Skip to main content

The Wildcats of St. Trinian's (1980)


14 years after the last film in the series, The Great St. Trinian's Train Robbery in 1966, Frank Launder returned to write and direct one more film featuring the troublesome girls of St. Trinian's School, The Wildcats of St. Trinian's in 1980.

This time the St. Trinian's girls decide to form a union, so that they can go on strike. To increase their bargaining power, their partner in crime, former school boot boy Harry (Joe Melia), encourages them to infiltrate the top schools in the country, so that they can form a "closed shop" and bring all of the other schools out on strike as well.

The St. Trinian's girls begin to infiltrate other schools by kidnapping pupils and replacing them with one of their own. But one girl they kidnap is a princess, the daughter of the ruler of an oil-rich Middle Eastern state, something that threatens a diplomatic incident.

So the civil servants at the Department of Women's Education, led by Culpepper Brown (Thorley Walters) and Sir Charles Hackforth (Michael Hordern), make various attempts to break the strike at St. Trinian's and recover the princess, including hiring a private detective (Maureen Lipman) to go undercover at the school as a new chemistry teacher.

Eventually, they settle on a scheme to encourage the schoolgirls' union to merge with a bigger students' union. The latter plan nearly works, as the girls of the St. Trinian's sixth form are seduced by the boys of the rival union on a shipboard party in the local harbour. But the school's unruly fourth formers come to the rescue, in an armada of small boats, to break up the gathering.

UK Poster for The Wildcats of St. Trinian's
Ronald Searle's cartoon is less prominent than the stockinged legs in this original poster

It would be nice to pretend that The Wildcats of St. Trinian's is not really part of the same series as the earlier St. Trinian's films, especially those from the series' glory days of the 1950s. DVD distributors seem to have taken this amnesiac option and produced St. Trinian's box sets comprising only the first four films, The Belles of St. Trinian's, Blue Murder at St. Trinian's, The Pure Hell of St. Trinian's and The Great St. Trinian's Train Robbery.

Alas, even though it's never shown on TV and has never been released on DVD in the UK, The Wildcats of St. Trinian's definitely does exist. And it does have an undeniable claim to be part of this series. It was, after all, written and directed by Frank Launder, the director, co-producer and co-writer of all four of the original films. It also has a courtesy credit for his regular film making partner Sidney Gilliat, and brings back some of the cast members from previous St. Trinian's films, although none of the major ones.

The plot of Wildcats is lame and nonsensical and the film itself seems to be very aware of this. As one of the St. Trinian's girls says, why do they need to go on strike when they don't do any work anyway? The dismal plot might be excusable if the film was funny, but there's barely a joke to be seen, and those that did somehow manage to escape into Frank Launder's script are pretty ancient.

Worst of all is that The Wildcats of St. Trinian's doesn't seem to know who it's aimed at or who its' audience is, resulting in a film that's a tonal disaster. The film awkwardly mixes the style of a childrens' film, of the sort that might have been made by the Children's Film Foundation in the 1970s, with inappropriate and excisable sexy bits. 

The St. Trinian's films always divided their schoolgirl tearaways into two quite distinct groups, the younger, undisciplined fourth formers and the more sexually advanced sixth formers. The first film, The Belles of St. Trinian's, focused more on the mischievous and unruly fourth formers, the younger girls whose gleeful antics and wanton destruction were closest to Ronald Searle's original cartoons. The subsequent films in the series tended to pivot towards the older girls, the more precocious sixth formers (usually played by actresses well into their twenties).

Frank Launder probably thought he had found a good formula here - the childish antics of the younger girls to provide cheerful family fun, mixed with the more sultry sixth formers to keep the dads in the audience interested. But there is tremendous danger in that mixture if it goes wrong. Even one of the earlier films, The Pure Hell of St. Trinian's, pushed the sexiness a bit, but the makers were still constrained then by the stricter censorship standards of 1960. 

Although at the end of its tether by 1980 (as was the St. Trinian's series), the sex comedy had proliferated in the 1970s. The low budget Confessions of a Window Cleaner (1974) had proved unexpectedly successful at the box office, after which British sex comedies bred like rabbits. The venerable Carry On films had attempted to respond to these more uninhibited challengers with the more explicit Carry On England (1976) and Carry On Emmanuelle (1978), two films unsuccessful enough even to kill off that cheaply made but previously enduring series. The decade's sex comedies would seem to have had a similarly baleful influence on the St. Trinian's series. 

