British Film Design: A History

Laurie N. Ede,
British Film Design: A History
London: I.B. Tauris, 2010
ISBN-13: 978-1848851085
£15.99 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by I.B. Tauris)

A Himalayan convent created in mountainous Pinewood; the Brief Encounter (1945) station and buffet; Dickens’ London with St Paul’s dome shimmering distantly beyond Fagin’s slum; right down to the modern contrasts of Trainspotting (1996) (complete with toilet-bowl swimming venue) and the middle-class charms of the Home Counties in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994): just think how these all look, and how that look feeds the meaning. In doing so, you’ll be bringing to mind a very varied and very distinguished lineage of British production designers, and how surprising it is that until now we haven’t had a serious account of their contribution to the uniqueness of British cinema.

Laurie Ede’s book carries the subtitle ‘A History’, and that’s exactly what we get, and very valuably so. It’s not a sustained critical analysis of the impact of production design or its quality on the films produced but, rather, a careful registering of the main stages of its development in Britain from the silent days to the present. He offers a sure sense of its most influential exponents, of how and where they went about their art and craft, and in doing so his ‘history’ keeps spilling out beyond production design (or art direction as it was once known) to give a reassuring sense of historical continuity in British filmmaking at large.

The book sets out its aims with brisk clarity: it “invites people to look beyond the actors to contemplate the narrative power of filmed places and décor”, but is quickly aware that “A meaningful history of British film design can be constructed only if we place moments of design creativity within their contemporary context”. If Ede’s sense of purpose is spelt out so explicitly, it is good to record that the book concludes with a similar directness, with a neatly summarizing account of the range of five key ‘imperatives’ that have determined ‘the influence exerted by the British designer’ – and will continue to do so.

In other words, this is a book that knows where it is going and gets there. It is organized chronologically, as it no doubt needs to be, but this doesn’t mean that major trends don’t emerge or that certain essential tensions aren’t felt. For instance, the lure of ‘realism’, that prime British virtue as it is often deemed in its cinema at large, keeps reasserting itself, but Ede’s book makes clear that there was a lot more than that going on in British design. Where would Michael Powell or Ken Russell have been if there had been no more at stake than making their films look as ‘authentic’ as possible in terms of their relation to the world outside?

As early as the silent era, this dichotomous approach to design had made itself felt in the work of two great pioneers. Whereas Cecil Hepworth was concerned above all with the physical authenticity of the miniature worlds he created on film, George Pearson aimed rather at the emotional impact his designers could achieve. In eschewing Hepworth’s “diet of worthy naturalism”, Pearson expected his collaborators to aim at “elucidating the story… and heightening the emotional tension”. Their conflicting views foreshadow decades of such diversity and tension.

The Film Society’s influence in the 1930s derived from the foreign films it showed and enthused about, from Germany and Russia notably, and its screenings attracted many important filmmakers, such as Hitchcock and David Lean, as well as young art directors like Michael Relph and John Bryan.  This impetus would receive a further boost in the pre-war decade when so many European émigré film artists, especially if they had Jewish connections, fled to the comparative safety of Britain.  Ede chooses two of the most significant Europeans who made their presences felt in 1930s British film: Vincent Korda, who came in the wake of his producer brother Alexander, and established new benchmarks for lavish production design at London Films studios, on such films as The Four Feathers (1939); and Alfred Junge who made his name in Britain on the films of expatriate E.A. Dupont in the late 20s.  Ede distinguishes between their kinds of artistic attainment, making the point that Junge often “achieved fabulous things at Gaumont-British” with “impeccable” sets in “films themselves not greatly memorable”.  Whereas Alex Korda’s approach was to “build it twice as big and paint it red”, and this allowed brother Vincent pretty much of a free hand in devising vast and extravagant sets (think of Things to Come, 1936), Junge inclined more to the realist detail of, say, The Good Companions (1933). However, it’s not that clear-cut: Junge then had to aspire to the musical-comedy glitz of the Jessie Matthews musicals, and the achievement for which he is now most revered is in the films he did for Powell and Pressburger in the 40s. Was there anywhere more exciting design feats than Junge pulled off in such films as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944 – recreating the Cathedral interior in Denham Studios) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946, with its fabulous celestial courtroom and staircase)? He was followed at Archers by Hein Heckroth, another German, with a background in theatre designing, and he made his name in Britain with The Red Shoes (1948).

