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The Great St. Trinian's Train Robbery (1966)


The Great St. Trinian's Train Robbery is the fourth and penultimate film in the long-running St. Trinian's comedy series. It's the first in the series to be made in colour, and the only one to be directed by both Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat. It's also the final film in the series to star George Cole as "Flash Harry", the last remaining principal character from the original film.

The film begins with a gang of crooks carrying out a daring heist. According to the newspaper headlines the next day, the gang have made off with £2.5 million in the biggest ever mail train robbery. They stash the stolen loot under the floorboards of an old country house, Hamingwell Grange. The house is currently standing empty and the gang intend to return to it and recover the money when the coast is clear.

Meanwhile, a new Labour Government has just been elected and the civil servants at the Ministry of Schools are ecstatic. It looks like this will mean the end of the nation's private schools, and therefore the end of the Ministry's biggest headache, the benighted school of St. Trinian's.

But their celebrations are premature. When the new Minister Sir Horace (Raymond Huntley) arrives, he confirms that all the major private schools in the country will be abolished and those in London turned into one giant comprehensive school.


George Cole with St. Trinian's girls including Portland Mason
Flash Harry (George Cole) with St. Trinian's girls including Portland Mason (far left)

But, mysteriously, St. Trinian's is being saved from the axe, even though the school has inevitably been burned to the ground once again and the pupils are currently living in a disused army camp. Sir Horace declares that what the school really needs is some proper funding, and so he orders a new grant for St. Trinian's of £80,000. But why has the Minister decided to save this particular school from closure?

All becomes clear when Sir Horace pays a personal visit to his lover, Amber Spottiswood (Dora Bryan), who just happens to be the headmistress of St. Trinian's. With her new windfall, Amber is able to get the school up and running again in new premises. She also sets about rounding up "the best of the mistresses" from her staff.

These include one she picks up on her release from Holloway Prison for fraud. Another is the school's maths teacher, who is shown cheating at cards when she gets the call, while the art mistress is a blonde stripper who gets word from the headmistress that the school is re-opening part way through her striptease act.

The French mistress is inevitably a slinky sexpot accompanied by saxophone music, who takes down her advert offering "French lessons" (and yes, that is a euphemism) now that she's wanted back at the school. One final important member of staff is the "Chairman of the Board of Governors", who is none other than Flash Harry (George Cole), who is currently hawking his wares on a barrow in the city's back streets. With part of the school's new grant of £80,000, Harry is able to set up his own bookmakers in the local town.

The headmistress chooses as the school's new base the old country house at Hamingwell Grange, the same place that the mail train robbers have used to hide their stolen cash. Learning that the building is now occupied, the unseen gang leader orders one of their members, Alfred (Frankie Howerd), to enrol his two daughters at the school to gather intelligence. But when the pupils and staff at St. Trinian's get a whiff of the stolen loot, they're eager to lay hands on it themselves.


Dora Bryan as Amber Spottiswood
Amber Spottiswood (Dora Bryan) in her study at Hamingwell Grange

The Great St. Trinian's Train Robbery would be the last St. Trinian's film for fourteen years, and it's also the last to have any significant involvement from Frank Launder's long term collaborator Sidney Gilliat. Launder and Gilliat actually co-directed this film, the only time they shared a directorial credit after their joint debut as film directors on Millions Like Us in 1943. Unlike that film, on The Great St. Trinian's Train Robbery they each supervised their own unit and didn't direct any scenes together. 

This film also has different screenwriting credits from the previous entries in the St. Trinian's series. The first three films, The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954), Blue Murder at St. Trinian's (1957) and The Pure Hell of St. Trinian's (1960), were all written by Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine. This time the script is by Launder and Ivor Herbert, from a story by Launder, Gilliat and Gilliat's younger brother Leslie, who also produced the film.

Ivor Herbert had been a racehorse trainer before turning to writing and journalism, and there's not much in his career that would suggest him as an obvious choice to co-write a St. Trinian's film. The Great St. Trinian's Train Robbery was his only screenplay credit apart from some short documentary subjects.

The Great St. Trinian's Train Robbery does feel a little different from the earlier films and it's easily the most topical entry in this series. The film's premise was obviously inspired by The Great Train Robbery of 1963, in which a Glasgow to London mail train was hijacked and robbed of £2.6 million in used bank notes. 