The Wildcats of St. Trinian's focuses more than usual on the school's younger girls, and they are also played by actresses who look about the right age, of fifteen or so. The film is, in many ways, the most childish and childlike of the series, with basic plotting, simple characterisations and cheerful schoolgirl high jinx. But the sexiness is also pushed further than in previous entries in the series, and these two elements inevitably clash alarmingly, making this a weird, curdled mixture of childrens' film and sex comedy.

That Launder's judgement has completely deserted him is immediately apparent from the film's title sequence. The four previous films all used cartoon titles by Ronald Searle, in the style of his original drawings. The Wildcats of St. Trinian's begins instead with scenes of the schools' younger girls cheerfully chirruping out the school's belligerent song, crosscut with shots of the older girls wearing miniskirts and stockings and gyrating to 1980s disco music.

These jarring elements recur in the film and there are some jaw-dropping moments. In one scene the younger girls persuade two women sunbathing to race each other in a swim out to a nearby boat. The two women then strip naked, something that Launder decides to show in full, albeit from the back, and leap into the water. This allows the girls to steal their clothes for reasons that are obscure. 

The two women seem to be teachers, although the girls call them by their first names. Any teacher at St. Trinian's, or any woman really, is unlikely to fall for such an obvious trick or go stripping off for a nude swim in front of a bus load of schoolgirls. But it's really the jarring optics and gratuitousness of this scene that make it so bizarre.

Publicity stills for The Wildcats of St. Trinian's
Contemporary publicity stills: Top: Joe Melia & Maureen Lipman.
Bottom: Debbie Linden and Lisa Vanderpump

Another weird moment occurs later on, when two of the school's suspiciously over-age and well-developed "girls" have their photos taken for the newspapers in front of a strikers' protest banner. Harry says to the girls "And now girls, one for The Sun", meaning Britain's infamous "red top" tabloid with its topless Page 3 girls. The women dutifully whip off their bikini tops and, while this scene isn't explicit, we do later see the topless photos in the paper and the civil servants enthusiastically examining them. Although the awfulness of this scene is offset slightly (maybe) by the fact that the two women are very unlikely to be mistaken for actual schoolgirls.

In the film's finale, the fourth form girls invade the boat where the bikini-clad sixth formers are smooching with the boys. The younger girls start pulling down the older ones' grass skirts and batting their behinds with wooden swords, in a perfect illustration of the film's weird juxtapositions and horrible confusion about who exactly it's aimed at.

Despite the crass moments and dismal script, there are actually some pretty good actors involved in this, probably because 1980 wasn't the busiest year in British films. Michael Hordern just about maintains his dignity, against all the odds, as an education Minister who hatches a scheme to break the schoolgirls' strike, while Sheila Hancock hams it up dreadfully in a cartoonish performance as the school's latest headmistress. Taking no chances, Hancock is given an eye patch and an absurd Dutch accent, together with some lame jokes about her mangling of the English language.

A couple of actors return to the fold, perhaps out of loyalty to Frank Launder. Thorley Walters appears in his third St. Trinian's film, playing his third different character in the series. Walters played an army officer in the second film and a civil servant in the third. He gets promoted to a more senior role this time, although this is in the Department of Women's Education rather than the Ministry of Education of the earlier films. He is also given a different character name, Culpepper Brown, a character played by Eric Barker in the previous three films. 

His earlier character's comic business, doing a waltz to calm his nerves on the orders of his psychiatrist, has now been passed to his underling Butters, played by Rodney Bewes. His psychiatrist has told him to stand up on a table and pirouette at stressful moments, which Bewes dutifully does, to no great comic effect.

Rosalind Knight also makes her third appearance in a St. Trinian's film and also plays, as far as can be ascertained, her third different character. Knight was one of the distinctly over-aged schoolgirls in Blue Murder at St. Trinian's and had a small part as a seamstress in The Pure Hell of St. Trinian's. Twenty years later, in The Wildcats of St. Trinian's, she plays one of the school's frazzled teachers.

Joe Melia replaces George Cole as Flash Harry, Cole having wisely decided to pass on this one. George Cole had just taken on his most famous role, as Arthur Daley in the long running TV series Minder, and so probably thought that he didn't need to do this kind of thing anymore. In his autobiography, Cole says that he was offered the part, but couldn't accept due to other commitments. How very convenient. He must have read the script.

