Book Review: A Tradition All Its Own – Forgotten British Film: Value and the Ephemeral in Postwar Cinema by Philip Gillett

Despite appearing in an independent press publication, this study deserves neither to be forgotten nor regarded as ephemeral since it represents a very distinctive and well researched contribution to the area of British Cinema. Although this field has been well documented over the past thirty years, giving the lie to condescending remarks of Satyajit Ray and Francois Truffaut that the British have no real cinema, there are still many examples of films that have fallen through the net, not all of them bad or deservedly forgotten. As Gillett (author of the 2003 study The British Working Class in Postwar Film) states in his opening chapter “The Forgotten Film” shifting tastes determine whether a film is celebrated on initial release as well as governing its secondary existence on DVD and other formats. It is crucial to keep all extant titles available for the following reasons so

that we should know which films audiences have avoided as well as which they have loved, if only because such judgements provide an opportunity to reassess our own moral, cultural and aesthetic values. One question this raises is how society comes to a consensus about what is worth preserving. Audiences, critics, academics and archivists from the past have reached their own conclusions, but values change and reappraising a film becomes impossible if it is unobtainable. (1)

This is a far cry from those values espoused by adherents of any “Great Tradition” whether in literature or film. I remember many decades ago that one distinguished critic and his favorite student not only agreed that MGM was correct in wishing to destroy all extant copies of Thorold Dickinson’s Gaslight (1940), as it once attempted to destroy all copies of the silent version of Ben Hur (1925) to prevent any comparison with an earlier version, but also believed that any film falling short of rigorous standards of evaluation should go the same way. Fortunately today, wiser counsels prevail and, as Philip Gillett remarks in Forgotten British Film (Cambridge Scholars, 2017), despite the 1944 remake having higher production values “it is Dickinson’s darker, more idiomatic version that is screened regularly on British television” (34). Yet, this is not always the case as the two film versions of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, which reveal that Neil Jordan’s 1999 version clearly eclipses the 1954 one. Kenneth More, future star of Reach for the Sky (1956) who had played the role on stage, appears a much better choice in the original than Tom Hiddleston in the later version for several reasons. Values change and although certain films may be judged to remain constantly either good or bad, it is important to preserve as much as possible if only to evaluate them on wider grounds than merely aesthetic.

The book contains thirteen (far from unlucky) chapters in which Gillett plausibly develops his thesis using several examples of films once celebrated but now forgotten and comparing the merits of any remake to the original version. For example, he prefers the 1955 version of The Deep Blue Sea to the later 2011 version by Terence Davies due to the former being “more respectful to Rattigan’s intentions” (44). The argument presented, though, has little to do with the dubious “discourse of fidelity” doctrine but more with a serious close-reading of the values of the original version as opposed to Davies’s personal authorship decisions that may veer too far away from implications occurring in the original texts, both play and film. Both versions receive respectful critical attention.

Some films have survived. The DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has offered a safe refuge for East German DEFA films that could have experienced a risky future once Germany became reunited. But not every film is so fortunate. A 1980 laboratory fire destroyed the Mancunion Film Studios Archive (with perhaps the 1948 Frank Randle comedy Somewhere in Politics among them?). Once popular features such as Herbert Wilcox’s Mayfair films (1945-1949) are now long forgotten (10), but is it true that Carry on Sergeant (1958) is no longer relevant after the end of conscription in 1960 (11)?  After all, it is the first Carry On and does feature future Dr. Who William Hartnell in his TV The Army Game (1957-1960) persona of Sergeant Bullimore derived from his earlier role in The Way Ahead (1944). Accessibility affects recent films as well as older ones. Mid-budget films encounter difficulty finding finance in the same way as their Hollywood equivalents. Both sides of the Atlantic face multiplexes controlled by central booking agencies preventing exposure of more films (168).

