The British ‘B’ Film

Stephen Chibnall and Brian McFarlane,
The British ‘B’ Film.
London: BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
ISBN: 978-1-84457-319-6
US$30.00 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by BFI/Palgrave Macmillan)

Let me say right off that this is an excellent book on a topic that certainly deserves attention; the low-budget British feature film, as produced from the 1930s through the late 1960s (roughly), and released mostly as “second features” on double bills during that era. Chibnall and McFarlane know their terrain intimately, and have obviously spent a great deal of time and effort at the BFI, and with private collectors, to screen a vast quantity of these often intriguing, hard to find films. The British ‘B’ Film follows in the wake of several books on the American “B” films, most notably Todd McCarthy and Todd Flynn’s groundbreaking anthology Kings of the Bs: Working Within the Hollywood System (New York: Dutton, 1975), and Robin Cross’s The Big Book of B Movies (New York: St. Martins, 1981). But up until this point, despite numerous articles on low budget British films, and chapters in various anthologies, there was no one book that offered a comprehensive overview of the field. In The British ‘B’ Film, Chibnall and McFarlane have delved deep into the archives to present a balanced, nuanced reading of the many films in this category, with attention (at last) paid to the numerous actors, writers, directors, cinematographers, producers and others who brought these small gems to life.

But one thing troubles me here, not only in Chibnall and McFarlane’s volume, but also in all the other work that has been done to date on low-budget filmmaking in general, whether American, British, Mexican, or whatever nationality one might wish to consider. This is a slight feeling of deprecation – a sense that however good these films might be, they simply don’t measure up, and perhaps more importantly, can’t be compared to their more lavish “A” counterparts – because of budget, or the actors, or directors, or the script; there’s just something that sets them apart from the rest of the pack. That something, of course, is money; more than any other (potential) art form, filmmaking costs money, implies an audience, and is a delicate compromise between commercial considerations and artistic ambitions.

But this is equally true of the so-called “A” level film; all commercial movies must find an audience, usually upon first release (particularly during this era, before DVDs and other distribution methods were readily available). From the inception of the cinema until the mid 1980s, successful theatrical playoff was a necessity, the only way to recoup one’s capital investment, and the films considered in this volume, made in the $10,000 to $100,000 range (roughly), would usually make just enough in profits to keep their production companies solvent. Unless their producers were philanthropists, companies that failed to heed the desires of their audiences soon found themselves out of business.

And yet, the artistic impulse was usually present in low budget films, perhaps more so, in some cases, than in films where more capital was at risk, and so one could ill afford to do anything that might deviate from the expected. Thus, The British ‘B’ Film begins with an illuminating and instructive parallel between two feature films shooting at Pinewood Studios in September of 1960; one, the big budget extravaganza Cleopatra (finally released in 1963, after its first director, Rouben Mamoulian, was replaced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz), and the second, Alfred Shaughnessy’s The Impersonator (shot and released in 1960). While all of The Impersonator was shot in a mere three weeks, at a minimal cost, Mamoulian and his crew managed to shoot only 11 minutes of film for Cleopatra in six weeks, all of which was ultimately scrapped, at incredible expense, before Mamoulian was fired, and the entire production was moved to Rome for a complete reshoot (p. viii).

Chibnall and McFarlane argue, quite persuasively, that The Impersonator was by far the more interesting project, an assessment I agree with, but one which also raises a key question; why isn’t The Impersonator more readily available? Why has it been written out of film history? Why can’t one purchase a legitimate DVD of the film, or of the literally thousands of other films discussed in the volume? The answers are multiple; most of these modest films lack “star power,” they are confined to a few small sets, production values are modest, they are almost invariably in black and white, and because of American chauvinism, they aren’t seen of being of much interest to audiences outside the UK. But this is wrong – one almost might say morally wrong – in the same way that the artificial distinction between “high” art and “low” art vanished in the mid 1960s with the advent of pop art and its numerous progenitors.

For the most part, despite their modest origins, these low budget films have value, depth, resonance and quality; in the case of The Impersonator, certainly more lasting worth than the bloated spectacle offered by Cleopatra. Yet one is screened on television all the time, and the other has been consigned to the archives of the BFI, and we’re all the poorer for it. For its minimal 64 minute running time, The Impersonator tells us more about British culture during its era, to say nothing of Anglo-American relations during the period (the plot revolves around an American serviceman falsely accused of murder), and packs more of a narrative punch, than Cleopatra can muster in its general release running time of 192 minutes (and the final “director’s cut” of the film runs 320 minutes).

Building on this comparison, Chibnall and McFarlane offer a richly detailed history of the “small picture,” from its origins in the 1930s, and the rise of the so-called “Quota quickies”, up until the entire “B” system collapsed, along with the double bill, in the 1960s. The directors – Montgomery Tully, Lance Comfort, Francis Searle, Vernon Sewell, Terence Fisher, Frank Marshall, John Gilling, and many others; the screenwriters, including Brian Clemens, Mark Grantham, Paul Tabori, Brock Williams and again, many more; the cinematographers, such as Nicholas Roeg (yes, that’s right – he started here), John Coquillon, Arthur Grant, Basil Emmott, Monty Berman, Walter Harvey, Geoffrey Faithfull, Jimmy Wilson, and again, numerous others – all get thorough and careful consideration here, as do the stars of the films, such as Dermot Walsh, his then-wife Hazel Court, John Bentley, Bernard Lee, the tragic Susan Shaw, Honor Blackman, as well as the composers, editors, and production designers.

