Sex & Scandal Beside The Thames
How much of a gap existed between British cinema and Hollywood? Try this simple test. Ask yourself what comes to mind when you think of the word ‘pilot’. In the context of American film, you may get Star Wars movies or Tom Cruise fetishistically suited and booted in Top Gun. In the British equivalent, you get Terence Alexander muttering ‘Crikey’ and fondling the ends of his handlebar moustache. Try it with ‘teacher’ and one conjures Hollywood’s inner city invigilator Michelle Pfeiffer, while England offers us Joyce ‘I’m Miss Gossage, call me Sausage’ Grenfell.
Britain’s Shepperton studios were built on London’s drab outskirts, and if their films reflect our past, they present us with an image of a lost country; a world of chaps in sensible jumpers and strange hats, misty suburbs, empty roads and grimy canals, coffee bar girls in peaked sweaters, spivs, dolly birds, steam trains, bombsites, cheery constables, nurses in suspenders, sleepy stationmasters, haughty dowagers, vicars, workmen and bureaucrats. The received wisdom is that British films were constipated, class-ridden, conservative, vulgar and slightly magical, if only because their milieu has been so thoroughly eradicated.
But is this an inaccurate view, the result of lazy research? British screen history has faded from national consciousness like degrading film emulsion – how can we hope to know what went on behind the scenes when we can’t see the scenes themselves? The few films that remain are locked away in BFI vaults or owned by Burbank companies. The handful of forgotten stars who survive are in county nursing homes with scrapbooks of memories, the time for salvaging their stories almost past.
Gentility has been British cinema’s biggest curse, but perhaps its greatest blessing as well. Our scandals were more low key, our falls from grace less steep, and have now been scrubbed from memory. The story of British film is one of shameless neglect. Just as features from the twenties were melted down by scrap dealers to make aircraft resin, so their legacies have been ignored. Pompous critics preferred continental art pieces, so who, other than the ‘bakelite-sniffing nostalgist’, is left to wonder about the homegrown talent that once adorned billboards and broadsheets?
Who cares that sensual star Lillian Hall-Davies slashed her throat, or that Ivor Novello had an affair with Siegfried Sassoon, when monochrome British films have vanished so entirely from our lives? Well, anyone interested in cinema should care, because British films did not deserve their reputation for stolidity and conservatism, but were passionate, permissive and frequently enthralling. Scenes of sexual ambiguity, degenerate glamour and perverse psychological cruelty were unhampered by a Hays code, and performances were often a reflection of our stars’ lives. Novello’s sexuality certainly didn’t damage his career, nor did the unorthodox sleeping arrangements of a dozen other early British stars, the ‘ambisextrous’ social radicals.
Films like Blondes For Danger, Dial 999 and Splinters In The Navy were produced with great speed and little thought. The smutty double-entendre was a venerable tradition which meant that lines like ‘My sister had a lovely baby born yesterday…what a pity you can’t come to the wedding’ (from 1932’s Josser In The Army) invoked laughter, not outrage. Without such quickies churned out to fill quotas, directors and cinematographers would never have honed their craft, and ultimately there would have been no Guinness, Olivier, Powell or Lean.
In this way, the loony melodrama of Sweeney Todd and cross-dressing antics of Old Mother Riley paved the way for In Which We Serve and Great Expectations. Rachel Low’s seven-volume History Of The British Film was a founding text prejudiced against homegrown product, and has hardly been challenged, but it wasn’t all a load of old music-hall rubbish.
If our films deserve a second look, so do our scandals. Paul Robeson’s films were allegedly blacklisted by Beaverbrook newspapers, not because of the star’s race but over his political views. Tremulous actress Meggie Albanesi’s death occurred from abscesses caused by multiple abortions. Comedian Sydney Chaplin’s career was destroyed by accusations of a horrific rape in which he bit off an actress’s nipple. Hitchcock actor Donald Calthrop’s adultery resulted in the object of his desire being burned alive backstage in her costume crinoline. Victoria Hopper was moulded in the style of an earlier gifted actress by the lover who was responsible for her death.
Shepperton’s cuckolded performers slapped their spouses’ face in fashionable restaurants or lived in blatent menages a trois, while their lovers snorted cocaine off the glass dance floor of Jack May’s nightclub under Maidenhead Bridge. Rampant hedonism filled the lives of these neurasthenic, needy players, and the result was often adultery, underage seduction, abortion, alcoholism and suicide. Gossip columnists were wittily savage about performers, but abstained from commenting on their off-screen relationships.
Hollywood stamped its mark on British cinema, using our theatre network to shovel US product onto British screens, a hard-nosed but vampiric practice that continues today. Consequently, our inferiority complex remained in place through the decades, despite the fact that our stars projected wonderfully complex personalities, from the smouldering silken sadism of James Mason to the selfish amorality of Alec Guinness. While Hollywood retreated from adult themes, many of our writers and producers rushed to meet them.
Michael Balcon’s early Ealing films sought to project an image of Britain as a leader in social reform and a champion of civil liberties, yet we consider the Ealing comedies to be snobbish and insular. This is a gross distortion, and if we really want to remind ourselves of backward-looking arrogance we should watch James Bond films. Cinema is best when it’s not obviously preaching, and British hits were often the results of accidents. Their directors remained less known, even reviled. Some were so inept that they would have been better off repairing cars than trying to fix stories; it doesn’t mean they didn’t sometimes produce glorious cinematic moments.
At the start of our film development there was a rush to shoot the classics and the great historical stories; after all, the nation was steeped in the theatre. Arguably, the first great English film is Alexander Korda’s The Private Life Of Henry VIII (1933). It was followed by films about Nell Gwyn, Rembrandt, Queen Victoria, Henry V, Caesar and Cleopatra, Isadora Duncan. Between them were social comedies, morality plays, dramas, musicals, filmed versions of the great Dickens novels, the plays of Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward, work from Shakespeare, D.H. Lawrence, A. J. Cronin, Graham Greene, Terrence Rattigan, John Braine, H.G. Wells, Nigel Kneale and Joe Orton.
The casts and crews of such films were roll-calls of the world’s greatest cinematic talents. In the 1941 film about the Salvation Army, Major Barbara, I found the following names attached to the production; George Bernard Shaw, William Walton, Deborah Kerr, Rex Harrison, Wendy Hiller, Robert Morley, Robert Newton, Ronald Neame, Jack Clayton, Arthur Ibbetson, Emlyn Williams, Michael Anderson and David Lean.
It wasn’t all good, of course. British film had some inexplicable stars. Despite the fact that the gormless, shambling George Formby had a face like someone reflected in a spoon, his wife was paranoid about his leading ladies making passes. The shrilly enforced jollity of Gracie Fields and near-imbecilic inarticulation of early Norman Wisdom are tough to watch now, but it’s worth remembering that when Wisdom was well directed he could prove revelatory, as in William Friedkin’s The Night They Raided Minsky’s. The Rank Organisation’s unerring ability to finance inappropriate productions – from Dirk Bogarde’s leather-trousered gay western The Singer Not The Song to the Nic Roeg arthouse doodles that horrified their executives – proved the shiniest of nails in British cinema’s coffin.
It has largely vanished now; the UK film industry mainly services Hollywood or co-invests, although low-budget gems like Skeletons, Black Pond, I Give It A Year and larger productions like American Honey and The Girl With All The Gifts suggest ways of reinventing UK films for the world.