September 26, 2023
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: When a glimpse of stocking was nothing shocking

I was scrolling through television listings when I noticed the BBC was running some of the old St Trinian’s films. Not the 2009 version, with Colin Firth and Talulah Riley, but the originals, with Alastair Sim, Joyce Grenfell and George Cole .

I vaguely remembered having watched them as a child, maybe a teenager, with my mam and dad who laughed a lot at  them.  Fond memories; but I wasn’t sure if it was the films themselves I enjoyed or just the nice family atmosphere.

So, to refresh my memory, I recorded the series and watched the three of them. I was amazed. Was this really what we regarded as happy family viewing in the 1960s, fun for all??

These comedies could not possibly be made today, except as a sort of soft porn.

The stories are set in a delinquent private school for girls. somewhere in the south of England. The films are a stocking fetishist’s dream. The older girls – all played by adult women – wear short gymslips as their normal school uniform, revealing stocking tops and suspenders at all times, and a lot more when they move.

In an interview to accompany the series, one actress said the cast used to refer to this flash of thigh as “the smile”. They saw nothing wrong  with the outfits and maybe that’s understandable, because the sexy schoolgirl dress was nothing when compared  to the sexy schoolgirl stories.

In one of the films we meet some Ministry of Education inspectors who were sent to report on the school but persuaded to stay there. They live in a building on the grounds where the senior girls ply them with food, alcohol and sexual favours.

Getting the alcohol is no problem because a lot of the teachers are drunk a lot of the time. If the girls need to top up, they can enlist the services of Flash Harry, a dodgy character who hangs around the school and sometimes places bets for the students with the  local bookie.

In one story, the younger girls abduct a racehorse to help the headmistress (played by  Alastair Sim in drag!) win a bet.

In another, a sixth form girl entertains parents at Open Day by performing a striptease as she recites Hamlet’s soliloquy

In The Pure Hell of St Trinian’s, some of the senior girls are captured by a sultan somewhere in the Middle East. He plans to allocate them as wives to his many sons. The girls object, mainly on grounds that some of the suitors  are not as wealthy as others.

The most extraordinary scene is set in the Old Bailey. The pupils have been accused of arson and the entire school is brought to the court. A senior girl sits at the front  and flashes her stocking tops at the judge. She passes him a note with her name and phone number and he adjourns the case

When the trial resumes next day, the judge smiles contentedly at the schoolgirl and finds in favour of St Trinian’s.

I thought of St Trinian’s when I watched another, more recent, BBC production – a documentary on Mary Whitehouse, a teacher who ran a Clean-Up TV campaign in Britain in the 1960s and 70s.

Back then she came across to me as sometimes a figure of fun. sometimes a figure to fear, as she tried to ban sex from the screen. Her targets included the playwright Dennis Potter and the comedian Dave Allen, singers Chuck Berry and Alice Cooper, and programmes as diverse as Dr Who and the Channel Four soap, Brookside.

But Whitehouse never once mentioned the St Trinian’s films because, of course, that would just have been ridiculous. I mean, who could possibly object to teenage schoolgirls smoking, drinking and betting, flashing their stocking tops, flirting with civil servants and bribing a judge with the offer  of a sex romp?
Fun for all the family. Well, that’s what my mam and dad thought and just about everyone agreed with them at the time.

In our time, when we get so agitated about what is politically correct and incorrect, what is woke and what is wrong, it is interesting to reflect that one generation’s harmless fun can be another’s gross abuse.

And if the reflection shakes our certainties a little, that will be no bad thing.

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