Joe Melia's Harry is noticeably different from the George Cole version. Melia's Harry is more rough and ready than Cole's and seemingly without his version's shady schemes. He is simultaneously a bolshie trade unionist and, perhaps improbably, a small business owner. Even more improbably, that business is a Chinese restaurant where Melia puts on a funny voice and pretends to be Chinese.

Joe Melia obviously worked on perfecting his comedy walk for the part. This is a comic strut with his arms waggling about, rather than George Cole's shifty shuffle, and it does seem very try-hard. He doesn't replicate his predecessor's clothing, replacing his sharp but tasteless gear with a T shirt, jeans and what looks like a sailor's peaked cap - or, more likely, a milkman's one.

He is also quite a bit older than Cole was. Melia was 45 at the time this was made, whereas George Cole hadn't quite turned 30 when the first film was produced and was still quite youthful-looking. Perhaps that age difference was designed to reflect the passage of time between the films, but Flash Harry's hanging around a girls' school as a considerably older man is now looking shady in other ways too.

Among the St. Trinian's girls this time is Suzanna Hamilton, who had some high profile film roles in this period, including Tess (1979), Brimstone and Treacle (1982), Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) and Out of Africa (1985). Hamilton plays the horrible St. Trinian's changeling who is sent to infiltrate the exclusive school of Highdown instead of the right girl.


The film's production values are low and the Department of Women's Education looks less like an official Government building this time and more like a small office on an industrial estate. St. Trinian's School itself is now looking rather pokey, and even the St. Trinian's badges on the girls' uniforms look a bit home made and rough around the edges.

Some lines in the film are odd enough that they might have been fluffed takes that were kept in, while the few jokes that are in the script don't work on even the most basic level. In one scene Thorley Walters' character describes someone as "needing a breast to cry on" and then refers to his mousey, middle aged secretary as being "adequately equipped". Which is cruel rather than funny, given that this line obviously cries out for a busty actress. Come on, Launder, don't you know anything about basic double entendres? Go and see Talbot Rothwell, he'll give you one. (See how easy it is?)

The Wildcats of St. Trinian's was semi-topical in 1980, if nothing else. It's certainly the most political film in the St. Trinian's series, its premise of striking schoolgirls being inspired by Britain's industrial strife of the 1970s. The title has a double meaning, referring to a "wildcat" strike - a strike without union approval - but also suggesting the unruly schoolgirls themselves are untamed beasts. 

Although the film begins on the side of the girls, and therefore of their strike, sympathy eventually transfers to the adults trying to contain them. The film even carries an explicit warning about the dangers of capitulating to trade union demands, a hot topic in 1980 when this film was released. The students' leader more-or-less tells the Minister that he would be wrong to give in to their demands, paraphrasing Rudyard Kipling's warning that "He who pays the Danegeld will never be free of the Dane". 

Studio work on The Wildcats of St. Trinian's took place at Bray Studios in Berkshire. Oakley Court in Windsor was also pressed into service, while St. Trinian's School in this incarnation was played by Norris Castle, near Cowes on the Isle of Wight.

The film's credits give thanks to the girls of the Isle of Wight Pony Club, in case you were wondering where all those schoolgirl extras came from. A pony club! Could there be anything less like the mayhem and mischief of St. Trinian's than the young girls from the local pony club? 

Let's hope the pony club girls had a nice day out and enjoyed their brush with film fame anyway. And that they never got to see the finished film. It's a sad, misconceived and witless footnote to a once entertaining series. It really doesn't know who its audience is and it's not at all clear why Frank Launder decided to return to this series after so long a break, except perhaps in a desperate attempt to top up his pension. 

The problems with The Wildcats of St. Trinian's are all too obvious. It's unfunny, poorly written, childishly plotted and often wildly ill-conceived. The film can't seem to decide if it wants to be a children's film or a sex comedy and ends up as a lame children's film with some inappropriate sexy bits that should have been cut. For an adult audience those moments do make the film more interesting, but only because they are so jaw-droppingly out of place, like seeing Freddy Krueger suddenly appear and start slaughtering the teddies on Play School

But there's a more fundamental reason why the film was doomed to fail. The St. Trinian's films first appeared in the 1950s, a far more ordered, hierarchical and deferential age. School discipline was strict, girls were encouraged to grow up to be demure and ladylike and children were usually expected to be seen and not heard. The premise of tearaway schoolgirls terrorising the adults was absurd and improbable enough to be amusing. 

