SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ Films on the Seat at the Back playlist right now: KIDS IN LOVE; JUNE; CURVE; WILD, BARELY LETHAL; GODDESS OF LOVE; THE VATICAN TAPES .. What a night in!

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

BFI SCREENING OF 'FUN AT ST. FANNY'S' (1956) ~ introduced and attended by VERA DAY/ 27th July 2011

* Some spoilers may follow - to avoid a cane on the bottom, watch before reading! *

The film production company Adelphi Films is a rare beast. A family run business, founded by a charismatic man by the name of Arthur Dent and then managed by himself and his two sons. Sticking with tradition, it's his granddaughter who is the one in charge today. They produced and distributed many great British film comedies, until recently thought lost, from the 40s and 50s. Following the rescue of the original film negatives from the family's home storage (the storing of original films - that were made on highly combustible nitrate - professionally, could be costly following stricter health and safety legislation) the British Film Institute has saved and archived the Adelphi collection and is in the process of releasing 37 of the films the company distributed on remastered Blu-Ray and DVD.

'Fun at St. Fanny's' from 1956 is the next BFI DVD release for their Adelphi Collection, and for many fans of classic early British comedy it's of special interest, mostly as a St Trinian's clone that didn't quite work out or set the world of film comedy alight, but it also retains other curiosity value; warmth, and oddball off-the-wall humour, to ensure ongoing interest for any fan of the 'Carry On' and 'St. Trinian's' brand of saucy seaside - or in this case, cheeky classroom - giggling.


St. Fanny's also has a cast to - if not die for - then certainly bend over and have your bottom spanked by! It also has a title that (along with another film with Fun at St. Fanny's star Vera Day - the amazingly named 'Dr. Clitterhouse') wouldn't seem out of place as a double bill in a cinema for adult viewing only. How innocent-seeming the slightly risqué days of cheeky British cinema were at times (at least in the public gaze, if not behind the scenes!).  

Dr. Septimus Jankers is the weary headmaster of St. Fanny's public school for boys. The pupils are unruly and mischievous, but worst of all - they tell some truly awful jokes; at least two jokes a second. The pupils look a lot like that fellow Ronnie Corbett in a very early starring role as cheeky boy Chumleigh (oh hang on - it is Ronnie, but listed in the credits as 'Ronald'!), as well as that, ahem, 'boy' who played Billy Bunter in the 50s; Gerald Campion, as - perhaps predictably, a schoolboy called Fatty Gilbert.

Look closely and you will also spot Melvyn Hayes, best known today for his role as Bombardier 'Gloria' Beaumont in the 70's TV comedy 'It Ain't Half Hot Mum' (but who would also star alongside Peter Cushing the year after making 'Fun at St. Fanny's' in the classic Hammer horror 'The Curse of Frankenstein' - as Young Victor) in an uncredited role as 'Heckling Boy at Concert'. There's also Carry On's Peter Butterworth as 'Clay Potter' in a memorable, but brief, skit. You couldn't make a cast like this up!

Of course, the confident star of this film is the towering, lanky, toothy presence that is Cardew Robinson as Cardew the Cad - a character he created for stage and radio, but here finds its way into a feature film at last. Cardew the Cad is an over-aged naughty schoolboy with a penchant for rude jokes and chatting up matrons - a good few decades before Wee Jimmy Krankie hit the same strike of oozy comedy oil running, sliding in to shot on a bottom padded with an old school book. The screening of Fun at St. Fanny's at the BFI is sold out on the night. So, perhaps, are the jokes. Well beyond their sell by date as they say. But that's all part of the fun!

The film itself does have a plot, but mainly it's a loose collection of sight gags and 'side-splitting' cross-dressing japes. Pity the poor headmaster, played by portly Fred Emney, who has to dress up and pretend to be his own sister, despite that moustache of his, to escape Harry the Scar (played by real life boxer Freddie Mills). Harry has come to the school with his beautiful and pouty moll Maisie (our very own Vera Day) to recover a debt over a horse race mix-up (the mix-up being that the headmaster, while talking to the class he was teaching as well as to Harry the Scar at the same time over the phone, has - somewhere in the middle of all this multi-tasking - placed a huge sum of money on a horse that hasn't a hope in Hell).

Harry the Scar, of course, is much like the St. Trinians character of Flash Harry as played by George Cole. Except, as played by boxer Freddie Mills, he looks like he might really might bash you up if you do or say the wrong thing! He also provides the best gag of the film - a teacher tells the absent minded Headmaster about Harry the Scar, only for the Headmaster (smoking a cigar) to reply: "No thanks, I already have one." The Scar. Cigar. Got a cigar? Get it? I almost feel sorry for myself repeating it. But, yes, that is the best gag of the entire film - fact!


'Fun as St. Fanny's' has numerous other plot twists and turns - a mishmash of comic scenarios. Essentially Cardew is too old to be a schoolboy really (No! Really?) and the school board are out to catch him out, or catch the school out, with an on-the-spot test of Cardew to see how clever he really is. Meanwhile, a representative of a solicitor's office that oversees an inheritance granted to Cardew whereby a lump sum paid to the school is paid in every year that the 'boy' remains there, heads to the school as well - a crafty and merciless (well, she shuts people in cupboards and in trunks) woman who is out to get the Cad expelled. Or even arrested for stealing a work of valuable art. Well. At least. I think that was what was happening.

The plot, of course, is secondary to the main event: which is countless classroom wisecracks and sight gags of naughty overage schoolboys being cheeky or getting caned, in the same way the St. Trinian's girls had to endure similar humiliations in a film series that had longer pedigree and cultural heritage and less spanking.

