The lost worlds of British cinema

From its construction in 1931 Shepperton was the symbol of our film industry: a great studio turning out impeccable, stiff upper lip productions. But the permissive Sixties gave a chance for other film makers to give the public what they really wanted - cheap and cheerful sex, and gore and lashings of it. In these pages Matthew Sweet, in an extract from his book on British cinema, reveals this astonishing history of sleaze and terror
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Historically, nobody has hated British film more than British film critics. Except, perhaps, British film academics, British film mandarins and the editors of British film magazines. That's why, when the French director François Truffaut suggested that there was some fundamental incompatibility between the words 'cinema' and 'Britain', his words were taken most seriously in the country whose work he scorned. He made his pronouncement in 1969 - and didn't intend it to be taken too seriously. But by that time, a contempt for our native cinema had been a badge of intellectual seriousness for over 40 years.

Thankfully, this attitude is now fading away. Slowly, our cinematic heritage is being reclaimed. Thanks to the evangelising work of Martin Scorsese, for instance, you're not simply allowed to like the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, you're encouraged to feel bad about yourself if you've never seen it.

British silent cinema now has its champions. And the number-crunchers at the British Film Institute have recently revealed to us a truth about the real relationship between the words 'cinema' and 'Britain' - that British audiences have always flocked to native pictures. (The 1948 Anna Neagle vehicle Spring in Park Lane, you might be surprised to learn, put more bums on seats than James Cameron's Titanic.)

When I wrote my book, Shepperton Babylon, I wanted to pursue the story of British cinema to the limits of living memory - to talk to the last survivors of long-forgotten eras. I met a silent film star who remembered making films in a studio inside the Crystal Palace in the summer of 1914; who recalled the day in 1921 when her father went off on location with Thomas Hardy to shoot an adaptation of The Mayor of Casterbridge. I met a screenwriter who spied on British film stars as they rattled the illuminated glass dance floor on the banks of the Thames at Maidenhead - when they weren't down on their knees snorting cocaine from its polished surface.

But I also wanted to track down people from more recent times whose work had become just as obscure; people who worked in a kind of cinema that is never likely to be honoured with a retrospective at the National Film Theatre - but who had fascinating stories to tell. The stars and directors of films such as Naked as Nature Intended, The House of Whipcord, and Emmanuelle in Soho.

Let's not be diffident about our nation's contribution to the fields of cinematic sleaze and terror. Much more than the decorous costume dramas with which our national cinema has become associated, these films illuminate British attitudes and character. Nihilistic horror pictures in which cannibal pensioners attack their victims with Black & Decker drills. Nudist camp films that reimagine England as a paradise in which Britons play bare-bottomed volleyball and eat baked beans out of billy cans. Teen movies in which voodoo toad-worshippers bring leather-clad bikers back from the dead to rampage through supermarkets and knock over pyramids of marrowfat peas.

These films won't ever appear on any critics' top 10 lists, but there are three reasons why they deserve celebration. They offer liberation from the tyranny of good taste; they have a directness and vitality that's often lacking from more highly regarded work; they bring us face to face with the hidden history of our national sensibility.

So if you ever saw these films in your misspent youth, ever sneaked them out of the video shop, ever looked at their titles in the local press and wondered if the movies themselves kept their promises of sex and horror, it's safe to declare your interest. Let those types who lived by a Truffaut joke discuss their contempt among themselves. Now's the time for the rest of us to explore the pleasures and terrors of British exploitation cinema, and see our history revealed - naked as nature intended.