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Cinema history in The National Archives.

THE British government found itself paying attention to the cinema industry from an early stage. Answering a Parliamentary Question on juvenile crime the Home Secretary, Sir John Simon, told the House of Commons in May 1916, 'it is generally believed that one of the causes is to be found in the character of some of the films shown at cinematograph theatres'. A month earlier the education authorities in London had listed films 'depicting details of thefts and burglaries and scenes of crime and horror, such as (1) a woman going mad; (2) a woman in drunken madness killing her own child; (3) a mad woman in a padded room and (4) a person being chloroformed' as examples of films that 'have had a demoralising and injurious influence on children'. The same educationalists also recommended measures to ensure against the 'molestation of children', such as the removal of seats adjoining the walls 'as it would be very difficult even for a children's attendant to supervise dark corners' (MEPO 2/1696). In the year ending November 1915 there had been eleven cases in London of children being sexually assaulted in cinemas: and whereas Henry Herbert Haywood, a gas inspector, was sentenced to a [pounds sterling]10 fine or two months imprisonment for putting his hand on the thigh of a twelve year-old girl at the King's Picture Palace, Kensal Rise, a clergyman, aged 72, was found not guilty of attempting a sexual act with a boy scout at the Victoria Picture Palace in Wilton Road, alongside Victoria Station (MEPO 2/1691).

Perhaps not surprisingly, the War Office quashed the idea of making a film about Lord Kitchener who had been its head when he died in 1916 in the sinking of a cruiser: 'Those who speak on behalf of Lord Kitchener are unanimous in thinking he would have hated the idea of a film of his life' (FO 395/55).

Initially, the British Board of Film Censors, which was essentially a trade organization, worked closely with the Home Office. It was at the invitation of the Board that two senior Home Office officials attended a private screening of Cocaine in May 1922 and it was presumably at their recommendation that it was refused a certificate: the Home Office officials complained of the film,
 it was entirely unscientific in its treatment of the subject, as
 the effect of cocaine is not that which the film alleges-a
 single dose would not have the effect of turning a modest girl
 immediately into an abandoned hussy. Secondly the film seemed
 calculated to create a morbid interest in the use of cocaine
 at a time when the Police are doing all they can to stamp
 out the illegitimate use of it in this country, and its
 effect is likely to encourage rather than dissuade a girl
 from experimenting with the drug.


The Manchester City Police disagreed:
 its effect would undoubtedly be to deter a person from contracting
 the cocaine habit ... it points a good moral, and to normal minded
 persons it would have very little effect, except to further
 convince them of the evils attendant on this traffic ... there has
 been only one complaint (anonymous) respecting its exhibition in
 this City, and almost every criticism of the film in both the lay
 and trade press has been entirely favourable (HO 45/11599).


Later, when it was suggested that the British Board of Film Censors should suppress Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator, a film conceived 'in a spirit of fanatical enthusiasm' and likely to embarrass the British Government, the Foreign Office was obliged to point out that 'the British Board of Film Censors is a private trade organisation and, as we have repeatedly claimed, and asserted, it is not subject to Government control' (FO 395/663/P2136). The Board had in fact liaised with the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police in its consideration of a film entitled The Scotland Yard Mystery a few years earlier. On that occasion all parties agreed that references to the Metropolitan Police using 'Third Degree methods' should be excised, but the Home Office officials refused to express a view regarding the depiction of the Home Office pathologist ('a person of the Sir Bernard Spilsbury type') as a 'horrible villain' and the police representative thought 'the person most concerned was Sir Bernard Spilsbury [who] ... might be given the opportunity of expressing an opinion'. The police official also thought 'the Chief Inspector (the next most important character) is a most flattering picture of a senior C.I.D. officer' (MEPO 2/7442).

At times government departments co-operated enthusiastically with film makers: the Foreign Office for example was anxious to make sure that there would be nothing in Alexander Korda's projected Lawrence of Arabia that would outrage 'the Turks' exceedingly susceptible pride' and Sir Robert Vansittart, the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office, was in personal contact with Korda on the matter: 'Dear Sir Robert'--June 26th 1939--'My Dear Alex'--3rd July 1939 (FO 371/23194 E 4645). Later a degree of cynicism (or perhaps simply resignation) crept into officialdom's attitude to Whitehall's collaboration with the film industry. A Ministry of Defence file from 1976 contains a letter from Lieutenant Colonel M.R.M. Newall, assigned by Commander-in-Chief UK Land Forces to liaise with Richard Attenborough in the making of A Bridge Too Far, a film about the Battle of Arnhem. The printed letter-head shows a parachutist superimposed on the words A BRIDGE TOO FAR with 'Service Manning & Control Team' printed in smaller lettering above. One MOD official had scribbled in a blank space:
 There is no need to read the text, but look at the headed paper!
 Whose side is Newall on?


A second official responded below:
 That became clear from his offensive minute concerning the refusal
 of 'extra costs only' for the audition of parachutists. DUS(FB)
 [yet another official] commented that he must fancy his chances
 with Attenborough when he leaves the army! (DEFE 68/85).


Whitehall's general policy however was not to interfere. A complaint from the Spanish Ambassador with regard to the screening of the Soviet documentary Spain at the British Film Institute elicited the information that the official controlling the BFI's government subsidy was of the personal opinion that 'the money spent by H.M.G. on the British Film Institute was a mistake, that the Institute was incompetently run, and that it had a distinctly leftist tinge', but Foreign Office officials suggested that the Ambassador should merely be told 'the Institute had tried to present a balanced programme' (FO 953/2151).

