The bitter Truffaut

THE BRITISH CINEMA BOOK ed Robert Murphy BFI Publishing pounds 40 /poun ds 14.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
FranCois Truffaut once remarked, early in his career, that there was a certain incompatibility between the words "British" and "cinema". He afterwards relented and actually made Fahrenheit 451 in this country, but his flippant dismissal of our national cinema has not been forgotten. The reason, of course, is that critics and media academics never tire of quoting it.

It resurfaces in books and articles, alongside those epithets that seem to be more or less reserved for writing about English films: "cosy", "easygoing", "academic", "whimsical", "literary", "parochial", "worthy", "half-hearted", "respectable", "inhibited". All these appear in Tim Pulleine's quite appreciative essay on Ealing Studios, in this new collection, which claims to represent "the progress made in exploring the history of British cinema" - in a blurb that, yet again, refers to "the cosy pleasures of Ealing".

There are several problems in discussing British cinema over the past hundred years, and one of them is that historians of the subject for the most part share a general sense, during that period, of belonging to a nation in decline. Robert Murphy's concluding chapter to this volume says that critics viewed British cinema up to the 1940s as "something to be ashamed of", while he himself goes on to talk about the 1950s as being characterised by "respectability, deference, caution [and] consensus", shading into "tawdriness and indulgence" by the end of the 1960s and, after a dash of "unadventurous orthodoxy" in the 1970s (he is quoting Alexander Walker on the Rank films of that period), suffered "shock therapy" as its infrastructure was "kicked away" under Margaret Thatcher. And, in case anyone thought that we could look back with pride to the silent period and the Forties, there are articles elsewhere in the book pointing out the poverty of Britain's contribution to silent cinema and describing the films of the immediate post war years as marked by "good taste, restraint [and] reticence."

Some of these criticisms may originate in a sense of the country's changing place in the world ("cosy", "parochial", "unadventurous", "whimsical"), while others reflect British anti-intellectualism and preoccupation with class. This psychological baggage makes it hard to embark on a balanced assessment of cinema history. Instead, critics trawl through the film archive for whatever lies outside the mainstream, whatever helps to relieve their feelings of embarrassment at the "parochial", "middle-class" world of The Titfield Thunderbolt or Doctor In The House and presents itself to them as in some way "transgressive". Gainsborough melodramas, Hammer horrors and Carry On comedies are treated as though they were the cutting edge of a subversive cultural offensive, despite the obvious poverty of most of them in terms of script, characterisation, direction and plotting. This collection has essays on costume films, melodrama, comedy and horror, as well as two pieces defending 1930s "quota quickies" - "constantly surprising in their ability to entertain, intrigue, engage and fascinate any historian with a little imagination and a passion for the popular culture of the 1930s", Lawrence Napper assures us.

By contrast, the strand in British cinema history that leads from the documentary movement of the 1930s to the Free Cinema movement, and beyond, is treated nowadays with suspicion (though Ken Loach and Mike Leigh command some respect). The article on "art cinema" in this volume was entrusted to the Swedish academic, Erik Hedling; it mentions directors including Peter Greenaway, Derek Jarman and Nicholas Roeg whose "transgressions" have been of the wrong kind to interest British critics. They are more or less ignored elsewhere in the book (though John Hill does briefly dismiss Jarman and Greenaway's "postmodern aesthetic experiments" which owe their "cachet of `high art' " to "literary or theatrical sources"). Hedling's chief interest, however, is Lindsay Anderson, who gets a mention from two other writers, not for his films, but for his 1957 article, "Get Out and Push" - an attack on the shortcomings of British cinema and its critics.

So who needs Truffaut? We ourselves do it much better, with our acute personal antipathies to cosiness, parochialism, the academic, the intellectual, high art and the middle classes - all things that the contributors to this book are, admittedly, well qualified to write about, since almost every one of them is a university lecturer. Only Alan Lovell seems anxious to celebrate the diversity of British cinema, which has produced films as varied as Henry V, Withnail and I, Distant Voices, Still Lives and Butterfly Kiss - an attitude that might provide a starting point for a slightly less neurotic view of its history.