Shepperton Babylon

by Quinn

Probably the finest work Harry Enfield has ever done was a one-off spoof documentary for Channel 4 entitled Norbert Smith – A Life. In the style of a South Bank Show special, and even “presented” by Melvyn Bragg, it followed the life and career of the fictional celebrated actor Sir Norbert Smith, a sort of Gielgud/Olivier/ Richardson composite. Through various parodies of different films we see Enfield/Smith star alongside Will Silly in Oh, Mr Bankrobber; in the gritty northern kitchen sink drama of It’s Grim Up North; as the uncool father in the Cliff Richardesque Keep Your Hair On, Daddio; and performing a song and dance routine in the MGM-style musical Lullaby Of London.

At one point we see a clip from Smith’s 1964 film Rover Returns Home, introduced as being part of the Rover series of films, poor British imitations of the successful American Lassie films (it also claims to be the first film to feature the chameleon like versatility of Michael Caine…as the dog). Curiously enough I have recently found out that there actually was a British series of Rover films; but rather than being copies of American movies the first Rover film actually predates Lassie by nearly forty years. Furthermore, 1905’s Rescued by Rover features the first use of many of the innovative cinematic techniques usually attributed to DW Griffiths in his landmark film The Birth of a Nation, which was released a full decade later in 1915.

The source for this information is a new book Shepperton Babylon – The Lost Worlds of British Cinema by Matthew Sweet, and I think the above example rather neatly makes the author’s point, and indeed the premise of the book; that British films have always been under rated and under valued, and that “no-one has hated British film more than the British” themselves.

And who is Matthew Sweet? Well, according to the blurb at the front of the book he is a “writer and broadcaster” who has been, among other things, the “film critic for The Independent on Sunday, presenter of Radio 4’s The Film Programme, and a reporter for BBC2’s The Culture Show”. Strangely absent from this CV is that Matthew and I were at school together, and although we have lost touch with each other over the years I count him as a friend. So, is this post just a plug for an old friend’s book? Well, yes it is, but if you cannot plug a friend’s book in your own barely read blog, then what can you do? (Jonathan Calder has beaten me by several weeks to writing the first review of this book in a blog; he is obviously a far faster reader than I am).

Matthew’s previous book Inventing the Victorians was a re-evaluation of that era, where he sought to show how the stuffy and staid image often associated with the period is false. In Shepperton Babylon he tries to show another side to the much-derided British film industry. An author with a penchant for revisionism then? Perhaps, and both books are clearly personal views; but even if you don’t agree with the author’s opinion (and when discussing films you haven’t seen you have to take a lot on trust) the style of writing is always engaging, and you cannot read his opinions without being fascinated, and becoming more open minded about the subject.

The book follows a largely chronological path beginning during the pioneering days of film, when Hollywood was just “a tangle of cacti and orange trees”, but Hove in Sussex hosted a studio on rails that was moved during the course of the day in order to catch the sun. I think there is something inside all of us that understands the magic of those early days of cinema, some innate sense of wonder; it is the same feeling I remember from watching my dad’s old super-8 cine films which seem so much more evocative and thrilling than the DV clips I have taken on my camera, inspite of the far superior technology we have today. In the early days of British cinema film-makers were happy to create movies with such fantastic names as That Fatal Sneeze (where weights were attached to the camera to mimic the ultimate sneeze itself), The Lure Of Crooning Water and the Venetian romance of The City Of Beautiful Nonsense, and presumably kept a straight face as they did so.

That last film featured Chrissie White and Henry Edwards, who though largely forgotten nowadays appear to have been the Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward of their age, and it is surprising how often you are reminded of the present while reading about the past. In 1928, long before 9/11 and the building of the channel tunnel, High Treason concerned itself with a terrorist attack on a cross-channel rail link. If you think Little Britain is an original and inventive comedy it is interesting to read about 1952’s Mother Riley Meets The Vampire, where Arthur Lucan performs what Matthew describes as “not quite a drag act”; dressed in bonnet and shawl Lucan shrieks, “I’m a Lady…and I defy you to prove it!” It is also strange to read about the 1916 film East Is East based around a Fish and Chip shop, just like the more well known, but entirely unrelated, film of 1999.

You would expect a book of this sort to wax lyrically about a slew of lost gems, and indeed the descriptions of such films as the 1929 IRA drama The Informer (“a scene in which he offers his condolences to the weeping mother of the man he has helped to kill is as powerful as anything in Cinema”) and the early Ealing films such as Pen Tennyson’s There Ain’t No Justice, and Went The Day Well, leave you itching to see them; but Matthew is happy to put the boot in when required. The Woman From China is “comprehensively hopeless”, and as he is one of only a handful of people who have seen it he is “qualified to pronounce upon the irredeemable awfulness” of the film. Similarly, the gay western of The Singer Not The Song gets a less than favourable review, and unsurprisingly failed to kick start a new film genre.

