Jolly hockey sticks

The old Eal­ing- style come­dies can never be re- cre­ated, writes Ros­alie Hig­son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

THE come­dies that came out of Eal­ing Stu­dios in post- war Lon­don make up a spe­cial body of cin­e­matic work. The films had huge ap­peal for the home crowd, help­ing to jolly them through the post- war slump, the blitzed cities and the ra­tioned food, clothes and coal.

You gotta laugh. And ev­ery­one did, es­pe­cially at the Eal­ing films made be­tween 1949 and 1955. They in­clude the boozy Whisky Ga­lore! ( 1949) set on the fic­tional Scot­tish is­land of Tod­day, where the lo­cals try their best to re­trieve a cargo of whisky from a wreck. Kind Hearts and Coronets ( 1949) is the tale of a mur­der­ous heir to a for­tune, with Alec Guin­ness play­ing eight roles.

Guin­ness ap­pears again in the multi- award­win­ning The Laven­der Hill Mob ( 1951) as a mild­man­nered bank clerk who, af­ter 20 years, takes to rob­bery, big time. The Man in the White Suit ( 1951) also fea­tures Guin­ness, this time as an ec­cen­tric in­ven­tor who cre­ates a fab­ric that won’t mark or wear out.

In The Tit­field Thun­der­bolt ( 1953), Stan­ley Hol­loway leads a band of merry lo­cals from a small vil­lage who take over their lo­cal rail­way when Bri­tish Rail aban­dons them. The last, and pos­si­bly best, of the great Eal­ing come­dies was The Ladykillers ( 1955), an­other ensem­ble piece about a group of thieves dis­guised as classical mu­si­cians, plan­ning a rob­bery, with Katie John­son as their el­derly land­lady.

The mostly black- and- white come­dies were churned out quickly, but the Eal­ing team en­sured scripts and edit­ing were sharp. The films ran to about 83 min­utes, so the hu­mour was not stretched be­yond its lim­its ( some­thing to­day’s film­mak­ers would do well to note).

The en­dur­ing ap­peal of th­ese pe­riod pieces rests partly on bril­liant act­ing: one short­age Bri­tain never suf­fered was that of qual­ity thes­pi­ans. Ap­pear­ing along with Guin­ness were Her­bert Lom, Peter Sell­ers, Hol­loway, Sid James and many more. The scripts avoided cyn­i­cism, al­though they of­ten made a point about small peo­ple get­ting to­gether to bat­tle big busi­ness, or big gov­ern­ment. Fifty years on, they seem like some­thing from a rather quaint world, what with all those steam trains and rus­tic is­lan­ders, not to men­tion the fruity ac­cents.

An­other type of suc­cess­ful com­edy ap­peared at the time: a cheeky quar­tet of tales about the naughty school­girls of St Trinian’s, be­gin­ning with The Belles of St Trinian’s in 1954.

All were writ­ten and di­rected by Frank Laun­der, and based on the darkly satiric car­toons of Ron­ald Searle. The films were set in an an­ar­chic, pro­gres­sive board­ing school, where ram­pag­ing ju­niors used hockey sticks as weapons of mass de­struc­tion, while sexy se­niors ( such as glam­our model Sab­rina and her 105cm bo­som) slunk about the dorms, along with some dodgy teach­ers, ma­trons and sundry hang­ers- on, in­clud­ing Joyce Gren­fell as the won­der­fully named Ruby Gates.

They fea­tured sight gags, snappy di­a­logue and a touch of the panto dame with the cross­dress­ing head­mistress ( Alastair Sim). But it was all in good fun and so in­no­cent com­pared with, say, Mean Girls .

Given the paucity of fresh ideas in main­stream film, in­evitably the old Bri­tish come­dies caught the eye of con­tem­po­rary film­mak­ers. In 1980, Laun­der at­tempted to ring the belles again. The Wild­cats of St Trinian’s had the stu­dent body go­ing on strike. It was a timely theme: the cold months of 1979 were marked by so much in­dus­trial un­rest in Bri­tain that the pe­riod was dubbed ‘‘ the win­ter of dis­con­tent’’. But that wasn’t enough to make the re­vival a suc­cess.

