These are the British

Source: Drew Middleton, These are the British (New York: Knopf, 1957), pp. 244-245

Text: Television is the greatest new influence on the British masses since the education acts of the last century produced a proletariat capable of reading the popular press, a situation capitalized by Lord Northcliffe and others. And the mass attention to “what’s on television,” like every other change in Britain, has social connotations. Among many in the middle class and the upper middle class it is close to class treason to admit regular watching of television. “We have one for Nanny and the children,” a London hostess said, “but we never watch it. Fearfully tedious, most of it.”

Significantly, the middle class, when defending its right to send its sons to public schools, emphasizes that the working class could send its sons to the same schools if it were willing to abandon its payments for television. This may reveal one reason for the middle-class dislike for this form of entertainment. Television sets are expensive, and possibly the cost cannot be squeezed into a budget built around the necessity of sending the boy to school. The spread of television-viewing in Britain has had far-reaching economic and social effects. A sharp blow has been dealt the corner pub, by tradition the workingman’s club. Since the rise of modern Britain, it is to the pub that the worker has taken his sorrows, his ambitions, and his occasional joys. There over a pint of bitters he could think dark thoughts about his boss, voice his opinions on statesmen from Peel to Churchill, and argue about racing with his friends. “These days,” a barmaid told me, “they come in right after supper, buy some bottled ale — nasty gassy stuff it is, too — and rush home to the telly. In the old days they came in around seven, regular as clockwork it was, and didn’t leave until I said ‘Time, gentlemen, please.'”

Television also has affected attendance at movies and at sports events. The British have never been a nation of night people, and nowadays they seem to be turning within themselves, a nation whose physical surroundings are bounded by the hearth, the television screen, and quick trips to the kitchen to open another bottle of beer. My friends on the BBC tell me this is not so; television, they say, has opened new horizons for millions and is the great national educator of the future. It is easy to forgive their enthusiasm. But how can a people learn the realities of life if what it really wants on television is sugary romances or the second-hand jokes and antics of comedians rather than the admirable news and news-interpretation programs produced by both the BBC and the Independent Television Authority? The new working class seems to be irritated by attempts to bring it face to face with the great problems of their country and of the world. Having attained what it wants — steady employment, high wages, decent housing — it hopes to hide before its television screens while this terrible, strident century hammers on.

Comments: Drew Middleton (1913-1990) was an American journalist, who worked for the New York Times for which he served as its chief London correspondent 1953-1963. These are the British is a portrait of the British way of life.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Social Function of the Cinema

Source: P. Morton Shand, extract from ‘The Social Function of the Cinema’, in Modern Theatres and Cinemas [The Architecture of Pleasure series] (London. B.T. Batsford, 1930), pp. 9-10

Text: The soured and aged declare that the spread of the picture-going habit is responsible for the decay of home-life. Probably the reverse is nearer the truth: that it is just because home-life has lost so much of its spaciousness and. attractiveness that the cinema-going habit continues to find fresh adherents. For the experts assure its that even with the present phenomenal rate of construction, “saturation point” is not yet within sight; and that there still remains “an untapped clientèle of more cultivated [we hope they mean “more modern”] taste.”

The cinema, whether tacitum or chattersome, fills a need in our lives which no preceding age has ever felt. This need the theatre can never hope to answer, while broadcasting only does so partially and without satisfying our gregarious instincts. There is something formal and ceremonious about going to the theatre. It is an occasion, an event. It implies more careful attire, if not evening dress. We do not say casually “Let’s go to the theatre?” as we say “Let’s go to the pictures?” if only because we are most of us in the habit of booking seats in advance for some particular play. Few of us are indiscriminate enough to sally forth at the last moment to see which theatres have still tickets available. On the other hand we are ready to drop into any old cinema on any old pretext, at any old time, and in any old clothes. The cinema may, and often does, show eminently “serious,” and so-called “educational,” films – “Young Crocodiles’ Teething Troubles,” “The Life-History of a Cake of Soap,” and what not – but we do not go to the pictures in a serious spirit, or with a thirst for acquiring improving knowledge. On the other hand, grotesquely sentimental or crudely anachronistic films can be openly derided as (in deference to the physical presence of their actors) a bad play can hardly be. The studied decorum, the polite social gathering atmosphere, of the theatre and concert hall are wholly lacking at a spectacle in which the players only appear as photographic shadows of their corporeal selves.

