The Weekend's TV: British B Movies – Truly, Madly, Cheaply, Sat, BBC4
Doctor Who, Sat, BBC1
Monday 23 June 2008
One of the great problems with television today is that it doesn't offer children enough opportunities to see rubbishy old films. Back when I was growing up, in the Seventies, television had very little to offer on a wet weekend afternoon beyond wrestling on ITV and the occasional film on BBC2. Not being one for the wrestling, I grew up with a thorough grounding in early British thrillers, the Westerns of Randolph Scott, and the comedies of the Boulting Brothers – the kind of knowledge you can't put a price on. But now, when the weather turns nasty and I'm too busy Facebooking to let them on the computer, my children are faced with reruns of Friends, and programmes actually intended for children. What is that going to teach them?
So I went into British B Movies – Truly, Madly, Cheaply in a sympathetic frame of mind. The premise behind Matthew Sweet's programme was, roughly, that bamboozled by big budgets and foolish ideas about artistic merit, we have neglected the rich heritage represented by the British B-movie: it is time we rescued these films, and began to treasure them. It's a case he put with wit, eloquence, and an astonishing depth of arcane learning, and if I had to sum up my feelings toward this programme in one word, it would be "gratitude". How have I lived so long without the sight of Michael Gough trying to hypnotise a man in a poorly-made gorilla suit?Or Patricia Laffan as the Devil Girl from Mars, spreading terror with a sexy, wicked smile, a sweltering PVC suit and a robot assistant who closely resembles an early prototype for a remote control?
Sweet's history started in the Thirties, with the introduction of the "quota quickies" – the British films that distributors were forced by government fiat to show alongside the slick US product that would actually sell, and went through to the Seventies, when the competing attractions of weekend afternoon television produced a drive to the bottom that gave us some of the most unattractive sex comedies human imagination has ever devised. Along the way, he picked up on some fascinating characters – like Frank Randle, the Lancashire comedian who once advertised for a chauffeur-cum-bricklayer, the rationale being that every time his chauffeur took a day off, and he drove himself, he got so pissed he drove the car through his front wall.
The problem I had with this, though, was that in making the case for B-movies, Sweet forced himself into some bizarre critical and historical contortions. He produced an artificial distinction between supposedly authentic B-movies and the escapism of better-known fare (conveniently forgetting the strong strain of social realism in classic British films, from It Always Rains on Sunday in the Forties, through to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in the Sixties). Talking about the War years, he implied that B-movies were somehow more representative of popular taste than the "classic" films of that period. Well, some classics survive on critical rather than popular reputation, it's true (I don't suppose British audiences of the Forties were knocked over by Les Enfants du Paradis, for example). But I know that my own parents' memories of the time revolve around the big, glamorous films – Casablanca, Gone with the Wind – not the Elsie and Doris Waters comedies; and if the quota quickies had been truly popular, well, they wouldn't have needed a quota.
Elsewhere, E J Fancey, a particularly disreputable producer of the Fifties, was called a "genius" because he spotted the cinematic potential of the Goons and gave Michael Winner his first directing job. But anybody who has seen Down among the Z-Men knows that taking the Goons off the radio was a terrible mistake; and as for Winner... Oh, look, you don't need me to tell you.
In any case, Sweet destroyed any critical authority towards the end when he described The Wicker Man as a "great film" (which it is, if you're not concerned about incidental attributes like decent acting and speakable dialogue, but I'm afraid I'm a bit of a fusspot about these things). Meanwhile, a more measured critical response came from the actor Nicky Henson, who admitted that while making the zombie biker exploitation film Psychomania he had regarded it as "a piece of shit". How did he feel re-watching it 40 years on? "Ashamed."
Where I did agree wholeheartedly with Sweet was when he lamented that: "The idea of modest, inexpensive pleasure has all but vanished." Viz, Doctor Who, which in its current incarnation I cannot bring myself to love. This week's episode, with Catherine Tate going back in time and seeing the world overrun by aliens and comical Italian stereotypes because she made a bad life-choice, seemed to pretty neatly encapsulate much of what's wrong with it: all that peculiar emotional/sexual entanglement of the Doctor and his assistants, all those slick special-effects (though mind you, at least we didn't get any of those speeches about how wondrous the human race is). In my book, Doctor Who should set out to induce two emotions: fear and amusement. If they want to know how it's done, Devil Girl from Mars will show them the way.
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