FILM: Stick up for Brit flicks

When it comes to home-grown movies, we're their harshest critics. MATTHEW SWEET deplores a long and ignoble tradition

We're in the thick of the backslapping season. Over the next few weeks, film-makers, film executives and film hacks will be stuffing themselves with petits fours at a variety of venerable London hotels, as Baftas, Evening Standard Film Awards and Critics Circle Awards are pressed into the sweaty palms of grateful recipients. Mike Leigh's tuxedo will be whipping back and forth to Sketchley like a yo-yo. But that's because he is one of the few British film-makers you're actually allowed to like.

This has been the year of Vera Drake. But it has also been the year of Sex Lives of the Potato Men, a lowbrow farce about van drivers who pleasure themselves with fishpaste sandwiches. The former produced the customary plaudits for Leigh and newspaper profiles saluting him as a "one-man British film industry". The latter produced a stream of invective against its director, Andy Humphries, and some premature obituaries for British cinema. Philip French in The Observer declared that the film would have reduced Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson and other directors of the British New Wave to "suicidal despair"; The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw wrote that "the urgent debate for our native film industry seems to be as follows: should we put the gun barrel to our temples, or in our mouths for a cleaner kill?".

The ratio of good to bad films produced in these islands is, I suspect, no worse than in Hollywood: there have been many American comedies released in the last year every bit as unspeakable as Sex Lives of the Potato Men - it's just that What a Girl Wants, Soul Plane and Christmas with the Kranks were not funded by National Lottery money, and therefore failed to inspire acres of indignant press coverage.

This year has been a rich one for British films: commercial successes such as Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, Wimbledon, Bride and Prejudice and Layer Cake have increased the box-office cash earned by home-grown productions. Critics, too, have been treated to a crop of creditable domestic work: not just Vera Drake, but Enduring Love, Shaun of the Dead, My Summer of Love and A Way of Life.

Enduring Love was a literary exploitation flick with one of the most arresting opening sequences I've ever seen. Shaun of the Dead was a sharp satire in which the hero completely fails to notice that the population of London has been transformed into hollow-eyed specimens of the undead. My Summer of Love was a powerful coming-of-age story with an irresistibly seductive atmosphere. A Way of Life was a tough drama about a gang of wayward South Wales teens, which stared a number of difficult social problems straight in the face. These pictures won't vacuum up awards like Vera Drake - when did a zombie comedy ever win an Oscar? - but they would grace any national cinema.

And yet the reputation of British cinema as a body of work is as low as ever. And the reasons for this, I think, lie deep in the past. Historically, nobody has hated British cinema more than British film critics - except, perhaps, British academics, British film mandarins and the editors of British film magazines. And that legacy of contempt is still shaping opinions today.

In 1962, a group of writers and critics came together to found a serious- minded film journal called Movie. It was conceived as the British answer to Cahiers du Cinema, the French periodical that still defines intellectual approaches to the medium. For its launch issue, Victor Perkins - a young cinephile who, these days, is a senior lecturer in the film-studies department of Warwick University - penned an editorial that set out the journal's critical position. It was a swingeing attack on British cinema.

"The British cinema is as dead as before," he wrote. "Perhaps it was never alive. Our films have improved, if at all, only in their intention. We are still unable to find evidence of artistic sensibilities in working order. There is as much genuine personality in Room at the Top, method in A Kind of Loving and style in A Taste of Honey as there is wit in An Alligator Named Daisy, intelligence in Above Us the Waves and ambition in Ramsbottom Rides Again."

Ramsbottom Rides Again (1956) is a comedy Western starring Arthur Askey and Frankie Vaughan. It's not part of the shrinking repertoire of British films that receive regular screenings on daytime television, and I've not yet been tempted to order it up from the archives of the British Film Institute. I dare say it's no masterpiece. An Alligator Named Daisy (1955) is an inconsequential comedy in which Margaret Rutherford co-stars with a boggle-eyed reptile. Above Us the Waves (1955) is an efficient, claustrophobic wartime drama starring John Mills. It possesses no great intellectual complexity - but then, I'm not aware of a submarine drama that does.

Perkins's views on Room at the Top (1959), A Kind of Loving (1962) and A Taste of Honey (1961), however, now seem utterly perverse. Most people would regard this trio of pictures as landmarks in the medium: vigorous, fresh, immediate. (Their directors are the ones that French suggested would have topped themselves had they lived to see Sex Lives of the Potato Men.)

In his introduction to the new BFI Encyclopaedia of British Film, French recalls that, in the 1950s, film fans "were not encouraged to like British cinema... indeed, we were urged to disparage it as socially and artistically inauthentic." And the view persists in our intellectual culture that British cinema is, with a few exceptions, artistically impoverished, and that people who are serious about the medium ought to prefer work by French or American practitioners. It's fine to express admiration for Powell and Pressburger, the 1960s British New Wave, the documentaries of Grierson and Jennings, or a handful of the Ealing comedies - but it's decidedly non-U to enthuse about Anthony Asquith, Gracie Fields, or anything made before 1930 that doesn't have Alfred Hitchcock's name on the credits. Those who believe, like me, that Shooting Stars (1928), say, or Went the Day Well? (1942) or Green for Danger (1946) are quite as rich as anything cinema has to offer, are in a small minority.

