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Shepperton Babylon by Matthew Sweet

Shepperton Babylon CoverFrancois Truffaut memorably said that there was “… a certain incompatibility between the words ‘cinema’ and ‘Britain’.” Stephen Frears had an equally memorable retort, stunning in its simplicity and epic in its sentiments: “Bollocks to Truffaut.” Yet aside from certainly glorious moments – the Free Cinema movement, the Swinging Sixties and the new wave of the 80s and 90s – it would appear to the casual observer that British Cinema has consisted mostly of a parade of insipid comedies, gangster movies and enough period movies to get the children of corset designers through college. Thank goodness that Matthew Sweet is firmly on the side of Stephen Frears in saying “Bollocks,” though he does so with a tad more elegance and verbosity through his book Shepperton Babylon.

The title and some of the content of the Sweet’s book riffs on Kenneth Anger’s legendary exposé Hollywood Babylon, the story of the numerous scandals and endless debauchery that existed around the time of early Hollywood (and, let’s face it, still exists now). If you expect that the most naughty thing that British actors did in the early 1900s was take two biscuits instead of one at lunchtime, then be prepared for a surprise. There’s numerous affairs, sordid characters galore and even once case of combustion. Add in a film journalist who regularly incurred the wrath of the industry (erm, no comment) and you have the elements that would make the most hardened of dramatic writers green with envy.

However, Shepperton Babylon is far from a catalogue of sleaze. Yes, some of the stories are salacious but Sweet has done his research – interviewing many of the main players of the time – and never descends into rumour or hearsay. Indeed, the stories give dynamism and humanity to an industry that many people have forgotten existed. As Sweet passionately explains, the early .life of British cinema had been ignored for many years with all eyes turned to America as the true innovators of the medium. Here he tries to reclaim the spirit of inventiveness and innovation that early British Cinema as responsible for, even though that many of the films from this period have now crumbled to dust. Sweet writes eloquently, often with a breathless air of excitement when describing the neglected films from cinema history.

There’s some more familiar territory in this book (the films of George Formby – whom Sweet memorably mentions wouldn’t look out of place in the films of Harmony Korine – and Norman Wisdom, the Kitchen Sink dramas, the sex comedies of the 70s etc.) but it is the work on the early history of British Cinema that Shepperton Babylon really comes into its own. Sweet’s passionate prose and intense research will have you longing for a time when our national cinema consisted of more than cockneys and corsets.

PUBLISHER: Faber and Faber

ISBN: 0-571-21298-0

PRICE: £9.99
388 pages