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An Uncompetitive Cinema: The British Fiction Short Film in the 1960s

Mayne, Laura



This article offers a historical study of short films and their place in the British cinema programmes of the 1960s as a way of exploring the monopolistic practices which characterised the film industry during this period. Focusing on the short fiction/entertainment film is a particularly useful way of studying competition in the industry because the problems of financing, distribution and exhibition which characterised film production were felt more keenly by those working on short films than they were by those working solely in the feature film sector. The 1960s, and more specifically the mid-1960s, represented a key moment in the history of the short fiction film in Britain. The year 1966 saw the publication of the Monopolies Commission report into the dominance of the cinema circuits by Rank and ABC, a document which heralded recognition of the problems facing short film-makers (and film-makers in general). This article will tell the story of how the producers and distributors of short films in the 1960s jostled to find a space for their products among cinema programmes already replete with Rank and ABC’s Look at Life and Pathé Pictorial lifestyle documentary serials, and this history will in turn highlight the ways in which the conservative nature of the industry hampered the growth of a healthy, creative short film sector in Britain.

This article will focus on an extremely underrepresented area of the British film history of the 1960s: the fiction short entertainment film. Various types of short films were shown in British cinemas during this period, including entertainment shorts such as The Six-Sided Triangle (Christopher Miles, 1963, 30 min) and Miss MacTaggart Won’t Lie Down (Francis Searle, 1966, 28 min); experimental, non-sponsored shorts such as those films supported by the British Film Institute’s Experimental Film Fund; factual films, which included sponsored films; government films; educational, scientific and research films; and, finally, documentaries/newsreel-type productions. This article is predominantly concerned with the first type of film. Sketching the history of the short film will allow for an examination of the structure of the British film industry, which in the 1960s was characterised by the duopoly of the Rank Organisation and the Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC). The decade saw the consolidation of Rank and ABPC as the two main forces in cinema distribution and exhibition, the dramatic increase and subsequent reduction of funding by American companies, the death of particular types of film-making (‘B’ movies and ‘quota quickies’) and a series of blows dealt to the independent production sector from which it never fully recovered.

There has never been a comprehensive history of short films because such a thing would surely be impossible, shorts being so varied in character. In the earliest days of cinema, all films were short, in that they were not what we would now consider ‘feature’ length. However, the 1960 Films Act defined a short film as any film with a running time of 33½ min or less, marking a dividing line between shorts, second features (33½–72 min) and feature length films (72 min or more), and this is the definition by which this article will abide. In seeking to comment on cinema distribution and exhibition in 1960s Britain, this article is, for the most part, concerned with short films which were shown in cinemas, as distinct from shorts which were shown on television or screened by film societies. Highlighting the plight of the commercial (rather than sponsored) shorts can offer an insight into the ways in which monopolistic practices in the British film industry suffocated independent film-makers and hindered the development of a healthy domestic film culture. A wider study of the short film sector will also throw into sharp relief a number of challenges facing new talent, namely: a lack of training (with no National Film School until 1971), inflexible distribution patterns and the extremely conservative nature of the exhibition industry. Coupled with the withdrawal of US finance from the industry in the late 1960s, these issues led directly to the barren financial landscape of the 1970s (though it is worth noting that the avant-garde sector was alive and well by that point, having slowly gained momentum throughout the 1960s).


Mayne, L. (2018). An Uncompetitive Cinema: The British Fiction Short Film in the 1960s. Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 38(1), 116-132.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Jan 1, 2016
Online Publication Date Mar 13, 2017
Publication Date Jan 2, 2018
Deposit Date Nov 27, 2019
Journal Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television
Print ISSN 0143-9685
Electronic ISSN 1465-3451
Publisher Routledge
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 38
Issue 1
Pages 116-132
Keywords Communication; History; Visual Arts and Performing Arts
Public URL
Additional Information Peer Review Statement: The publishing and review policy for this title is described in its Aims & Scope.; Aim & Scope: