British Cinema of the 1950s: A Celebration

By Ian MacKillop; Neil Sinyard | Go to book overview

Archiving the 1950s

BRYONY DIXON

A N U M B E R OF factors have contributed to the relative neglect of the 1950s as a decade in British cinema history. It was a complex and unhappy decade in England and its films appear to have little contiguity or popular profile. The conventional back-of-a-postage-stamp view of British cinema history takes a strange skip and a jump when it comes to the 1950s. Much is made of the so-called `golden age' of British cinema in the 1940s, but we tend go straight on to the 1960s and its `New Wave' films. There is a vague sense of cosiness about the 1950s commercial films which were produced by the Rank machine or lacklustre government-sponsored ventures. A sense of mounting irrelevance resulted in the Angry Young Men/Free Cinema backlash, which is often strangely attributed to the 1960s despite clearly having originated in the mid-1950s.

A major reason for this neglect of the 1950s is that there has been no authoritative, dedicated history of the period of the Rachael Low type. Her History of British Film (1948—71) went up to the end of the 1930s and no one has since attempted to cover the later decades in the same fashion. As a period of cinema history the 1950s suffers from the auteur and genre models of examining film, neither of which methods really brings out the best in it. Another contributory factor to the lack of `visibility' of its films is the fact that so few prints are available for researchers or filmgoers. If film programmers or lecturers want to show more than the classics from these years, they are hard pressed to find enough prints in screenable condition. As an archivist at the British Film Institute, I'll try to explain what survives and why, and some of the really awkward technical, preservation and access problems.

I must start with the nature of the collections relating to this period of film history, how they came to be where they are, and what was going on at that time in the international archiving world. The 1950s is a particularly

____________________
Bryony Dixon is the Archival Bookings Officer for the British Film Institute in London. Here she writes about the physical existence of film of the 1950s and the complex relationship between preservation and access.

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