Sue Harper's latest book on British cinema examines the roles women have played in the industry from the 1930s to the end of the 80s. The first part of the book looks at the on-screen representation of women; the second, at the careers of those who worked behind the camera.
The first part lacks focus. The blurb on the back of the book describes the text as polemical, but surely you need a single viewpoint on which to base a polemic? The trouble with this section on the book is that it's too long to ignore all the exceptions such a diverse group of films will bring up, but too short to deal with them all properly.
"Important" is an adjective applied to several films, frequently without any further comment to back it up. Even in a book examining the representation of women in British cinema it's hard to describe Bees in Paradise as important (it's certainly a first).
There are numerous niggling inaccuracies in her descriptions of individual films. Two Thousand Women, for example, "opens with a vicious war of words between two inmates". Oh, no it doesn't. Orlando is described as a "major success at the box-office". It didn't do badly for an arty British film, but with a UK box office take of £1.5 million (half its cost) it hardly put Jurassic Park in the shade. This sort of half-remembered fact is inevitable in a book that mentions over 700 films, but it still distracts from any argument Harper might put forward.
Some of Harper's views are refreshing. For example, the Carry On series gets the thumbs up for its representation of women, while Peeping Tom gets a good kicking. She also puts forward the notion that women were better represented in the 50s than the 60s. On the whole, though, she comes across as more grumpy than iconoclastic: a sort of feminist Bernard Ingham.
Where Harper scores, and scores strongly, is in steering a path through the complex structures of the industry. In both halves of the book, she describes with clarity the personalities and economic forces that shaped the industry and the careers of those who worked within it. If anyone can carry on the work of Rachel Low and her History of British Cinema then it's Sue Harper.
The second half of the book does give credit to women who might otherwise be overlooked. It's divided into producers, writers, directors, costume designers, art directors and editors. Though useful, it badly needs filmographies to enable readers to follow the women's careers for themselves.
Women in British Cinema has interest, but it's not the definitive take on the subject.
ISBN: 0 - 8264 - 4733 - 3
Price: £15.99Women in British Cinema: available at Amazon UK