The cinema is primarily a sort of public lounge. It is a blend of an English club and a continental café; at once the most public and the most secluded of places. It has affinities with both church and alcove. One can go alone, à deux, en famille, or in bands. One can take one’s children there to keep them quiet; or one can take one’s girl there to be quiet oneself. Punctuality and decorum are of little or no consequence. One can drop in and out at will. In England, though in practically no other country, one can smoke there. One can chew sweets, or peel oranges, or manicure one’s nails. One can proverbially filch ideas for a new dress, or “get off” with one’s neighbour. One can enjoy a little nap as easily as the luxury of a good laugh or a good cry. In wet weather it is an escape from the rain; in winter a means of keeping warm. Sehoolboys, whose holidays are drawing to a close, know that prevalent epidemics can often be caught there. The cinema is a pastime and a distraction, an excuse for not doing something else or sitting listlessly at home. A dinner party misses fire, expected visitors suddenly telephone their inability to come to tea – “What about a cinema?” One had a spare hour or so on one’s hands; just time enough not to be able to do anything else comfortably. So one goes to the nearest picture-house, which is seldom very far away except in the country, and lets a few hundred feet of film unwind before one with casual or rapt attention as the case may be. As a building, therefore, the cinema should be as informal, impersonal and devoid of unnecessary pretensions as a public-house – which is really what it is, alcoholic associations apart.

Thus the cinema clearly requires a type of architectural expression utterly different from the theatre. The theatre – abroad at least – has a certain civic dignity which is must live up to as “a public edifice.” Whereas the cinema is an undress, workaday sort of optical lucky-dip. The theatre has its traditions, and they are on the whole formal ones. The cinema, an essentially democratic institution for all its brave show of royal splendour, has as yet as good as none. It is at one with the socially go-as-you-please age we live in: a symptom and symbol of it…

Comments: Philip Morton Shand (1888-1960) was a British architecture critic (and grandfather of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall). Modern Theatres and Cinemas was his first book and looks at cinemas in a number of countries. The above passage, from a chapter on cinema’s social function, focusses on British cinemas and their audiences.

This Spoon-Fed Generation?

Source: Dorothy Richardson, ‘Continuous Performance: This Spoon-fed Generation?’, Close Up vol. VIII no. 4, December 1931, pp. 304-308

Text: When, not so very long ago, Everyman’s earth was motionless and solid beneath his feet, his immediate concerns were apt to fill and close his horizon. He knew, dimly and forgetfully, that his world, inhabited by foreigners as well as by the English, was engaged in hurtling through space at unimaginable speed and had possibly heard that the solid part of it was but a thin crust. But he thought in terms of solidity, and his universe was a vague beyond that mattered but little in comparison with his personal beyond, the stable world of daily life whose ways he knew and whose unchangeability.

Each generation, it is true, has had in turn to experience the break-up of a known world. The remotest historical records yield anathema, that might have been written yesterday, on modern noise and hustle, on new-fangled ideas and the perilous paths pursued by the ignorant young; and wistful longings for the good old days.

But until to-day Everyman remained relatively self-contained, and could plan his life with fair certainty in a surrounding that could be counted upon to remain more or less in place. Himself, his house, street, town, nation, all were stable; and beyond these secure stabilities his imagination rarely wandered.

The normal moral shocks awaiting him came gently. They were called disillusionments: change and decay, the loss, with age, of the sense of personal stability and personal permanence. But the solid earth remained unchanged, and one of the consolations of the elderly sane was the enchantment, growing in proportion to their own detachment, of the distant view of life, focussed now for the first time and free from the fret of immediacy, taking on an ever more moving beauty and intensity.

