Film Review Daily


The British Bs: Where Are They Now?

 

Remember when cinemas always had double-bills comprising an A-feature, the big film of the week from Hollywood or the British equivalents – Shepperton, Pinewood, Elstree etc – but which were also supported by a B-film, a low-budget second feature, a quota quickie perhaps, that gave added value to a night at the pictures? Here we take a look at those vanishing supporting programmes…

 

Where are the likes of the second features that both Britain and the US produced from the 1930s to the early 1960s, presumably for a public that demanded a full supporting programme to accompany the big film? The supporting programme could have included a short documentary, a cartoon, a one-reel comedy and of course a newsreel, as well a double-bill of feature films. The cartoons, short comedies and documentaries became less and less prominent as time went by, and of course as television covered news faster than the cinema could, the likes of Pathé News, Movietone, Gaumont British, Universal and the Paramount newsreels became redundant.

 

What remained, though, was the second feature, a B-movie to make up the film programme to three hours or more. Nowadays the full supporting programme comprises a string of advertisements and umpteen trailers and nothing else. Going to the cinema today is therefore not such good value compared to the programmes of yesteryear. Of course, not everybody enjoyed the second features at the time. It was quite possible to weary of having to sit through yet another Edgar Wallace mystery from the studios at Merton Park in Wimbledon. But now they have a period charm while back then in the 1950s and ’60s they were the backbone of British film production and a good apprenticeship for budding directors. They also gave performers a chance to hone their film-acting skills.

 

At the height of their popularity, British B-films concentrated mostly on mysteries and thrillers with the occasional comedy. The last could be found, say, in the films of Old Mother Riley from the late 1930s up to the early 1950s. They had pretty feeble scripts but were saved by the comic character of Mother Riley herself as played by the genius who was Arthur Lucan. The low points were when his wife, Kitty McShane, who always played his daughter, would burst into song. The films of Old Mother Riley have preserved for posterity this great music hall act, just as the films of Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin or W C Fields have done for their performances. Without the cinema these great showcases would have been lost.

 

But let us return to the second feature crime films of the 1950s and ’60s. They seem to have been populated by a whole repertory company of actors who mostly appeared only in B-films. Some actors such as Michael Caine, Laurence Harvey, Donald Houston and Maxwell Reed went on to greater glory but others just stayed at the bottom half of the double-bill. The Queen of the Bs must have been Rona Anderson who provides a pertinent foreword to the only book on the subject, the excellent and comprehensive The British ‘B’ Film by Steve Chibnall and Brian McFarlane (a BFI book published by Palgrave Macmillan). Miss Anderson obviously enjoyed making these minor classics which were usually shot in three weeks in the smallest of the UK’s film studios such as Merton Park, Viking, Nettlefold, St John’s Wood, Southall, Bushey, Wembley, Welwyn, Brighton, Twickenham, Beaconsfield, Marylebone etc. She acknowledges that they provided a training ground for new directors such as Ken Hughes, John Guillermin, Guy Green, Sidney Furie and Wolf Rilla, but then they also offered regular work for old hands at the game such as Terence Fisher, Lance Comfort, Vernon Sewell, Charles Saunders, David Macdonald, Francis Searle, Ernest Morris, Maclean Rogers, Godfrey Grayson, Montgomery Tully et al.

 

The repertory of actors who appeared in these films again and again include such personnel as Paul Carpenter who, if Rona Anderson was Queen B, he was surely the King. Closely following him would be Rona’s husband Gordon Jackson, Christopher Lee, John LeMesurier, John Bentley (famous as Paul Temple on film), Peter Reynolds, Dermot Walsh, Dennis Price, Guy Rolfe, Anton Diffring, Patrick Holt, Bill Nagy, Ronald Leigh Hunt, Ferdy Mayne, Sidney Tafler, Griffith Jones, Harry Fowler, Sam Kydd, Michael  Balfour, Warren Mitchell, Jimmy Hanley, Bruce Seton, Eric Pohlmann, and many others who seemed to jump from film to film with astonishing rapidity, like Russell Napier who always played the police inspector in a raincoat, except for one film in which he was actually the villain.

 

On the distaff side following on from Queen Rona would be Greta Gynt, Hazel Court, Sandra Dorne, Irene Handl, 

 

Patricia Dainton, Vera Day (pictured) , Vera Day

Diana Dors, Dinah Sheridan, Dandy Nichols, Jane Hylton, Susan Shaw, Joy Shelton etc. These were the regular and acceptable female faces of British second features.

 

After the 1960s these second features disappeared with just occasional sightings on ITV late at night or early in the morning. Then they began to be issued on DVD and one of the main companies to do so has been Renown Pictures who have acquired the rights to much of the film output from such low-rent distributors as Butchers Films, Eros, Monarch, Grand National, New Realm etc and have re-issued them on their Renown label, usually as double-bills. 

 

Amazingly the Renown company has a staff of just four, with Noel Cronin as MD, Sarah Cronin-Stanley as Producer/Director, Simon Cox as Editor and Angela Mackenzie as Personal Assistant. As if running the Renown film library were not enough, the team have since September 2015 launched the Talking Pictures Television channel which screens films from the Renown collection 24 hours a day on Sky 343, Freeview 81, Freesat 306 and Youview 81. Here you can enjoy the work of all those British actors and directors mentioned above. We are sure you will find Talking Pictures TV compulsive as it has films you will never see anywhere else again.

 

You can join the Renown British B-Movie Fan Club by writing to Renown Pictures Ltd, PO Box 592, King’s Langley, Herts WD4 4DB. Order DVDs of Renown films online or telephone 01923 290555 for details of the Renown catalogue and the British B-Movie Festival. The listings for Talking Pictures Television are on www.talkingpicturestv.co.uk/schedule and further information can be found at  

www.renownfilms.co.uk

 

MICHAEL DARVELL