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Shepperton Babylon: The Lost Worlds of British Cinema - Matthew Sweet

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      14.04.2006 22:14
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      An entertaining, mildly revisionist film history

      There are plenty of histories of the British film industry, but I don’t like most of them. They’re all too hung up on that Sight-and-Sound canonical view of film history, where attention is focused on a few great directors or films rather on the great mass of work that was produced. The ‘respectable’ British film historian will write about various landmark film-makers – Hitchcock, Korda, the Documentarists, Lean, Michael Powell, Carol Reed, the Ealing Comedies and the New Wave – and dismiss everything else.

      British film historians seem to lack any sense of fun – you get the feeling they don’t like the Ealing Comedies because they make them laugh, but because of their place in film history. This explains why uninteresting directors like Richard Attenborough or James Ivory do so well – they set out to make ‘worthy’ films, which wear their aspirations to being ‘art’ on their sleeves so painfully obviously that you almost feel guilty for not liking them. Most histories won’t talk about the low-brow comedy that used to be a staple of British film, from George Formby to the Carry Ons; nor will they discuss the horror and sexploitation boom of the 60s and 70s (a subject very dear to me).

      Just occasionally you find a book that’s so precisely what you want it to be that it seems like some kind of benign literary deity must have listened to your prayers. Shepperton Babylon is exactly the history of British film that I’ve been waiting for. It largely ignores the canonical stuff, on the grounds that it’s been so written-about elsewhere that there’s not much more that needs to be said about it. Instead, author Matthew Sweet presents us with a kind of history of the bits of British film that everyone else ignores. He starts with the silents, and ends with the softcore sex romps of the 70s – he doesn’t go any further, as the 70s really marked the end of the British film industry as an industry.

      It’s part revisionist film-history, illuminating those dark corners that other writers have neglected. It’s part oral history, as Sweet has interviewed a staggering number of forgotten film stars (many of whom he notes died shortly after he spoke to them – and given that some were centenarian veterans of the silent era, it’s not surprising). It’s part criticism – he has interesting things to say about a lot of the films he talks about. And it’s also full of entertaining gossip. The title of the book is obviously a reference to Kenneth Anger’s classic Hollywood Babylon, except that Shepperton Babylon is a lot more reliable, and doesn’t have Anger’s habit of sticking in nasty photos of crime scenes and corpses.

      Each chapter of the book deals with a different era, or studio, and most are built around the reminiscences of one particular interviewee. Some of the people he discusses at length are well known (Ivor Novello, Dirk Bogarde, James Mason), others are almost completely forgotten. Some of the anecdotes (about sexual misadventure, druggy escapades, dodgy business dealings) are highly entertaining. Others (careers ruined by drugs, sudden deaths, and some alleged behaviour by Charlie Chaplin’s brother that brought American Psycho to mind) are rather more sordid.

      As mentioned, Sweet largely ignores the great directors. The Ealing Comedies get quite a bit of room (although they’re put in the context of all the other films that Ealing studios made), but that’s about it. I was disappointed by a few omissions (Will Hay isn’t mentioned at all, and the Carry Ons and Hammer don’t get much of a look in), but that was outweighed by what was included. The last couple of chapters, which focus on horror and sexploitation, are familiar territory for me, but still interesting; most of the rest was new to me. (And the author certainly gets brownie points for mentioning the obscure and ludicrous video nasty Killer’s Moon in the horror chapter.) He certainly doesn’t try to suggest all the films he sees are great, or even particularly good (although he does point to a few hidden gems). But he still thinks that they’re worth studying – we might not be proud to admit it, but more people have seen Confessions of a Window Cleaner than all the films of Peter Greenaway put together (actually, I just made that up – I bet I’m right, though). Does that make it better than Greenaway’s films? Probably not. But does that mean we should just ignore it? Certainly not!

      Matthew Sweet writes very engagingly, so the book (326 pages in the edition I’ve got) never drags. Some of his opinions may not please everyone (I find his rather stern attitude to Christopher Lee a bit annoying) but he sets out to challenge critical orthodoxy on a lot of subjects, and does so pretty successfully. And even if his attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of the quota quickies is a tad unconvincing, the book still stands as a valuable and entertaining history of British film. And some of his descriptions of interviews are memorable in themselves, for instance a creepy/sad meeting he has with Norman Wisdom. A few more photos would perhaps have been nice, but I guess that doesn’t matter too much.

      I really enjoyed this book. It is fantastic to read a history of British cinema that doesn’t begin with Hitchcock and end with, I dunno, Merchant Ivory of whatever crappy Blairite romcom is doing the rounds this year. I love films by Hitchcock, Powell, Carol Reed. But there’s so much more to British films, and this book draws attention to that. I hope lots of people read it.

      RRP £10, although cheaper from Amazon, as ever.


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