But to-day, it is not only that science from whom had come the news of the tumultuous movement of everything, has begun to doubt the sufficiency of its methods of approach to render any exact account of the ultimate nature of reality, but also that its news, all the latest news, that tomorrow may be contradicted, is now common property almost from the moment of its arrival.

Everyman lives in a world grown transparent and uncertain. Behind his experience of the rapidity and unpredicticability of change in the detail of his immediate surroundings is a varying measure of vicarious experience of the rapidity and unpredictability of change all over the world, and a dim sense that nobody knows with any certainty anything whatever about the universe of which his world is a part.

A new mental climate is in existence. Inhabited not only by those few whose lives are spent in research and those who are keenly on the lookout for the results of further research, but also in their degree by the myriads who have been born into the new world and can remember no other. Uncertainty, noise, speed, movement, rapidity of external change that has taught them to realise that to-morrow will not be as to-day, all these factors have helped to make the younger generation shock-proof in a manner unthinkable to the majority of their forbears.

And more than any other single factors (excepting perhaps Radio through which comes unlocalised, straight out of space, music with its incomparable directness of statement, and news forcing upon his attention the existence of others than himself and his relatives, friends and enemies; and knowledge, if he have the taste for it, and a truly catholic diversity of stated opinion) has the Cinema contributed to the change in the mental climate wherein Everyman has his being.

Insidiously. Not blatantly, after the manner of the accredited teacher, is the film educating Everyman, making him at home in a new world.

And this it is, this enlightment without tears, that makes so many of those who were brought up under a different dispensation cry and cry without ceasing against both Radio and Cinema as spoon-feeders of an Everyman who becomes more and more a looker and a listener, increasingly unwilling to spend his leisure otherwise than in being entertained.

Up hill and down dale we may criticise both Radio and Cinema. Nothing is easier. Nor is it other than desirable that the critical faculty should play freely upon these purveyors of Everyman’s spiritual nourishment. But it is surely deplorable that so many people, both good earnest folk and the gadfly cynic, should be so busy in and out of season with the parrot-cry of “spoon-feeding”? Deplorable that the Cinema, in the opinion of these pessimists, should be the worst offender. Radio, they declare, is sometimes, astonishingly and inexplicably, turned on as an accompaniment to occupation. But to “the pictures” everything is sacrificed; home, honour, mind, heart, body, soul and spirit. So they allege.

Is there an atom of justification for these wild statements? Do they not melt like morning mists before the sunny power of even half as much imaginative attention as the navvy may give to the average picture-show?

Cut out good films, instructional films, travelogues and all the rest of it. Leave only the average story-film, sensational or otherwise, the News Reel and the comic strip. Judge, condemn, all these, right and left. Is it possible to deny, even of this irreducible minimum of value, that it supplies to the bookless, thoughtless multitude the majority of whom do not make even that amount of unconscious contact with aesthetic and moral beauty that it is implied in going to church, a civilising influence more potent and direct than any other form of entertainment available in their leisure hours, and sufficiently attractive to draw them in large numbers? Is a man spoon-fed the moment he is not visibly and actively occupied?

Is there not a certain obscenity, a separation of the inner spirit from the outer manifestation thereof, in regarding pictures we despise and audiences we loftily look down upon in their momentary relationship as we imagine it to exist in the accursed picture-house? Should we not rather set ourselves the far more difficult task of conjuring up the pre-picture outlook on life of those who make no contact with art in any form, and then try to follow out in imagination the result of the innumerable gifts of almost any kind of film, bestowed along with it, unawares, and therefore remaining with the recipient all the more potently: the gift of quiet, of attention and concentration, of perspective? The social gifts: the insensibly learned awareness of alien people and alien ways? The awakening of the imaginative power, the gift of expansion, of moving, ever so little, into a new dimension of consciousness?

