Stephen Chibnall and Brian McFarlane's The British 'B' Film
The British 'B' Film Stephen Chibnall and Brian McFarlane (BFI, 2009)
Though it certainly evokes a sense of nostalgia, The British 'B' Film deals not in rose-coloured whimsy but in facts. It is a book packed with information, industriously compiled by the authors. The content, while mainly post-war, is nonetheless mined from what now seems a very distant era: the past, as L P Hartley put it, is a foreign country, and the majority of these supporting feature films are now historical curios belonging solely to that place. Hundreds are discussed -it is possible to lose oneself simply browsing through the indices-with the main text presented in a light, objective style by joint authors Stephen Chibnall and Brian McFarlane. Just a few pages demonstrate to striking effect just how many of these secondary features were actually made: recalled titles, forgotten stars, valiant production companies and persevering directors are all deservedly and entertainingly acknowledged. The names keep on tumbling over the course of this comprehensive volume.
An earlier work by Chibnall, Quota Quickies, dealt with the stipulation laid down by the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927, which obliged British cinemas to show a designated quota of 'home-grown' films in an attempt to counter the escalating dominance of Hollywood (which already had a similar policy of 'secondary features' in place). Although well intended, and notwithstanding a number of successes, the Films Act ultimately begat swathes of the titular 'quota quickies.' These were low-budget pictures, hastily produced and generally of a correlating quality, often funded by Americans in order to achieve the stipulated quota requirements for their various mega-features. Despite the relaxation and ultimate phasing-out of these regulations, the traditional shape of the British 'B' film had been established. Chibnall and McFarlane's book picks up from the original quota period, following the fortunes of the 'B' until its eventual demise in the mid-1960s. One of the more well-regarded 'B's (honoured with special treatment in the book's final section, 'The Best of the Bs'), Alfred Shaugnessey's 1961 thriller The Impersonator, is invoked in the preface to distill the essence of these films: it was inexpensively churned out in a figurative broom cupboard at Pinewood, while at the same time Cleopatra, a film so costly that it almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox, occupied the studio proper in its first (and in the end, abortive) attempt at production. Shot in monochrome, barely over an hour in length, with its chiefly unknown cast and standard police procedural storyline (the wrong man has been accused of murder), The Impersonator provides a template for the standard British 'B'. The genres would differ, of course, but as the authors point out, they would seldom stray from standard crime, comedy, war and romantic drama.
Chibnall and McFarlane are happy to criticise the pictures that they have excavated from the annals of history, often by way of an amusingly barbed remark. They clearly harbour no illusion that most of these films excelled. In fact, as a book The British 'B' Film might have been a slightly plodding affair were it not for the constant anecdotal asides and entertaining critique. It is this that sets the book apart from cold, hard reference material, although it could admirably serve that purpose if required. Further interest is added by the selection of promotional posters, stills and miscellaneous photographs that appear throughout. Most of these depict actors unknown to the layman, but occasionally capture well-loved icons of the British screen such as the wonderful Derek Guyler, playing a station master in the 1966 'B' film Smokescreen. (An actor who seemed to play an inordinate number of officious railwaymen and police officers, his recorded voice can still be heard on stage in The Mousetrap to this day, having featured in every official production from the opening night onwards).
The book covers both the artistic and production aspects of the British 'B' in considerable depth, with various tables of information along the way and, as an appendix, a history of British second features shown on the Gaumont, Odeon and Rank cinema circuits. Perhaps inadvertently, this particular section serves to demonstrate that history has consigned many of the main features to exactly the same level of obscurity as their supporting 'B's. Who now, for example, could differentiate between the 1940 Odeon pairing of Return to Yesterday and Laugh It Off, or this 1961 match: The Solitary Child and No Love for Johnny? (The latter films were the main features, incidentally). The British 'B' Film starts with the war years, and shows how supporting features, at the time even shorter and more low-key, were appropriated as an ideal conduit for government propaganda. Post-war, the documentary film seemed to take the upper hand over its (apparently quite moribund) fictional alternative, both in terms of quality and popularity - although it is evident from the text that an element of propaganda was still in play, with the Ministry of Information keeping a keen eye on how the image of Britain was being presented to potential foreign viewers. The government was actively promoting documentary over feature films at this point, a fact substantiated by many interesting quotes from various politicians of the day, including Harold Wilson (then working at the Board of Trade). It is typical of the book, however, that there lies squirrelled away in this section a nugget of information, telling us that a documentary on the tobacco industry (Fag End, 1947) was directed by none other than the future Carry On stalwart Charles Hawtrey. When fiction reasserted itself, a perennial theme for the British 'B' was the activities of Scotland Yard, so much so that the authors devote an entire section to just this topic. Police stories have been an endless source of fascination to the British public ever since the formation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829, with today's demand reflected in television series rather than in supporting cinema features (which, of course, no longer exist). That said, the book makes the point that thirty-minute police procedurals were already popular on television when they began to appear at the cinema, The Blue Lamp being probably the best-known example. Amongst the genre's highest-quality cinema productions were the 'Edgar Wallace Mysteries' films, many of which were adapted from his novels and garnered high praise. Solo for Sparrow (1962) was one such film, featuring Michael Caine in a bit part as a gun-toting heavy.
Possibly the most interesting section of the book is 'Britain in the Bs,' which argues that widely-held social views were far better reflected in the supporting features than their more prestigious counterparts. These films, after all, were produced by Britain for Britain. Significantly, because of the lesser status attached to them, the makers could enjoy a freedom from domineering input that the box office 'majors' could seldom escape. Beneath an ostensibly functional veneer, films like The Adventures of PC 49 (1949) touched on issues such as the Cold War and our own post-war austerity. They Never Learn, from 1956, depicted women working in the police force - unimpressive now, perhaps, but groundbreaking for the time in terms of the characterisation of women in movies. Milder subjects were also represented: Badger's Green, Death of an Angel and Four-Sided Triangle all featured the English obsession with cricket, in addition to the more obviously titled 1949 'B,' It's Not Cricket. (Chibnall and McFarlane point out that from 1952 onwards the cricket theme seems to disappear, probably due to the British 'B' film's increasing exposure to an American audience, who found the idea of a five-day game of sport ending in a draw impossible to comprehend.) We learn that the theme of employment played a large role in the British 'B', and it is easy to see how many of these supporting features would have chimed with the audience. Whether you were employed in a bank, the government, a factory, or a pub, at some stage you would have found your position represented, in films such as The End of the Road, Time Gentlemen Please! and Comin' Thru' the Rye (the latter condemned, in typically acid fashion, as "deeply ridiculous"). Whatever the quality or the genre of film on offer, an audience could now visit the cinema and personally relate to the images before them. The often one-dimensional drama on display had an undercurrent: accurate statements were being made about the minutiae of national life. As the 'Queen of the Bs' (actress Rona Anderson) puts it in the book's foreword: "they made their points and moved on."--Neil Jackson