Black and White: The Golden Age of Cinema
A teenager approached actor Murray Melvin at a recent Doctor Who convention. Murray had played a notable villain in Torchwood. But it wasn’t Torchwood the young man wanted to talk about. It was Melvin’s breakthrough film role (which won him the Cannes best actor prize in 1962) as Geoff, the young gay friend to Rita Tushingham’s pregnant schoolgirl in the film A Taste of Honey (both pictured above). Thanks to Torchwood the young man had gone and watched the 1961 film and wanted to thank Melvin for helping him to answer the question: “There’s nothing wrong with me, is there?” This story tells us much about enduring homophobia, but it’s also a rare face-to-face example of how, once discovered, old black and white cinema can speak across the generations.
When it comes to classic books it’s normal now to repackage Jane Austen in chick-lit covers for a new generation, or make yet another version of Great Expectations with a very modish pouty-lipped Pip. But the need to educate young people to enjoy and learn from classic cinema is overlooked, with the admirable exception of the Film Club charity in schools. It doesn’t come naturally. I know film buffs who are heartbroken that offspring (and even spouses) refuse to watch black and white. TV schedulers increasingly shy away from screening non-colour films, fuelling the spiral of audiences being unable or unwilling to engage with them.
To my generation – born in the late ’60s and early ’70s – silent films and early talkies from the 1920s and ’30s were our holiday and weekend TV viewing: Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan, Abbott and Costello and the Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe Flash Gordon serials. I realised the films of the British new wave of the 1950s and 1960s were to today’s children as far back in time as the 1930s were to my generation. But there’s far less opportunity to watch them. Starting with once x-rated 1960s fare about teen pregnancy for my two children (then aged five and seven) was not an option. But noticing the original 1933 King Kong scheduled during the Christmas holidays a few years ago, I sat them down with the curtains drawn and a bowl of homemade popcorn and insisted we give it a go.
The resistance about it looking “funny” lasted five minutes. The story gripped them. King Kong was a perfect first classic. A week later BBC Two put on the 1976 remake with Jessica Lange. I was delighted to observe my seven-year-old son’s first piece of film criticism: “The first film was better, but the lady in the colour version was more beautiful.” Hard to argue with that.
Soon the way was paved for Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and Jimmy Cagney gangster films. Cagney’s charisma still jumps off the screen. Angels with Dirty Faces – featuring a cast of young hoodlums – shocked the children in unexpected ways. Not the guns and the knives, but the fact that the feral kids were actually smoking.
The Roaring Twenties, made a decade after the Wall Street Crash, featured strong female characters lacking in most modern Hollywood films, a concise history lesson in boom and bust and the Volstead Act, and an insight into gangsterdom as chilling as The Godfather. I found myself wondering whether modern cinema will ever offer up a commentary so impressive about the 2008 crash.
We have more recently embarked on classic James Bonds, though with the added perspective of a daughter who brings a pencil and paper to count his “girlfriends” disapprovingly (three within the first 15 minutes of You Only Live Twice). Forced to justify everything to modern children, I explain that ’60s permissiveness was all too often expressed in the shorthand of scantily clad women. The dodgy cult of the ‘dollybird’. As an adult, it’s a chance to reflect on the lesser reported consequences of the Pill; that it made it harder for women to say no, as much as it liberated them to enjoy sex.
Bafta’s best newcomer shortlist includes two old Etonians but no women. A Taste of Honey, by contrast, was written by a Salford teenager (Shelagh Delaney) at the start of a decade that delighted in working class talents such as Michael Caine. When the government’s new film policy review talks of us living in a “golden” age of British film, perhaps it’s not just our children who could learn a thing or two from the cinema of the past.