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Popular Culture and Working-Class Taste in Britain, 1930-39A Round of Cheap Diversions?$

Robert James

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780719080258

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: July 2012

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719080258.001.0001

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‘Fouling civilisation’?: official attitudes towards popular film and literature

‘Fouling civilisation’?: official attitudes towards popular film and literature

Chapter:
(p.39) 2 ‘Fouling civilisation’?: official attitudes towards popular film and literature
Source:
Popular Culture and Working-Class Taste in Britain, 1930-39
Author(s):

Robert James

Publisher:
Manchester University Press
DOI:10.7228/manchester/9780719080258.003.0003

Abstract and Keywords

The state's relationship with cinema and literature revolved around two main issues. The first was economic; the second, and arguably most the important, was ideological. This chapter assesses official attitudes towards both cinema and popular fiction, providing information about the processes behind the production and distribution of these cultural goods. As cinema audiences grew in the 1920s, it became evident to many within the Establishment and film industry that the most popular films with British audiences were those produced in America. Unease was consequently expressed over the economic and ideological effects of this on the British film industry and the country. Establishment figures were blaming society's cinema-going habits for the cause of national decline and cultural debasement. According to them, Americans looked upon films as a purely commercial item, while they regard them partly, at least, as a cultural responsibility. It was assumed that the influence of these films would create the ‘Americanization’ of British culture, a situation which, if left unchecked, could weaken the existing social structure. The establishment also showed a vested interest in what type of fiction was made available to the working-class reader through the public library system, and it was not driven by a mere altruistic desire. Steps taken by the various government bodies show that they viewed the public library with some skepticism.

Keywords:   state, cinema, literature, cultural responsibility, commercial item

Film historians have noted that the state's relationship with the cinema has revolved around two main issues. The first is economic; the second, and arguably most important, is ideological.1 As cinema audiences grew in the 1920s, it became evident to many within the Establishment and film industry that the most popular films with British audiences were those produced in America. Moreover, as film-producer Michael Balcon pointed out, the American film industry had an ‘economic stranglehold’ on the British film market because of its ‘block’ and ‘blind’ booking practices.2 Unease was consequently expressed over the economic effects of this on the British film industry. One of the main objectives of those concerned, then, was to make the British film industry economically stable; protectionist measures were taken to buffer the industry against the dominance of the American market. The result was the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act, which was instrumental in aiding the expansion of British film production because it gave increased protection to Britain's film industry by demanding that a percentage of all films exhibited in Britain were British-made, thus limiting the ability for American films to dominate the market.

While this legislation did much to alleviate the situation, disquiet remained. In 1932, a Home Office report complained that the American film industry ‘has important key theatres in the United Kingdom, and it imposes its products on the small theatres as well’.3 This disquiet was principally generated by ideological concerns, however, for it was the type of film America was producing which caused the report's composer, Oswald H. Davis, most unease. Arguing that America ‘sets the standard in English-speaking film production,’ Davis lamented:

An inferior type of mind rules the American motion-picture industry … For six half-days a week this mentality of turbid showmanship, operating through the (p.40) screen by shoddy conceptions of art and a glossed materialism, saps the traditional culture and disposition of this country … Any movement to fight fairly the further propagation of debased cinema will have my support.4

Unsurprisingly, Davis's stance was typical of many in the Establishment. In a House of Lords debate earlier in the year, Lord Danesfort had remarked that ‘the rank and file of our population would be far better instructed if … instead of seeing some somewhat perverted American films, they could see good films produced in the Dominions’.5 Metropolitan Police magistrate J.A.R. Cairns spoke in a similar vein at a Religious Tract Society annual meeting in 1931, complaining that many American films ‘give an exhibition of sex, making human love nauseating, disgusting and revolting’.6 If that was not critical enough, Cairns added, with considerable venom: ‘The people who are sending this stuff across the world are fouling civilisation. Hollywood will yet earn a distinction only to that of Gomorrah’.7 These sentiments were not new. They had been expressed in a House of Lords debate on the Cinematograph Films Bill in 1927, during which Earl Russell had remarked, ‘I can conceive nothing more horrible and nothing less valuable, from the point of view of either entertainment or of instruction, than these dreadful American cowboy films’.8 These films, Russell believed, were loaded with ‘mushy sentimentality’ and included adventures which were ‘entirely foreign to this country and to the spirit of this country’. Despite the implementation of the Films Act, then, anxiety about the ideological effects of the film product remained constant. In fact, it could be argued to have intensified. The comments made by Cairns, Davis and Lord Danesfort are certainly much stronger in tone than those of Lord Russell.