It is so rewarding to have all these gifted men – and a very few women until the most recent decades – given their proper place in the story of British cinema that it is tempting to bring each phase and name to the fore here. However, sense prevails and a few examples must suffice to suggest the book’s scope. It is not just a matter of critical appraisal of what elements of design have made it on to the screen. Ede is also interested in the particular problems raised by different productions/studios/producers and by the way designers had to cope with financial and logistic constraints as well as the idiosyncrasies of the directors whose vision they were serving. There is, for example, an excellent and succinct account of the use of locations and how these were dressed to furnish the needs of that truly iconic British film, Brief Encounter. Whereas the railway buffet and the Kardomah café sets were careful studio recreations of real-life equivalents, the locations were shot in Carnforth in North Lancashire, ‘chosen because of the quietness of its station and also because of its lax blackout regulations’. That last detail is quoted to suggest that there may be more to production design than mere artistic flair, and Ede convincingly makes his point about these other ‘imperatives’ in determining what got done and how.

He is not exclusively concerned with the high fliers in British design history, as his chapter on Hammer and the ‘Carry On’ series makes clear. Their producers wanted what they wanted but they also wanted it cheaply, and this naturally offered challenges to designers such as Alex Vetchinsky and Bernard Robinson, who were contrasted in the outcomes they sought: Vetchinsky aimed at settings that wouldn’t distract from the ‘Carry On’ carry-ons, whereas Robinson wanted to give Hammer horrors a distinct visual appeal.

Tensions such as those between the need for economy and the urge to the splendiferous or between the persistent realist tendency (at its peak in the ‘New Wave’ films of the late 50s/early 60s) and the wilder shores of the imagination are charted in this very useful book. So too are the relationships between designers and the directors they worked for (e.g.,Junge/Powell, Ralph Brinton/Tony Richardson, Richard MacDonald/Joseph Losey, Derek Jarman/Ken Russell) or between designer and a particular genre (Ken Adam and the Bond films). There are insights into the way such collaborations worked and a great deal of fascinating information about the processes involved and their outcomes.

I have only a minor quibble about the unnecessary number of typos and some odd usages, and a somewhat more important one about the paucity of the illustrations. This was presumably beyond the author’s control but in this topic above all it would have been advantageous to have some colour stills to do justice to the designers’ inspiration (as in Ian Christie’ The Art of Film: John Box and Production Design), or, if black-and-white was the compromise, at least on glossy paper, instead of the meagre, drab and unrevealingly ‘grey’ inserts we get here.

Nevertheless, this is an important book in a sparse field. Since Edward Carrick’s books in the 1940s, and with Christie’s book a notable exception, there has been frustratingly little about an element of film production in which British cinema has often excelled.

About the Author

Brian McFarlane

About the Author

Brian McFarlane

Brian McFarlane is the author or editor of over 20 books and hundreds of articles on film and literature and related matters. He co-edited the Oxford Companion to Australian Film and was compiler, editor, and chief author of The Encyclopedia of British Film, and most recently he published his memoir, Real and Reel, a light-hearted record of a lifetime’s obsession with the movies – and with writing about them. He is an international authority on British cinema and on the adaptation of literature to film. In Australia he is known as a regular reviewer in The Age, Australian Book Review, Metro and Inside Story. He lives in Melbourne and is currently serving as Adjunct Professor, Swinburne Institute of Social Research, Swinburne Institute of Technology and as Adjunct Associate Professor at Monash University.View all posts by Brian McFarlane →