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Book Review: Six English Filmmakers

Recognize anybody?

Six English Filmmakers by Paul Sutton

(with additional material by Kevin Brownlow, Brian Cox, Bernard Cribbins, Philip Harrison, Jocelyn Herbert, Murray Melvin, Brian Pettifer, Vivian Pickles, Brian Simmons, and Rupert Webster)

Cambridge, UK: Buffalo Books, 2014

Paul Sutton’s Six English Filmmakers is full of stories, and reads as an extended love-letter to a group of directors whose reputations have suffered periodic neglect. While Mike Hodges is still alive (though seemingly retired), most of the filmmakers discussed are now dead. And, while most will agree that Charlie Chaplin is a major figure of world-historical importance, not everyone will recognize the shifting fortunes of directors like Lindsay Anderson, Clive Donner, Ken Russell, and Michael Winner. But, for those of us who have been paying attention to such filmmakers–indeed, to anybody with a specific interest in 1960s and 1970s cinema–Six English Filmmakers will be a welcome addition to the bookshelf.

It should be mentioned from the outset that this isn’t the type of film book that one often sees. Six English Filmmakers isn’t a critical study (after reading it, I don’t think it had given me any strong reasons to change my evaluations of the films discussed). It isn’t a history of the industry, though it does shed plenty of light on the production contexts of specific films, on issues of film censorship, and on the reception of films around the world. It doesn’t offer “close readings” of films, or the kind of shot-by-shot formal analysis that prevails in the age of screen capture (though it does feature plenty of still images, many with choice compositions). It certainly isn’t a work of film theory. Instead, the book focuses on bringing to light new, previously unpublished, obscure, or otherwise unknown facts, images, battles, tales, and anecdotes about many of the films made by the directors in question. Most of this material is revealed in conversations with the collaborators or friends of these directors (or from discussions with the directors themselves) and much is supported by choice primary source documentation. The book’s biggest hurdle is the barrier of entry for the contextual appreciation of its strengths. While never condescending, the book addresses the reader as if they have some knowledge of the life and careers of the featured directors. This probably won’t be anybody’s first book on Chaplin or Anderson. But, for those interested in something new, it will fit the bill.

Some of the reveals–I won’t spoil them all here–are well worth the price of admission. While select few knew that Spike Milligan was to appear in Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), little was previously known about what he was to do, and why he was cut. Six English Filmmakers furnishes images and a script excerpt, and gives a plausible explanation as to why Milligan’s lost contribution was so little discussed. The book explains how Michael Winner dealt with the British Board of Film Censors, how Sony Pictures Classics bungled the marketing of Mike Hodges’s I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2002), and how Kevin Brownlow has helped guide Charlie Chaplin’s legacy. Since these are candid conversations, much of the talk turns to the sort of memories that filmmakers and those in the industry often have, in retrospect, of the very difficult and stressful work of making movies: which people were hard to work with, who was the most cavalier about labor practices, the ways in which personal relationships soured working relationships, and, most frequently, where the vagaries of financing and casting had effects on a finished film.

Sutton is a bit like Brownlow in his enthusiasm for collecting the oral histories of aging filmmakers, technicians, and actors. This is a long-term project: Sutton began corresponding with Lindsay Anderson in 1990, and has contacted most of the key figures in British cinema from the 1960s and 1970s who are still alive. Sutton’s own tastes come through in many of the sections. Thankfully, there is no attempt made to make equivalent all the work of all the directors. Few Michael Winner films compare even mediocre two-reelers by Chaplin. While Sutton justifiably regards Lindsay Anderson and Ken Russell as auteurs at different points in the spectrum of “visionary” British directors, he acknowledges that someone (however prolific and professional) like Clive Donner is not the same type of artist. Even if his films are of an obviously uneven quality, the section in which Sutton talks to Donner is worthwhile, especially since it spends time with movies rarely discussed (Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, 1967), rarely revived (Alfred the Great, 1969) or justifiably forgotten (Vampira, aka Old Dracula, 1974). Even the detritus is interesting to the completest, and British cinema has its fair share of obsessive junkies. Six English Filmmakers makes a good compliment to Julian Upton’s recently published Offbeat: British Cinema’s Curiosities, Obscurities and Forgotten Gems (2013), another tome that digs deep, resurrecting weird and wonderful alike.

The color version of the book (reviewed here: a B&W version is also available) features some gorgeous images, many of which come from rare stills and international posters. Quite a few have never been published, and some probably won’t see the light of day for another fifty years. The book comes in a big format and would look quite nice on a coffee table. That said, there are a few inconsistencies of dates and one or two transcription errors (though these are probably only apparent when the book is read straight through). One imagines that Six English Filmmakers will be equally fun if only picked up in small chunks and read out of order. It is a nice place to look for summer viewing suggestions, and will certainly prompt readers to revisit old favorites.

Kevin M. Flanagan