Attack of the B-movie

Cheap, low-quality, second features were a cinema staple until TV killed them. Andrew Roberts salutes a neglected genre
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Thanks to the wonders of the late-night television scheduling of the Scotland Yard series of B-films, successive generations have come to associate all black Wolseleys with trenchcoated police inspectors.

The series ran between 1953 and 1961, and it remains a prime example of the lost world of the British "second feature" that was once as integral a part of the cinema bill as the newsreel and the cartoon short. This form of movie gave career breaks to Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Laurence Harvey, Oliver Reed and Christopher Lee, and directorial impetus to Richard Lester, Ken Hughes and even Joseph Losey. Until as late as 1967, studios in suburban Merton Park and minor distributors such as Butcher's Films churned out a succession of features, with a running time of less than 80 minutes, that boasted costumes courtesy of the leading actor's own wardrobe and, to quote the frequent B-film star Bryan Forbes, scripts from the "Dead Sea Scrolls of Wardour Street".

The series' most frequent star, Russell Napier - an Australian lawyer turned actor playing Det Supt Duggan - spent most of his screen time in a dank office surrounded by box-files, with only the prospect of a 30mph chase around the South Circular for light relief. A disembodied Canadian announcer - "Scotland Yerd!" - accompanied the opening titles. The idea that even the most tenuous North American association would bring a British film automatic American success applied as much to second features as to colour films from the Rank Organisation. Hammer was just one of several studios that had a distribution arrangement with a minor cinema chain in the US, inevitably leading to a spate of British second features concerning holidaying police captains or FBI agents in "London (England)". The agent would be played by an American character actor either seeking a leading role or fleeing the McCarthy era, such as Richard Basehart, Steve Cochran or Robert Preston. Alternatively, more canny producers would use the British-resident Americans Bonar Colleano or William Sylvester.

Even cannier producers realised that certain actors from the British Commonwealth could make plausible Yanks, and even today you can still meet British film-goers of a certain age whose 1950s film-going was dominated by Paul Carpenter, a Canadian ex-band-crooner who always played racket-busting crime reporters in darkest Soho, and Australia's own Ron Randell, whose American accent provided an early anticipation of the Mel Gibson syndrome. Another option was to have Sid James unleash his patent Johannesburg-Cockney-Bronx accent, most famously in 1955's Joe Macbeth. It still surfaces on late-night television, leaving viewers wondering if they really did see a picture in which Banquo's ghost was played by Sid in a demob suit.

And was that really Harry H Corbett as a not very plausible Maltese pimp in The Shakedown? Did the scenery really wobble when Detective Constable Peter Bowles slammed the door in Wings of Death? Did I really see a film shot in very bad colour called Escort For Hire about a male escort starring Pete Murray? This last-mentioned epic hailed from the wonderful world of the Danziger Brothers, who remain the finest exponents of factory-film-making in the United Kingdom. Harry and Lee Danziger were New York businessmen who moved into film production after the Second World War and, by 1956, had order books full enough to warrant the foundation of New Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire. Basically a converted aircraft factory, New Elstree (never to be confused with the Associated British Picture Corporation over the road) existed simply to churn out films with an average shooting schedule of five days. The studio's principal writer was Brian Clemens, who fondly recalls that his screenplays would usually be based around props that the Danzigers had acquired: "I'd receive a phone-call on the Monday telling me to write a script based on 12 nun's outfits, a nuclear submarine and a double-decker bus by Friday."

According to Clemens, the likes of Pete (always billed as "Peter") Murray starred in the films "because he was cheap". This is not to detract from the future DJ's sensitive performance as a beatnik bra-designer in 1962's Design for Loving and his 100 per cent inauthentic performance as an FBI agent in a 1960 epic entitled Transatlantic, which seemed to have been shot mainly in the studio canteen. Sadly, Peter did not appear in the Danzigers' shining hour - 1954's Devil Girl From Mars, in which a six-foot Martianess, who has learnt English from long-wave broadcasts of the BBC Home Service, and who favours a black leather body-stocking, invades a "typical Scottish hotel" in order to kidnap future husbands from the ranks of lesser Equity-card holders. Her travelling companion is a robot that looks suspiciously like a superannuated BP petrol pump on castors.

The Challenge boasted the unique combination of Jayne Mansfield as a London gang boss with Sir Anthony Quayle as her henchman (with a Cockney accent that anticipated Mary Poppins by a good five years), but there was far more to the British B-film than crime melodramas. Who could resist the swinging skiffle and rock'n'roll extravaganza that was The Golden Disc, which guest-starred "top DJ" David Jacobs, or the sight of wild Jackie Collins in Rock You Sinners?

But many second features contained an element that made them fairly watchable despite the best efforts of the director and screenplay. Wide Boy rarely features on the official list of "great British films of 1952" but it does boast a winning performance from Sidney Tafler in the title role amid a bomb-ravaged London of quite amazing shoddiness. And, a decade later, The Hi-Jackers at least attempted to evoke a contemporary crime drama involving road haulage.

One of Peter Cushing's finest performances was as an ill-tempered bank manager being blackmailed by Andre Morell's gentleman thief in Cash on Demand, and in the same vein of suburban tyranny there was Colin Gordon as a bank manager trapped in his safe by Derren Nesbitt's conscience-stricken thief in Strongroom. Nesbitt also starred in The Man in The Back Seat, a film that employs only the eponymous corpse on the rear seat of an old Austin Sheerline and two panicking teddy-boys to create an atmosphere of genuine menace.

Television caused the demise of the cinema double bill, and several B-film producers began to make filmed series for ITV - notably The Saint - and, by the late 1960s, the second feature was economically unjustifiable. At the time it was little mourned. But it is very hard to dislike a film of the calibre of 1960's Konga, where Michael Gough, as a mad scientist, turns a chimpanzee into a stuntman wearing a gorilla costume with a very visible zip. The climax has Gough and friend climbing Big Ben's tower. Television could do worse than attempt a remake as the latest Ross Kemp vehicle.