With the likelihood of at least some schools in England re-opening from Monday, June 1st, it’s perhaps an appropriate time to look at the depiction of schools in the movies over recent years, both good and bad.
The most familiar onscreen British school is of course Hogwarts, the wizarding academy from JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series of Children’s/YA books.
We first see the school in the 2001’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone when Potter and crew memorably catch the Kings Cross special train and Harry gets his initial glimpse of Hogwarts.
And very nice it is too:
Hogwarts has also been featured in the second of Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts prequel franchise, so there’s little danger of the school disappearing (unless in the magical sense) from the screen anytime soon.
Probably second only in fame to Hogwarts in term of fictional British schools is St Trinian’s.
Based on Ronald Serles cartoons, St Trinian’s was a film series about a rather dissolute girls’ school, which got increasingly smutty as the original five-movie series progressed, ending in 1980’s risible Wild Cats of St Trinian’s, which is best forgotten.
A highlight of the first four pictures in the series was George Cole’s dodgy spiv Flash Harry:
The series was rebooted for two movies, 2007’s St Trinian’s and the inferior Legend of Fritton’s Gold two years later.
Rupert Everett gamely took on the role of Headmistress Camilla Fritton, echoing Alistair Sim’s performance as Amelia Fritton in the first St Trinian’s picture back in 1954.
The two films were updated for modern sensibilities, but it has to be noted that the ‘Daddies’ in the audience were still catered for by some post-age-of-consent suspender-clad students.
Never Let Me Go
It’s clear right from the start that all is not as it seems in this haunting adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s famous novel. Set in a dystopian version of the future, a select group of children live in an idyllic boarding school where their sole aim is to produce art for a mysterious exhibition – the purpose of which only becomes clear at the end. A star-studded cast includes Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield and Carey Mulligan. Bafta-courting cinematography is combined with a bleak twist. Save this one for a day when you’re feeling philosophical. It’s not exactly cheery.
Dead Poet’s Society
Charismatic English teacher John Keating, played by Robin Williams, instills in his pupils a love of poetry that binds them together in unexpected ways.
Whether or not you take to this film depends on your fondness for Williams in straight acting mode. But if it’s tear-jerking Oscar appeal you’re after, watch on. Look out for a young Ethan Hawke in one of his breakthrough roles.
Back in 2000, we were treated to Douglas McGrath’s underrated adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickelby.
The film is distinguished in my eyes by fine performances from Christopher Plummer as a strangely sympathetic baddie Ralph Nickelby and Jim Broadbent’s grotesque Dotheboys Hall headmaster Wackford Squeers (Charlie Hunnam not so impressive):
Not the sort of place I’d imagine any parent would want to send their offspring.
But you never know.
Reaching further back in time, Bill Forsyth’s comedy Gregory’s Girl (1981) painted a fairly realistic portrait of a Scottish secondary school, which brought the titular star John Gordon Sinclair to some prominence at the time.
A left-field choice; 2011’s supernatural chiller The Awakening, which sees 1920s ghost-debunker Rebecca Hall investigate spooky goings-on at Dominic West’s Cumbrian boys boarding school.
Not that scary, but The Awakening passes the time well enough.
Back to School
I can’t resist the temptation to mention the Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back to School (1986). Why? Purely because in the movie Dangerfield (as millionaire Thornton Melon) hires renowned author Kurt Vonnegut to write an essay for him – and is not best pleased by the results:
And finally; most have us have experienced some dissatisfaction during our school days, but few have gone to the lengths of the pupils in If (1968) and Unman, Wittering & Zigo (1971), where students machine-gunned the teaching staff down or murdered/intimidated selected masters. Possibly tempted though.