[23 August 2011]
PopMatters Associate Books Editor
Take the most unenlightened slacker comedy you can think of, and remove any ‘message’ that it might contain; about friendship, doing right by others, etc., and you might be close to Fun at St.Fanny’s. This is a 1956 British comedy, made by Adelphi Films and directed by Maurice Elvey. It’s released as part of a series from the Adelphi Studios by the BFI.
It’s only played for laughs, composed as it is of a series of music hall sketches, set pieces and ‘turns’ belonging to the lead cast members. These include Fred Emney (one of the co-writers) as Dr. Septimus Jankers, the boozy incompetent headmaster; Cardew ‘The Cad’ Robinson as the oldest schoolboy in the world, a young Ronnie Corbett, stalwart of British TV comedy, who recently presented a series on comedy legends: Ronnie Corbett’s Comedy Britain on ITV1. Alongside them is Gerald Campion, as ‘Fat Gilbert’, whose line in corpulent schoolboys did not end with this film. He played Billy Bunter on British television throughout the ‘50s and was a household name for many years.
This film contains saucy French schoolmistresses, cheeky brat schoolboys, incompetent teachers, bungling gangsters and acres and acres of the oldest jokes known to civilisation. Think the Marx Brothers with British accents. But with fewer laughs. Cheery and innocent as most of it is and with some admirable performances (such as the brief appearance by Stanley Unwin as the museum guide), you cannot help but feel how tired this is and how, for Robinson and Emney especially, this was a repetition of such a tried and tested act they no longer have to try very hard. The origins of this film in music hall and variety theatre are more in evidence when ‘The Singing Scholars’ launch into their close harmony repertoire in the final quarter. This musical interlude is only interrupted intermittently to wrap up what slim plotlines there are.
St. Fanny’s is part of a tradition that, while without the narrative content of any sort of message, does have a satirical point to make. Music Hall comedians, screen writers, and authors had been sending up the British public school system for decades. The Will Hay comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s had included schooldays films such as The Ghost of St.Michael’s (1941). Fun at St. Fanny’s shares some of the routines and jokes of this earlier comedy, as well as one of its stars. Claude Hulbert, who plays Mr. Winkle in St. Fanny’s appeared with Hay in The Ghost of St. Michael’s as Hilary Teasdale. Hulbert and Robinson were forever saddled with their schooldays comedy personae.
More well-known perhaps, and generally less dated now, were the St. Trinian’s films, based on the books by writer and cartoonist Ronald Searle. Different from St. Fanny’s in that St. Trinian’s was a girls’ school with all the accompanying risqué and slapstick that entailed. In my opinion the best schooldays’ comedy is the 1954 The Belles of St. Trinian’s starring Alastair Sim in the dual roles of Millicent and Clarence Fritton. Maybe get ahold of that on DVD, and give St. Fanny’s a wide berth.
There are no extras on the disc from the BFI, however the accompanying written material contains the usual good quality analysis and comments from scholars and interviewees. Ronnie Corbett reminisces about his time on the film, but has only hazy memories he admits, calling it an ‘off-the-wall’ production. Perhaps, take the advice of one of the film’s stars then, as it seems to be an effort for him to come up with even that as any sort of compliment.