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.”
“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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