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There are plenty of histories of the British film industry, but I dont like most of them. Theyre 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 dont 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 wont 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 thats 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 Ive been waiting for. It largely ignores the canonical stuff, on the grounds that its been so written-about elsewhere that theres 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 doesnt go any further, as the 70s really marked the end of the British film industry as an industry.
Its part revisionist film-history, illuminating those dark corners that other writers have neglected. Its 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, its not surprising). Its part criticism he has interesting things to say about a lot of the films he talks about. And its also full of entertaining gossip. The title of the book is obviously a reference to Kenneth Angers classic Hollywood Babylon, except that Shepperton Babylon is a lot more reliable, and doesnt have Angers 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 Chaplins 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 theyre put in the context of all the other films that Ealing studios made), but thats about it. I was disappointed by a few omissions (Will Hay isnt mentioned at all, and the Carry Ons and Hammer dont 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 Killers Moon in the horror chapter.) He certainly doesnt 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 theyre 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 Im right, though). Does that make it better than Greenaways 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 Ive 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 doesnt matter too much.
I really enjoyed this book. It is fantastic to read a history of British cinema that doesnt 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 theres 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.
It makes our cinematic history vivid and invigorating in a way few books have yet managed.