The 1920s are a strange period in British film history. After the innovations of the early years British cinema began to stagnate. The end of the war brought new optimism and 155 features were made in 1920. By 1925, production had fallen to 33 and the quota had to be brought in to prevent production ceasing altogether. Kenton Bamford's book examines how British film makers tried to make their films distinctive from the American industry and why audiences rejected them.
In trying to do this the author is faced with a bit of a problem: that not many of the films are available. Indeed, a fair proportion are lost. It quickly becomes apparent that he has seen few of the ones that are available.
He therefore has to fall back on a wide variety of secondary sources in order to fill the book. Some of those are legitimate, such as fan magazines of the period or memoirs. But when he gets desperate enough to use Mass Observation reports of George VI's coronation (1937) or an episode of the Best of British documentary series concerning 50s war films then you begin to wonder if he has enough material for a couple of articles.
His prose style is awkward and sometimes comes across as a speech rather than an academic text. If speech it is, it is a particularly long and rambling one; unable to stick to a subject for long. The chapter headed Government Intervention, for example, is more concerned with 30s American Gangster films than the quota legislation
This is a shame because his central thesis is an interesting one: that British film makers of the period were largely middle-class and their idea of what was uniquely British was the sort of stuffy, heritage-ridden drivel that marginalised and alienated the bulk of the audience. American films praised the common man or woman, and working people preferred to watch Chaplin or Pickford battling poverty with humour, courage and wit. Films in which the working class were just forelock-tugging extras were not appreciated.
On the whole, the book is a wasted opportunity. A little more real scholarship and a lot less waffle will be needed to provide the definitive account of the period.
Pub: I.B. Tauris
Price: £29.95 $55Distorted Images: available at Amazon UK