middle East and beyond. There were a few brief early film parts before St Trinians, most notably in ‘The Happiest Days of Your Life’ which took Joyce directly to the part of Ruby Gates.

I wrote a collection of short stories inspired by moments in Joyce's career - you can get them on Amazon here