British Cinema and Middlebrow Culture in the Interwar Years

July 8, 2010

"The People in between/Looked underdone and harassed/And out of place and mean,/And horribly embarrassed." Lawrence Napper doesn't actually quote Hilaire Belloc's poem The Garden Party. But he well might have done, as he cites several other virulent attacks (such as Virginia Woolf's "Highbrows and lowbrows must band together to exterminate a pest which is the bane of all thinking and living") on the middling, middlebrow, middle-class folk who, he maintains, sustained the best part (in both senses) of British literary and cinematic culture between the wars.

Napper's aim is twofold: to rescue interwar middlebrow culture from its detractors, then and since, by pointing out its dynamism and flexibility; and to show how British cinema of these years, often dismissed as parochial, complacent and aesthetically conservative, drew on these middlebrow strengths to appeal to a diverse audience and portray a society in transition.

These two elements are intertwined, even to the point where they occasionally trip each other up. And, despite his title, Napper devotes less space to cinema than to other media, literature in particular. He has chosen to concentrate on three examples of novel (or stage show) turned into films: Margaret Kennedy's The Constant Nymph (published 1924, filmed 1928); J.B. Priestley's The Good Companions (1929/1933); and Lupino Lane's Me and My Girl (1937, filmed as The Lambeth Walk in 1939).

This in-depth approach allows the author to analyse each work in the light of his thesis, and to go into detail on the receptions, both critical and popular, enjoyed by the original and its cinematic adaptation. It does mean, though, that his relatively narrow focus excludes the vast bulk of British interwar cinema. Taking the Cinematograph Films Act of 19 (begetter of the notorious "quota quickies") as his starting point excludes all movies made prior to that date. And it would have been illuminating to have his take on the 1930s "Empire cycle" of films produced by Alexander Korda - Sanders of the River, The Drum and The Four Feathers. Middlebrow entertainment par excellence, one would think, but also highly susceptible to the charges so often levelled at British interwar cinema of being conservative and reactionary - charges that this book is at pains to rebut.

As it is, Korda's whole pre-war output rates only the odd passing mention. But even if Napper's evidence is selective, his trio of examples make an interestingly offbeat choice - the more so since, of the three, only The Good Companions has been widely available for viewing in recent years. He cites a wealth of contemporary sources to illustrate the mindset of the period, notably the nervous, envious and disdainful British reaction to Hollywood's domination of UK screens. American films, it was widely agreed, may be technically and creatively superior to the homegrown product, but British films were in some unspecified way morally superior, and therefore to be officially encouraged. ("Sinful and abominable rubbish" was Ramsay MacDonald's scandalised summary of Hollywood's output.)

Apart from the occasional outbreak of academic throat-clearing ("I shall consider ... ", "I shall discuss ... ", "I shall briefly touch on ... "), Napper argues his corner fluently, contending that in the critical consensus, British films of the interwar years have been unfairly downgraded in favour of those from the "golden age" of the 1940s, and making a good case for their reassessment. Like the once-dismissed Gainsborough bodice-rippers of the 1940s, there may be more to the "cinema of the aspidistra" than we've assumed.

Had Napper cast his net wider, his case may appear even stronger; but, even so, his book gives all those with an interest in British cinema a healthy nudge to reconsider their assumptions.

British Cinema and Middlebrow Culture in the Interwar Years

By Lawrence Napper
University of Exeter Press 250pp, £47.50
ISBN 9780859897976
Published November 2009

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