By Niall Anderson
“Next time you see a Spitfire in a museum, run your fingers over its skin… you might be touching a vanished masterpiece.”
When producer Cecil Hepworth went bankrupt in 1924, his entire stock of film negatives was melted down and turned into waterproof resin for military aircraft. Many of these negatives were unique, and some 80% of all British films from 1901 to 1929 were lost forever as a result. Shepperton Babylon: The Lost Worlds of British Cinema is Matthew Sweet’s attempt to reconstruct this forgotten history, and the other forgotten histories of British cinema: the artistic, industrial and folkloric achievements that always seem to get overshadowed by those in Hollywood.
On Monday, we kick off the second selection for our Mostly Film bookclub, with Paul Duane’s in-depth piece on Shepperton Babylon. Suffice to say that if tales of hard-work and debauchery in the service of lunatic creativity are your bag, you’d be a fool to miss out. Where else will you read about a film studio on rails, designed to be moved around to take advantage of the sun? And what other book is likely to introduce you to such unlikely-sounding gems of British cinema as That Fatal Sneeze, The Lure Of Crooning Water and The City Of Beautiful Nonsense? So consider yourself invited to the discussion.
In a pleasing symmetry, next week’s Mostly Film is concentrating on other lost worlds: the golden age of quizzes on UK telly, and the strange “now you see it, now you don’t” history of nudity on screen. All that and the usual much, much more.