The finale of Fun at St. Fanny's sees the school put on a song and dance show where a school choir sings such classics as 'Hey Mambo' while grinning like it's the craziest thing in the world to be doing for the finale of any film, let alone a St. Trinian's rip-off without any older girls in suspenders for a young actor to leer at between takes. All this cast got to share a stage with was Cardew the Cad's bony rump as he takes the cane - again, and again.

Finally, as the movie heads towards all out farce, Cardew saves the day by playing the role of Hamlet in the tightest of tights and the usual mugging to camera. I think this saves the day, but as to why, I can't remember. I think there may not have been a day to save - but frankly, the ghost of Shakespeare had probably closed the whole production down by this point.

Joking (ahem!) apart, there's a lot of fun to be had at St. Fanny's. If only to poke fun yourself at a class made up of mock public schoolboys played by the likes of Ronnie Corbett, Gerald Campion, Melvyn Hayes, and of course - dear old (I mean 'young') Cardew. These troopers mug and grimace for the camera and look like they're having genuine fun - overworking all those face muscles to make sure we come out of the film smiling. Possibly they decided to make extra effort after having had read the script - to make sure the audience didn't ask for their money back on the way out.

And while there are many really, really bad and completely unfathomable jokes throughout the movie, every single one is still spoken with conviction like it's the last joke on earth. Among the extras of giggly schoolboys filling up the classroom are clearly some real, giggling schoolboys looking straight at the camera and thinking this is just about the oddest thing they have ever been made to do in their lives! But at least they didn't end up in the choir sequence.

Sight gags rule the school in this movie. And there are some fine ones. An exceptional scene involving face slapping at every spoken letter of every cross word (as increasingly longer and harder to spell cross words get spoken) as well as a fabulous scene-stealing turn from Peter Butterworth as the man making pots in a TV advert that Cardew is watching are worth the price of a 1950s ticket alone. The potting sequence sees Butterworth and Cardew trading insults, eventually leading to Butterworth throwing a lump of clay out of the screen at the bucktoothed twit, in a quite surreal - and unexpected - twist.

A sequence in the museum where the main cast hide among the exhibits also has another scene-stealing turn, this time from Stanley Unwin talking his trademark gobbledygook, all too briefly as it's simply brilliant bemusement. At St. Fanny's - everything goes, and every line gets in, however bad it may be; however tired the joke is. However absurd the scenario.

The director of the film, Maurice Elvey, made over two hundred movies, many in the silent era. But many critics see his 1918 film The Life Story of David Lloyd George as a pinnacle of British cinema. The film was withdrawn by the liberal government of the time, it's said, so as not to spoil the chances of their leader - Lloyd George, at the next election. The film was only recently unearthed and made available again. Too late for the director to know. But still, this rather maverick and off the wall auteur has a legacy that goes beyond, perhaps, what he achieved at St Fanny's at the very end of his career.

So what of the guest list for the screening of this film at the BFI, prior to it's release on Blu-Ray and DVD? The BFI archivist introduced Vera Day who played Maisie. Still very sprightly for 76 years old, she told us about working with boxer Freddie Mills, who she had a relationship with, and how he used to get cross with the director ordering him around. She was herself told by the director to "Make it faster, sexier and funnier" and tells the audience that she found it hard to know how to do all three at once! As for Cardew, she has great affection for her leading boy-man, although admits: "He wasn't exactly David Beckham or George Clooney!"

Vera recalls how she and Freddie couldn't understand a word of what Stanley (Gobbledygook) Unwin was saying either, although they did their best. Eventually they just shrugged their shoulders and gave up - sometimes it's probably best to just let Stanley get on with his routine without thinking about it too much! It must have been a nightmare to star opposite him and remember your own lines when all of his have gone out for lunch.

The spectacle of Cardew Robinson in action is a major reason this film still has the lever of interest attached to it that it has today. His role of The Cad is so well-timed and well-honed, you begin to wonder whether actor and character are perhaps, at heart, one and the same. Certainly he gives the role his all; every stretched muscle around his face gets such a mammoth workout and he has a grin so wide and in use for so much of the film that he must have ached from the neck up, every night after work.


As for the appearance of Vera Day to introduce the movie, it was wonderful seeing such a well-respected, adorable actress up there on stage. And she's still acting today, most notably (after a break of thirty four years!) in 1998 for Guy Ritchie's 'Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels'. But for me, I remain a fan of Vera's for such genre classics as Quatermass 2 (1957) and Womaneater (1958) - a film about a giant person-eating plant, back when black and white b-movies really meant something. I'm not sure what. But something!

Also in the audience on the night of the BFI screening was a member of that schoolboy choir that appeared in the film's finale. Does he still sing, he was asked? "Not likely", I think was the reply.

The film was released, we find out, with such gimmicky advice to cinemas as to invite local schools along for an outing to see the movie and get some word of mouth from the youth of the day as well as to have a stunt double dress up as a headmaster with a cane and go terrorising the community in as many of the places the film was playing as they could. There are presumably many suburban towns out there (mostly in Surrey) that would love that kind of thing on a Sunday morning - a quick spank before breakfast followed by a screening of St. Fanny's at your local fleapit!

Apparently the film's producers had planned a whole series of St. Fanny's movies - a 'Fanny franchise' no less. "Sadly," we are told by the BFI archivist during the film's intro, deadpan: "It wasn't to be." And this, perhaps tellingly, gets the biggest laugh of the whole night.


words: mark gordon palmer

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