Eal­ing Stu­dios has not learned its les­son: shoot­ing has just fin­ished on a new film, sim­ply called St Trinian’s , due for re­lease this Christ­mas. While it may have the same name this new com­edy is from a dif­fer­ent school al­to­gether. Pro­duc­ers have pre­sum­ably taken into ac­count that view­ers younger than 40 will have nei­ther seen nor heard of the orig­i­nals. And will that Bri­tish hu­mour travel across the pond to the US? Well, there is al­ways an in­ter­est from cer­tain sec­tions of the view­ing pub­lic in school­girls wear­ing short uni­forms.

Pro­ducer and ac­tor Ru­pert Everett, who plays the head­mistress ( cheek­ily mod­elled on Camilla, the Duchess of Corn­wall), in­sisted on bring­ing the story up to date, so now the belles have teenage preg­nan­cies and drugs to worry about, rather than lacrosse games and smok­ing.

‘‘ Bri­tain to­day is so po­lit­i­cally cor­rect, just like in the 1950s when it was dif­fi­cult to be in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic,’’ said pro­ducer and co- di­rec­tor Oliver Parker at the re­cent Cannes film fes­ti­val, where he was pro­mot­ing the movie.

‘‘ The girls are not hor­ri­ble and vi­cious, they just want to do their own thing,’’ whined Talu­lah Ri­ley, who plays one of the ju­nior girls ( who look about as harm­less as the Kray brothers, judg­ing by pho­to­graphs from the set).

The re­vival of St Trinian’s is a timely stroke of ge­nius or a ter­ri­ble idea. The cast has great tal­ent: Everett, Colin Firth, Caterina Murino, Stephen Fry, Celia Im­rie, Anna Chan­cel­lor. Will they be any match for Terry Thomas, Ge­orge Cole, Sim and Gren­fell? Or Sab­rina and her as­sets, both of which per­formed an im­por­tant role in cheer­ing up the Brits so long ago? Murino, a for­mer Miss Italy fi­nal­ist and Casino Royale Bond girl, ap­pears as the lan­guage mistress, Miss Mau­pas­sant, so per­haps she will fill Sab­rina’s high­heeled school shoes. A few names will at­tract teens: ex- The O. C. star Mis­cha Bar­ton, model Lily Cole and pop­sters Girls Aloud.

So far, no re­make has done the Eal­ing films jus­tice. The Amer­i­can Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, who do know some­thing about com­edy, re­made The Ladykillers in 2004, trans­fer­ring the ac­tion to the Amer­i­can south, with Tom Hanks in the Guin­ness role. The film was a homage, made in good faith, they in­sisted, but it failed to cap­ture the pub­lic.

Na­tional pride brought down the reprise of Whisky Ga­lore! , which bit the dust last year af­ter prob­lems with fi­nances and cast­ing. The orig­i­nal film starred James Robert­son Jus­tice, Dun­can MacRae and Gor­don Jack­son. For the re­make, writer Peter McDougall claims the pro­duc­ers spurned lo­cal tal­ent in­clud­ing Rob­bie Coltrane and Robert Car­lyle for English ac­tors who were ‘‘ big in Amer­ica’’. ‘‘ There were five sirs on it . . . and there wasn’t a sin­gle f--- ing Scot­tish ac­tor.’’

Al­lur­ing: The pro­duc­ers are bank­ing on the at­trac­tions of the cast of the new St Trinian’s in­clud­ing, from left, Talu­lah Ri­ley, Caterina Murino and Gemma Arter­ton

A poor copy: Alec Guin­ness, Katie John­son and Ce­cil Parker in the 1955 ver­sion of The Ladykillers were a hard act to fol­low for, right, Ryan Hurst, Tom Hanks, J. K. Sim­mons and Tzi Ma in the 2004 re­make

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