Why We All Love Flash Harry

Not many childhood memories of a children's TV character are based around a cockney barrow boy who hangs around with schoolgirls, Harry Hackett was one of a kind though...
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Not many childhood memories of a children's TV character are based around a cockney barrow boy who hangs around with schoolgirls, Harry Hackett was one of a kind though...

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Maybe it was 1974 or maybe it was 1975; I don’t really remember precisely to be sure, but cars still had big chrome bumpers, flares and wedges were de rigeur and Roger Moore was unquestionably the genuine James Bond.

I would have been about 10 years old, increasingly aware of the bawdier side of life thanks to the News of the World and the Wheel Tappers & Shunters Social Club; watched with a mixture of bemusement and mirth before Match of the Day on Saturday night; but I was still young enough not to be too affected by the news pictures of blown-out pubs and serious-faced reporters talking mournfully of the scattered limbs of the dead victims. It was the mid-seventies. In all its dullness. Brian Clough was a breath of fresh-air.

Saturday mornings were a toast and tea-fest in front of the black & white “telly”, as we lay on the carpet, gas fire burning  basking in the joy of Roadrunner and Sylvester & Tweetie-pie cartoons...and no school today.

But what was this on next? Bellies full of warm tea and copiously-buttered toast, roasted by the heat of the gas fire, and mesmerized by the flicker of the screen, we continued to watch as we saw and heard for the first time the now-familiar jingling processional rap of the St Trinian’s hymn.

Wow! …This was brilliant...! A film about an all-girls school, where the stocking & suspender-clad pupils were sexy and the headmistress clearly a man in drag. We watched with gleeful sparkly-shining eyes and guffawed and cheered as flour bombs cannoned off the sides of teacher’s heads and the anarchy of the girls ruled. This was a beautifully dysfunctional school. And then all at once, as the plot rapidly unfolded and trouble brewed, we were suddenly introduced to the backroom hero of the house who would knit together the unfolding halves of the farcical fracas ahead ...the one and only Flash Harry.

Wow! …This was brilliant...! A film about an all-girls school, where the stocking & suspender-clad pupils were sexy and the headmistress clearly a man in drag.

We instantly knew that Harry Hackett, to give him his full name, was an indelible part of the school’s fabric. Not exactly the orchestrator of the girls’ anarchic behaviour, more a steerer of it, he appeared from out of the bushes in the school grounds in immortalised fashion. We came to know that he lived in the school but we never knew where exactly he lived within it. The bushes moved apart and, announced by that wonderfully farcical piano riff, a sort of syncopated ragtime melody bashed from an out-of-tune public house piano, there he suddenly was, his eyes darting to check that his appearance was unseen and unknown. The personification of the teddy-boy spiv, pencil-thin moustache and trilby hat pulled down to conceal his surveilling eyes, he corrected his collar upwards for further concealment, and with stiff-backed gait and hands thrust in Crombie coat pockets, he walked or rather moved himself in direct-jerky amble as the ragtime tune and trumpet background covered his approach. He was simultaneously both insider and outsider, the unseen shadow or so he thought; but in his over-zealous attempts to be totally incognito he made himself as conspicuous as it is ever possible to be. He was the total Cockney Spiv, inextricably involved in all sorts of shady dealings and goings-on. His father we learn, sold racecards, and so naturally when aged 12, Harry himself was employed as a boot-polisher by headmistress Miss Fritton.

In his adulthood, he is a long-term associate of the girl pupils, and the girls trust him unreservedly. He helps to bottle and sell their gin, which they make in the school chemistry laboratory, and he places their horse racing bets, as well as running the school matrimonial agency for the school sixth form, setting them up with wealthy foreign types. By the time Amber Spottiswood is installed as headmistress, Harry’s official school connection is as “Chairman of the board of governors”. We absorb all of this and we know that he is well-known in the criminal community.

But in his outward simplicity, he is a complex and many-layered crook with a sense of British fair-play and responsibility, never better revealed than in the sequence with the girls when he has concerns over the gin production:

Harry: I wanted to talk with you about the problems with the last batch...
Tania: Tara: Problems, Flash?
Harry: The slightly bitter aftertaste... the people going blind after the second glass.......the lady wot died...!
Tania: She was old...
Tara: She could have gone at any time...
Harry: She was firty-eight!
Tania: Tara: Yeah?

Despite being the spiv looking to exploit every opportunity to reap hard-cash, the dialogue reveals the parent-like role of Harry the go-between and the fixer.

Despite being the spiv looking to exploit every opportunity to reap hard-cash, the dialogue reveals the parent-like role of Harry the go-between and the fixer. And despite being surrounded by the provocatively, sexily-suspendered and stocking-ed six form beauties, there is never any chance that Harry would stoop to any impropriety that might be occasioned by his privileged and close position amongst the girls, such is his sense of East-End decency.

We oh-so-quickly warmed to Flash as he led the girls through tumultuous escapades – including a train robbery and a diamond heist in Italy – ostensibly the potential exploiter and opportunist villain of the piece, out to further his own interests. But he was really the nick-in-time hero as the proper villains are revealed and the Eastend barrow boy triumphs. Just when things looked all lost Harry would step up to the mark and St Trinian’s lived-on, its coffers swollen by the reward money.  And our sense of belief in a just world is restored.

It is testament to this warmly-loved Spiv that we later down the decades see Flash’s relatives: Private Walker in Dad’s Army is probably Flash’s nephew and of course, Flash Harry’s inevitable spawn, Arfur Daley. Flash and Arfur shared many behavioural characteristics, none less so than the “giddy-moment” turn (Oh my good gawd!) with hand on bowed head whenever there was a hint of bodily-harm occurring. It never came.

We love Flash Harry because he is funny, trustworthy, honest when it counts, and lovable. He looked after things and they always turned out right. And he taught us a valuable early lesson: That people aren’t always who they appear to be and we need to think carefully before we label people as villains just because they look like they are. Flash Harry is indelibly and irrevocably hard-wired into the rosey-pink nostalgic glow of our innocent childhoods.

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