The shooting of British icons

British Stars and Stardom - The British Cinema Book
August 2, 2002

Why think of films as national when they have always been internationally traded? The earliest audiences could only guess where the films they saw were made, or the nationality of the actors they admired. By the 1910s, however, there were already many reasons to be acutely aware of nationality. Films vividly portrayed national histories and ideals, made propaganda against enemy nations and, crucially, began to be seen as a requirement of successful 20th-century nationhood.

As British production rapidly lost market share, opening the prospect of many thousands of screens being occupied solely by imported films, the Conservative government of 1926 reluctantly intervened to impose a protectionist quota obligation. Successive governments have continued this tradition in various forms, up to the current controversial regime of lottery funding for film production.

Early film criticism followed suit. Paul Rotha organised his key 1930 book, The Film Till Now , in chapters that surveyed American, Soviet, German, French and, finally, British film. Many of Rotha's criticisms have a familiar ring: British production personnel are timid and crass, slow to learn from others but quick to imitate. The potential of the empire, of British landscape and British actors had been neglected, in Rotha's view, in favour of a misguided pursuit of "internationalism", with exotic foreign actors. Six years later, Graham Greene would question whether a film made in London with an international cast and technicians could be "considered an English film at all".

Now two new books reassess the whole anguished story of "Britishcinema", both in the preferred contemporary form of multi-authored collections. The British Cinema Book is a second edition of a widely admired anthology that addresses the whole field from many perspectives, while Bruce Babington's volume breaks new ground in surveying 17 British stars, from Alma Taylor in the 1910s to Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson today. Almost inevitably, both flaunt their revisionist claims while betraying an ambivalence familiar from much writing about British cinema. This is most obvious in Babington's collection. Almost all the essays turn on ambiguity. According to Geoffrey McNab, Trevor Howard "existed in a sort of purgatory. He wasn't exactly a character actor but nor was he a fully blown star". James Mason's "blend of accursed beauty and doomed intensity" ultimately prevented him from achieving the same level of stardom as fellow Englishman Cary Grant, according to Peter Evans in an essay subtitled "The man between".

On the female side, an exploration of the "extraordinary ordinariness" of Gracie Fields and a discussion of Deborah Kerr seen through the prism of her nun's role in Black Narcissus cover familiar ground. But Babington's chapter on Julie Andrews attempts something more risky: after juxtaposing Proust and Mary Poppins, he invokes Julia Kristeva and Bruno Bettelheim to shed light on the maternal aura that surrounds Andrews's diverse characters. Even more daringly, Julian Petley encapsulates the career of Mary Millington - Britain's "only really uninhibited, natural sex symbol", according to her producer David Sullivan - in a groundbreaking study of yet another aspect of British production afflicted with national self-doubt: the pornography of the 1970s.

Can British stars sustain the rigours of cultural analysis lavished on them? Babington and his contributors are generally alert to the threat of Pseuds' Corner and succeed more often than not in evoking the extremes of pleasure and embarrassment that star performances engender in a collection that genuinely enlarges the scope of British film studies.

A similar combination of mission and modesty is also apparent in Murphy's more ambitious re-mapping. In view of the editor's own interests, it is hardly surprising that there is a strong argument running across diverse contributions in favour of the neglected workmanlike genres of, especially, the 1920s, 1930s and 1950s. Whereas Rotha totally ignored the successful "eminent authors" adaptations of the 1920s, Jon Burrows mounts a spirited defence of these as both a sound strategy by the Stoll company and the source of many strikingly effective films.

Sarah Street, Tom Ryall, Lawrence Napper and Linda Wood rally to defend the much-maligned "quota" films of the 1930s, arguing not only that this strategy helped rebuild the British industry, but that the films were popular with many audience segments.

Murphy champions the reputation of Britain's only pre-Ken Loach proletarian realist, John Baxter, and offers an important revaluation of the second world war period, relating social history to such apparently idiosyncratic films as Powell and Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale and Bernard Miles's Tawny Pipit . In similar vein, the doyen of revisionist British film critics, Raymond Durgnat, contributes "Some lines of inquiry into post-war British crimes", which offers intriguing revisions of the categories of film noir and melodrama in the British context.

For all the industry and good sense of Murphy's contributors, the question must arise: does this amount to a significantly new account of British cinema? Does it overcome decades of, to adapt Peter Nichols's title, "feeling we're behind"? As with other such anthologies, the effect is more of dispersal than of concentration, but one essay strikes an important blow against what I believe has been one of the major obstacles to taking British cinema seriously, namely the concept of "heritage cinema". Sheldon Hall surveys the history of this vade-mecum, suggesting that it has served in effect to unite a series of knee-jerk reactions to certain genres and film-makers and encouraged a cavalier approach to the business of textually based criticism. Why bother with detail - with nuance and contradiction - if you already know your attitude towards the Victorian era, country-house fiction, the aristocracy, classic literature and so on? Given that the matter now routinely labelled "heritage" constitutes a very large proportion of any British cinema that future, and certainly foreign, critics might consider distinctively "British", it is surely as important to put an end to this lumpen-concept as it once was to the hegemony of "realism".

Not that all "anti-realism" is necessarily to be welcomed on principle, as one of the veteran contributors, Alan Lovell, observes. There are hard questions of principle and politics to be asked of films that are stylistically seductive; but they are unlikely to be explored as long as blanket concepts are deployed. In this respect, Pamela Church Gibson and Andrew Hill seem to be re-opening important terrain with their investigation of "excess, masquerade and performativity" in 1970s cinema, focusing on Nic Roeg and Ken Russell. To reclaim Bad Timing, Women in Love and The Devils from conventional disdain is heroic and overdue.

Does nationality matter as much today to film-goers as it does to critics and historians? Possibly not, in an era in which the financial as well as cultural identity of most films is widely dispersed. Yet it may be significant that two titles that resonate throughout the later part of Murphy's collection were also notable export successes, Trainspotting and Riff-Raff , the one focusing unsentimentally on pre-devolution Scottishness and the other on ethnic diversity in late Thatcherite England. From these, we might begin to hypothesise a new, refined conception of "nationality" that will illuminate British cinema in the European context and explain why the lead actor in both of these, Robert Carlyle, points to a new dimension of British anti-stardom.

Ian Christie is professor of film and media history, Birkbeck College, London.

British Stars and Stardom: From Alma Taylor to Sean Connery

Editor - Bruce Babington
ISBN - 0 7190 5840 6 and 5841 4
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £47.50 and £15.99
Pages - 260

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