The Encylopedia of British Film

Brian McFarlane (ed),
The Encylopedia of British Film.
London: Methuen, in association with BFI, 2003
ISBN: 0413773019
£24.99 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Methuen)

A few months ago, I attended a symposium on British film history. During an ice-breaking session, a well known academic was asked to cite his most consulted film book. He nominated Duncan Petrie’s The British Cinematographer, on the grounds that “it gives me the facts. I can do the interpretive work from there”. It seems likely that this historian – and many more – will henceforth be reaching first for the excellent Encyclopedia of British Film.

Editor Brian McFarlane has achieved something remarkable with this work. The tone across the 6,000 entries is consistent; humble yet probing. Moreover, the 753 pages contain everything that anyone could wish to know about the British national cinema. Very few omissions can be found amongst the biographical entries. Better still, all of the pertinent economic and institutional factors are limned with clarity and precision, from the earliest protectionist legislation through to A Bigger Picture [Report of UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 1998].

Of course, Mr McFarlane has not worked alone. Aside from his associate Anthony Slide, he is joined in his task by around 120 leading historians of British film. In this respect, The Encyclopedia of British film can also be read as a kind of statement on behalf of the dominant post-theorists (“The new film historians”) of British cinema academe. Abstract textual methods are generally abandoned in favour of an approach which insists that, in film matters, facts are indeed the thing most needful.

In his introduction, Mr McFarlane makes note of the editorial rationale of the Encyclopedia. He observes that the work has been guided by a “less about more” approach. Fair enough, but – per se – this tells us little about the overarching philosophy of the work. Clearly, some kind of organising framework must have been put in place to make sense of the multi-faceted, multi-interpretative world of British film history. In essence, one finds that the entries fall into five categories: film companies, actors and stars, legislature, film organisations (e.g.unions, guilds) and themes.

Overall, these groupings work fine. The writers efface themselves sufficiently to provide straight accounts of their given topics. Thus, for example, Andy Medhurst abandons his populist hobby-horse to report soberly on the history of the Carry Ons. However, things fall apart rather during the thematic sections. Mr McFarlane acknowledges at Page xiii that “thematic entries will always be contentious” – I would have sooner that they had been omitted entirely. The reflections on themes such as class, acting styles and gypsies jar for various reasons. At best, they can only generalise, at worst they smack of dominant academic discourse. It would be unreasonable, I suppose, to expect a work of this kind to enquire too deeply into the philosophical assumptions of the film academy. On the other hand, The Encyclopedia of British Film implicitly posits itself, as many other recent works on British film history have done, as a work of cultural history. In this context, it is regrettable that we should read – stated as fact – that gypsies in silent cinema represented “a threat to the stability of the bourgeois family”. As ever, I ask “why?” and “how?”. Space constraints mean that the entries can never fill the gaps wrought by historical reflectionism.

Fortunately, these tensions do not significantly undermine the work. There is much to appreciate in The Encyclopedia of British Film. Naturally, the mark of such a work is how much it comes to be literally marked over time. In this light, I’m pleased to report that the spine of my copy is already broken. Ultimately, I expect Mr McFarlane’s work to share the fate of Dyer and Vincendeau’s Popular European Cinema in appearing on my lowest book shelf in three roughly-hewn volumes. In the case of this new work, I suspect that the principal cause of dishevelment will be the rich seam of institutional and company material. A range of voices see to it that the enquirer is provided with a ready but eminently reliable guide to the major economic determinants of British film production through the decades.

“Reliable” is perhaps the watchword of The Encylopedia of British Film. Without sounding unduly pessimistic, one is bound to wonder over the marketability of simple faithfulness. The participation in this project of Methuen (the book is published jointly by Methuen and the British Film Institute) suggests cross-over appeal. However, as any British film historian will tell you, the verities of hegemony are such within world cinema culture that broad favour can never be safely predicted for any cinema artefact stamped as “British”. Speaking from my little corner of film scholarship, I hope that Mr McFarlane’s work finds its fullest audience.

Brian McFarlane writes in his introduction of his desire to “fill a gap” with The Encyclopedia of British Film. Without question, he and his colleagues have succeeded in this noble aim.

Laurie N Ede
Created on: Tuesday, 4 May 2004 | Last Updated: 4-May-04

About the Author

Laurie N. Ede

About the Author

Laurie N. Ede

Laurie N. Ede is a Principal Lecturer in Film, Media and Applied Writing at the University of Portsmouth.View all posts by Laurie N. Ede →