The phenomenal success of the cinema during the 1930s had been partly responsible for this increased anxiety. Like the cultural critics mentioned earlier, Establishment figures were blaming society's cinema-going habits for the cause of national decline and cultural debasement. Many American films were thought to be degrading and immoral. Indeed, Home Office officials corresponded with American producers over this very issue, and conveyed their unease over the body of American films made available to the British public.9 The decade saw continued discussion on this matter within a number of government departments, despite the greater enforcement of the Production Code in America from 1934. Indeed, in 1938, with the expiry of the 1927 Films Act clearly causing much consternation, one Foreign Office official criticised the American government for continuing to ‘look upon films as a purely commercial item … while we regard them partly, at least, as a cultural (p.41) responsibility’.10 It was assumed that the influence of these films would create the ‘Americanisation’ of British culture; a situation which, if left unchecked, could weaken the existing social structure. Branson and Heinemann have, indeed, argued that American domination of the ‘screen dream-world’ was a factor indirectly weakening respect for the Establishment's values among the working classes.11

The influence of American cinema may have been less expansive than these authors suggest, but the pre-eminent concern of many in the Establishment was whether the images shown on the cinema screen could have a palpable influence on its predominantly working-class audience. The aforementioned House of Lords debate on the 1927 Films Bill had, indeed, expressed concern over the matter. ‘I think it is quite impossible to exaggerate the educational value and importance of the cinema in conveying ideas, especially to unlearned and simple people,’ Lord Bishop remarked, concluding: ‘The cinema is regarded by many as the university of the poor man’.12 Of course, ideological concerns were not restricted to American films alone. There were a whole host of productions that were considered to be corrupting the cinema-going public. However, many Establishment figures held an overwhelming conviction that cinema audiences, especially working-class patrons, needed protecting from the images presented before them on the screen. It is thus predictable that when censoring the film product, stringent restrictions were routinely enforced.

The major censorship body in Britain during the 1930s was the British Board of Film Censors. Interestingly, while the BBFC was primarily a trade body (it was financed by film distributors who paid fees to have their films classified), its independence from the government was, as Julian Petley has rightly noted, ‘more apparent than real’.13 In fact, the Board had a somewhat vexed relationship with members of the cinema trade. An MoI official noted in 1939 that the Board viewed trade members as untrustworthy and, for this reason, advised against consulting them on matters of ‘security’ in the period leading up to the Second World War.14 This is hardly a recipe for a harmonious working relationship between the two interested parties. However, despite these potential difficulties, the BBFC was highly respected by important figureheads in the cinema trade. In 1935, S.G. Rayment observed in Kinematograph Weekly that the Board had ‘undoubtedly created a solid respect for itself; its decisions are acknowledged to be perfectly honest, and above all, the system works … [It] carries on its rather delicate task with efficiency and success’.15 In fact, Rayment had earlier chastised trade members for continuing to produce ‘sordid’ films despite the Rt. Hon. Edward Shortt's (the BBFC's president from 1929–1935) (p.42) appeal for producers to avoid such subjects.16 The BBFC thus held considerable sway in key quarters of the film industry.

The BBFC clearly operated a moral and political censorship; and it was one which focused primarily on issues concerning working-class society. Moreover, the Board, with much encouragement from both the government and many working in the cinema trade, was trying to influence the tastes of the consumer. Public taste was, indeed, one of the central issues troubling Establishment figures in the period; it was certainly a subject which gained much coverage. It is worth quoting at length from a 1932 Home Office report because it captures perfectly the underlying principles of those concerned with the matter:

[T]he problem of the quality of films shown in the public resolves itself in two aspects. First there is censorship in the proper sense of the word: certain films must be prohibited and others must be pruned of their objectionable features. But there is also the wider question of the improvement of the general cultural level of the films produced, and the suppression of vulgarity and sentimentality that may be nearly as harmful as actual indecency and profanity … Perhaps an improvement […] can only come by a gradual education of public taste.17