Just reading the two pages of acknowledgements at the front of the book gives you some idea of the work that has gone into Shepperton Babylon. How many of us can say we have interviewed Googie Withers? Well Matthew can. He has also suffered for his art, and gone places I wouldn’t dare; interviewing the unbearable Nicholas Parsons for one (I saw Parsons on a TV programme the other day talking about his time as a comedy straight man where he said “Although I am not a pompous person in real life, I am very good at playing pompous characters”; oblivious to the fact that only a truly pompous man would come out with such a line). His interview with Norman Wisdom is described as “an overpowering experience: my five hours with him feel as much like a hostage crisis as an interview”; Wisdom even feels the need to “perform a comedy stumble” when they are introduced. Christopher Lee, however, proves to be a rich source of unintentional humour. Irritated that people view him as being just a horror actor, and attacking “sloppy journalism”, he states he hasn’t starred in a horror movie since 1975; which makes you wonder what sort of genre his movies Curse III: Blood Sacrifice (1991) and Talos The Mummy (1998) fall into. He must have been furious when his 1970 film The Bloody Judge, a biopic of the 17th century Lord Chancellor George Jeffreys was released as Night Of The Blood Monster. Poor bloke; even when he breaks free from the shackles of horror and appears in Eugenie…The Story Of Her Journey Into Perversion (1991) he “insists he had no idea he was appearing in a porn film”.

The book is almost worth reading for the author’s descriptions alone; Barbara Cartland is a “flushed meringue”; Gracie Fields a “clog-shod Britannia”; George Formby looks like “a human being reflected in a tap”; Diana Dors is “a monstrous Zeppelin of blondeness”; while Dirk Bogarde “manages to suggest barrack-room bullying and buggery just by the way he leans on a mop” in one film; in another he resembles a “quiffed eel”.

As the book tells its story it is fascinating to see relatively unknown actors (at least, unknown to me) like the fantastically named Tod Slaughter make way for more familiar figures such as Lawrence Olivier. With the rise and fall of the studio system movies better known to me hover into view before I am in unfamiliar territory again with the chapters on exploitation and sexploitation films (honest). Along the way there are hundreds of revelations, some quirky, some significant; that 1936 saw the first screen kiss between black actors in Paul Robeson’s Song Of Freedom; how Rank’s move from making big prestige films to mass-market cheaper pictures was partly due to producer Filippo Del Giudice being fired for accidentally urinating on J.Arthur’s feet; that Kenneth More’s first role in cinema was literally in a cinema, monitoring “the audience for telescopes, binoculars, opera glasses and masturbation”; that Larry Taylor featured in the sexploitation film The Wife Swappers before finally finding “fame” as Captain Birds Eye (I will leave you to make up your own jokes).

The book ends on this note, dealing with the sub-Carry On… films of the seventies, a curious time when Adventures Of A Taxi Driver out-grossed Taxi Driver and filmmakers battled to win the Golden Phallus at the Wet Dreams festival in Amsterdam. I personally cannot even abide the Carry On… films, and I am unable to share Matthew’s obvious enthusiasm for them; so when he says that Emmanuelle In Soho is “a kind of endgame for British cinema” from which “ there was nowhere to go but upmarket” you know it must have been a stinker.

We largely know the path British film has taken since then; Matthew writes that “more has been written about the last twenty years of native production than the previous seven decades put together”, and so for a book dealing with “the unknown, the forgotten, the unrecorded” it is time to call it a day. Matthew is obviously a fan of many of these overlooked films, but he is never sentimental; he even asks us not to mourn the passing of such famous names as Elstree and Shepperton. By way of an example he recounts attending a party at the old Gainsborough studios in 1999, shortly before they were demolished in 2002. At one point he sneaks off, hoping to chance upon the ghost of Ivor Novello, but instead encounters only dead and dying pigeons.

In Paul Auster’s novel The Book of Illusions the central character David Zimmer discovers the films of the silent movie star Hector Mann, and it is captivating to read Auster’s descriptions of these imaginary lost works such as The Snoop and Mr. Nobody. I always wanted to be able to watch these films, but unfortunately they are all the work of Auster’s imagination. Matthew Sweet casts a similar spell with his book; the difference being that here he is describing films that actually exist, and which you are able to see. He fires your interest and persuades you of the value of these lost masterpieces, inspires you to endeavour to track them down for yourself; and that is reason enough for me to consider Shepperton Babylon a success.

PostScript: The relevance of the picture? Well, it features the cast of the children’s programme Balamory, including the original and best Josie Jump (her in the yellow). On the far left, wearing pink, is Archie, the Inventor, who for me bares a striking resemblence to Matthew Sweet. Coincidently, next to Archie is PC Plum, who it is claimed is a dead ringer for myself. This is something I refute entirely; but in this matter, as in so many others, I appear to be in a minority of one.