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Whatever happened to the British ‘B’ movie? Micro-budget film-making and the death of the one-hour supporting feature in the early 1960s

Mayne, Laura

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Abstract

The British ‘B’ movie had its heyday from the post-war period up until the early 1960s. ‘B’ movies were cheap feature films of around one-hour long which were shown along with ‘first’ features as part of cinema double-bill programmes. But by 1963, British film companies had ceased production of second features for a number of reasons: they were no longer commercially viable due to rising production costs, their quality was much maligned at a time when American companies were producing higher budget, glossier fare, and by the early 1960s television was producing the kinds of low-budget crime dramas favoured by ‘B’ movie producers. However, the passing of the ‘B’ movie was mourned by some, who had seen it as a potential training ground for talent in an indigenous industry which offered few routes in for film-makers. Some cinema exhibitors also worried about how the decline of the ‘B’s would affect the staple cinema double bill. This article will examine the events which led to the decline of the British ‘B’ movie in the early 1960s, arguing that the demise of this production mode can shed light on the structure of the British film industry in the 1960s, as well as highlighting some of the challenges which faced film producers throughout the decade.

In Britain, the early 1960s saw a sharp decline in the production of one-hour supporting features, or ‘B’ movies, due to a number of factors including rising production costs, changing patterns of exhibition and the growing popularity of television. Researching the late history of the British ‘B’ movie uncovers a range of issues which have never been properly explored in film scholarship – and if the subject has received more attention in recent years, there is still work to be done, particularly given the plethora of supporting features which were produced in Britain in the post-war period. In 1996, Brian McFarlane, one of the first scholars to address this issue, identified the critical neglect of the British (as opposed to the Hollywood) ‘B’ film; while 10 years later, Andrew Spicer’s work on the films of Terence Fisher placed the director’s early work on second features in the 1950s within their creative and industrial contexts.1 David Mann’s book on Britain’s first TV/crime series explores the transition between second features and television, as the latter took over the staple crime drama in the 1950s and 1960s.2 But the most definitive industrial history of the British ‘B’ movie can be found in Steve Chibnall and Brian McFarlane’s 2009 monograph on the subject, which goes a long way towards addressing its critical and academic neglect.3 However, few of these works have explored in any detail the industrial circumstances surrounding the abrupt decline of the ‘B’ movie in the early 1960s. Yet a consideration of that decline can provide a valuable insight into the structural problems and wider challenges which faced the film industry throughout the decade.

This article draws on research undertaken at the archives of the completion guarantor Film Finances as well as research carried out at the archives of the Cinema and Television History Research Centre at De Montfort University. In addition, the analysis is underpinned by statistical information extrapolated from a database containing production information on the 991 British films released between 1960 and 1969, which was compiled by the author for the AHRC-funded ‘Transformation and Tradition in Sixties British Cinema’ project. Using this combination of quantitative and qualitative sources, the focus of this article will be on how the British ‘B’ movie can shed light on the difficulties facing film-makers seeking entry into the industry in the 1960s. This will in turn provide insights into the effects of the industry’s structure and practices on the fortunes of second features and supporting productions. Finally, it will argue that the response of the production and exhibition sectors to the decline of the supporting feature shows an industry caught between traditional industrial practices and social change, fearful of further economic crises and ultimately paralysed by doubt.

Journal Article Type Article
Publication Date Jul 3, 2017
Journal Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television
Print ISSN 0143-9685
Electronic ISSN 1465-3451
Publisher Taylor & Francis (Routledge)
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 37
Issue 3
Pages 559-576
APA6 Citation Mayne, L. (2017). Whatever happened to the British ‘B’ movie? Micro-budget film-making and the death of the one-hour supporting feature in the early 1960s. Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 37(3), 559-576. https://doi.org/10.1080/01439685.2016.1220765
DOI https://doi.org/10.1080/01439685.2016.1220765
Keywords Communication; History; Visual Arts and Performing Arts
Additional Information Peer Review Statement: The publishing and review policy for this title is described in its Aims & Scope.; Aim & Scope: http://www.tandfonline....ope&journalCode=chjf20; Published: 2016-08-31

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