The Boulting Brothers and the Contemporary British Film Industry

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THE death last year of Roy Boulting saw the passing of one of the more singular and successful of British film making partnerships. Roy and his twin brother John wrote, produced, and directed a string of features, from before World War Two to the end of the nineteen sixties. Encompassing drama, thriller, documentary, and comedy, the Boulting Brothers established a name for themselves as filmmakers with a particularly British flavour, heading up the production and distribution company British Lion, whilst showing enough pragmatism to make their peace with the Hollywood mainstream.

Despite their solidly middle-class roots, the Boultings offered an example of how enthusiastic hopefuls could carve a name for themselves in film from the bottom up through sheer determination and prolificacy. But can the career of this team offer any useful parallels for analysing the film industry in Britain at the moment?

Born in Bray, Berkshire, in 1917, the Boultings were raised mainly in Hove, a respectable seaside town on the south coast of England. From being taken as toddlers by their nanny to watch Rudolf Valentino in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the nearby 'sin city' of Brighton, the twins were bitten by the film bug, poring over any film magazines to hand, writing their own stories, cutting out pictures from magazines to dramatize them. A little later, they set up the first film society in a British public school. It was clear that they were dedicated to cinema.

Having spent his final teenage years in Canada (working mainly as a shop assistant), Roy returned to England in the early 1930s, working his passage home as a cattle hand on a ship, using his payment to finance his first work, a short entitled Ripe Earth, about the village of Thaxted, Essex. In the meantime, John had found work on Wardour Street, a centre for film production and distribution at the time, as a salesman, graduating into production. They both found work on the 'quota-quickies' of Widgey Newman, turning out cheap entertainments at a fast rate. Their first joint effort at a 'serious' film, The Landlady, was not a success. Filming in a basement, the actors had to shout over the noise of a boiler. On watching the final result, John stated flatly that to protect their chances of future employment in the industry, no one should be allowed to see the film. They learnt quickly, however, and subsequent work (for instance, Consider Your Verdict, in 1938) showed more polish, until they produced a respectab le work in Pastor Hall (1939), fictionalising the torture and murder of Pastor Niemoller by the Nazis. At a time when several countries were still clinging to the hope that the Nazis might be pacified without war, voices were raised against this film within Britain, and several other countries banned it but their reputations as serious filmmakers were assured.

From these early beginnings, we can extrapolate a model for the Boultings' early success: a canny eye for their material, and a willingness to learn their trade working around and up through the industry. This introduction to the industry was possible thanks to the huge demand for films in that period: the average cinema-goer could expect to join both 'A' and 'B' features, newsreels, and a cartoon, with different programmes appended to each 'A' feature. This was not a situation confined to Britain: Richard Siodmark began work in Europe on poverty row films, editing the same footage to create as many as half a dozen different stories. The artistic eclat was, naturally, dubious. But the enforced inventiveness of small budgets and challenging demands meant that filmmakers had to test both their own abilities and the limits of the medium in order to deliver their work. In doing so, they received invaluable experience of what was possible in flimmaking.

The Boultings' first efforts were a trickle amongst a flood of films--some of it brilliant, some of it average, some of it dire. …