Truffling for spankmeisters

The Encyclopedia of British Film

January 16, 2004

For the book reviewer, reference works are a rare joy. For once, we are not expected to plod conscientiously through from first page to last, but are free to skim frivolously about the entries, checking out our favourites, truffling happily along a chain of cross-references, or just flipping the pages at random to see what comes up. The pleasure is all the greater when the book's writer or editor refuses to be overawed into sobriety by his factual task, but allows idiosyncratic opinions or irreverent asides to enliven the essential data.

Among film books, David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema is the classic example of this kind of highly personal survey (although Thomson, especially in his latest edition, sometimes takes idiosyncrasy too far). Brian McFarlane, with nearly 6,000 entries to cover as against Thomson's 1,000 or so, obviously cannot spread himself anything like so lavishly on each one. Despite that, the entries - the vast majority of which are written by McFarlane himself - are lively, colourful and almost always shrewdly judged. Only occasionally do his enthusiasms, or his antipathies, get a little out of hand. Can Nigel Hawthorne, on the strength of his slim filmography (some 20 movies), really be considered "perhaps the greatest character star in British films since Alec Guinness"? And personally, I would take issue with the dismissal of Gillies MacKinnon's wistful and visually ravishing Hideous Kinky as "cultish" and "irritating".

Still, for the most part, McFarlane's entries and those of his collaborators succeed in being at once vivid and exact. Often his choice of adjectives is so precise that the subject of the entry could be guessed from them alone. "Supremely unctuous character player, adept at smoothly honed sycophancy" - who else but Wilfrid Hyde-White? Sir John Davis, the widely loathed and feared boss of the Rank Organisation during the long dispiriting years of its withdrawal from the film industry, is neatly spitted as a "fearsome apparatchik" (although not in his own entry, but in the entry for the organisation itself). And in a typically quizzical aside, McFarlane notes of the gloriously eccentric actress Martita Hunt (best remembered as Miss Havisham in David Lean's Great Expectations ) that she played "all kinds of commanding roles (if they weren't commanding before she got to them, they certainly were when she'd done with them)".

What McFarlane and his colleagues have produced - and it is an impressive and long-overdue achievement - is the first comprehensive dictionary of British cinema. As a reference work, it is indispensable; as an invitation to browse, it is dangerously seductive. One of the book's chief aims, as set out in the introduction, is "to go well beyond the expected names" and do justice to the rich pool of British character actors "who never aspired to conventional stardom but often grabbed the chance to draw richly detailed character performances", and give them "the credit they deserve for their way of embedding often flimsy structures in recognisable reality". McFarlane's appreciative, exhaustive sweep takes in much-loved supporting stalwarts of British cinema's golden age, such as Sam Kydd, Raymond Huntley and Edie Martin, but also reaches further back to disinter once-stellar figures of the still-undervalued silent era such as Betty Balfour and Henry Edwards. (McFarlane's associate editor, Anthony Slide, is credited with most of the silent-era entries.) Actors, inevitably, hog the major share of the text, but the encyclopedia's scope embraces not only directors, producers, screenwriters, animators and technicians, but peripheral figures such as agents and critics. And it is good to see our often ramshackle porno industry getting a friendly nod, with entries for ( inter alia ) John Lindsay, Mary Millington, Pamela Green and that indefatigable "spankmeister" George Harrison Marks.

All the major British studios and production companies, and a good number of the minor ones, rate entries, though for some of the tinier and shorter-lived outfits (such as Camden, Stamford Hill or Holmfirth) researchers will need to consult Patricia Warren's invaluable British Film Studios . A few individual cinemas are commemorated, among them the sorely missed Academy in Oxford Street. Besides screenwriters, there are entries for much-filmed writers in other fields - Shakespeare and Ian Fleming, of course, but also Edgar Wallace, A. E. W. Mason (author of The Four Feathers and Fire over England ) and James Barrie; and alongside the entries on individuals and institutions, McFarlane finds room for concise mini-essays on a host of topics ranging from ballet and musicals, through realism and surrealism, to editing, coal mining, class and quota quickies. Titbits of unexpected information reward the casual browser; I had no idea that Carl Brisson, the Danish-born star of Alfred Hitchcock's 19 silent boxing movie The Ring , had become Rosalind Russell's father-in-law.

Reflecting what must have been a nightmarish task of compilation and editing, not all the entries are equally up to date: Mick Jagger is granted his knighthood, but Peter Mullan's entry lacks any mention of his second feature film as director, the widely praised and prizewinning The Magdalene Sisters . In any case, in the first edition of a volume as pioneering and comprehensive as this, it is inevitable that errors will occur. Some are trivial - Roy Boulting, not his twin brother, John, took directorial credit on Brothers in Law - some less so: director Cyril Frankel has been prematurely killed off by being given the same death date (1973) as his namesake, the composer Benjamin Frankel. Anyone armed with enough patience - or malice - could probably unearth dozens of others. But it is hard to imagine that there will not be opportunities to correct any shortcomings in numerous further editions of what must surely become one of the standard English-language cinema reference works, to set alongside Ephraim Katz's International Film Encyclopedia and John Walker's Who's Who in the Movies .

Academics, critics, film historians and anybody who loves British films owes McFarlane, Slide and their collaborators a huge vote of thanks.

Philip Kemp is a freelance writer on film.

The Encyclopedia of British Film

Editor - Brian McFarlane
Publisher - Methuen/BFI
Pages - 776
Price - £24.99
ISBN - 0 413 77301 9

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