Independent choice; British film's golden age

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Indy Lifestyle Online
He was one of the film industry's spookiest creations. They called him The Bastard. He was like Jekyll and Hyde - without nice Dr Jekyll. Unfortunately, this was not a celluloid fiction but a real person: John Davis, the Creature from the Rank Lagoon.

So withdrawn that being wished a Happy Christmas would knock him sideways, this hatchetman of the Rank Organisation had his revenge on the extroverts who made movies by stamping out anything original and, finally, switching to the photocopying business. Sackings were so prevalent that sackees formed a club, the Rank Outsiders.

Sometimes Davis had a point. The company spent a million pounds, a phenomenal sum 50 years ago, on a production of Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra that today feels like a cure for insomnia.

One of the spendthrift moviemen who got up his nose was Filippo Del Giudice, an ex-Vatican lawyer who arrived in 1933 with nothing but a character reference from the Pope. He stumbled into films and made the stiff-upper- lip In Which We Serve. Rank demanded script approval for his Henry V.

The British film industry has always been much smaller than Hollywood and our moguls have always had second billing. Now showing in a bookshop near you are three books which give credits where due (just above Assistant Deputy Make-up Assistant, in global terms). Charles Drazin's The Finest Years: British Cinema of the 1940s (Deutsch, pounds 17.99) pays tribute to the producers who tried to ensure that each of their films came out as its director's cut. Drazin provides agreeable and anecdotal snapshots of those who set the cameras rolling, not to mention those - like The Bastard - who stopped them.

Spooling back a decade, The Unknown 1930s: an alternative history of the British cinema, 1929-1939 (I B Tauris, pounds 29.95) is sterner stuff. Each of its 11 chapters is by a different expert, with editor Jeffrey Richards as the casting director. They show that although the British film industry then was very different from today, it seems in some ways only too familiar. It faced, reports H Mark Glancy, "a shortage of investment and a cinema-going public that seemed content with American films". A 1927 Act tried to encourage home production by forcing distributors to reserve 12 per cent of their output for British films. This led to the "quota quickies": cheap movies turned out by US companies - but knocked up here to count as British.

Professor Richards also had a hand in The British At War: cinema, state and propaganda, 1939-1945 (I B Tauris, pounds 29.95). He supervised James Chapman, whose thesis this was before it graduated into an authoritative book written without a trace of media-studies speak and decorated with a marvellous My-God-A-U-Boat cover.

The men from the Ministry of Information Chapman discusses were not exactly on the same wavelength as the long-haired creative chappies. No smooth conveyer-belt of propaganda began rolling when war was declared; the first film, called If War Should Come, was hurriedly re-titled, after war actually came, as Do It Now. As Churchill nearly put it, we shall fight on location, we shall fight in the studio, we shall never surrender! Except, as it later turned out, to Starship Troopers 2, Robocop 3, Scream 4, Die Hard 5 and the rest of the Things That Came From Planet Hollywood.