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A Mirror for England

British Movies from Austerity to Affluence


Raymond Durgnat


Second Edition, BFI Silver Series

London: British Film Institute, 2011

Paperback. xxii+394 p. ISBN 978-1844574537. £16.99


Reviewed by Mike Walsh

Flinders University (Australia)



The sub-title of Raymond Durgnat’s history of post-war British cinema suggests that it might be time to dip into this book again now as we seem to have completed the reverse cycle back to austerity. First published in 1970 after the author had spent five years working on it, it provides a thematic evaluation of a body of cinema that remains little seen, nor critically evaluated. Durgnat died in 2002, and while he was well known for his criticism of the British Film Institute, that body has now reprinted the book as part of its Silver Series of prominent works from its backlist. It contains a valuable foreword from Kevin Gough-Yates, who situates the book in the larger context of Durgnat’s career and his critical assumptions.

Durgnat was always a contrarian and an unfashionable figure in academic film writing, a genre in which fashionability can never be underrated. He was opposed to the auteur theory in the 1960s, because of the emphasis it often placed on style over theme. As Gough-Yates points out in his Foreword, Durgnat was “unable to accept the idea that a distinctive visual style was a sufficient condition for distinguished film-making” [ix]. He wonders that the French-influenced criticism of that decade could make claims for the importance of all the career works of a Howard Hawks or a Raoul Walsh and laments the critical ascendancy of Cahiers du cinéma over Positif. If Truffaut could slag off the British cinema as an oxymoron, Durgnat was the man to give him back to him. In fact, Durgnat is something of an auteurist in his own right, comparing directors in a way that is not dissimilar to Andrew Sarris, though his authorial evaluations are based on the socially thematic complexities that he can identify in a filmmaker’s work.

Durgnat went on to oppose the next import from France, semiology, with equal vehemence. His 1980 essay “The Death of Cinesemiology (With Not Even a Whisper)” demonstrates a healthy disdain for the arcane language used by those who were intent on getting film studies established in universities at this time—and incidentally, getting tenured jobs for themselves. The emphasis placed on language structures and linguistics, like the auteurist’s stress on style, seemed to Durgnat, equally like a distraction from the more pressing business of thematic evaluation.

Durgnat’s primary orientation towards film came from his background in English Literature at Cambridge. There is little or no mention of cinematography, editing, and sound here. At the outset, he admits to “concentrating less on the texture of films than to critical exegeses of certain themes, undercurrents and overtones” [3]. As Gough-Yates points out, Durgnat is writing before the availability of video versions, and he has only his notes and memories of obscure films seen years before. At one point he revisits Brief Encounter, seen twenty years previously and finds it “another film entirely” [214]. His criticism is an impressionistic enterprise, but it gains a vividness for stemming equally from the critic’s imaginings as from the evidence on the screen.

His interest in British films is in what he saw as their socio-cultural background assumptions. And these are overwhelmingly couched in terms of the ways they depict class relations. Gough-Yates includes in his Foreword Durgnat’s mud-map of the British class system [xix] ranging from the lumpenproletariat up to the aristocracy with diagrammatic representations of how permeable are the barriers between each class segment. He writes that “It’s a truism that in Britain class sub-divides the nation culturally more extensively and intricately than in most countries” [6]. I can think of no better book than this to illustrate the stock figure of the British academic who stands up at a conference and insists that class has not yet been sufficiently discussed.

So what is British cinema, according to Durgnat? A starting point might be to say what it is not. It is not American or French for starters. He refers to Britain as “an island situated halfway between America and France” [6]. British film lacks the openness to lively vulgarity and the melodramatic intensity of Americans, and the sophistication of the continental European tradition (as far as the latter expressed itself in post-war art cinema). The possibilities for British filmmakers were traditionally limited by the need to differentiate themselves from Hollywood by exaggerating stoicism and resignation rather than flamboyant action. Given his central contention that British cinema should be seen as a reflection of British culture writ large, he sees that British culture underplays emotion “to the point of inertia” [6]. As the book progresses, it becomes more apparent that his main theme is the possibilities open to a popular cinema in which reserve and repression are always in evidence. In the post-war period, however, Durgnat took some heart from British cinema’s change of tack, as it now tried to synthesise the best of American (“life-force”) and French (“realism and sophistication”) traditions.

The title of this book suggests that Durgnat sees film as a reflection of the culture to which it attempts to speak (“For a film, to entertain many, must echo widespread ideas and experiences” [p.8]). This is certainly a contention in need of a good deal of refinement. It is an assumption he does not extend to the relation between Hollywood and America, where he criticises Hollywood for its betrayal of American culture. It is also not a position that he applies consistently, stating that sometimes “British films, far from flying a flag for the British way of life overseas, ensured it was kept off British screens at home as well” [123].

He is not interested in gauging a film’s cultural centrality through its domestic box office success—in fact there is almost no mention of the industrial aspects of British cinema here. He gathers films together simply by virtue of their relevance to the themes he wants to illustrate. His method is strongly symptomatic in the sense that these themes are not the most obvious ones in the narrative, but often the latent meanings about social structure that the Freudian analogy to dream-work would say are displaced in intensity so that they only appear in the margins of the narrative. This assumption is summed up when he writes: “Often one must follow, not concepts, which hardly appear, but atmosphere” [9].

