Shepperton Babylon by Matthew Sweet

The stars of the nascent British film industry were just as likely as their Hollywood peers to be involved in sex and drug scandals. Christopher Fowler enjoys a lively alternative history of the studios
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The Independent Culture

How much of a gap existed between British cinema and Hollywood? Try this simple test. Ask yourself what comes to mind when you think of the word "pilot". In the context of American film, you get Tom Cruise fetishistically suited and booted in Top Gun. In the British equivalent, you get Terence Alexander muttering "Crikey!" and fondling the ends of his handlebar moustache. Try it with "teacher" and one conjures Hollywood's inner-city invigilator Michelle Pfeiffer, while England offers us Joyce "I'm Miss Gossage, call me Sausage" Grenfell.

How much of a gap existed between British cinema and Hollywood? Try this simple test. Ask yourself what comes to mind when you think of the word "pilot". In the context of American film, you get Tom Cruise fetishistically suited and booted in Top Gun. In the British equivalent, you get Terence Alexander muttering "Crikey!" and fondling the ends of his handlebar moustache. Try it with "teacher" and one conjures Hollywood's inner-city invigilator Michelle Pfeiffer, while England offers us Joyce "I'm Miss Gossage, call me Sausage" Grenfell.

The British studios were built on London's drab outskirts, and if their films reflect our past, they present us with an image of a lost country: a world of chaps in sensible jumpers and strange hats, misty suburbs, empty roads and grimy canals, coffee-bar girls in peaked sweaters, spivs and dolly birds, jokes about pickled onions and wind, steam trains, bombsites, cheery constables armed with whistles, nurses in suspenders (often in drag), sleepy stationmasters, haughty dowagers, vicars, workmen and bureaucrats. The received wisdom is that British films were constipated, class-ridden, conservative, vulgar and slightly magical, if only because their milieu has been so thoroughly eradicated.

But is this an inaccurate view, the result of lazy research? British screen history has faded from national consciousness like degrading film emulsion - how can we hope to know what went on behind the scenes when we can't see the scenes themselves? The few films that remain are locked away in BFI vaults or owned by Burbank companies. The handful of forgotten stars who survive are in county nursing homes with scrapbooks of memories, the time for salvaging their stories almost past. So we reach Matthew Sweet's entry-point, following the trail of Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon to create a touchstone volume of British back stories that began when the studio lights were turned off. It's a treasure-trove of information and anecdotes.

However, this echo-title couldn't be more different from its namesake. Hollywood Babylon was a trashy, inaccurate exposé of ugly tinseltown legends, written in a tabloid style that suited Anger's subject. Sweet recognises that gentility has been British cinema's biggest curse, but perhaps its greatest blessing as well. Our scandals were more low-key, our falls from grace less steep, and in any case they have now been scrubbed from memory, so the author has set about recovering the truth from the last witnesses, the performers themselves. And just in time, too: many of his interviewees have since died.

The story of British film is one of shameless neglect. Just as features from the 1920s were melted down by scrap dealers to make aircraft resin, so their legacies have been ignored. Pompous critics preferred continental art pieces, so who, other than the "bakelite-sniffing nostalgist", is left to wonder about the homegrown talent that once adorned billboards and broadsheets? Who cares that the sensual star Lillian Hall-Davies slashed her throat, or that Ivor Novello had an affair with Siegfried Sassoon, when monochrome British films have vanished so entirely from our lives?

Well, anyone interested in cinema should care, because Sweet's theory is that British films did not deserve their reputation for stolidity and conservatism, but were passionate, permissive and frequently enthralling. Scenes of sexual ambiguity, degenerate glamour and perverse psychological cruelty were unhampered by a Hays code, and performances were often a reflection of our stars' lives. Novello's sexuality certainly didn't damage his career, nor did the unorthodox sleeping arrangements of a dozen other early British stars, grouped together as "ambisextrous" social radicals. Films like Blondes For Danger, Dial 999 and Splinters in the Navy were produced with great speed and little thought. The smutty double-entendre was a venerable tradition which meant that lines such as: "My sister had a lovely baby born yesterday... what a pity you can't come to the wedding" (from 1932's Josser in the Army) invoked laughter, not outrage. Without such quickies churned out to fill quotas, directors and cinematographers would never have honed their craft, and ultimately there would have been no Guinness, Olivier, Powell or Lean. In this way, the gory melodrama of Sweeney Todd and cross-dressing antics of Old Mother Riley paved the way for In Which We Serve and Great Expectations. It's a persuasive argument that goes against an oft-quoted but rarely verified proposition that British films were simply a load of old music-hall rubbish. Rachael Low's seven-volume History of the British Film was a founding text prejudiced against homegrown product and has hardly been challenged, but Sweet provides plenty of contradicting examples.

