I’m going to establish some occasional series and will start with a series that reviews books on film. The emphasis is going to be on unfamiliar or neglected titles. No one researching film needs to be told of the value of, say, David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film or Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler, but there are plenty of titles that ought to be taken off the shelves a little more often than tends to be the case. We’ll kick off with Audrey Field, Picture Palace: A Social History of the Cinema (London: Gentry Books, 1974).
Apart from biographies, there wasn’t a huge number of British film history books published before the great growth of scholarly interest in British cinema from the 1980s onwards. So it is curious that this elegant, observant and very readable social history of cinema in Britain from the earliest years to the 1940s should turn up in so few bibliographies or reading lists. Audrey Field worked at the British Board of Film Censors (now the British Board of Film Classification) from 1948, rising to become Examiner of Films, and retiring in 1973. Her book looks at the habit of cinema-going, and in that alone it was unusual for its time. Scholarly interest in the 1970s was very much focused upon the screen, and it is only recently that academia has woken up to the realisation that film is as much a social phenomenon as an artistic one.
Field therefore looks not at the films, but at the audience, at the cinemas they visited, the people who ran the cinemas, and the critics and self-appointed guardians of those audiences (the BBFC among them). It is a book filled with good common-sense and a warm sympathy for the audiences who found in the cinema such a marvellous (and cheap) means to escape drudgery and to discover emotion, glamour and fantasy. She pokes gentle fun at the assorted anxious commentators and legislators who felt it incumbent upon them to control this medium that had to be wrong if was so popular among the undiscriminating masses, and her book is particular strong for the early years of British cinema. She cites a great many original documents (regrettably there are no notes and the bibliography is thin) which are a discovery in themselves and an encouragement to pursue the subject further.
Field gives particular attention to children – not for any sentimental reason, but simply because they formed such a large proportion of cinema audiences from the start, and because they are too often written out of cinema histories. She also looks at those who worked in the cinemas – projectionists, usherettes, managers – using her own interview material. She of course gives particular attention to the role of the BBFC (an industry body, not a state one), whose uneasy role she explains with an understanding of how such body must necessarily be a social barometer.
Throughout her focus is on those audiences who were simply out for a good time. As she observes:
at the heart of all the tumult and heart-searching, were the patrons, the rank and file of the nation who, for once, having paid the piper, were calling the tune. Spellbound, fidgeting, lusting, loving, frozen with pleasurable fright, weeping a little, eating and laughing immoderately, the secret people, secure in the friendly dark, eluded the prying gaze of the sociologists to remain an enigma still.
So she writes well too, and this is a book well worth seeking out, not for its apparent nostalgia but for its intelligence and clarity. It reminds us what cinema is about, and warns us that the study of films is empty without consideration of how and by whom they are seen.
Note: Originally published on the Screen Research network, then on the British Library’s Moving Image blog, 18 February 2010. Reproduced here with some emendations.