As this passage reveals, while there was a concerted attempt to censor films that were deemed unacceptable for exhibition, a simultaneous effort was launched to raise public taste regarding the film product. In fact, for some, raising public taste was the most important issue. The Governor General of New Zealand, Lord Bledisloe stated that ‘it is to public opinion, rather than censorship, that we must look for the positive influence which may bring about an improvement in the general standard of the film’; Bledisloe anticipated that pressure from the cinema-going public would force film-makers to improve the standard of their work.18 A House of Commons deputation similarly pointed out that the ‘cultural value of the film in the ordinary cinema’ needed to be raised.19 Clearly, the tastes of the majority of cinema-goers were routinely held in poor regard. Nowhere is this more evident than in a discussion of a paper submitted to the Renters’ Society by Simon Rowson. Society member Charles Tennyson deprecatingly remarked that he was surprised ‘the standard of the film was as high as it was considering the audience at which it aimed’.20 Other members of the Society were more accommodating towards the mass audience. In fact, the Society's chairman, Professor Greenwood, was irritated by Tennyson's comments, and retorted: ‘“Uneducated” people received quite as much pleasure from fine books, pictures and music as their supposed superiors, when they were given the opportunity of reading, seeing and hearing masterpieces’.21 But the message was clear: Greenwood believed (p.43) that cinema-goers were simply not being offered the right type of film; ‘when they were given the opportunity’ are the key words here. Whether they blamed the cinema-going public, then, or the type of film being offered to them, public figures were certain of one thing: public taste needed to be improved.

Given the degree of interest in public taste, then, it is unsurprising that the cultural and educational benefits of the film medium were being examined throughout the period. In 1932, a Home Office report suggested that there was a need to ‘investigate more fully the possibilities of the use of the cinema for education’; the report's compiler desired the ‘promotion of educational and cultural films’ to protect against ‘the moral danger of darkness’ lurking on the cinema-screen.22 In the same year, a report of the commission on educational and cultural films, The Film in National Life, called for the film medium to be used as an educational tool.23 While this interest was generated by anxiety about the effects of film on the whole of the cinema audience, there was significant unease about its effects on the young cinema-goer. Indeed, the need to both protect and educate this section of the audience gained much attention. In his 1935 book, The Cinema in School, W.H. George argued that the ‘cultural aspect of the cinema demands urgent attention, especially in its relation to the young,’ because children's tastes were ‘being perverted by appeal to sensation and humour, to the exclusion of other appeals’.24 In 1937, the parliamentary Secretary for Education, Kenneth Lindsay, claimed that the ‘growing child should develop a taste for the good film – which is the same as the educational film’.25

It is interesting that the appreciation of the film medium among children produced similar anxiety levels to those generated by the film tastes of the working classes; evidently, the two social groups were seen as commensurate. Indeed, trade personnel certainly believed there were similarities between the tastes of these two groups. More to the point, though, this interest in the tastes of the young cinema-goer confirms that Establishment figures were trying to ensure that another generation of consumers was not lured by the same appeals; efforts were clearly being made by key figures in the Establishment to change the tastes of the mass consumer. Under consideration, then, was the use of the cinema as a cause for the good; it was anticipated that, as an educational and cultural tool, film could be used to stimulate good citizenship. As BBFC president Edward Shortt claimed, the film medium was ‘an instrument to mould the minds of the young,’ and thus a perfect channel to ‘create great and good and noble citizens for the future’.26

