Obituary: F. Maurice Speed

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"AS A fellow author I sympathise with Mr Speed. I do more - I admire him," wrote Bob Hope in the foreword to Movie Cavalcade (1943), F. Maurice Speed's first book. "I recently wrote a book myself," Hope continued, "but the publishers got wind of my project and left town in a body. Mr Speed did better than I - the publishers didn't get away. His book is all about the movies, or rather it is about all the movies, right from the time when Radio City Music Hall was no bigger than a telephone booth and assistant directors still dared to say `No' to Cecil B. De Mille."

One of the best features of Mr Speed's book, according to Hope, was the price, "one which ordinary, plain, down-to-earth folk like you and I can afford". That price was sixpence (two and a half pence today), which back in 1943 was about average for a 64-page paperback complete with a full colour cover from Gone With The Wind.

It told a concise history of the cinema from Part One, "And That's How The Movies Were Born" (Eadward Muybridge of Kingston-on-Thames uses a multi-camera system to photograph racehorses at the gallop), to Part Four, "The Screen Talks" (Warner's Vitaphone of 1926 was preceded in 1911 by Emil Lauste's sound-on-film).

This, subtitled "The Cartoon", delighted at least one young reader who worshipped Walt Disney and his Technicolored title Mickey Mouse Weekly. But wondrous as this little booklet was, it would shortly be surpassed by the author's mightiest and longest running work, a hardback annual fabulously illustrated in full-colour film stills, which would list in detail every film released in every year beginning with 1944. That was Film Review, but even before the books began to pour from his pen, F. Maurice Speed had created a name for himself as the country's foremost film buff - a modern term he may not have liked; perhaps the original form of "film fan" is more appropriate.

Frederick Maurice Speed was born in London in 1911, and became the creator, editor and chief writer for the first totally successful listings magazine, appropriately titled What's On In London. Actually that full title only occurred during Coronation Year of 1937 when Speed realised the vast appeal that George VI's coronation would have for visitors from abroad. "Indispensable to Visitors" became the front-page subtitle from then on, replacing the original and less catchy "Complete Arrangements for the London Week".

As a schoolboy, the young Speed showed talents as an essayist, winning several prizes whilst sharing his education with his local Hammersmith "flea pit" where he studied the "B" westerns of Buck Jones and Tom Mix with equal enthusiasm. His first real job was in journalism, as assistant to Edward Martell, proprietor of the lively and independent newspaper The Sunday Referee. This was the only newspaper to acknowledge the existence of commercial radio, and carried a weekly supplement about the programmes and stars of Radio Luxembourg.

What's On, Speed's brilliant concept for a listing magazine devoted to entertainment etc in the world's biggest city (I use "etc" wisely as the full table of contents ran Theatre, Cinema, Restaurants, Cabaret, Exhibitions, Sport, Music Hall, Concerts, Music, Lectures, Churches, Reviews - evidently listed in order of popularity) began in the autumn of 1935. It was not the world's first such, as Speed acknowledged by giving free promotional space to This Week In Boston, The New York Metropolitan Host, Parisian Weekly Information and even Die Reichshauptstadt.

Most of What's On's text was written by Speed, who split himself into several personalities including "Frederick Deeps" and "H. William Harn". Eventually he left sport and such like to others, contenting himself with reviews of films, plays and restaurants, plus his chatty editorial feature called "Round and About".

On 15 January 1937, he saw BBC television for the first time, and was thrilled. "Last Saturday we saw the lovely lady announcer; Gillie Potter wonderfully explaining nothing and wearing a blatant version of our Harrow hat; and an amusing little Irish play. We also saw a travel film and the Gaumont British News. It made us realise that television is a real entertainment now and not just an experiment."

Films he reviewed that week included The Great Ziegfeld ("really a dazzling production"), Craig's Wife ("Rosalind Russell so lovely as his well-gowned wife") and an early version of The Maltese Falcon called Satan Met a Lady ("the one bright spot is the delightful nit-wittiness of Marie Wilson").

Each review included a full cast list with characters plus technical credits, something no popular magazine had done before. Speed also listed all London's News Theatres: then there were 12, now there are none. The Cameo in Charing Cross Road was running its fifth Disney Season: Mickey's Polo Team, Through The Mirror and many more cartoons, and the Good Food Guide included the Vega Modern Vegetarian Restaurant in Leicester Square: "salad lunch one shilling".

Despite What's On's success, Martell shortly withdrew, perhaps because the publication was essentially local and not national, but Speed quickly found a new, smaller publisher located at Number One, St Paul's Churchyard. Even though there was a paper shortage during the Second World War, the magazine prospered, being a vital information source for servicemen on leave. And it was during the war that Speed conceived his brilliant Film Review series.

First published in late 1944, the 100-page hardback, printed on quality art paper, included 36 pages of full-colour film stills; these ranging through the loveliness of Linda Darnell, the gorgeous Rita Hayworth and the long legs of Betty Grable, were Speed's particular pride if not quite joy. His editorial, a typically personal one, complains of the hard work it was to wrest these pictures from the American film companies. They had to come from Hollywood, British colour films being few and far between in wartime. Also, his bitter regret was that Disney only provided monochrome stills where the animated cartoons cried out for colour.

Film Review is now in its 54th year of publication, each issue an improvement on the last as Speed encouraged new film enthusiasts to write for his book. Many found their first voices in the series, notably William J. Everson, whose detailed descriptions of Hollywood "B" movies and their manufacturer were the first real writings on this cult subject. Everson went on to become the world's top historian of popular films.

F. Maurice Speed's connection with What's On remained beyond his retirement. He contributed freelance film reviews from 1982, and his final piece was published in 1996. He remained true to the cinema screen throughout his long life, and will continue to fill every true buff's bookshelves despite everything the new technology can try to do.

One wonders whether there are any surviving members of the "What's On Club", the consitutional dinner of which was held at Pinoli's Restaurant on 14 January 1937.

Frederick Maurice Speed, editor and film critic: born London 18 October 1911; twice married; died London 29 August 1998.

Comments