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