Back on the big screen after half a century is St Trinian's. Jenny Chambers talks to heart-throb Colin Firth about his role in it.
FANS of Colin Firth's portrayal of Mr Darcy in Pride And Prejudice will see their hero in a new light when St Trinian's opens this week.
The versatile actor plays a minister of education somewhat out of his depth in the unorthodox girls’ school of ungovernable pupils.
“I’m very much the stooge, the patsy, the guy who’s set up for a fall,” says Firth of his character Geoffrey Thwaites.
The original series of St Trinian’s comedy films, based on the works of cartoonist Ronald Searle, started in the 1950s and starred George Cole and Joyce Grenfell.
This time, the pupils are battling to save the school from bankruptcy in a story updated for modern audiences. Rupert Everett plays school headmistress Miss Fritton and Firth shares a love scene with him.
It’s the third time the pair have appeared together on screen. Following Another Country in 1984 at the start of Firth’s career, they worked on the adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest 18 years later.
The 47-year-old sums up their working relationship as “p*** taking”, adding “but I think there’s a slight feeling of us being a couple of survivors, really.
“It’s almost a quarter of a century in a business that does claim a lot of 15-minute, flash-in-the-pan scalps.
“And meeting again after Another Country, where we famously didn’t get on, even that fact was already a source of connection somehow.
“There’s something quite reassuring – ‘Oh, it’s you again’!”
He says on the St Trinian’s set he “sat and listened to him holding forth on spiritual matters for hours.
“I was glazing over and he was talking matters of the soul, in his trailer.”
For his part, Everett awarded Firth a mention in his recent autobiography.
“I was totally ambushed!” claims Firth.
“There’s one portion with a drug story and Rupert thought that might bother me – but that wasn’t my problem at all.
“I was ready to take legal action over him accusing me of wearing sandals and of strumming a guitar and singing a limp Sixties protest song, which I have to say did capture my soul!”
Of Everett’s role in St Trinian’s, he says: “It’s not a pantomime dame, I’ll say that.
“Rupert plays her convincingly as a certain kind of woman.
“But Rupert and I have a love scene at the end of the movie. I can vouch for how difficult it is to grapple with all that extra material!”
Comedy, he points out, is very hard to do.
“It is an unknown quantity. What’s that famous quote? ‘Dying is easy, comedy’s hard’. I think the broader it gets, if you miss by a millimetre, you’ve missed completely.”
While the film sounds huge fun, Firth has only vague memories of the original popular films.
“I don’t think I’ve seen them since I was quite young,” he says, and adds: “I was a bit frightened of the girls. I fancied them. Even though I was young, I found them attractive and rather frightening.
“I saw bits of the old films after we did this. To be honest, I was surprised how much the old versions are like this. Obviously some of the lingo had to be changed – no one was talking about emos and chavs and posh tottie in the 1950s.
“But we don’t show any girls smoking. There are some strict film rules about that now.”
His memories of his own school days are also vague.
“I have no feelings about school,” he says. “It’s long gone. Funnily enough, the bad memories – a sense of tedium – have faded. And teachers that I liked have remained quite vivid.
“There was a primary school teacher one year when I was 10 who made me interested in things I would otherwise not have been interested in – because he was a brilliant teacher.”
He enjoyed English and drama and thinks this is due to his “inspired” teachers in those subjects.
“If I’d loved my chemistry teacher and my maths teacher, goodness knows what direction my life might have gone in!”
But since Firth embarked upon his acting career, he’s never looked back.
While he is perhaps still best known – and most admired in female quarters – for his portrayal of Jane Austen’s hero Mr Darcy in the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, he has starred in a variety of films including Fever Pitch, Love, Actually, Bridget Jones’ Diary and its sequel Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. He’ll also be in Michael Winterbottom’s new film, a ghost story called Genova. “It’s about two young girls, who lose their mother in a car accident. I’m the father and the mother appears to the younger of the two and has a relationship, so in that respect it has a ghost element.”
The co-director of St Trinian’s is Oliver Parker, with whom Firth worked on The Importance of Being Earnest.
“I’ve known Oliver since I was a student.
“It’s one of those things. If you’re around long enough, you’ve met most people over time.”
Girls Aloud, who perform the theme tune, also make an appearance in the film as some of the errant schoolgirls.
And comedian and TV personality Russell Brand is Flash Harry (played by Cole in the original films) although he and Firth do not share any scenes.
Firth says: “Our job is trying to inject freshness and excitement into a very dull job description, which is repetition.
“To work effectively in a film, you have to repeat and work consistently. You’re supposed to be in the same 30-second moment for a day.
“The skill of a good actor is to make it always seem like you’re in that fantastically spontaneous moment.”
St Trinian’s opens in cinemas on Friday.