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Revisiting 'Hollywood England' by Alexander Walker

 

Alexander Walker was one of Britain's best known film writers of the late 20th century, the long time film critic for the London newspaper the Evening Standard. He also wrote several books on films, including biographies of Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter Sellers, and studies on the silent cinema and the films of Stanley Kubrick.

Between 1974 and 2003 he wrote three books covering the British film industry from the very end of the 1950s to the end of the 20th century - Hollywood England, National Heroes and Icons in the Fire

The first of these books, Hollywood England: The British Film Industry in the Sixties (also published as Hollywood UK), was first published in 1974 and covers the period from 1959 through to 1971, and so deals with a memorable and momentous period for British cinema. 

Walker begins his survey of the era by looking at the production of the breakthrough social realist films Room at the Top and Look Back in Anger, both released in 1959, and covers the "New Wave" films that followed, including Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), A Taste of Honey (1961), A Kind of Loving (1962) and This Sporting Life (1963). These films dealt with difficult and often unglamorous social issues in a sometimes uncompromising way, and made stars of the likes of Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, Richard Harris and Alan Bates. 

The sheer dourness of some of the social realist films meant that their box office popularity was relatively short-lived. Replacing them was a movement towards humour and escapism in the early sixties, beginning with the appearance of the James Bond series with Dr. No in 1962, the comedy Tom Jones (1963) and Richard Lester's Beatles hit A Hard Day's Night (1964) and modish comedy The Knack (1965). 

After that the floodgates were opened. These films made so much money that a boom took place in film production in Britain, with the American majors rushing to finance British films. These were the years of the "Swinging London" films, like Darling, Alfie, Georgy Girl and Blow-up (all in 1965-66), when anything British, and preferably set in London, was ultra-fashionable.

Walker argues that British films like these were popular in the US because they reflected a social and cultural revolution that was otherwise not being shown on American screens. British films could also avoid censorship restrictions in the US more easily because they were "foreign" - but not foreign enough to stop them from appealing to a mass audience. They could therefore make huge amounts of money for American distributors, who might not get away with making such films themselves. 

Walker also argues, convincingly, that this situation couldn't be sustained. Cinema audiences in Britain fell dramatically over the decade, as did the number of cinemas. But, paradoxically, British films had never been more popular and the industry had rarely experienced such a boom. This meant that foreign, and especially American, audiences had to be successfully courted for film production on anything like this scale to continue. 

The Hollywood studios themselves were flush with money, partly because many had been taken over by conglomerates who had decided to invest in film production. That led to a bidding war for talent and too many over-priced spectaculars. 

And, by the end of the decade, the American cinema was starting to speak to American audiences with its own voice. It no longer needed Alfie, Georgy Girl or To Sir, with Love (the last two, in particular, were phenomenally successful with American audiences) to explore sex, social problems or youth culture. 

The landmark year for the new American cinema was 1967, with the release of The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. While Hollywood was investing in British mega-flops like Alfred the Great and a musical remake of Goodbye Mr Chips, and churning out its own old-fashioned and over-budgeted musicals like Doctor DolittlePaint Your Wagon and Darling Lili, much cheaper films like Easy Rider were about to make a fortune. As a result, the early seventies saw a dramatic withdrawal of nearly all American financing from British film production, bringing the boom years to an end.

Hollywood England explores the structure of the British film industry in this era, as well as the general trends of the period and some of the most significant individual films. This includes looking in more detail at some key films, including the social realist dramas Room at the TopA Kind of LovingThis Sporting Life and Billy Liar, Joseph Losey's The ServantAccident and The Go-Between, Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night and The Knack, the first Bond film Dr. No, Tony Richardson's period comedy Tom Jones, Lindsay Anderson's revolutionary fantasy If... and John Schlesinger's contemporary drama Darling.

Hollywood England also deals with the business end of the business, as is suggested by its subtitle "The British Film Industry in the Sixties" - the significant word here being "industry".  As such, there is a concentration on the context of production and on financing and distribution issues. 

The book discusses some of the different film companies, distributors and consortiums operating in Britain during the decade, their ownership, financial arrangements and business dealings. These include the Bryanston film makers' consortium, the "independent" film distributor British Lion and, towards the end of the book, a chapter on the early production programme of EMI under Bryan Forbes, as it took over the Associated British Picture Corporation. 

The book's great strength is that it was written shortly after the events described took place. And by a critic who saw the films when they were new and in many cases interviewed the film makers themselves. 

Most of these interviews with directors, writers and producers took place in the early 1970s, mainly in 1971-72, and this means that the book is able to draw on the views of those directly involved in making the films. In some cases they are willing to admit dissatisfaction with some of their works, even quite good ones like John Schlesinger's film of Far from the Madding Crowd

Unlike in some of Walker's later books, the discussion of individual films flows naturally from the discussion of the production background and his own assessments never seem forced or out of place. Generally, he is fair and perceptive on the films and there are no obvious instances of him trashing a now revered classic. 

Being so close to the events described means that the author is, if anything, a little too jaded by it all. He sometimes takes for granted some of the great films that were made and often overlooks the many that were merely good or very good in this period. 

As a result, he is sometimes dissatisfied with films that now seem to hold up extremely well, like Jack Clayton's The Innocents (1961) or The Pumpkin Eater (1964) or Bryan Forbes's Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964). On the other hand, he is surprisingly indulgent of Joseph Losey's fancy folly Modesty Blaise (1966) and, in fact, he seems to be quite the Losey fan, with more of his films discussed at length than almost anyone else's. The author also can't resist the urge to attempt to psychoanalyse actors and directors - not always with the most convincing results. 

Inevitably, there is much that is missing. Many readers will probably feel that there's a little too much on the business and industry background and not quite enough room for individual films. As a result, many outstanding films of the decade, including Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Strangelove, Zulu, Becket, GoldfingerThe Spy Who Came in from the Cold, A Man for All Seasons, Oliver! and Oh! What a Lovely War are mentioned in the book only in passing, or not at all. 

Of those films that the author does discuss, few are set in the past and none outside England, except Dr. No. The Bond films all but disappear after the first one and there's little on the historical epics of the decade either. Walker tends to concentrate on those films that were set in contemporary Britain - which is fine when looking at social history, but a little limiting otherwise. 

Modern readers may also be surprised that Hammer and its rivals don't rate a mention here either. In fact, Britain's horror boom of circa 1957-1975 doesn't seem to be on the author's radar or, perhaps more likely, he just didn't regard horror films as possessing any artistic merit. The exception is The Innocents - but that was based on a respectable novel by a famous author, was directed by Jack Clayton and starred Deborah Kerr. 

Hollywood England does provide a good general introduction and overview of British cinema and the structure of the film industry in this period, as well as introducing many of the most significant films, but it's by no means definitive.

Walker continued his survey of the contemporary British film industry, less satisfactorily, in two more books, National Heroes (1985), covering the 1970s to the mid-1980s, and Icons in the Fire (2004), which took the story up to the beginning of the 21st century.

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