This film sounded very interesting, being based around the very strange but true story of the Augusta Victoria College, a German finishing school for young female relatives/associates of high-ranking Nazi officials, based not in Germany but, from 1932 to 1939 in Bexhill-on-Sea on the Sussex coast. Unfortunately, the storyline was just stupid. It was supposed to be a thrilling espionage drama, but it was unconvincing and verged on the farcical.
Our hero, played by Eddie Izzard, was a British spy masquerading as a teacher, although he seemed to do little teaching other than to train the girls, who were remarkably ill-disciplined by anyone’s standards, never mind Nazi standards, to sing “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary”. At one point, he tried to hide from the police by stealing a uniform which a brass band player had left lying on the beach whilst he went for a swim (as you do), then marching with the brass band, without an instrument, whilst the flugle player whose uniform he’d nicked marched alongside him in his underwear. It would have been quite funny in ‘Allo ‘Allo or Dad’s Army, but this was supposed to be a serious spy film.
Meanwhile, Judi Dench did her best as the sweet little old British headmistress (the headmistress of the actual school was German, and presumably carefully chosen by the authorities) who didn’t realise that the Nazis weren’t actually very nice people, and joined in when the girls all made Nazi salutes and chanted Nazi slogans because she thought it was just a confidence boosting things; but the idea of the character made no sense. This was the summer of 1939. My school was offering free places to girls who’d come to the UK as refugees from Nazi persecution. People knew jolly well what was going on. And that would have gone for sweet little old ladies in idyllic seaside resorts as much as for anyone else.
Maybe part of the problem was that no-one seems very sure exactly what the point of the school was. Possibly so that the girls could try to spread Nazi ideals in British society, but, seeing as they hardly ever left the school, and didn’t come into contact with anyone outside it, I don’t quite see how that was meant to work. Were they all meant to hang around after leaving, and impress people with their ability to walk elegantly because of all the time they’d spent balancing books on their heads?
A decent scriptwriter would have come up with a plausible explanation. Instead, all we got was that the other teacher, a young German woman, was a Nazi. However, other than chatting to other Nazis at a music evening, there didn’t seem to be much point to her either. Well, not until our hero went out to meet his superior officer, and she followed him and shot the said officer dead. Presumably she was also responsible for the death of a previous teacher, whose body turned up on the beach, but that was never really explained, even though our hero was meant to be finding out about it. A lot of things in this film were never really explained. Anyway, the police turned up and thought our hero had shot his boss, so he went on the run … but was captured after the incident with the brass band and the underwear.
He was then visited in the local nick by two government officials, a senior one with a posh voice and a junior one with a not-posh voice. But then, in a “thrilling” twist in the tale (it actually wasn’t that thrilling), it turned out that the posh bloke was a Nazi spy. Our man escaped again, and was helped out by the local bus driver, who was obsessed with people not getting mud on his kitchen floor but was happy to give our man a change of clothes – thankfully, not a uniform this time. Then our man teamed up with the junior official.
Oh, and everyone kept saying “English” where “British” would have been more appropriate, which was interesting given that the film was made by the Welsh Film Board.
Meanwhile, the Nazi teacher was arranging for the girls to be evacuated by plane, necessitating their climbing up a hill with their suitcases (in broad daylight – presumably this was OK, as no-one happening to walk past would have found this at all suspicious), hanging around until it got dark, and then waving flares to show the plane where to land. Despite the fact that it was broad daylight and the plane couldn’t land until it got dark, they didn’t have time to stop when one of the girls dropped her case and it fell down the hill, even though it was only a small hill and it would only have taken two minutes to retrieve the case, but never mind.
Mysterious planes often land in strange places in Enid Blyton books, and indeed in James Bond films, but I didn’t really get why, the UK not requiring exit visas, the girls – there were only about a dozen of them – and the teacher couldn’t have just hopped on a train to the nearest port (Google informs me that it’s only about 55 miles from Bexhill to Dover), got on a ferry, then got on a train to Germany. There might even have been direct sailings from Harwich to Hamburg at that time.
However, our hero had managed to get through to Whitehall, the plane was intercepted, and he and the sweet little old headmistress turned up, deterred the Nazi teacher from shooting all the girls rather than risk their being interned (???), and a lot of hugging went on. The girls were then taken back to the school, where they lined up and sang “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary”. I think we were actually supposed to feel sorry for them, which opens up all sorts of thorny questions – OK, they wouldn’t have had much choice about being sent to the school, but they were in the late teens, so old enough to understand what was going on. But the film never got into anything as deep as that.
I’m not even sure why it was such a big deal that the girls were leaving, and why they were so desperate to stop them. It’s not like they were spies. All they did was mess around in the dormitory, go swimming, and try to learn English. Why not just let them go home? If the idea was for them to try to spread Nazi ideals, then wouldn’t it actually’ve been better to have them out of the UK, goodbye and good riddance, rather than trying to keep them here?!
The whole thing was just silly, quite frankly – and it was a shame, because someone could have made a very good story about this school. Maybe, one day, someone will, but this certainly wasn’t it!