Of course, these discussions were not concerned exclusively with feature films; documentary films and shorts were also part of the debate. Indeed, (p.44) at times feature films rarely figured in official dialogue. In the late 1930s, for example, representatives of the British Council held a number of joint committee meetings with officials from the British Film Institute, Foreign Office, the Post Office, and the Department of Overseas Trade, to discuss the publicity of British films overseas; the only types of film mentioned with any regularity in the Committee's negotiations between 1936 and 1938 were industrial and documentary films.27 However, from 1939, feature films were more frequently discussed; they were thought to be ‘not so important as other types,’ but it was agreed that it would be ‘desirable to include at least a small number’.28 It is tempting to suggest that fears of an impending war had encouraged these officials to use the feature film as a source of propaganda. Indeed, it is significant that the two ‘specimens’ chosen for exhibition in that year were Pygmalion and The Mikado. The former was selected because it was ‘outstandingly national in character,’ with a ‘theme and scene essentially British’; the latter, because it had reached ‘a new standard of technical perfection’, and possessed ‘an enchanting loveliness’.29 Evidently, these organisations had identified the benefits of promoting good quality, highbrow feature films, which were either deeply national in character, or encapsulated the progressive qualities of the British film industry (and, therefore, the British nation as a whole). This deployment of feature films to promote a sense of ‘British’ national identity abroad was developed further later in the same year, when it was suggested that a list of feature films ‘with an English background’ be drawn up for exhibition at the New York World Fair.

Films of this nature were promoted by Establishment figures across the decade. Whether a film was aimed at a national or international audience, or indeed both, it was supposed to be edifying. This was an integral element for many of the organisations and institutions that figured prominently in trying to determine the type of film made available to cinema audiences. The role of the Historical Association is extremely important in this respect.30 As its name suggests, the Association was principally concerned with historical films. It favoured historical accuracy, and, predictably, had a very negative attitude towards historical feature films. Key figures in the Association also viewed the majority of cinema-goers with some disdain. In a letter to The Times in 1936, Professor F.J.C. Hearnshaw, the Association's president from 1936 to 1938, made withering remarks about the type of film being produced and the tastes of the majority of cinema-goers.31 In 1938, the Chairman of the Association's Films Enquiry Committee, G. Hankin, observed that working-class patrons had ‘a limited background and vocabulary,’ and required ‘verisimilitude and (p.45) local colour’ in the historical films they chose to consume.32 As Sue Harper has indicated, because the Association had close links with the government, its influence in the period was considerable.33 However, as she has also pointed out, the Association's lofty stance had a less than positive effect on mass cinema-goers and those commercial producers who paid attention to their needs. In fact, as Harper argues, by condemning their tastes, the Association was merely confirming them, and simultaneously generating resentment towards the type of film which they were promoting.34 We could thus argue that the Historical Association was out of touch with the needs of the mass cinema-goer, as indeed, were so many Establishment figures.

Time and again, then, Establishment figures walked out of step with mass taste. Driven by the desire to promote a culturally superior cinema, and thus protect the audience from the ‘debasing’ elements of popular film, those with legislative control repeatedly failed to understand why popular films were popular; they did not recognise the various cultural and socio-economic roles popular films fulfilled. This is no more in evidence than in a memorandum written in 1934 by Sir Cecil Levita, Chairman of the Cinematograph Advisory Committee. Established in 1931 at the request of the Home Office (as the Film Censorship Consultative Committee), the Committee acted as a link between the BBFC and local licensing authorities.35 Its role was to assess the ‘character of films shown to the public’.36 As Levita's memorandum reveals, it looked upon the majority of films with considerable contempt. Levita began his memorandum with a call for ‘the improvement of the entertainment provided at the commercial cinema’, and continued by suggesting that Committee members,

consider the film in its potentiality for what I will term spiritual content as one does consider a book. A library, especially a public library at which all classes of minds are catered for, does not, indeed could not, confine its literature to fiction, but the cinema, except for news-reels, in the main confines itself to fiction … Today it is commonplace to say that the public obtains what it requires. I do not believe this … Under the present system of large trusts owning cinemas throughout the country, the Manager of a chain house has no voice in the choice of films. He must shew [sic] what is sent to him. In smaller houses, individually owned, the licensee is too frequently a person of poor discrimination.37

While Levita is right to observe that the managers of the large chain cinemas had little control over the films they exhibited, he is wrong to suggest that the films they showed were forced upon their patrons. Consumption is a matter of choice; while the choice of films available may have been limited, cinema-goers (p.46) made conscious choices about the films that were offered; they determined what they wanted to watch. After all, with so many cinemas operating in the period, the majority of cinema-goers had a large number of establishments, and therefore programmes, from which to choose. Moreover, contrary to Levita's beliefs, cinema audiences showed a preference for fiction films (as did most library users, who preferred fiction books to those of a more educational bent). In addition, even if, as Levita contends, the managers of the smaller cinemas were of poor discrimination, they were nonetheless adept at choosing the types of film their patrons wanted. If they did not, they would flounder; cinema-goers would simply choose another film at another local cinema.