It also has what must be the most topical joke in the series, when the St. Trinian's girls are rewarded with MBE's. The newspapers report that other recipients are sending theirs back in disgust, including Ringo Starr, reported with the headline:

"A diabolical liberty!" says Ringo

This is a joke about the controversy over The Beatles being awarded MBE's by the new Labour Government in 1965, in an attempt by Harold Wilson to ingratiate himself with younger voters. The idea of giving MBE's to the girls of St. Trinian's is so outrageous that even The Beatles are complaining. 


George Cole and St. Trinian's girls in a railway signal box
George Cole and friends taking over a signal box. The girl on the left looks like Ingrid Boulting

The film also references the Labour Party General Election victory of 1964. The civil servants at the Ministry, now called the Ministry of Schools and not the Ministry of Education as in the earlier films, are shown wearing party hats and celebrating, as they see Labour notch up seat after seat in the election.

The film plays on the irony of the stuffy, bowler hatted civil servants singing the Red Flag, while their humble cleaner shows her disgust at their cheering. She says they should be impartial, but she also shows sympathy for the outgoing Conservative Prime Minister, so maybe she's actually a secret Tory voter.

It's not entirely clear if the characterisation of the new Schools Minister as corrupt is anti-Labour or simply anti-politicians. It's probably the latter, especially as Launder and Gilliat were originally considered to be quite left wing and were even considering making a Karl Marx biopic at one point. Perhaps that changed, because the next film in this series, The Wildcats of St. Trinian's, would definitely show an anti-trade union stance, and therefore a touch of Thatcherism.

There's not much point in looking too deeply for political messages in the St. Trinian's films, but the Minister's decision to turn all the London schools into one giant comprehensive (i.e. non-selective state school) does sound ominous.

We can also just about discern in the films the notion that St. Trinian's (and therefore, presumably, other private schools) have their own esprit de corps and a sense of belonging that perhaps shouldn't be lost. Despite all their flaws and wrongdoings, the St. Trinian's girls at least believe in their school and are tribal to a fault.


Younger St. Trinian's girls on the footplate
Younger St. Trinian's girls on the footplate in the film's railway finale 

The film responds a little to some of the changes that have taken place in the cinema landscape since the last film in the series in 1960. This includes the use of quite a bit of improbable gadgetry and technology by the criminals, including secret communicators, a camera that doubles as a radio and a radio antenna disguised as a lacrosse stick. Yes, it's 1966 and the James Bond films and the closely related film and TV spy craze are at their height, so St. Trinian's borrows and tries to send up some of these elements. 

Most of this gadgetry is concealed in Frankie Howerd's upmarket hairdressers and includes a communications device hidden in a hair drier, and another secret radio hidden in a shower head. The latter reverts back to an ordinary shower head when the radio message ends, with predictable consequences.

The criminal gang's cover for infiltrating the school is a catering firm called the Parkmoor Catering Company, presumably an amalgam of the names of Parkhurst and Dartmoor prisons. 

The gang are overseen by a mysterious criminal mastermind, who meticulously plans the robbery and gives the gang their instructions by voice only (provided by Stratford Johns) over a TV screen, with the boss represented by a picture of a giant eye. Although he's obviously not that much of a criminal mastermind if he didn't foresee the possibility that the empty house where the loot is hidden might be put on the market and sold.

This is a variation on quite an old plot device, usually where a criminal who has been in jail for years goes to retrieve his long buried loot, only to find that it's now inaccessible, often because something has been built on the site. This premise has been used in films as varied as the previous year's comedy The Big Job, made by the rival Carry On team, and the Clint Eastwood flick Thunderbolt and Lightfoot made nearly a decade later.


Maureen Crombie, Susan Jones and Frankie Howerd
Marcia (Maureen Crombie) and Lavinia (Susan Jones) with Alfred (Frankie Howerd)

Although the film's music was composed by Malcolm Arnold, on his fourth and final entry in the series, it drops the familiar St. Trinian's theme from the titles for a lively, if not entirely tuneful, song. Ronald Searle's title drawings also make their last appearance in the series and are seen for the first time in colour.

Six years had passed since the last St. Trinian's film, The Pure Hell of St. Trinian's in 1960, and of the three principal mainstays of the series, Alastair Sim, Joyce Grenfell and George Cole, only George Cole now remains as Flash Harry, the school's former boot boy who runs the girls' bets and aids them in their various schemes. 

