Shepperton Babylon, by Matthew Sweet

Cocaine in Maidenhead, biscuits in Hove
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The Independent Culture

Before reading Matthew Sweet's history of "the lost worlds of British cinema", I never knew that 80 per cent of all British films made between 1901 and 1929 are forever consigned to oblivion. When the trailblazing producer Cecil Hepworth went bankrupt in 1924, his entire catalogue of negatives was melted down. The resin was used to waterproof new aircraft. "Next time you see a Spitfire in a museum," notes Sweet, "run your fingers over its skin... you might be touching a vanished masterpiece."

Before reading Matthew Sweet's history of "the lost worlds of British cinema", I never knew that 80 per cent of all British films made between 1901 and 1929 are forever consigned to oblivion. When the trailblazing producer Cecil Hepworth went bankrupt in 1924, his entire catalogue of negatives was melted down. The resin was used to waterproof new aircraft. "Next time you see a Spitfire in a museum," notes Sweet, "run your fingers over its skin... you might be touching a vanished masterpiece."

Perhaps nothing of worth was lost - though Sweet might beg to disagree. The title of his book is a comical reference to Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon, whose bitchy and gossipy style he is happy to resonate - and far surpass in wit. But Sweet is in deadly earnest when it comes to countering the many calumnies he sees routinely and ignorantly re-stated against British film. He quotes with a shudder Truffaut's famous 1969 quote about the British being constitutionally unable to make great cinema, a stance since betrayed by a decade of Truffaut's countrymen copying Ken Loach.

Academics are no better. Sweet glumly quotes a film-studies prospectus (University of Dundee) that refers to British film as "a cottage industry stifled by prejudice". This is a view mirrored by left-leaning MPs who regard "Ealing Comedy" as a shorthand for insufferable Little Englandism.

In his labour of love, we follow Sweet as he visits run-down Hove flats, Buckinghamshire mansions and Southport old people's homes in search of reminiscence over cheap biscuits. It's a melancholy business, as he chats to forgotten actresses of the early talkies, famous producers who left the business to sell wicker furniture and bit-players who witnessed the debauchery of the 1930s. Why is he lurking round Maidenhead? To look for where the brightest stars of the 1920s snorted cocaine off the dance floor, of course.

He gives a memorable account of a visit to Norman Wisdom in the Isle of Man, a creepy business. In a series of brilliant thumbnail portraits, we learn of James Mason and his Baker Street ménage à trois, of Dirk Bogarde coming over toxic-gay in his leather pants, shooting The Singer Not the Song, and Kenneth More's first job on security at the Windmill Theatre, rooting out furtive masturbators in the audience.

Sweet's prose is deliciously barbed, as when he notes that "from the 1980s John Mills pursued that gentle whoring for which knighted actors assume they will be forgiven." He also makes some serious and scholarly arguments; for instance, that the quota system of 1927, far from damaging British film, created a nursery for later great works. But, on the whole, his task here is to entertain, and he does so with style. Shepperton Babylon is very well-informed and effortlessly funny. I doubt there will be a better film book this year.

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