The localised nature of taste was, indeed, recognised to be an issue of considerable significance. In 1933, a Home Office report on censorship suggested that officials allow for ‘the exercise of local discretion which, in these matters of taste, is so important’.38 In fact, the power held by local Watch Committees, and indeed, the Cinematograph Advisory Committee itself, is highly indicative of the need to allow for regional variations of taste. However, as Levita's comments plainly illustrate, despite paying close attention to the public's cinema-going preferences, Establishment figures repeatedly failed to understand the primacy of popular taste. Cinema managers underestimated it at their peril; predictably, they rarely did. Indeed, many kept abreast of their patrons’ needs by producing questionnaires to ascertain what type of films they favoured. The cinema-goer thus played a crucial role in a reciprocal relationship; and it was a relationship in which the need to satisfy consumer demand dominated. Therefore, if we look at the reports drawn up by the Public Morality Council concerning the types of film being exhibited in cinemas ‘in and near London’, it is predictable that the most popular genres of the day dominated.39 The Public Morality Council was an organisation which had a keen interest in the cinema, and, as its name suggests, was eager to promote ‘clean’ film entertainment. Despite being intimately linked with the Establishment – it sent reports to the Home Office expressing its views on the films its members examined – the Council was less critical of the cinema than would be expected. Tellingly, Council members used similar terminology to film trade personnel when describing the film product and public taste. Council members, then, were slightly more in tune with mass taste than other authority figures.

The cinema was not the only popular leisure pursuit the Council vetted. Society's reading habits also came under its watchful eye. As with its stance on the cinema, the Council's primary aim was to ensure that a ‘decent standard’ (p.47) of literature was maintained.40 In July 1932, the secretary of the Council, the Hon. Eleanor Plumer, wrote to one of the publishing trade's key papers to spell out the Council's underlying principles. ‘The idea is to call attention to objectionable matter in books, plays and films,’ Plumer noted, adding: ‘As there is so much doubt about the interpretation of what is obscene, it is important that steps be taken to co-ordinate the views of the authorities responsible’.41 Members of the Council examined novels which they believed failed to meet their exacting standards. Uppermost in their minds was the ‘corrupting effects of bad books’ on society's ‘weaker’ members.42 George Moore's A Story Teller's Holiday was thus criticised because it could ‘deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences’.43 Aldous Huxley's Point Counterpoint was similarly described as a ‘degenerate and disgusting book’ which ‘could do untold harm’ to the country's youth.44 Even an expensively priced novel (and thus outside the purchasing ability of the working classes) such as The Confessions of Aleister Crowley was criticised because: ‘Although the price is high, filth filters down’.45 It was this outlook which ensured the Council's work had much in common with that of other governing bodies assessing the impact of this popular cultural form.

Along with the cinema, then, the popularity of reading within the working-class community generated considerable anxiety within the British establishment. Admittedly, because it was not a new leisure activity, reading did not generate as much consternation as those newer leisure practices; but heightened social tensions ensured that most cultural forms came under intense scrutiny, and reading was no exception. Concern was raised over the effects of popular fiction on not only the working-class reader, but on British society as a whole. As with the cinema, it was an anxiety which centred on, and was compounded by, the nature of the fiction being consumed. The Home Office, for example, expressed concern over various aspects of literature available for consumption by the working classes. The primary areas of concern related to issues of morality and cultural degeneration; appeals were regularly made urging publishers to curb the production of what was perceived to be ‘indecent’ or ‘obscene’ literature, or, if they failed to do so, face prosecution.46 Significantly, while prosecutions were ‘comparatively rare’, due to the fear that doing so would only serve to advertise a book further (thus doing ‘more harm than good’), there was greater judicial activity during our period because the Home Office felt that it had ‘been forced to bring the question before the Courts owing to the growing audacity and shamelessness of books which publishers have been willing to publish’.47