But by 1980, the country was less ordered, less deferential, more individualist, more strike-prone, more crime-ridden and more divided. When we see the horrible and gobby Matilda Harcourt defying the teachers at the snooty private school, it's like seeing the kind of character who could have come straight from Grange Hill - or a teenage tearaway from every parent's nightmare. By 1980, the horrible schoolgirls of St. Trinian's were just starting to look all too plausible. 


The Wildcats of St. Trinian's 

Year: 1980
Genre: Comedy
Country: UK
Director: Frank Launder

Cast  Sheila Hancock (Olga Vandemeer), Michael Hordern (Sir Charles Hackforth), Joe Melia (Flash Harry), Thorley Walters (Hugo Culpepper Brown), Rodney Bewes (Butters), Deborah Norton (Miss Brenner), Maureen Lipman (Higgs), Julia McKenzie (Dormancott), Ambrosine Phillpotts (Mrs Mowbray), Rose Hill (Miss Martingale), Diana King (Miss Mactavish), Luan Peters (Poppy Adams), Barbara Hicks (Miss Coke), Rosalind Knight (Miss Walsh), Patsy Smart (Miss Warmold), Bernadette O'Farrell (Miss Carfax), Sandra Payne (Miss Taylor), Frances Ruffelle (Angela Hall / Princess Roxanne), Hilda Braid (Miss Summers), Mary Manson (Mayfield Headmistress), Judy Gridley (Mayfield mistress), Veronica Quilligan (Lizzie), Miranda Honnisett (Jennie), Eileen Fletcher (Agatha), Anna Mackeown (Harriet), Sarah-Jane Varley (Janet), Theresa Ratcliff (Maggie), Lisa Vanderpump (Ursula), Debbie Linden (Mavis), Sandra Hall (Big Freda), Eliza Emery (Butch), Suzanna Hamilton (Matilda), Danielle Corgan (Eva Potts), Nicholas McArdle (Police Sergeant), Eric Kent (Man in phone booth), Ballard Berkeley (Humphrey Wills), Melita Clarke (Air hostess), Sarah Lam (Chinese girl), Tony Wredden (Prince Narouz), Jeremy Pearce (Evan Williams), Matthew Smith (Eddie), Jason Anthony (Sam), Alfie Curtis (Taxi driver)

Screenplay Frank Launder  Producer E. M. Smedley Aston  Cinematography Ernest Steward Art director John Beard  Editor Anthony Gibbs  Music James Kenelm Clarke

Running time 91 mins  Colour Technicolor

Production company Wildcat Film Productions  Distributor Enterprise Pictures (UK)

See also: 

Comments

  1. I commend you for your dedication to the cause. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it. ;)

      Delete

Post a comment

Popular posts from this blog

Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983)

Some time after the events of The Empire Strikes Back , Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and the droids C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) assemble on Luke's home planet of Tatooine, where their old friend Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is being held captive. Solo is still encased in carbonite, and displayed in the palace of the massive slug-like crime boss Jabba the Hutt. Our heroes plan to infiltrate Jabba's palace in order to rescue him. But the rescue mission is just the prelude to a far greater challenge. The Empire is building a new Death Star, protected by a force field generated from the forest moon of Endor. To enable the Rebels to mount a successful attack on the Death Star, a small commando team, including Luke, Han and Leia, is sent to Endor to deactivate the force field generator. Meanwhile, Luke intends to confront Darth Vader (Dave Prowse) with the hope of turni

The Best Film and TV Versions of A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol  tells the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a mean, cantankerous old miser who is visited on Christmas Eve by three ghosts. They present him with visions of Christmases past, present and future. These visions show him the error of his ways and Scrooge wakes up the next morning, Christmas Day, as a reformed character, full of generosity and the joys of life. Or alternatively,  A Christmas Carol  is the story of a staid Victorian businessman who has a bad dream one night and the next day goes totally crazy.

12 Essential Hammer Horror Films

Hammer was the little film company that blazed a trail through horror movie history. While Hammer produced a wide variety of films, including comedies, crime films, sci-fi and even caveman fantasy epics like  One Million Years B.C. , it was as a maker of horror films that it became most famous. So much so that it almost became synonymous with the horror genre, with the “Hammer horror” label becoming a brand name in its own right. Christopher Lee as Dracula, with rubber bat co-star