Words’ worth: British cinema’s own Babylon
In 1975, when the US edition of Kenneth Anger’s notorious expose of Hollywood’s sleaze and scandal, ‘Hollywood Babylon’, was finally published, the critic for the New York Times described it as “a delicious box of poisoned bonbons’’. It might also serve, 30 years later, as an apt description of Matthew Sweet’s historical account of the dark side of 20th-century British cinema.
Sweet’s book is a flawless match of style and subject, in which the anecdotes of cultural history are so finely nuanced as to enter the very consciousness of the episodes they describe. For as Sweet’s interest might be said to comprise the “secret’’ history of British cinema — its lost or forgotten stars, its arcana, bad moods and giddily dichotomous shifts of individual fortune — so there is a quality in his writing that manages to recreate the temper of this fallen world.The more we learn of this place — so oddly glamorous in its eccentricity and damp, suburban Englishness — the more apparent it becomes that the tragedy, low farce, melodrama and sheer viciousness that many of British cinema’s leading personalities suffered during their careers was infinitely more sensational than many dramas on screen.
Sweet revisits the equation identified by Graham Greene in 1936: “Seediness has a very deep appeal, it seems to satisfy, temporarily, the sense of nostalgia for something lost; it seems to represent a stage further back.’’
In many ways, the lucidity of Sweet’s perspective on the covert history of cinema could be said to stand parallel to F Scott Fitzgerald’s alternately appalled and seduced relationship with the medium. For in Sweet’s descriptions of lives either thwarted, ruined or enriched beyond belief by the power of cinema, there is the same understanding of a fundamental and at times fatal contract with a world of shadows, illusions and artifice.
(The Lost Worlds of British Cinema by Matthew Sweet, 388pp, Faber)