Mostly Film Book Club: Shepperton Babylon by Matthew Sweet

By Paul Duane

Sidney and Charlie Chaplin in The Tramp and The Dictator. But which is which?

I have a soft spot for undertakings that involve an intrepid writer or filmmaker recording at the last minute memories that would otherwise go forever unchronicled, whether they involve Mississippi juke joints or the trenches of the Somme.

The most heroic of these undertakings, I feel, are the ones where nobody else has yet realised the value of these anecdotes, where the author doggedly clings to a notion that, if these stories mean something to them, they will someday have the same effect on others. Matthew Sweet’s Shepperton Babylon is, in these terms, unmistakably heroic.

One thing about most obsessive cinephiles*: disagree as they might about the virtues of Vera Hruba Ralston and the vices of Edgar G Ulmer, they are united in their disparagement of British cinema. Using Godard and Truffaut as their sacred texts, making allowances for Hitchcock, possibly Lean, and occasional oddities like Carol Reed, Alberto Cavalcanti and Alexander MacKendrick who are, they argue, not really ‘British’, they undermine any possibility of seriously examining the underside of an entire national cinema.

But Matthew Sweet, swimming against the tide, felt there was a story to be told. Not really the story of Ealing, the Boulting Brothers, Powell & Pressburger – though all of these come into it, they had all in one way or another been examined. This is the story of British cinema between the cracks.

Trudging from old people’s home to sheltered accommodation, drinking God knows how many cups of tea and inevitably finding many interviewees with little or no recollection of their storied careers, he mined a seam nobody else knew existed, and found remarkable things.

There’s the extraordinary career of Ivor Novello, the British Valentino, a sexually ambiguous megastar – “it was a struggle to find leading ladies who were sufficiently beautiful to share a two-shot with him” – who ended his career in the next cell to ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser.

There’s the nepotistic world of Sydney Chaplin, brother of the more famous Charlie, whose films as described here seem almost like the silent era’s answer to Larry David’s work, and whose career ended with an act of violence so shocking I had to put the book down and go for a walk in order to calm down.

There’s the remarkable queerness of Dirk Bogarde’s early British work – if you can read the chapter dealing with his gay S&M western The Singer Not the Song and not desperately want to see that film RIGHT NOW, you’re a dull character indeed.

And there’s the strange, bent careers of men such as Peter Walker, maker of some of the seediest horror movies ever conceived anywhere, and who very nearly made the Sex Pistols into movie stars, and John M East – “smut-pedlar, broadcaster, actor, screenwriter, theatre historian, nightclub promoter and pimp” – who tells of procuring “blond, German” rentboys for Leonard Bernstein in a brothel on the King’s Road.

This is not your David Puttnam-approved, coffee-table, dull as dishwater story of British cinema. This is an almost heroic act of reclamation that well deserves the claim its title makes, to stand alongside Kenneth Anger’s besotted demolition job on the Hollywood he loved. But unlike Anger, Matthew Sweet has written with no grudge, no self-aggrandisement. He just wanted to get the stories down while somebody was still alive to tell them. We all owe him a massive debt of gratitude for doing so.

* I would exempt from this statement the likes of the marvellous David Cairns, whose blog Shadowplay is, like Charlton Heston, an axiom.

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3 thoughts on “Mostly Film Book Club: Shepperton Babylon by Matthew Sweet

  1. I was surprised by this book – it walks the fine line between dry history and gossipy memoir very well. It was interesting to see how disliked some of the ‘national treasures’ were by the peers, not all of it due to jealousy.

  2. This is one of my favourite film books, I think in part because it manages to be both informative and entertaining. Plus, we do denigrate our own cinema, so it’s nice to see it from a different (enthusiastic) perspective, and one that goes beyond the usual coverage of Ealing, Rank, and The Archers (interesting though those stories are, they have been written about extensively elsewhere).
    My copy of the book has a quote from Gilbert Adair on the back : “There are anecdotes here that are not merely funny or poignant but downright haunting” -the book stays with you (or at least, it has for me) because it humanises those whose stories Sweet takes up. You get the unpalatable outcomes of stardom: that which burns out (there are some pretty horrific deaths) and that which fades away (former British icons ending their days in old people’s homes).

  3. It is strange to think of these formerly huge stars (if not hugely paid) living out their twilight years in old people’s homes. Can you picture this happening to any of our stars of today? As a more mature industry the stars know what they are worth, rather than having their chance of a Hollywood career taken away by poor negotiation.

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