Academic institutions are often said to be the making of us. Whether it is the rough and tumble of Grange Hill, the magic of Hogwarts, the threat of Oates Military Academy in Bill & Ted or to ponder on the Theory of everything with the promise of an Oxford Summer School, school life is ripe for the dramatic narrative. Many writers and directors have plundered the chaos and camaraderie of their school days for inspiration and, as most of us have our own early years’ education to compare, they will remain a popular choice for filmmakers.
To register our interest in this subject we aim to take a tour of some of the finest cinematic campuses. Though we’ll be holding our fists airward in solidarity with the American high schools of Ferris Bueller, The Breakfast Club, Ridgemont High and so on, we aim to take a look at those closer to home. So, pencils ready – let’s get started.
The Meaning of Life
While more unfocused than the previous Python films, The Meaning of Life has a brutality and a barbarism which sharpened the satire to a fearsome point. In Part 2 (Growth and Learning) a sleepy English school plays host to an odd sermon before John Cleese educates a schoolroom full of languid boys on the joys of sex.
It is a typical Pythonesque twist. In taking the explicit route to procreation in this completely inappropriate setting it brings down so much of the puritanical closeting of children prevalent in society then and now. The boys seem disinterested for the most part, even when the teacher’s wife appears for the practical presentation.
It is a further stroke of cruel genius that the same boys who loll about through the lesson are destined to mature no further and end up on the battlefields of The Great War in the film’s next episode. A bracing reminder of the futility of life.
And on a familiar note…
…in which John Cleese executes a pitch perfect farce worthy of Basil Fawlty himself. It is a neat ’80s curio which never seemed to make a huge impressions despite an excellent cast and some fun set pieces. Speaking of which… there is an infamous moment when Cleese’s headmaster character Mr. Stimpson has his back turned and a streaker runs down an alleyway in full view of a cheering student body. The man who was that streaker has proudly put the scene on YouTube for all to enjoy. Just Google ‘Clockwise Robert Wilkinson‘ – NSFW obviously…
John Carney’s love letter to the slings and arrows of outrageous schoolboy ambition is a total joy. Centering on the sudden struggle of a boy wrenched from his expensive school to Synge Street, a gritty inner city institution, the film is a musical drama with genuine heart.
A tale of quiet teenage rebellion, Sing Street has the requisite school uniform mishaps, overbearing headmaster, playground tribal warfare, young love and a minefield of bullies, but it maintains its own voice in all of this. The school itself is the centre stage for many of the film’s key moments. The end of year party, and the band’s performance, are incredibly stirring, and you’ll be singing the songs for years to come. If you missed this one – now’s the time to seek it out.
The pen of Ronald Searle drew a masterpiece of contained anarchy with his educational establishment. Though the Second World War would imbue his creation with a darker streak of anarchy there is much fun to had amidst the chaos.
The big screen series thrilled audiences in the ‘50s and ‘60s with Alastair Sim’s double role as the Headmistress Miss Millicent Fritton and her brother. The films revolved around varying degrees of scandal and low level gangster antics, and audiences warmed to the subversive nature of the stories.
In the 21st century a reboot was ordered and Rupert Everett stepped into the dual role, joined by Lily Cole, Gemma Arterton, Talulah Riley, Colin Firth and Russell Brand. It was a fun attempt to bring the St Trinian’s sensibility into the modern age, and though a sequel fell to the rule of dimishing returns they did nothing to damage the wholly unrepeatable reputation of the school in the public’s eyes.
We come to a very different brand of satire for our final stop on this tour. While St Trinian’s boarding school for girls benefited from its playful chaos the public boys’ school in Lindsay Anderson’s classic was far more bleak in its outlook.
The film shocked audiences across the world and was a stark autumn to the Summer of Love. It distilled the harsh, animalistic nature of the ‘honour codes’ and traditions of the public school system and let Malcom McDowell’s character Mick Travis take these sadistic elements to an inevitable extreme. That it was McDowell’s first film performance is astonishing and, just as he would find with his role of Alex in Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange, he would always be fixed as the rebel looking to break out.
Winning the Palme d’Or in 1969 was a cast iron assurance of the film’s reputation. The ending of the film is a classic denouement, and retains its power today. The happiest days of your life? Not on his watch.