If you want to know why British films are held in such low esteem, look to the printed record, not to the films themselves. It's easy to go through the archive, pulling out plums of snobbery. In the 1930s, Paul Rotha's landmark study The Film Till Now dismissed British cinema as a colourless counterfeit of its European and American forms, and insisted that "British studios are filled with persons of third-rate intelligence who are inclined to condemn anything that is beyond their range." In the 1950s, Roger Manvell, the first head of the British Film Academy, used his book, Film, to compare British pictures to "faded leaves painted in exquisite detail by a lady in Cornwall".

In the 1970s, Roy Armes, in his Critical History of British Cinema, damned the British film business for failing to create "an adequate working context for those who wish to question the dominant stylistic approaches or provide stimulus for social change, with the result that there has been virtually no avant-garde film-making and no effective militant cinema in Britain." All three books are mainstays of most university reading lists on British cinema.

In 1927, Close-Up, the first significant cinema journal to be published in this country, inaugurated this tradition of hostility by making regular unfavourable comparisons between European films and those emanating from the film factories of Elstree and Shepherd's Bush. Its contributors were a caucus of aristocrats, activists and avant-gardists (a lover of Wyndham Lewis here, a millionaire banker's son there), most of whom were mistrustful of popular culture, and none of whom realised that several of the technical innovations for which they garlanded the Soviet directors had been formulated by British talents a decade earlier. (As Charles Barr has pointed out, associative montage - that celebrated Russian invention of the late 1920s - was first deployed in a British film in 1917.)

Hugh Castle, one of the journal's regular contributors, surveyed the output of Elstree studios in 1929. He gave grudging praise to the famous sequence in Hitchcock's Blackmail in which Anny Ondra's heroine is tormented by the soundtrack's savage repetition of the word "knife". Nothing else, he insisted, deserved anything more than opprobrium. EA Dupont's Piccadilly (1929), for instance, was dismissed as "a typical British film" and consequently "one of the world's worst". His comments were influential. They were reproduced by Rachael Low in her History of the British Film, the standard account of the period, unglossed by her own remarks and prefaced by the wider assertion that the films of Elstree's principal production company, British International Pictures, "were not particularly interesting". The judgement seems grotesque.

The object of Castle's dislike, Piccadilly, is an accomplished, extravagantly sensual melodrama that conjures the British capital as a very Weimar of savage appetites. In Dupont's film, Anna May Wong plays a kitchen scullion plucked from the grease and suds by Jameson Thomas, a club impresario who serves her up in cabaret as a shimmering confection of glamour and sex; Gilda Gray is the jilted predecessor who assuages her jealousy with murder. The film was revived at the Barbican in London last March, with a new jazz score by Neil Brand. It received a rapturous reception.

In 1969, when Francois Truffaut made his notorious declaration that there was "a certain incompatibility between the words `cinema' and `Britain'", nowhere were his words taken more seriously than in the country whose heritage he was scorning. Contempt for British cinema was already a badge of intellectual seriousness: nascent university film courses ignored British films; film hacks filled their work with dismissive accounts of pictures that they had not seen; academics drunk on auteur theory constructed a tiny canon of native work that they considered worthy of attention, and suggested that the rest was strictly for Little Englanders and nostalgia bores. Under this orthodoxy, British cinema was dismissed as constipated, conservative and class-ridden. It was West End theatre photographed and projected for bank clerks' wives at suburban Odeons, or end-of-the-pier routines duplicated for proles who were suckers for musical numbers and mild smut.

Since the early 1980s, a new generation of scholars - Jeffrey Richards, Julian Petley and Christine Gledhill among them - has been working to dispel these myths. But the naysayers had a 50-year head start. And it is this history of critical contempt that allows the general belief to persist that British cinema is as dead today as Victor Perkins suggested it was in 1962 - despite Enduring Love, Shaun of the Dead, Vera Drake, My Summer of Love, and A Way of Life.

Cinema, more than any other art form, is subject to a kind of cultural amnesia. Most people who consider themselves interested in the arts will have read, say, a British novel written between 1900 and 1930. They'll know a little about British painting and sculpture of the period. They'll have read some Auden, seen a play by Noel Coward or George Bernard Shaw. But they will most probably have never seen a British film made before 1930. And why should they consider it to be a gap in their knowledge, when most people who write about cinema for a living in this country are equally ignorant, and university lecturers continue to insist upon the historical mediocrity of British production?

Until that is no longer the case, we'll be disinclined to see modern successes as anything more than aberrations, and failures as evidence that British films are bad and have always been so. And with every year that passes, we'll become a little more estranged from our own cinematic history - no matter how many awards clutter Mike Leigh's mantelpiece.

Matthew Sweet's `Shepperton Babylon: The Lost Worlds of British Cinema' is published by Faber & Faber Ltd on 17 February

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