The Writings of Ingrid Pitt

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Ingrid's Obituary


Hurrah for St. Trinians!

Ronald Searle took his mind off his problems in the Japanese Prisoner of War camp at Changi by sketching the trial and tribulations of the authorities trying to bring civilization to the rampant inmates of St. Trinians School For Girls. It paid big dividends after the war.
George Cole

George Cole

Women in the 19th and early 20th Century were demure, loyal, pink cheeked, sedately dressed paragons of virtue. They were excellent home makers and mothers, ruled over a swathe of servants and fainted at the slightest provocation. This image was brewed in the sexually frustrated mind of a grieving widow hiding out in a Scottish palace and ‘attended’ by her Highland Gillie, Mr. Brown. It is said that her preoccupation with sex was so consuming that even the legs of the tables had to be covered because she was upset by the phallic symbolism they represented. Victorian writers, artists and politicians bowed to her demands to make a pure and untainted society. At least publicly. Under the veneer of moral correctness and prudish respectability steamed a host of ladies who did, child brothels, sadism and corruption. It was tolerated as long as it was kept behind the velvet drapes and didn’t frighten the servants. Among those who trod the streets of the steamy underworld was Queen Victoria's son and heir, Prince Edward. Few of the Prince’s female friends, married or single, went unmolested by the rollicking Royal. When the Queen finally died and Edward stepped into the number one spot he was in his sixties and the best of his philandering days were over. This didn't stop those around him carrying on the well honed tradition but by this time Edward got his kicks as a voyeur rather than a participant. The First World War swept the hypocrisy aside and unleashed a Tsunami of promiscuity that has thrived and burgeoned ever since.

By the ‘Roaring Twenties’ the role of woman had picked up a little. They were still expected to express a little loyalty to the men in their frenetic lives but other than that, as a popular song of the day suggests, anything goes. The 18th birthday was the catalyst. Before that children were expected to have the womanly characteristics of earlier years and to speak only when spoken to.

Great St. Trinian's Train Robbery Film Poster

Great St. Trinian's Train Robbery Film Poster

The man child, on the other hand, was always expected to be a bit of a devil. Mothers tolerated their excesses because her husband told her not to interfere. The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world was a nice little saying but either the women were too wimpish to take advantage of the autocracy they clearly had while their children were infants or the time, with its high infant mortality and death in foreign fields, acted as a control on any rebellious instincts they might foster. Children were ‘seen but not heard’. Girls were expected to play with dolls, dimple sweetly when spoken to, move slowly and gently and be the very essence of sweetness and light.

Until Ronald Searle came on the scene.

Ronald Searle left school at 14 in 1934. He had a number of jobs and filled in his evenings taking night classes at the Cambridge School of Art. He wasn’t noticed as a particular brilliant student but he did manage to get cartoons published by a number of local newspapers. On 1st September 1939 Germany invaded Poland, Britain declared War on Germany and Searle, a Territorial, was called up. The timing was not good. Before he left home he sent off a cartoon to the editor of Lilliput. He only found out about the cartoon’s acceptance when he found a dilapidated copy of Lilliput among the trash in his beleaguered camp in Singapore. The cartoon shows a number of schoolgirls crowding around a notice board, dressed in gym slips and black stockings, showing an expanse of bare flesh between stocking top and skirt. The caption reads, ‘Owing to the international situation, the match with St. Trinians has been postponed.’ It was the first mention of the school that was to become synonymous with outrageous behaviour in school children for ever. Searle corrupted the name of the school a friend’s daughters attended in Edinburgh, St. Trinnean’s.

