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Birmingham Post (05/Mar/2005) - Cosier face of UK film: Shepperton Babylon

(c) Birmingham Post (05/Mar/2005)

Cosier face of UK film: Shepperton Babylon by Matthew Sweet

Compared to the vast production line that is the American movie industry, film making in Britain has always seemed more of a cottage enterprise.

Somehow cosier, more suburban. This has left it open for constant criticism from as far back as the 1930s when writer Paul Rotha dismissed British studios as being 'filled with persons of third rate intelligence inclined to condemn anything that is beyond their range', right up to François Truffaut's contemptuous comment made in 1969 that 'there was a certain incompatibility between the words 'cinema' and 'Britain'.'

In his book Shepperton Babylon, Matthew Sweet has compiled a solid history and affectionate defence of this sceptred isle's contribution to entertainment.

His commitment to research cannot be faulted. He has sought out the forgotten faces of film, veterans of the industry whose 15 minutes in the spotlight ended the greater part of a century ago.

He discovers Joan Morgan, the UK's last silent film star, in a nursing home, two years before her death in 2004. A film veteran by the time she reached her teens, she was wooed by an American actor- producer who wanted to turn her into the next Mary Pickford. The American named a figure, asked her father what he thought of the offer. He replied 'not much' and her career was effectively over at the age of 16.

Joan's final appearance was in a talkie called Her Reputation, (1931) as a member of the supporting cast alongside Lillian Hall-Davis.

A huge star in the 1920s, when she commanded an immense salary of pounds 150 a week. Lillian was an early Hitchcock favourite. The coming of sound killed her career and in 1933 she killed herself. Locked in the kitchen of her anonymous semi in London she turned on the gas and slashed her throat with a razor. The obituaries had to go to considerable lengths to remind the public of who she had been.

Their bid for celluloid immortality was not aided by the fact that so much of the work of the early pioneers of cinema has been destroyed. Forgotten stock often spontaneously combusted, scrap merchants scavenged it for silver and camphor. The entire back catalogue of negatives produced by Cecil Hepworth was melted down to make resin for waterproofing aircraft wings.

In total 80 per cent of features shot between 1901 and 1929 have been lost to posterity.

If for nothing else, Hepworth should be remembered for having created the first named film star. It wasn't some dewy eyed ingenue, but a sheepdog named Blair, hero of Rescued by Rover (1905).

For all its middle class cosiness the British industry, was just as capable of wild and hedonistic behaviour as it's Hollywood counterparts.

Nonagenarian Ernest Dudley (born Coltman-Alley he took his surname from the town where he was born) recalls how when he was a young man he watched his acting heroes snorting cocaine from the glass floor of a popular nightclub.

Then there's the tragic and tawdry tale of Meggie Albanesi. A luminous, sad faced beauty who could cry on cue, her appetite for sex was legendary. She died after suffering an internal haemorrhage on a train. The death certificate claimed intestinal perforation, the surgeon said that too many abortions meant 'she had virtually no insides left'. Sweet takes an unconventional approach in what he chooses to tell and not to tell about British film history.

He virtually ignores all of its biggest stars of the last 50 years.

The most famous name (still living at least) that he spends any length of ink on is Norman Wisdom.

Instead he studies the events, the studios, and genres that helped to define a particular period.

He looks at the output of the legendary Ealing Studio. Regarded today as a pinnacle of British comedy, under Michael Balcon's stewardship it was committed to social realism and recording the grim realities of the war years.

The 40s are viewed by following the careers of the Gainsborough girls.

The visual equivalent of a bodice ripping novel, it would feature Margaret Lockwood. Patricia Roc, Phyllis Calvert, Jean Kent or Dulcie Grey up to their period dressed armpits in peril, being rescued by Stewart Granger or abused by James Mason.

During the 40s and 50s J Arthur Rank was without question the most powerful man in British film.

He owned studios, cinemas, actors andcontrolled production, distribution and exhibition.

A former flour miller, he was a mogul with a mission to spread the word of God through film. Instead he created an empire that spawned some of Britain's finest films and introduced the idea of grooming young hopefuls for stardom through its famous studio.

Sweet leaves no stone unturned in his quest for a thorough record of British film making. This meant pouring over the horrific output Hammer Films and donning a metaphorical dirty mac to bear witness to the era of sexploitation - from the tame titillation of the Carry Ons to the crass Confessions and the tawdry works of Mary Millington.

Interestingly it is here that Sweet discovers a local connection worthy of note.

A nudist film, The Isle of Levant, was denied a certificate by the Board of Film Classification. Birmingham councillors barred it from local cinemas. Undeterred, the producers turned to the more liberally mined burghers of Walsall who let it run to packed houses for a dozen weeks.

It is these odd nuggets of information like this that make Shepperton Babylon such a compelling read.