Surely those positive cultural activities are more than enough to balance the much-advertized undesirabilities and to disqualify the verdict of “spoon-feeding.”

The scaremongers would perhaps cease to wail if the film-fans, deserting the cinemas, battered down the closed doors of museums and picture-galleries and spent their evenings in silent contemplation not of lively human drama, and lively human nonsense and the living news of the changing world, but of the immortal frozen records of the things of the spirit that are unchanged from age to age.

Has it occurred to them to reflect that film-audiences, popular picture audiences, growing by the bread they have eaten, are maturing, are themselves cultivating and improving the medium from which they have drawn life? And that these audiences seen in the bulk, disregarding single, exceptional individuals, are much more capable of appreciating the wares of museum and gallery than were, in the bulk, their pictureless predecessors?

Comments: Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957) was a British modernist novelist. Through 1927-1933 she wrote a column, ‘Continuous Performance’ for the film art journal Close Up. The column concentrates on film audiences rather than the films themselves.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

All Pals Together

Source: Anonymous contribution to Terry Staples, All Pals Together: The Story of Children’s Cinema (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997), p. 25

Text: When I was at senior school in Kingston in the twenties we were drafted in to the Elite Cinema one Saturday to see a show which was probably organised in conjunction with the Empire Marketing Board. We were somewhat upset at having our morning taken away, and this feeling was compounded when it turned out that the reason for our being there was so that we could be shown a film about rice-growing. After the screening someone made a long speech, and I think we were supposed to write a competitive essay about what we had seen. By this time were were getting restless, and after someone else, probably the Mayor, had had his say, we were supposed to applaud. I never knew which school started it, but the applause gradually developed into a slow handclap. Very angrily, the officials left the stage; and, a bit earlier than planned, the National Anthem was played on the organ. We got a good wigging for our bad manners, but I don’t think any of us ever did write that essay on rice-growing.

Comments: All Pals Together is a history of British children’s cinema. It quotes from several memoirs gathered in the research for the book, unfortunately without identifying the contributors. This passage refers to the practice of some educational authorities organising screenings of instructional films for children on Saturday mornings.

Mass-Observation at the Movies

Source: Harold Walker, quoted in Jeffrey Richards and Dorothy Sheridan (eds.), Mass-Observation at the Movies (London/New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), p. 83

Text: Harold Walker, 11 Regent St (aged 20), regular cinema-goer (10 times a month), preference – American films.

Comments: Regarding question 5 [i.e. which are the best films], I certainly am not a patriot, for in my opinion American films are far superior to British on every point: acting, direction, production, humour, yes, everything! (If I’m not mistaken, you know it!). As for your cheaply-made ‘Quota’ films – well -! Finally, I am eagerly awaiting the result of the combination of Hollywood and Our Gracie. Now what about question 7 [i.e. which of the following would you like more of in the films?] – I fail to see where either religion or politics should have any part whatever in films. In the same category I place ‘people like you and I’ and educational subjects for the simple reason that – we dont [sic] want what we know! or what we should know! no! first and last we want ENTERTAINMENT.

Comments: Mass-Observation carried out a series of studies in 1930s and 1940s into how people in the UK lived, through a mixture of observation, diaries and invited comments. This comment comes from Mass-Observation’s research programme into cultural life in Bolton, Lancashire. The study began in 1938, and this comment is a response to a questionnaire issued in March 1938 asking Do you go to the cinema regularly? How many times a month do you go? Do you go regularly on the same day, if so which day? Do you think you see people on the screen who live like yourself? Which are the best films, British or American, or do you think both are the same? People were also asked to number the types of films they best, and to list what they would like to see more of in films. This respondee was a regular of the Odeon, Ashburner Street. Quota films refers to the proportion of British films which had to be shown in British cinema, which led to a rash of cheaply-made features guaranteed a screening somewhere (‘Quota Quickies’). Our Gracie is Gracie Fields, born in Rochdale, Lancashire, who made the Twentieth Century-Fox-produced film We’re Going to be Rich in 1938.