He also feeds our voyeurism by examining British screen scandals. Paul Robeson's films were allegedly blacklisted by Beaverbrook newspapers, not because of the star's race but over his political views. Tremulous actress Meggie Albanesi's death occurred from abscesses caused by multiple abortions. Comedian Sydney Chaplin's career was destroyed by accusations of a horrific rape in which he allegedly bit off an actress's nipple. Hitchcock actor Donald Calthrop's adultery resulted in the object of his desire being immolated backstage in her costume crinoline. Victoria Hopper was moulded in the style of an earlier gifted actress by the lover who had been responsible for her death. Shepperton's cuckolded performers slapped their spouses' faces in fashionable restaurants or lived in blatant ménages à trois, while their lovers snorted cocaine off the glass dance floor of Jack May's nightclub under Maidenhead Bridge. Rampant hedonism filled the lives of these neurasthenic, needy players, and the result was often adultery, under-age seduction, abortion, alcoholism and suicide. Gossip columnists were wittily savage about performers, but abstained from commenting on their off-screen relationships.

Hollywood stamped its mark on British cinema, using our theatre network to shovel US product on to British screens, a hard-nosed but vampiric practice that continues today. Consequently, our inferiority complex remained in place through the decades, despite the fact that our stars projected wonderfully complex personalities, from the smouldering silken sadism of James Mason to the selfish amorality of Alec Guinness. While Hollywood retreated from adult themes, many of our writers and producers rushed to meet them. Michael Balcon's early Ealing films sought to project an image of Britain as a leader in social reform and a champion of civil liberties, yet we consider the Ealing comedies to be snobbish and insular. This, Sweet points out, is a gross distortion, and if we really want to remind ourselves of backward-looking arrogance we should watch James Bond films. Cinema is best when it's not obviously preaching, and British hits were often the results of accidents. Their directors remained less known, or even reviled. Some would have been better off repairing cars than trying to fix stories; yet they were still capable of producing glorious cinematic moments.

If Shepperton Babylon has a fault, it lies in Sweet's underplaying of British film heritage. At the start of our film development there was a rush to shoot the classics and the great historical stories; after all, the nation was steeped in the theatre. Arguably, the first great English film is Alexander Korda's The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). It was followed by films about Nell Gwynne, Rembrandt, Queen Victoria, Henry V, Caesar and Cleopatra and Isadora Duncan. Between them were social comedies, morality plays, dramas, musicals, filmed versions of the great Dickens novels, the plays of Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward, work from Shakespeare, D H Lawrence, A J Cronin, Graham Greene, Terrence Rattigan, John Braine, H G Wells, Nigel Kneale and Joe Orton, but few fit the brief for a mention in this book.

The casts and crews of such films were roll-calls of the world's greatest cinematic talents. In the 1941 film about the Salvation Army, Major Barbara, I found the following names attached to the production: George Bernard Shaw (who wrote the original play), William Walton, Deborah Kerr, Rex Harrison, Wendy Hiller, Robert Morley, Robert Newton, Ronald Neame, Jack Clayton, Arthur Ibbetson, Emlyn Williams, Michael Anderson and David Lean.

It wasn't all good, of course. British film had some inexplicable stars. Despite the fact that the gormless, shambling George Formby had a face like "a human being reflected in a tap", as Sweet puts it, his wife was paranoid about his leading ladies making passes. The "shrill, eardrum-bursting coloratura" of Gracie Fields "was exactly the kind of screen personality that disinclined Somerset Maugham to spend his evenings in the dark with a carton of Kia-Ora". Sweet's visit to see Norman Wisdom also proves an overpowering experience, "as much like a hostage crisis as an interview", but it's worth remembering that when Wisdom was well directed he could prove revelatory, as in William Friedkin's The Night They Raided Minsky's.

The Rank Organisation's unerring ability to finance inappropriate productions - from Dirk Bogarde's leather-trousered gay western The Singer not the Song to the Nic Roeg arthouse doodles that horrified their executives - proved the shiniest nail in British cinema's coffin. Even after this, though, there are delicious tales here of the industry in decline. Nudism films like Naked as Nature Intended featured unappetisingly bare performers wandering around Cornwall eating ice creams and gazing at donkeys, while the relaxed new attitude to horror films led to the Scottish actress Sheila Keith making a career-switch into heavy gothic gore at the age of 55. The British actresses interviewed here present themselves as self-deprecating throughout, dismissing their films and treating the idea of the Rank charm school as risible. They were also unconsciously sexy; Patricia Roc's sultriness surfaces even when she's sawing at a loaf of bread with a fag in her mouth.

Sweet's final leap to 1970s sexploitation and the dumping of great British character actors into softcore titillators suggests that this invaluable book should be at least twice as long. As an elegant dip into the lost past of British cinema, Shepperton Babylon changes the way we view our films - assuming we can ever see them again.

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