The producers – in particular, the small companies that made the films, such as Tempean, Eros, The Danziger Brothers, Highbury Studios, Merton Park Studios, Hammer, Butcher’s Films Services, Anglo-Amalgamated, ACT Films, and again, many others, are also treated to a detailed, informed discussion, as are the men who ran these small firms, such as Guido Coen, Ralph Bond, Edwin Fancey, William Butcher. The authors don’t deny that the British program film industry was run almost entirely by men during this period – women worked in continuity, editing, scripting and wardrobe, but seldom on the studio floor.

But they also argue for a feeling of comradeship from all concerned – that everyone, in most cases, went into a small budget film hoping to do their best possible work, no matter what the economic circumstances, feeling that doing anything less would be both dishonourable, and also against the grain of the entire enterprise. The authors also discuss the various genres that comprised the British program film – everything from science fiction and horror to comedy and domestic drama, even period pieces – and demonstrate again and again that a small budget is no match for an inventive filmmaker, intent on making the best possible film with the material at hand, no matter how low the budget.

Many of the British program films made during this period are frankly ordinary, even mediocre – as are many “A” films, as any viewer who regularly goes to the cinema knows. But there is a solid core of filmmaking here that demands our attention, in such films as Terence Fisher’s To The Public Danger (UK 1948), Montgomery Tully’s science fiction thriller Escapement (UK 1958), Compton Bennett’s The Flying Scot (UK 1957), Quentin Lawrence’s Cash on Demand (UK, shot in 1961, released in 1963), Alan Bridges’ Act of Murder (UK 1964). All of these films repay careful viewings, and it’s sad, very sad, that one can’t see them more readily.

I think it would be wise to stop looking at films in budget categories, and abolish the pernicious attitude that because a film is cheaply budgeted, it’s almost guaranteed to be less artistically ambitious than its “A” counterpart. Indeed, I’d like to advocate the abolition of the “A” and “B” categories altogether when considering the artistic merit of 20th century commercial cinema – although I realize that this is unrealistic, given the economic circumstances that created this two-tier system. But those production circumstances are now gone, and only the films remain. A few of the films get released on DVD (particularly now, in the US, VCI Video is doing a superb job in bringing out box sets of low budget British films), but most do not.

It’s no surprise to me that the BFI is currently running a series on the British “B” film at their Southbank theatre which is very well attended, indeed; in the late 1980s, I, too, struck by the fact that so few films were available on VHS or in 16mm rentals (this was before DVDs and streaming video), programmed a series on the films of Terence Fisher at the BFI Southbank theatre, starting with Fisher’s first film, Colonel Bogey (UK 1948), which was also very enthusiastically received.

Despite what some may argue, basically that these films have no commercial market in the present day, there is an audience for these films, and not just those who remember them with nostalgic affection. I receive proof of this nearly every day in my film classes, when I screen a long-forgotten film in black and white that my students have never heard of, only to be met with the shocked response, “why have I never heard of that film before?” The reasons, of course, are distribution and the vagaries of film history, both of which are open to change, if only we will embrace it.

It’s all very well to mock the more obviously commercial British films that were produced on a budget, simply to meet generic demands, such as David MacDonald’s infamously risible Devil Girl from Mars (UK 1954), or Cy Roth’s Fire Maidens from Outer Space (UK 1956); they’re ground out simply to take advantage of an existing market, and they don’t pretend to be anything other than strictly commercial propositions from the word go. But for every one of these “purely commercial” films, just as for every “A” level film that owes its existence to commerce alone, there’s something like Vernon Sewell’s The Man in the Back Seat (UK 1961), David MacDonald’s Alias John Preston (UK 1955), with Christopher Lee in an early, compelling role, or Frank Marshall’s The Gentle Terror (UK 1961), a sharply observed business satire that is as trenchant today as when it was first released.

Let’s take all these films out of their artificial budget categories, and allow them to find their own place on a scale devoid of commercial concerns, interested rather only in quality and sincerity of intent. That’s the work I hope The British ‘B’ Film accomplishes, a hope I am sure that the authors share with me. These films are simply too accomplished, too engaging, and ultimately – perhaps because of their production circumstances – too authentic to be ignored. The British ‘B’ Film is certainly a bold step in this direction, and we can only hope that other works in this area will follow, and that eventually, the barriers will be kicked over, and these films, at last, will be judged on merit alone.

Wheeler Winston Dixon,
University of Nebraska, Lincoln, USA.

Created on: Sunday, 18 April 2010

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Endowed Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program and Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. His most recent books are 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-written with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, Rutgers University Press, 2011); A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010); and Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Rutgers University Press, 2009).View all posts by Wheeler Winston Dixon →