I haven’t yet decided whether to go and see the new St Trinian’s film. Though there’s been a lot of hype, I haven’t come across any previews, which is usually a bad sign. And although I find the idea of Rupert Everett in drag, playing the Alastair Sim part, quite arresting, it’s also got Russell Brand in it. You know the way, a couple of years back, you couldn’t get away from Abi Titmuss? Well, Brand is worse. You could at least cut down your Abi exposure big time by not buying Nuts. Meanwhile, it seems you can’t switch on the TV or wireless without Russell fucking Brand turning up, and while his actual achievements are remarkably slight (let’s be honest, Big Brother’s Big Mouth was pants) he has a chart-topping autobiography out. God help us.
But, getting away from the ubiquitous Mr Brand, I am intrigued at the spin suggesting that this will be a modernised St Trinian’s for the 21st century. What exactly does that mean? Switchblades? Bags of glue? Flash Harry on the Sex Offenders’ Register? The mind boggles. My view is that, like Carry On, St Trinian’s is a period concept that’s better remembered than recreated – or, if you were going to recreate it, you would have to do the thing retro style. There are good structural reasons for this.
I was recently having another look at the old films, and they really do reek of the era of rationing. The first thing you notice in watching The Belles of St Trinian’s, and the most shocking to a modern audience, is the fug of cigarette smoke constantly hanging about the actors. There’s a creaky theatricality about the style. And it really does reference constantly an era and a public-school environment that is long gone, barely remembered and doesn’t translate very well into our time.
But back to the structural question. Going back to the original Ronald Searle drawings, the real heart of the comedy is in the boisterous young girls. And so it is in the films, with the pre-teen tearaways maybe not getting many character moments, but certainly supplying a huge proportion of the laughs. And that is something that would be saleable today. Just look at the eternal popularity of Roald Dahl’s books and the spin-off films, demonstrating that there’s nothing kids like better than stories about resourceful kids putting one over on adults. So you could revive the concept, but you’d have to pitch it squarely at the kids’ audience.
And here we have a problem. Right from the get-go, the films also catered to the dads by giving lots of screen time to buxom sixth-formers in short skirts and hold-up stockings. And as the films progressed into the sixties, the cheesecake quotient rose relentlessly. But that doesn’t really sit very well with the children’s comedy element – it was a bit dodgy even in 1954, and in today’s moral climate… well, let’s say you could go down the rugrat road or you could go down the Lucy and Michelle road, but mixing the two up is just a bit wrong.
And changing mores come into it in a related but slightly distinct way, in that what was racy or titillating forty or fifty years ago isn’t now. The boundaries and taboos that filmmakers of that era pushed against aren’t boundaries any more, and taboos have shifted so much that, while in 1954 a glimpse of stocking was considered something shocking, today I fail to see how you could challenge any boundaries while getting anything less than an 18 certificate. And if you go that far from the roots of the concept, why not just invent something else?
Every so often you hear of some long-dead franchise that’s going to be revived, and you would think (or a financial backer would think) that nostalgia would provide a ready-made audience. But, if you’re tempted, I suggest you go off and watch Carry On Columbus. And I offer that advice for free to George Clooney, in case he follows through on his occasional threats to remake The A-Team. George, I love you, but you’re on a hiding to nothing there.
It could be that I’ll be proven wrong about St Trinian’s, and maybe it will be a triumph. Maybe an ancient franchise can be revived with a bit of sass and the help of Rupert Everett, Girls Aloud, Colin Firth (what is he doing there?) and, er, Russell Brand. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.