Without Sim or Grenfell, the series had to find new stars and so Frankie Howerd and Dora Bryan are roped in to play the lead roles. Howerd was a comedian who appeared in a couple of Carry Ons and took the lead role in a few comedy films, but was most successful on TV in the Roman era sitcom Up Pompeii, which ran from 1969 to 1970. 

Frankie Howerd plays the lead crook, Alfred Askett, whose front operation is as a fancy male hairdresser, "Alphonse of Monte Carlo". Howerd's character has a little fake quiff that he removes when the customers have gone, which must be some sort of in-joke, as it means that the famously badly wigged Howerd is wearing another wig on top of his actual one.

Frankie Howerd's character later gets drawn into a troupe of Morris dancers, who are mysteriously performing on parents' day at the school, in a fairly lame bit of comic business. He also later disguises himself as a railway porter and smears oil on his face as a blackface disguise (snowflakes, look away now!), in another not entirely successful attempt to get some laughs.

More successful is Dora Bryan, who is fair casting as the headmistress, Amber Spottiswood. Dora Bryan was a comic character actress who was almost always seen in supporting roles as friendly tarts or barmaids, and she brings her own trademark scattiness to the role of the headmistress. She suggests a similar mixture of scheming and slightly misguided maternalism as Alastair Sim's Miss Fritton in the first two films, although she is a much less physically dominating presence, and obviously a more believably feminine one, than Sim was.


Civil servants Peter Gilmore and Richard Wattis are led away by the police
Civil servants Peter Gilmore and Richard Wattis are led away by the police

As usual with this series, the film sees a few familiar supporting actors pressed into service. Richard Wattis returns as one of the civil servants at the Ministry after a one film break, together with Eric Barker (on his third St. Trinian's) and Michael Ripper (on his fourth, but only his third as the Ministry lift man). 

Raymond Huntley had appeared in the previous film, The Pure Hell of St. Trinian's, as a judge, and now adopts a Yorkshire accent to play the new Minister of Schools, while Cyril Chamberlain also returns for his third film in the series. Chamberlain had played soldiers in the previous two films, but appears this time as one of the criminal gang.

One development is that many of the St. Trinian's sixth form girls are now played by actresses of the right sort of age. This may be why the film is much more chaste in its depiction of the older girls than in the last couple of films.

One subtle exception is the scene where the sixth formers are directing cars into the school for parents' day and the directors have framed their shot with the fishnet stockinged legs of one girl prominent to one side of the camera. As the camera pans left, she also moves to make sure she is still in shot, suggesting that the directors regarded her legs as the most important part of this scene.

Otherwise, there's not a lot of smut or innuendo this time and what there is is mostly given to the school's teachers. The most risque scene has one of them working as a stripper, who is seen rushing through her routine in double quick time when she gets the call from the headmistress to return to the school.

There's also the line from Amber Spottiswood that they will blackmail the school inspectors by setting up "a few interestingly posed pictures" involving her sixth form girls, but that's likely to go over the younger ones' heads.


St Trinian's sixth form girls
Some of the older girls at the parents' day event

Prominent among the older girls is Georgina, played by James Mason's daughter Portland Mason, in her penultimate film before she retired from acting. Portland, apparently named after Portland Hoffa and not the city in Oregon, was about 17 at the time the film was made.

Some sources identify film director Roy Boulting's step-daughter Ingrid Boulting as one of the uncredited sixth formers, and there is an actress who does look like her. Sally Geeson is allegedly in there somewhere as well.

Alfred's daughters are played by Maureen Crombie, as the older Marcia, and Susan Jones as her grubby little sister Lavinia. A little unfairly, Susan Jones isn't even credited on the film, despite having a decent part. Sources online give Maureen Crombie's date of birth as 1943 or 1944, meaning that she was over 20 at the time this was made, and apparently married to her first husband, which is hard to believe as she makes quite a believable younger teenager.

As was becoming the custom, the film ends with the St. Trinian's girls rushing into action, with the pupils clambering into cars and onto bikes in massed pursuit of the robbers. This leads into the film's finale, where the film loses its way in a lengthy railway chase sequence. 

The crooks pile the stolen loot onto a train and drive it to their rendezvous on the coast, pursued by the girls of St. Trinian's. It's not clear why the robbers don't just drive to the coast, but the film's title does suggest some sort of train capers involving the St. Trinian's girls, so the film's illogical conclusion is at least suggested by the logic of its title.