He understands this “atmosphere” to be the ideology that can be read from the films, and this is something that he shares with the post-structuralists who occupied the ramparts of Screen in the decade after this book first appeared. However Durgnat’s sense of ideology is a very different one to Stephen Heath’s. It is straightforwardly political, based on class, political traditions, and even contemporary party politics—something from which the post-May ‘68 tradition steered clear. This is at the heart of Durgnat’s scorn for them as middle-class elitists. Durgnat’s ideology is a complex yet commonsensical one, or at least, it requires no recourse to a theory of the unconscious structuring of subjectivity. For Durgnat, the politics of class is the background of everyday life, and if it is sometimes difficult to see, that it is only because it is so obvious.

His assumptions about film are that they (a) reflect ideas about class that are relevant to contemporary politics, and (b) that they reflect these things from a certain position—the right, left or centre of the party political spectrum. For example, he discusses the Boulting Brothers films in terms of their shift from Labour positions to Liberal ones in the 1950s [281]. Like Robin Wood, he distinguishes between right-wing and left-wing entertainment genre films, writing that films on the left “stress the need for concessions to the lower orders” while those on the right “stress the need for reconciliation without adjustment” [22]. A recurrent theme in his analysis is that British films of the period were heavily skewed towards an acceptance of the hegemony of the upper middle classes, which he ascribes to an “identification upwards” in which “[t]he suffering and humiliated, finding their own frustrations intolerable, prefer to forget them and identify with their rulers” [23].

The source of this observation is Durgnat’s commitment to the lived reality of class antagonism. He takes it as a given that the clash between classes is not simply a dramatic device to generate narrative and which narrative can then solve or conjure away. He sees conflict as the underlying basis of English life and takes any attempt to minimise or solve it dramatically as an element of bad faith. He writes of “the normal, natural, and healthy disloyalty of both middle-class individualism and the trade union spirit” [173] and, in assessing Peter Glenville’s Term of Trial, he provides the clearest statement of his social position:

Now it’s perfectly true that many English schools are blackboard jungles. One might go on to argue that, given the imperfections of the English educational system, including various moral prejudices which permeate the curriculum and just don’t fit the facts of life, particularly lower working-class life, it’s no surprise if a constant state of near mutiny is a perfectly understandable reaction, an expression, in fact, of intuitive intellectual integrity among other, less desirable things. [ 50]

Films interest him to the extent that they lay bare conflicts. When he is disappointed in films, it is because they seek easy resolutions or they talk down to the working class from positions of middle-class superiority (he is particularly scathing of John Grierson and of the Free Cinema movement on this score). He will even rewrite films in his mind, reviewing not what the film was, but what it might have been if it had a greater degree of courage. I suspect that he makes many British films sound a great deal more interesting than they might otherwise be—and perhaps this is the genius of his criticism.

Durgnat is both easy and difficult to read. He is often immensely enjoyable, because his writing is free from the type of jargon we often read in film studies. Cop this for a description of Powell and Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffman:

This gallimaufry of Gothicisms, this pantechnicon of pallettical paroxysms, the meddle-muddle of media, this olla podrida of oddsboddikins, this massive accumulation of immemorial Mighty Wurlitzerisms. [255]

Elsewhere he effects a vernacular type of writing that plays the game of engaging the logic of the film on its own terms. A reference to “our heroine soaping her titties in the bath” [53] made me spray coffee all over my kitchen, while summing up nicely the attractions according to which the film has been constructed. His statement that “The Briton is resigned to women as to queuing” [221] is worth the price of the book. There are moments of great clarity and insight. His observation that “Christianity is not the easiest of philosophies to square with the range of experiences preferred by cinema-goers” [120] cuts straight to the point in a way that few critics could achieve. His summary of conservatism in British films is equally incisive, when he observes that it involves worshipping tradition so as to forget history [135].

At the same time, the emphasis on the immediacy of political context can be difficult for those of us so far removed in time and place from his writing. The reference to Butskellism on p.23 will send most of us scurrying to Google. Other references to Yardley ads and Aldermaston Marchers show that his writing is meant to have an immediacy of cultural reference. He covers an immense amount of ground with what he characterises as “briskness…which may sometimes have smacked of heartlessness” [115]. In the style of a cinephile who spends a lot of time going to movies, the book is based around saying things about as many films as possible rather than using the odd film here and there to illustrate some theoretical ideas. Consequently, readers with a familiarity with this body of films (and I suspect there won’t be a whole lot of them) will get more from it. For the rest of us, this will be a book that you delve back into after catching an obscure black and white British film outside of prime time on the telly. Andrew Sarris’s strategy in The American Cinema, of breaking his appreciation of ranked auteurs into short, detachable essays was probably a more sensible option. But then Durgnat prizes generalisation in a way that Sarris never did.

This is an immensely useful book to keep on your shelf if you are one of the brave few to have an interest in British cinema of the post-war decades prior to its revival in the Swinging London period of the 1960s. There are surprises aplenty here in seeing someone take seriously Hammer horror films (“the real British ‘free cinema’” [264]) and even put in a good word for the first films in the Carry On series. While directors such as Losey, Powell and Lean are relatively well know, other lesser known directors such as Dearden, Baker, Hamer and the Boultings receive their due here. The author of this book, like the films he surveys here, never fit neatly into categories and this re-appearance of A Mirror For England provides a welcome opportunity for reassessment.


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