Seventies British Cinema (review)
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Reviewed by
Robert Shail, Editor. Seventies British Cinema. Palgrave, 2008. 188 pages. $85.00.

As a collection, Seventies British Cinema is cognizant of its place in the history of British film culture scholarship. Editor Robert Shail channels Alan Lovell's late 1960s pronouncement of an "unknown" cinema in Britain (a counter-tradition astride the polite cinema of bourgeois respectability), suggesting that as a decade, films produced in the 1970s represent one of the last uncharted territories in the field (xi). In his chapter "From Amicus to Atlantis: The Lost Worlds of 1970s British Cinema," James Chapman reminds of Julian Petley's discussion of marginalized British film genres—what he had called a "lost continent"—that were waiting for [End Page 102] critical rediscovery (56). With this clever positioning in mind, Seventies British Cinema is a useful essay collection that map a preliminary course of study for the long-lost 1970s, a decade heretofore avoided by cultural historians.

Since this anthology is, in some senses, a survey-text in the issues and themes of the British 1970s, Shail provides a concise "Introduction" to map the routes taken by the authors as they discuss trends, genres, important directors and producers, and key individual films. As opposed to 1960s, popularly remembered for sustained economic boom, increased consumer affluence, and prescient youth pop culture, the 1970s tend to be remembered as the nose-dive that lead to Thatcherism. Consistently poor economic outlook, labor disputes, rampant inflation, and violent clashes in the streets (along class and racial lines) tend to cloud even the most positive accounts (xiii).

Coupled with reduced film production—the late 1960s had been a costly time for American studios, as many British productions lost money, thus prompting withdrawal from the market in favor of the ascendant cinema of the "Hollywood renaissance"—and declining ticket sales, the 1970s are anything but rosy for the native cinema (xiv-xv). Despite the gloom, the authors in Seventies British Cinema find surprising value in the decade as they put forth an optimistic program of rediscovery. "If 'decline' is a keyword for the period," Shail says, "then 'volatility' and 'polarisation' should also be on the list" (xviii).

Part one deals with "Popular Genres," which by the 1970s mainly consisted of soft-core/sexploitation films, broad farces (namely the Carry On series), horror (semi-prestige Hammer Studios productions or otherwise), the thriller (which includes conspiracy mysteries, gangster pictures, and some espionage films), and the fantasy adventure. After the relaxed censorship practices of the late 1960s, it became clear that sex would sell the following decade, for better or worse. In "Take an Easy Ride: Sexploitation in the 1970s," I.Q. Hunter notes that "low-budget sex comedies, 'permissive' dramas, sex education films (known in the trades as 'white-coaters') and sexploitation documentaries sustained the British film industry in the 1970s" (3). The claim could be extended to most of the other popular genres to follow. In Ian Conrich's chapter "The Divergence and Mutation of British Horror Cinema," he speaks of increasing points of intersection between horror and sex genres in films such as Twins of Evil (1971), Tower of Evil (1972), Vampyres (1974), and House of Whipcord (1974), which benefited from lax censorship, high returns on low budgets, and marketability outside of Britain proper (31-33).

But where sex could be a boon in a horror context, it could also feel out of place in films that had previously mentioned it in coded ways only. For example, Steve Gerrard's "What a Carry On!: The Decline and Fall of a Great British Institution" explains how the series once examined sex through broad double entendres and outrageous archetypes, but turned toward the explicit sex comedy genre with Carry On Emmannuelle (1978), which ended up being something of a dying gasp for both the Carry On series and the soft-core sex cycle in general (43).

Part two "Contexts and Styles" consists of essays, which attempt to taxonomize various trends in 1970s film production. For example, in "Glam, Spam and Uncle Sam: Funding Diversity in 1970s British Film Production," Justin Smith usefully [End Page 103] explains where the industry stood by the beginning of the...