The crooks have their own train and are chased by the St. Trinian's pupils on another train. The headmistress and some of her teachers also give chase in a motorised railway inspection car, as do two of the younger St. Trinian's girls on a pump trolley, and eventually the police, who arrive and commandeer their own train.

Trains go back and forth, points are switched, and a Pakistani station porter (played by Leon Thau) gets increasingly confused about what's happening, as he tries to explain all of this to his boss over the phone. Launder and Gilliat certainly got value for money from their railway sequence, but they lose track of the plot and it all goes on a bit too long. 

The film's railway scenes were filmed in Hampshire on the Longmoor Military Railway, a training line used by the British Army. The LMR appeared in several films in the 1950s and '60s, as filming could take place using real rolling stock and engines without interfering with regular railway services. The Great St. Trinian's Train Robbery was one of the last films to be shot there before the line closed.



Although The Great St. Trinian's Train Robbery is mostly good natured, the laughs are a bit thin on the ground and the script is the weakest of the first four films in the series. The film suffers from a lack of star power, with Frankie Howerd certainly no replacement for Alastair Sim or Terry-Thomas. It also seems unsure what to do with the only remaining original St. Trinian's star, George Cole as Flash Harry, whose main comedy scene involves going incognito in an attempt to claim the £10,000 reward for the stolen money.

The St. Trinian's girls themselves seem quite well behaved this time, especially by that school's standards, making this one more of an agreeable family adventure for the most part. The girls' main role in the film is to catch the crooks in their attempt to get away with the stolen loot. Even the younger terrors of the fourth form are useful here, with one enabling them to give chase by driving a steam engine, having learned from her engine driver father.

These kind of escapades seem more like the sort of thing that children in the audience might have envied or aspired to in 1966; running around, riding bikes, driving steam trains, biffing baddies on the head and thwarting a gang of crooks. It's all harmless high jinx, more like Mallory Towers than St. Trinian's, even if some of the girls just wanted the money for themselves.

Many viewers seem to regard this as the last of the original St. Trinian's films, but there was in fact one more film in the series. Frank Launder would unexpectedly return to the world of St. Trinian's one last time 14 years later with The Wildcats of St. Trinian's in 1980.


The Great St. Trinian's Train Robbery

Year: 1966
Genre: Crime Comedy
Country: UK
Directors: Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat

Cast  Frankie Howerd (Alphonse of Monte Carlo / Alfred Askett), Dora Bryan (Amber Spottiswood), George Cole ('Flash' Harry), Reg Varney (Gilbert), Raymond Huntley (Sir Horace, the Minister), Richard Wattis (Manton Bassett), Portland Mason (Georgina), Terry Scott (Policeman), Eric Barker (Culpepper Brown), Godfrey Winn (Truelove), Colin Gordon (Noakes), Desmond Walter Ellis (Leonard Edwards), Arthur Mullard (Big Jim), Norman Mitchell (Willy the Jelly-Man), Cyril Chamberlain (Maxie), Larry Martyn (Chips), Leon Thau (Pakistani porter), Maureen Crombie (Marcia Askett), Barbara Couper (Mabel Radnage), Elspeth Duxbury (Veronica Bledlow), Carole Ann Ford (Mademoiselle Albertine), Margaret Nolan (Susie Naphill), Maggie McGrath (Magda O'Riley), Jean St. Clair (Drunken Dolly), Lisa Lee (Miss Brenner), Peter Gilmore (Butters), Michael Ripper (The Liftman), George Benson (Gore-Blackwood), Meredith Edwards (Chairman of protest meeting), Jeremy Clyde (Monty), Aubrey Morris (Hutch), William Kendall (Mr Parker), Edwina Coven (Dr Judd), Stratford Johns (The Voice)

Screenplay Frank Launder, Ivor Herbert, story Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Leslie Gilliat  Producer Leslie Gilliat  Cinematography Kenneth Hodges  Art director Albert Witherick  Editor Geoffrey Foot  Music Malcolm Arnold  Presented by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat

Running time  93 mins  Colour Eastmancolor

Production company Braywild  Distributor British Lion (UK)


See also:

Comments

  1. I haven't seen this one yet! Thanks for the nice review!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey Eric. It's definitely skippable, unless you're already on board with the series. The first three are the best.

      Delete

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