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Shepperton Babylon: The Lost Worlds of British Cinema [Illustrated] [Paperback]

Matthew Sweet
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)

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Paperback, Illustrated, 17 Feb 2005 --  

Book Description

17 Feb 2005
If you thought the British film industry was a genteel, conservative sort of business, then think again. This is a history of home-grown movies that includes the scandals, the suicides, the immolations and the contract killings - the product of thousands of conversations with veteran film-makers. Here you'll meet the actress who remembers the night in 1920 when her father cheated her out of a Hollywood contract; the screenwriter who, one night in 1924, watched his film idols snort cocaine from an illuminated glass dance floor on the bank of the Thames at Maidenhead; the movie columnist of the 1930s whose sense of job satisfaction increased with every writ that landed on her editor's desk; the model who escaped Soho's gangsters to become the queen of the nudie flicks; the genteel Scottish comedienne who, at the age of fifty-five, reinvented herself as a star of exploitation cinema, and fondly remembers 'the one where I drilled in people's heads and ate their brains'. A Babel of voices from the lost worlds of British cinema.

Product details

  • Paperback: 388 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber; illustrated edition edition (17 Feb 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571212972
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571212972
  • Product Dimensions: 19.8 x 15.6 x 3.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 992,272 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Matthew Sweet is a writer and broadcaster with a doctorate in Wilkie Collins. He presents Night Waves and Free Thinking on BBC Radio 3 and The Philosopher's Arms and The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4.

He is the author of Inventing the Victorians and Shepperton Babylon: The Lost Worlds of British Cinema - which he adapted as a film for BBC Four ("the best documentary I've seen all year" - Daily Telegraph). He's also edited and introduced the work of Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle, William Thackeray, George Eliot and Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

His TV films and series include Silent Britain (BBC Four) Checking into History (Channel Four), British Cinema Forever (BBC2) and A Brief History of Fun (Channel Four).

Product Description


"A singular triumph ... It makes our cinematic history vivid and invigorating in a way few books have yet managed." -- Danny Graydon, Empire, December 2004

A dazzling combination of assiduous research and writing … a brilliant work of tragedy -- Austin Collings, Guardian, January 29, 2005

A dazzling combination of assiduous research and writing. -- Guardian Guide, 29 January 2005

A singular triumph, rediscovering the lost worlds of British cinema with Sweet making a most erudite and eloquent guide. -- Empire Magazine, December 2004

Brilliant. -- Roger Lewis, Mail on Sunday, 30 January 2005

Shepperton Babylon is an important and damned enjoyable book that had to be written and should be read. -- Colin Waters, Sunday Herald, 30 January 2005

Book Description

--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An alternative view of British cinema 14 Jun 2005
By A Customer
I found this a fascinating account of British cinema history - warts and all.
And it is a strange history - the sudden upheavals, the scarcely credible characters, the gap between sumptuous cinematic image and seedier realities, the saviours of British cinema arriving in some very odd disguises.
All told with an eye for telling detail and a vast knowledge of the material. And underpinned by a deep affection for British cinema - if not always for its leading players.
While its true the author sometimes does not pull his punches the book is clearly a personal history, and in my view he is entitled to his opinion.
British cinema may have sometimes been a shabby, shallow or ill-funded thing but its always been our own. All its stories deserve to be told and this book is an excellent guide to the less well known.
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26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars lost worlds rescued from oblivion 19 Feb 2006
This is a warm and witty portrait of british cinema by an author who has obviously spent thousands of hours talking with old survivors of the british movie business and wathing the films themselves - something that not all authors on this subject can claim.
It's completely, utterly fascinating - it's like going to a seance and seeing the dead conjured before your eyes. All kinds of bizarre and shocking stories are here, but Sweet tells them with tenderness and humour. It's a funny, tragic treat that has captured stories and experiences that other wise would have been lost forever.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sweet history 21 Sep 2007
for me the joy of this book was reading about the silent era and discovering just how good the British silent film era was. What is so sad is nigh on 80% of all silent films of that era are lost. Sweet's book completely changed my view of this period of British film making which as been overshadowed by Hollywoods great success and the fact there has long been a predjudiced view of British fim making in that era.

I found this book a fascinating revelation and though it goes on to cover later eras it is at it's best, for me, when revealing a lost history of silent films. This book is a real gem for anyone with interest in the British film industry and a great read.
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40 of 53 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Sniping disguised as history. 4 May 2005
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Matthew Sweet's prose is so charming and elegantly constructed that it captivates from the first chapter; long before the more saleable 'salacious elements' arrive. Thus the tone seems to be set for the remainder of the journey - a misty, almost sentimental yearning for the lost films of yesteryear. A culture erased, reel by reel - melted down for the chemical value of its constitutional parts. Sweet certainly knows the films. His level of filmic research is intriguing, seemingly born of a genuine love for those lost creations. It's just the performers he doesn't rate. As each historical component is dealt with a familiar cynical tone emerges which leaves the impression that Sweet doesn't care much for the living voices of his exploration. Past heroes are appraised and swiftly dismissed; their fame and accomplishments excused by childhood naivety.
As the film history progresses, Sweet's scepticism begins to infect the pages. No one escapes his iconoclastic barbs - the lazy, discreditable tools of modern journalism. For every verbal anecdote, Sweet suggests a different truth - his more important truth. Far from preserving a memory, Sweet explodes its myth and leaves it rotting; often aided by the demise of any surviving witnesses. It's not enough that Kenneth More is written off as a stuffy, public school prefect, his character must be tarnished with the kind of grubby tittle-tattle not out of place in a Sunday Tabloid.
Norman Wisdom? Manipulative faker. Christopher Lee? Liar. George Formby? A repressed, tight-wad who's entire act 'if-truth-be-known' bordered on racial slight. Leonard Bernstein? Read this one for yourself - it's actionable. And the question must be asked, does Sweet know the difference between documentary and fiction?
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5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating 28 Jan 2014
By R. A. Caton TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Cimema history tends to concentrate on Hollywood - especially the laugh factory that was the genesis of the 2 reel mirthquakes of the 20s. We had an industry once in Britain - and Matthew Sweet is to be praised for putting some anecdotes about the home grown product on record before the plebs.... I bought this after seeing the DVD British Silents.
The British film is as very very different to the Yankee product as is the European (Daaaahling you must see the German silent masters...) movie. We were able to be more open as regards the eternal interaction of male and female, yin and yang, lingam and yoni.... not repressed as the Americans were. If we had a sin I think it would be the eternal filming on the cheap.... that and the idea that undercranking was funny that persisted until the 1960s!
This book is well worth reading, it opens new vistas and makes one want to view some of the British cheapies that aren't necessarily available easily on DVD.
I recall however my brother in law's mothers comment to me years back.... "it it was a British film we didn't bother going in" - an attitude still to common today.
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