Film personalities feature in government files in various capacities. Detective Inspector Walter Burnaby from Scotland Yard investigated Tallulah Bankhead in July 1928 but noted, 'Although it is rumoured in theatrical circles that Miss Bankhead is regarded as a sexual pervert, it has not been possible to gather any information to confirm this' (HO 382/9). John Balderston, later responsible for the screenplays of Lives of a Bengal Lancer, The Mummy and The Prisoner of Zenda, had been a thorn in the flesh of British censorship when a correspondent for McClure newspapers during the First World War, printing articles in the New York World 'with all Censor's deletions shown' and posting a letter which when intercepted turned out to contain 'an undesirable article'. The files on Balderston have been weeded, and only the entries in the Foreign Office's file card index remain: 'Objectionable articles. No more facilities to be given him: is pro-ally and has been warned against writing such articles'. 'Article for "The Field" on interview by General Maurice [Director of Military Operations at the War Office] to be withdrawn'. 'Cannot be sent to the front again'. 'Undesirable articles by. No more facilities to be given him'. (Discretion being perhaps the better part of valour, the Foreign Office seems to have said nothing when the US government's Commission for Public Information appointed Balderston Director of Information for Great Britain and Ireland in 1918.)

The First World War also occasioned files on such future luminaries as Basil Rathbone (WO 374/56295), Victor McLaglan (WO 374/44874), Claude Rains (WO 339/108479), Nigel Bruce (WO 339/74044), Herbert Wilcox (WO 339/43617) and James Whale, later director of the classic Frankenstein (WO 374/73337), but only in their capacity as temporary officers in the army: one learns that Rathbone had a maximum chest expansion of 371/2 inches and in 1917 contracted measles, that McLaglan enlisted in the 1st Life Guards at the age of fifteen 'being so anxious to take part in the Boer War [that he] gave a false age', and was discharged at his parents request, but not till three years six months later, and that Herbert Wilcox, while training to be a pilot, became so terrified of flying that he developed neurasthenia, aggravated by 'a great deal of domestic trouble', a crash in November 1917, and the death of a friend and of his brother in flying accidents in December 1917. James Whale's file contains the only known narrative text from his pen, a report for official purposes of the circumstances of his capture by the Germans during the Battle of Passchendaele: this was printed in The Times Literary Supplement for 16 May 2003.

Charlie Chaplin, who had wanted to make a film in Britain in 1944 and had been turned down on the grounds that he would take too long and tie up scarce resources (INF 1/583), was the subject of a file opened in 1956 with regard to his possible appointment as a Companion of Honour. A British diplomat in Switzerland, where Chaplin was living, informed the Foreign Office:
 I cannot imagine that the Swiss, to whom the whole idea of
 decorations is foreign, could possibly have views on this
 issue. He holds himself aloof from the British community
 in the Montreux area. This community has a somewhat
 Victorian, North-West frontier approach to life and would
 be likely to regard the proposal with disfavour. But the
 Montreux community is in no way influential ... (FCO 57/291).


Perhaps more interesting is the British Council file on Leslie Howard's last, and fatal, visit to Spain and Portugal in 1943. Howard turned up in Madrid with a film producer called Chenhalls. Walter Starkie, Director of the British Institute in Madrid, reported:
 My first meeting with the two was rather a shock, for Howard began
 by launching out into an attack on the British Council. He said
 that he had never wanted to come to Spain--in fact, he had actually
 written a letter to the Council saying he would not come to Spain-
 and that he had only meant to go to Portugal .... Both of them then
 proceeded to take my typed programme and figuratively tear it to
 pieces. Howard flatly refused to give repeat lectures. He changed
 the dates (although I had already got the tickets printed and they
 were in their envelopes ready to be sent out), and telescoped his
 visit, saying he could not stay so long in Spain ... This is the
 only case we have ever had of visiting lecturers not closely
 keeping to the arrangements we make for them .... As a result of
 the refusal of Howard and Chenhalls to fit in definitely with any
 co-ordinated scheme, they caused quite an amount of bad feeling
 owing to their failure to keep important appointments (BW 1/20).


A week later, after Howard had been shot down on his return flight to England by one of a patrol of eight German long-range fighters, along with Chenhalls, the Foreign Office's Inspector of Consulates, Shell's representative in Portugal, a man from Reuters ('quite a big bag of our friends') and Wilfred Israel, who was on a mission to arrange the evacuation of Jewish children from Nazi-dominated Europe (seemingly not counted as one 'of our friends'), Starkie was inclined to be more gracious on the subject of the dead actor: 'I wish I could convey to you the deep impression he made by his extraordinary reading of the "Hamlet" soliloquies' (ibid). Incidentally, though the German squadron that shot down the KLM Douglas DC3 carrying Howard claimed that the plane was already on fire before the pilot of the attacking Junkers Ju 88 realized it was not a military aircraft, the British Assistant Air Attache in Madrid thought that considering the Germans themselves were using captured Dutch DC3s for their own Berlin-Lisbon civilian traffic, 'It is ... impossible for an aeroplane to be better known to the Germans than the one they sank so treacherously in the Atlantic' (AVIA 2/2452). The full truth about the shooting down of Leslie Howard remains something of a mystery, as does the precise identity of the two chihuahuas who died with Hollywood star Jayne Mansfield in a car crash in 1967 (FO 740/10).

The references given in brackets after quotations etc. are the call marks of files in The National Archives at Kew.

A.D. Harvey's most recent book is Body Politic: Political Metaphor and Political Violence, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007.
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Author:Harvey, A.D.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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