Cinema History in the National Archives

By Harvey, A. D. | Contemporary Review, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Cinema History in the National Archives


Harvey, A. D., Contemporary Review


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] .

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