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The Sunday Times (13/Feb/2005) - Nice and sleazy

(c) The Sunday Times (13/Feb/2005)

Nice and sleazy

SHEPPERTON BABYLON. The Lost Worlds of British Cinema. By Matthew Sweet. Faber. Pounds 14.99. pp388

At the beginning, more than a century ago, British cinema was quite literally a fly-by-night business, a novelty turn among the weekly variety acts in the music halls, or a sideshow attraction alongside the coconut shies of travelling fairs.

The word "showman" for a film promoter persisted in trade papers until quite recently. Some pioneers were brave entrepreneurs who lost fortunes trying to establish what they saw to be the future of popular entertainment. Cinema was also a magnet for opportunists and charlatans, chancers and crooks. As Matthew Sweet shows in his peppy account (the title a reference to Kenneth Anger's notoriously sensational, often fanciful expose of Hollywood), that sleazy seam has been there ever since, because that's the nature of the industry, and perhaps always will be.

So much film has disappeared that it's hard to appreciate the impact on audiences in the first part of the 20th century. Take Henry Edwards and Chrissie White. They were more famous throughout Britain in the 1920s than Hugh Grant and Kate Winslet today. Who now has heard of them? But for the odd fragment, all their work is lost.

The attrition has been shocking: 90% of silent production no longer exists. When studios went bust, a frequent occurrence, receivers invariably ordered the entire stock of negatives and prints to be melted down, deeming the silver from the emulsion more valuable than the images. For example, Cecil Hepworth, the most celebrated and innovative of early studio heads, who brought the star system to Britain, was bankrupted in 1923, and his entire output destroyed.

British film histories are thus forced to speculate from secondhand views. Sweet has spent a great deal of time seeking out aged survivors, catching some just before they expired. He found poignant stories. Joan Morgan, one of our forgotten stars, told him how her dreams of a Hollywood career were squelched in an instant by her father. He unearthed Renee Gadd, a rare bird indeed, a British star of the 1930s who was actually sexy, and who had an affair with Brylcreemed smoothie Hugh Williams, the most debonair of British actors. Her last screen appearance was a bit-part in Ealing Studios' 1950 police-whitewash job, The Blue Lamp. Nerina Shute, the amazingly colourful, brilliant and bisexual film critic, a celebrated 1930s gossip-monger who died last year, supplied him with many tasty nuggets from a capacious memory.

Sweet's book is about the undertow, not the mainstream. He is less interested in the prestige output of the few notables who emerged from British studios - Hitchcock, Lean, Powell and Pressburger, Reed, the Boulting brothers - than in neglected figures such as Basil Dean, Michael Balcon's predecessor at Ealing, who is remembered, if at all, because he ran ENSA during the second world war. Dean's towering achievement was to turn Gracie Fields and George Formby into the biggest 1930s British stars. Sweet finds both of them physically unappealing, seeing Formby as "a human being reflected in a tap" and Fields as "a rugby forward in a dress". Yet both attained phenomenal national popularity, transcending the acute north-south divide that prevailed in prewar film-going. On the downside, Dean was an arrogant, spendthrift megalomaniac, who cast his wife Victoria Hopper in film after film, way beyond her capabilities, and when the Ealing board ousted him she soon followed. Sweet found her, living in a cottage on Romney Marsh, surprisingly unbitter at the abrupt termination of her film career in 1938.

He managed also to interview a splendid trio of Gainsborough Studio ladies before two of them died, and extracted savoury stories about the Ostrer brothers who ran the studio, their magnetic, glowering co-star James Mason, and his garrulous wife, Pamela Kellino. The survivor is Jean Kent, a glamour-puss who could handle Rank's insistence on excruciating personal appearances at local Odeons like a seasoned trouper, which she was. Gone, alas, are the gorgeous, feckless Patricia Roc, whose vigorous sexuality caused her to be known as "Bed Roc" among the technicians, and who really did bemuse the Americans when she went to Hollywood by announcing what time in the mornings she wanted to be "knocked up", and the no-nonsense Phyllis Calvert who, having been told she had been chosen as best actress for the Daily Mail film awards, prattled at dinner with Lord Rothermere that she wasn't interested in a Hollywood career, to be informed the following day that the votes had been recounted and that the real winner was her rival, Margaret Lockwood.

Although Sweet worked for a number of years on his book, judging by how long in the grave are some interviewees, he makes careless mistakes. Individually trivial, they have a cumulative devaluing effect, as a sampling of a few pages reveals. He has mixed up the character Roc plays in Millions Like Us with that of Anne Crawford. Powell and Pressburger's Canterbury cathedral and celestial escalator were built at Denham, not Pinewood. Robert Hamer's co-alcoholic mistress Pamela, un-questionably Herbert Wilcox's daughter, was certainly not Anna Neagle's. Beeching's destruction of branch-line railways was more than a decade after The Titfield Thunderbolt. It was the perky East End lad Bryan Forbes, not Dirk Bogarde, a wartime captain in military intelligence, who was rejected for The Cruel Sea as "not officer material". And so on.

This is an uneven book, with strong critical overviews elbowing abruptly into Sweet's entertaining compendium of salacious anecdotes of largely forgotten celebrities. He is often contentious, as though engaging in deliberate revisionism. I think he is wrong about Balcon and the Ealing ethos, which he regards as patronising. Context is the thing. Understandably it is difficult for young commentators to appreciate how difficult that grey post-war era really was, and how Ealing made it bearable.