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British B-movies - Cheap thrills from the past

As a season of forgotten British B-movies opens in London, Geoffrey Macnab welcomes the rehabilitation of a genre that trained dozens of our star actors, writers and directors

The British "B" movie has always had a stinking reputation. The image that probably springs to mind is of a low-budget second feature shot in crummy, second-rate studios, featuring actors you've never heard of and with scenery that looks as if it will fall down any minute. The motives for making B-movies has often seemed dubious too. In the 1930s, the era of the so-called "quota quickie", cinemas were obliged to show a few Brit movies if they didn't wish to fall foul of Government legislation. Exhibitors got round this by programming the British films early in the morning, when only the cinema cleaners were likely to be able to see them; the prime slots were still reserved for Hollywood. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, not much had changed. A spate of low-budget British movies were made for the express purpose of delivering tax benefits to investors. Whether or not they were distributed at all made no difference to the accountants cooking up the schemes to finance them.

On the face of it, the story of the "great British B-movie" seems a tale of unmediated dross. We're deep in a twilight world of 1970s sex-comedies like Jim Atkinson's Can You Keep It Up For a Week (1974) and naturist romps like Naked as Nature Intended (1961); a grey purgatory of Edgar Wallace thrillers, Frank Randle comedies and second-rate British gangster and horror films.

Just as in Hollywood, though, the British B picture was liberated in a way that prim, prestigious A features were not. Less money, as Martin Scorsese has observed, can mean more freedom. "The world of B-films was often freer and more conducive to experimenting and innovating," Scorsese wrote in A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies.

In Britain, those making B-pics were less hung up about familiar British anxieties than well-to-do colleagues. They delved into areas that their more respectable brethren would not go near. A new book, The British "B" Film, by Steve Chibnall and Brian McFarlane, which is accompanied by a season at the BFI Southbank, underlines just how rich our B-movie heritage is.

"When I was actually involved in B-features in the 1950s, no one took them seriously because they were churned out in three weeks," actress Rona Anderson writes in the foreword to the new book. "But the fact that they were made quickly was the result of everyone concerned being so experienced. They knew what they were doing and there was no waste of time or money." Her remarks point up a paradox: it takes craftsmanship and ingenuity to make a decent B-movie. If the film-makers behind these pictures had been quite as inept as their detractors sometimes claim, they simply wouldn't have been able to complete their projects on time or on budget.

The films in the season may not be lost masterpieces, but many, like Wide Boy (1952) and Peggy and the Pownall Case (1948), can be both competently made and very provocative. Peter Graham Scott's The Big Day (1960) is a minor revelation: a study of office politics and feuding with the irony and bleakness you expect to find in a David Mamet play. It's about three men vying for one position as company director. Donald Pleasence plays a weak-willed self-pitying accountant who is having an affair with his 19-year-old secretary. Harry H Corbett (bizarrely looking older and more care-worn than in his later Steptoe and Son glory days) is the company's transport manager: a venal, lazy figure who hopes to get on because he has a family connection with the boss. William Franklyn is the ruthless, cocksure head of sales. The characters here aren't so different from the types found in old Ealing comedies. However, Bill MacIlwraith's screenplay is relentless in its unmasking of their viciousness and petty vanities. The film is also very bleak in its depiction of middle-class British suburban life and of the plight of women in a patriarchal world. It is also surely unique as the only film that allows Donald Pleasence an erotic life. Andrée Melly (George Melly's sister) plays the pretty secretary with whom Pleasence's clammy and creepy accountant has an unlikely affair. She is the most forlorn character in the film: unmarried, underpaid and with no prospects when her middle-aged lover discards her.

As director Peter Graham Scott later explained, the film was "a three weeker." That was the length of time it took to complete. The actors were paid only a few hundred pounds each. The producer had been holding out for a "star" (perhaps Donald Sinden), but Graham Scott talked him into hiring Pleasence.

Equally striking is Terence Fisher's To the Public Danger (1948), made by The Rank Organisation at Highbury Studios, its little North London base for £20,000 B-movies. J Arthur Rank's idea in this period was to use B-films to help his contract actors and technicians cut their teeth. To the Public Danger features Dermot Walsh, and Susan Shaw, who was a trainee from the Rank "charm" school (also housed in Highbury). Walsh plays Captain Cole, a swaggering, hard-drinking toff with a hint of Flashman about him who is driving through the countryside in a big Bentley with his utterly inebriated companion Reggie (Roy Plomley, of Desert Islands Discs fame.) They stop at a pub. Cole spots a pretty local girl (Susan Shaw), challenges her boyfriend to a game of bar billiards, gets everybody drunk and then takes them for a spin in the car. He hits a bicycle but doesn't stop to see if he has killed its rider. The film plays like an eccentric British version of David Cronenberg's Crash. Director Fisher, later to oversee most of Hammer's Frankenstein vehicles and to work with Christopher Lee (who appears here in Peggy and the Pownall Case) on Hammer's Dracula, cranks up the tension in very effective fashion.

It is scripted by Patrick Hamilton from his own radio play about the perils of drunk driving. Hamilton, the author of Hangover Square, wasn't exactly abstemious. His intimate knowledge of British pub culture gave the film its unlikely authenticity. As Walsh later told historian Brian McFarlane, Hamilton based his play on the fate of one of his friends, who had been killed by a drunken driver. The film captures the twisted nostalgia that both the girl and Cole feel for the war years while also making brutally apparent how deep class differences were, even in the new Britain of Attlee. Plomley's drunken, upper-class ne'er-do-well is especially repellent, sneering at Shaw's boyfriend. Cole, meanwhile, treats Shaw's character as a chattel.

There were many lousy British B-movies made over the years. Nonetheless, the book makes it clear how vibrant Britain's B-movie culture once was. The authors evoke a lost era when films were still being made at tiny studios in places like Highbury, Maida Vale, Marylebone, Merton Park and Welwyn. There were always high-minded exhibitors, critics and politicians queuing up to label them "trash" and "tripe." However, whether it was Peter Sellers in Adelphi Films' Let's Go Crazy or Christopher Lee and Co in horror pics, or Michael Powell directing "quota quickies" in the early 1930s, they were a good training ground.

Whatever pain bad British B-movies did inflict on audiences, at least it wasn't protracted. These films rarely had a running time of much more than an hour. At their best, British B-films were just the tonic after all those high-minded literary adaptations and prestige projects that have passed for British A-pictures over the years.

'The British "B" Film', by Steve Chibnall and Brian McFarlane, is published by BFI/ Palgrave. Cheap Thrills, Double Bills: The Great British 'B' Movie season, runs at BFI Southbank until 28 December