The Belles of St. Trinian's Film Poster

The Belles of St. Trinian's Film Poster

In 1942 Searle was captured by the rampaging Japanese forces and incarcerated in the notorious Changi Prison and latterly worked on the death-dealing Siam-Burmah railway. In spite of frequent bouts of malaria he was forced to work in conditions which many people have tried to describe but couldn’t find the words. Covered in ulcers and weakened by a pickaxe a guard had buried in his back, he was near to death. But as they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. While lying in his filthy cot Searle passed the hours drawing on any scrap of paper he could find. Mainly his subjects were his fellow sufferers but the memory of that cartoon in Lilliput was strong. In between sketches of emaciated, skeletal figures wearing nothing but a ragged loin cloth he interjected pictures of the girls at St. Trinians. He knew that if the guards caught him recording what he saw he was in for a beating so he hid the precious drawings away and only retrieved them on that glorious morning when the camp was safely in Allied hands in August 1945. A month later, recovered somewhat from his horrendous ordeal, he was sent home to England. The drawings he had made to keep himself sane had been conjured into a considerable volume of work. Unfortunately they were not in what might be described as a pristine condition. Hidden behind boards in his hut or buried in the ground they had picked up a few wrinkles and stains. Searle contemplated sitting down and copying them before presenting them to an editor. He decided against it. It was to prove a huge selling point when he finally went to see Kaye Webb. Kaye was choked up about the prisoner of war images but it was the sketches of the St. Trinian's school girls that caught her eye. One of the pictures show a class room full of girls in the dress that was soon to become the trademark of the school. The girls were standing in a row in front of a huge busted teacher in Victorian dress, clutching a heavy cane. To the delight of the grinning class the schoolmistress is asking, “Hand up the girl who burned down the East Wing last night.” A second cartoon shows a mistress hanging up side down on a improvised gallows with three of the St Trinians alumni, hockey sticks in hand standing below the body. Caption, “Well that’s O.K - now for old ‘Stinks”.

St. Trinian's Girls

St. Trinian's Girls

Ronald Searle’s cartoons soon became a success. But not without provoking a fair amount of fury amongst the more established figures in the teaching profession. In some areas, with their suggestions of lesbianism and overt sadism, they were regarded as pornographic. The idea that young ladies were anything but the healthy, sweet and caring models of virtue and rectitude shown in Girls Own Annual was resented. Searle showed the little darlings as crude, drunken, nicotine addicted harridans, completely out of control. Whatever the reservations amongst the educators might be the general public couldn’t get enough . Within a year the first book of cartoons was on the printing press. An instant success, Hurrah for St. Trinians! released a deluge of cartoon books which cornered a profitable niche for others handy with a pencil and a nifty line in one-liners. The Female Approach in 1949 was followed by Back to the Slaughterhouse (1951), Souls in Torment (1953), and Merry England in 1956. There was also a re-release in New York of The Female Approach in 1954. So successful were the Searle books that other esteemed writers got into the act and wrote songs and poems about St. Trinians. Well regarded authors such as DB Wyndham - Lewis wrote a book, with Searle’s blessing, called The Terror of St. Trinians. Typical of the tenor of writers approach to the school can be appreciated in the school soccer song in D.B.W’s book.

Whack it up, girl! Bung the ball
thro’ Life’s goal posts at the call.
Who can stay the Island Blood?
Rub their bustles in the mud!
Gallant hearts and bulldog pans,
Floreat St. Trinians!

It seems that the idea of young, amoral girls, ruled over by stern schoolmistresses with a relaxed attitude to anarchy, was a welcomed relieve from the austerity and privations of the ‘fifties. The original detractors soon shifted their attitude when The Times began using St. Trinians as a reference pole for anything amiss with the youth of the day. The massive attention the new comic trend had attracted was not lost on the film world and before long producers came acalling - cheque books at the ready. The Belles of St. Trinians (1954) set the pattern, and most of the cast, for the films to come. Alastair Sim in drag played the head Mistress, Millicent Fritton as well as her leering brother Clarence Fritton. The school’s Spiv-About-Town, Flash Harry, was played by the ultimate ne’er-do-well and car dealer, George Cole. Joyce Grenfell played Sgt. Ruby Gates, infiltrated into the school to find out what exactly was going on. She never has a clue and is constantly harassed by the girls who are involved in a race horse kidnapping plot when they are not distilling gin in the Science Lab. The film is hilarious. And in true filmland tradition was quickly followed by Blue Murder at St, Trinian’s (!957), The Pure Hell of St. Trinians (1960), The Great St. Trinian’s Train Robbery (1966), The Wildcats of St. Trinian’s (1980) with Maureen Lipman filling the Joyce Grenfell space. Also, in true filmland lore, none of the sequels, although in parts hilarious, never quite managed to scale the heights of Hurrah for St. Trinian’s!.

The success of the St. Trinian’s canon bred a wealth of collectables although mainly in printed form. Highly prized calendars, books and, of course, school equipment, has ensured a continuing interest in the girl’s school from hell. It may have been subjugated in recent years but the release of the new Ealing Studios St. Trinians could be the start of a new wave.

The Writings of Ingrid Pitt