St Trinian's creator Searle dies aged 91

LONDON Tue Jan 3, 2012 3:49pm GMT

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LONDON (Reuters) - British cartoonist Ronald Searle, best known for his spiky drawings of the tearaway pupils of the fictional girls school St Trinian's, has died in southern France aged 91, his daughter said on Tuesday.

Searle, whose anarchic St Trinian's characters spawned a series of movie adaptations, died on December 30 at a hospital near his home in Draguignan, in France's southeastern Var region.

"(He) passed away peacefully in his sleep, with his children and grandson by his side," Kate Searle told Reuters.

His spindly schoolgirl creations, which first appeared in 1941, hit the big screen in 1954 as "The Belles of St Trinian's," with Alastair Sim starring in drag as headmistress Millicent Fritton.

The film franchise was revived in 2007, with Rupert Everett taking over the headmistress role, with a follow-up, "St Trinian's 2: The Legend of Fritton's Gold," appearing in 2009.

Searle was also known for his comic illustrations in a series of 1950s satires on British private school education, written by author Geoffrey Willans, including "Down with Skool" and "How to be Topp."

The books featured the thoughts of schoolboy Nigel Molesworth, and his advice on how to survive the trials of term-time at the crumbling St. Custard's, ruled over by terrifying headmaster Grimes, head boy Grabber and the school dog.

Searle's cartoons also appeared in magazines and newspapers, including Britain's Punch and The New Yorker.

His work was recognised internationally, and he won a number of awards from America's National Cartoonists Society. In France, where he lived since 1961, he was awarded the country's prestigious Legion d'Honneur.

His drawing influenced the scathing caricatures of British artist Gerald Scarfe, who has described how at the age of 14 he cycled to Searle's house in London to seek his advice on becoming a cartoonist, but was too scared to ring the bell.

Many years later Scarfe's wife arranged for the two men to meet at a restaurant in France, where Searle presented Scarfe with a birthday present of a brass doorbell with a note attached saying "please ring at any time."

British cartoonist Martin Rowson said Searle was an "extraordinary influence," comparing the splattered ink drops in his drawings to "champagne bubbles."

"He is imprinted into the British consciousness, he is part of the DNA of our collective soul," Rowson told BBC radio.

Searle was born in Cambridge in 1920 and attended the Cambridge School of Art.

Serving with Britain's Royal Engineers in World War Two, Searle was captured in Singapore by the Japanese and spent three and a half years as a prisoner of war in Changi and working on the Thai-Burma railway.

During captivity he secretly made sketches of the hardship of camp life, hiding the drawings under the mattresses of prisoners suffering from cholera.

He published the drawings after his liberation, with many of the pictures now kept at the Imperial War Museum in London.

(Editing by Mike Collett-White and Paul Casciato)

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