- Shepperton Babylon: The Lost Worlds of British Cinema
In the Q and A available at the Web site for the BBC Four documentary based on Shepperton Babylon: The Lost Worlds of British Cinema, Matthew Sweet explains how his idea for the book originated during an interview with the then-eighty-nine-year-old American expatriate Constance Cummings:
I wondered if there were other veterans who could talk about the experiences they had in the 1930s, perhaps even further back. Many of the silent actors didn't have careers into the sound period, and I wondered if any of them could still be alive. Could they be in a nursing home somewhere, telling a teenage care assistant that they used to be in pictures? Would it be possible to track them down and get them to tell me their stories?
Shepperton Babylon, Sweet affirms in the book's introduction, is the culmination of thousands of such conversations—"an attempt to pursue the story of our native cinema to the limits of living memory" (8). Yet the final product is not the oral history of the UK film industry that Sweet claims. Few of his "witnesses" actually speak for themselves. Their memories (culled from memoirs, biographies, fan magazines, trade papers, and archived collections, as well as Sweet's interviews and personal correspondence) are, for the most part, fil-tered through Sweet's own agenda and gift for storytelling. He exploits their personalities to create characters, and he recklessly fetishizes their behavior for effect. One can almost hear Sweet rejoice as he finds arthritic Joan Morgan sipping milky tea from a safety cup, [End Page 131] jack-of-all-trades Ernest Dudley jogging well into his nineties, or former sex kitten Pamela Green eager to show him the contents of her underwear drawer.
The book's title is an allusion to Kenneth Anger's notorious account of filmland debauchery, Hollywood Babylon. But Sweet has loftier aims. He refers throughout to the vulnerability of celluloid and the careless treatment of early negatives in order to draw a correlation between lost films and forgotten movie stars, while emphasizing that the inaccessibility of their work contributed to their cultural abandonment in the first place. According to Sweet, British actors were particularly prone to this fate, for even British film critics and historians dismissed British cinema as being too conservative and boring for serious analysis, let alone preservation. Efforts to halt its destruction or inquire into the lives of its participants were openly discouraged: "Contempt for British cinema," writes Sweet, "was a badge of intellectual seriousness." His project is to overturn this misreading of British cinema by using the interview as a tool to reconstruct the history that lies hidden beneath these layers of myth, bad reputation, and poor archival practices.
Sweet is hardly the first to blaze this path of scholarship. But, whereas other historians of British cinema tend to either focus on industrial aspects, valorize certain auteurs, or engage in canon formation through textual analysis, Sweet calls attention to the role of production personnel who often fall through the cracks of such accounts. In doing so, he paints a picture of scandals and intrigue to offset any notion of the British industry as stodgy and uneventful, recounting enough self-immolations, homosexual love affairs, drug overdoses, and family feuds to make even Kenneth Anger blush. He resurrects dozens of neglected films, if not always successfully examining them himself, then at least enabling that kind of work to be done more extensively in the future. However, while claiming to rescue overlooked subjects and histories, Sweet's book paradoxically attends to some of the most visible and studied subjects in British film (such as Cecil M. Hepworth, Ivor Novello, Basil Dean, Michael Balcon, J. Arthur Rank, and Dirk Bogarde). This occurs partly because Sweet organizes the book around such monumental figures, and partly because his "oral histories" have more to say about those luminaries than their forgotten speakers. In other words, interviewees work less as living evidence than as talking heads in a story that at times...