Monday, February 21, 2005

Shepperton Babylon

A couple of weeks ago I wrote an enthusiastic post about Matthew Sweet's new book Shepperton Babylon. I have now read it and am just as enthusiastic.

Sweet offers a history of British cinema in ten chapters, arguing that the conventional critical wisdom that home-grown films are irredeemably second rate is based on simple ignorance. He sees that history as far more interesting than is generally realised - hence the subtitle of his introduction "Strange England".

The first chapter - in many ways the most interesting - looks at the lost history of British silent films. Not only are the stars, who in their day were as big here as anyone from Hollywood, forgotten but their films are lost too. As the recent television series on the films of Mitchell and Kenyon showed, the early cinema was run by travelling showmen and local entrepreneurs. Only with the advent of sound did the theatrical profession move in.

Mention should also be made of the eponymous hero of Rescued by Rover who, in a later film

pounds off in hot pursuit, jumps into the driving seat of the abductor's car and, paws on the steering wheel, chugs his charge back to safety along the road from Shepperton to Walton.
No wonder Sweet calls The Dog Outwits the Kidnapper "a minor masterpiece of British surrealism".

After that he pursues a zig-zag course himself, avoiding the most critically respectable British films (Powell & Pressburger, Carol Reed) in order to recover lost films and long-buried scandals.

Chapter 2 looks at the career of Ivor Novello and chapter 3 at that of Nerina Shute, the teenage, bisexual film gossip columnist from the 1920s who died last year. Chapter 4 makes a case for revisiting the "quota quickies" of the 1930s.

Chapter 5 looks at Basil Dean's stewardship of Ealing before the War and his Kane-like attempt to make a star of his second wife Victoria Hopper. Sweet found her as an old lady, living in a cottage on Romney Marsh. He has less time for the two stars Dean did make. Gracie Fields is described as "a rugby forward in a dress" and George Formby has the face of "a human being reflected in a tap".

Trivia fans may like to note that Formby's morbidly jealous wife had Betty Driver (who is still serving her hotpots in the Rover's Return) thrown of his first picture and that Formby's mother died in 1981 at the age of 102.

Chapter 7 celebrates the female stars of the Gainsborough films: Patricia Roc, Phyllis Calvert and Jean Kent. Chapter 8 looks at J. Arthur Rank, emphasising how many of the greatest British films he financed in the 1940s.

Rank's films from the 1950s have a poor reputation, but Sweet challenges this critical orthodoxy. Dirk Bogarde, for instance, was often seen (not least by himself) as having broken out of Rank's bonds and moved from being a matinee idol to being an internationally recognised ac-tor. Sweet points out that some of Bogarde's later films were not distinguished and that he made many interesting films at home in the 1950s (such as Hunted and The Spanish Gardener).

And who needs Scum when, in The Boys in Brown, Bogarde can "suggest barrack-room bullying and buggery just by the way he leans on his mop"?

Sweet has great fun with The Singer not the Song, the impossibly British camp Western in which Bogarde starred. And he pins down the failings of Bogarde's British contemporaries. There is John Mills: "Watch his pre-war films, and you'll be struck by a salient aspect of his performances: he can't act". And there is Kenneth More:

He was heroic in a cocky, big-brotherly way - like a public-school prefect who might have saved a new boy from a beating, but expected three terms of shoe-polishing and crumpet-toasting in return.

The book ends with chapters on cheap horror films of the 1960s and the sexploitation films of the 1970s. These are in many ways the least interesting in the book, but you forgive Sweet everything when he tells you that Valerie Singleton narrated Nudes of the World in 1961.

In short, a book that anyone with an interest in British films or 20th century British history should read.

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