Among chapter two’s “The Main Features that Time Forgot” are British film noirs such as Daybreak (1948), starring Eric Portman, the British equivalent to Pierre Fresnay in the French Cinema Noirs of the Occupation period; My Brother’s Keeper (1948), featuring a very uncharacteristic Jack Warner pre-Dixon of Dock Green performance; the relatively little-known The Dark Man (1950); and Tiger in the Smoke (1956). Lesser known, but challenging, films also receive attention in this chapter, including work by well-known directors such as Robert Hamer’s The Spider and the Fly (1949) also starring Portman; Anthony Asquith’s The Woman in Question (1950), a British Rashomon; and Michael Winner’s The System (1964), featuring Oliver Reed, Jane Merrow, and David Hemmings. Other interesting examinations, such as one of Tony Hancock’s little-known second feature The Punch and Judy Man (1962), occur as well as films categorized as belonging to “The Wrong Genre” and subject to critical and audience misperception, such as Michael Reeves’s The Sorcerers (1967), David Hare’s Paris by Night (1988), as well as those “That Hardly Saw the Light” such as novelist Andrew Sinclair’s scripted and directed The Breaking of Bumbo (1970) that I once saw on BBC TV and whose well-remembered flaws are aptly noted by Gillett. Barney Platt-Mills’s follow up to Bronco Bullfrog (1970), Private Road (1971) also receives attention as the type of idiosyncratic film difficult to imagine now but definitely worth seeing as an alternative to the mainstream. Other chapters deal with television films that did get a theatrical release such as Bill Forsyth’s Comfort and Joy (1984), Channel Four’s No Surrender (1985) from Alan Bleasdale’s script (that I actually saw on VHS in America!) featuring Michael Angelis and Bernard Hill reteaming after the BBC TV series The Boys from the Blackstuff (1980) with the latter’s unemployed Yosser’s plaintive request “Gizza a job” grimly articulating Thatcher’s policies of planned redundancies, as well as fairly recent films that did not gain a general release and mostly remain unseen. Everything in this study is meticulously footnoted with internet and print source references.

As Steve Chibnall documented in his 2009 study The British ‘B’ Film, England also had an equivalent to its Hollywood counterpart and chapter four examines the independent frame production Poet’s Pub (1949) whose title marks it as quintessentially English, along with John Harlow’s The Blue Parrot (1953). Among other films recently re-discovered is Ken Annakin’s 1950 Double Confession featuring Peter Lorre and William Hartnell and listed in chapter six’s category of “The Existential Film.” Also in this category is a film I saw once on the old ITV station TWW (Television Wales and the West) when former British director John Baxter was Programme Controller in the late 50s and 60s who ran many British films such as the formerly lost but recently (2016) re-discovered Welcome Mr. Washington (1944) as well as his own films such as Love on the Dole and The Common Touch (both 1941). This was There is Another Sun (1951), a fairground drama starring Laurence Harvey, Maxwell Reed, and Susan Shaw.

There is another category that Gillett does not cover: this is one that received a theatrical release and remains in the British Film Archive except for occasional screenings at the National Film Theatre. Directed by Lance Comfort with cinematography by Otto Heller starring Robert Newton, Simone Simon, and William Hartnell, Temptation Harbour (1947) is one of the most sought after British film noirs by those of us outside London who eagerly await a DVD release. Its current inaccessibility may be due to issues with the Georges Simeon Estate since it is based on one of his non-Inspector Maigret novels Newhaven-Dieppe (1947).

Gillett concludes in noting the fickle nature of fashion in every art form with film being no exception as witnessed by the 1933 suicide of silent film star Lilian Hall-Davies whose celebrated career was ruined by sound (189-190). His concluding sentences provide both a timely warning as well as a fitting testament to the validity of this book.

Films are testaments of their time, whether they are made by David Lean or the humblest `B’ film director. Our most useful contribution to the art of film is to ensure that works remain available, so that later generations can come to their own decisions about them. Their criteria will be different from ours, for that is how composers, writers, visual artists and filmmakers fall out of favor and are rediscovered. It is how culture evolves. (190-191)


Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the English Department of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Contributing Editor to Film International, author of James Jones: The Limits of Eternity (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), and co-editor of Hong Kong Neo-Noir (Edinburgh UP, 2016).


This review originally appeared on Film International (08.05.2017).


To find out more about Forgotten British Film: Value and the Ephemeral in Postwar Cinema and to purchase a copy, please click here.

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