(p.48) Predictably, then, while the censorship of novels was comparatively limited, popular fiction did come under increased observation. It was this aspect which ensured that only certain types of fiction became widely available to the working-class consumer. The role of the Public Morality Council is of especial interest in this respect. Taken on its own, the work of the Council was rather limited. However, the Council's close working relationship with the Home Office ensured that its role was rather extensive. As with the cinema, the Council sent reports to the government body detailing its position on the literature its members had scrutinised. Measures were taken to ensure that the most ‘doubtful’ books were difficult to obtain.48 Of course, the Home Office was reluctant to either censor literature, or prosecute publishers and authors. Nonetheless, it did have its own view on what constituted ‘good’ or ‘bad’ literature, and similarly desired to promote fiction that was ‘not drawn by the lure of obscenity’.49 Indeed, the Home Office encouraged authors to ‘seek higher and more difficult appeals, through romance, invention, character study, and the spiritual imagination’; publishers were discouraged from publishing the type of novel which would ‘create an unpleasant and unhealthy smell’.50 The Home Office's desire, therefore, like that of the Council’s, was to ensure that the literature provided was of a culturally educative value. Between them, the two bodies took measures to ensure that only certain types of fiction were widely distributed. This involved restricting the distribution of ‘immoral’ texts among the country's public libraries. The Council's report to the Home Office regarding Aldous Huxley's novel, for example, contained the request: ‘I ask if in some way quietly you can get the Libraries to refuse it’.51 In such covert ways, then, these governing bodies sought to ensure that ‘bad’ fiction was kept out of public reach; at the same time, they were heavily promoting ‘good’ fiction.

What, then, was deemed to be ‘good’ fiction? For an answer, we can turn to the library and book-shop accession lists drawn up by the British Council; these lists serve as an ideal index of the Establishment's preferred type of literature. The British Council was created by the Foreign Office, and its stance, unsurprisingly, was very conservative. In a list drawn up in 1936, it is the works of Byron, Chaucer, Dickens, Donne, Hardy, Joyce and Yeats which dominate.52 Similarly, in a more expansive list compiled in 1940, featuring both books and magazines, it is once again the ‘classics’ – works by Conrad, Kipling and Waugh – that eclipse the number of all other book additions. The magazines made available were also of the ‘better type’. These included Women's Journal, Women's Magazine, and Picture Post. Unsurprisingly, magazines aimed (p.49) at a working-class readership did not feature on this list.53 Despite claiming that its range of books was ‘as wide as possible’, then, the choice of fiction offered by the British Council was extremely limited in terms of cultural status.54 The accession lists were slanted towards ‘good’ literature. The only ‘cheaper editions’ offered were those by Penguin Books, Florin Books, Everyman's Library, and such like; and these were middle-brow novels that were recognised as being culturally superior to the twopenny editions.

Significantly, the British Council had a close affiliation with the publishing trade. As The Publishers’ Circular observed, ‘ever since its formation the Council has enjoyed the generous co-operation of the publishers of books and of newspapers and periodicals’.55 This co-operation took many forms. ‘In addition to making a contribution to the funds of the Council,’ the paper noted, ‘the Publishers’ Association have allowed the privilege of purchasing books, for presentation abroad, at trade prices, and on special terms when the books are required for reviews abroad’.56 Not surprisingly, then, those working in the publishing trade were often also very conservative in terms of the types of book produced and made available to the reading public. Indeed, publishing trade personnel constantly debated the merits of the growth in the reading habit, particularly the tendency of the public to read more ‘light’ fiction. Indeed, the paper's discussions on the matter were frequently hot-tempered, especially when questioning the provision of fiction in the country's public libraries.

It is without doubt, then, the types of fiction made available to the working classes through the public library system that best illustrates what types of literature the British establishment preferred. Time and again, it is the ‘better type’ of fiction that dominates public library accession lists. Since many civic librarians concurred with the Establishment's position regarding what type of literature should be made available to the working classes, it is predictable that this is the case. Manchester's chief librarian, Charles Nowell, for example, noted that the public library's principal aim should be ‘to maintain a healthy public interest in the novels and romances which are worth reading’.57 In Peterborough, efforts were made to ‘eliminate from the library the mere butterflies of fiction, the three volume novels here to-day and forgotten to-morrow’.58 Librarian Ernest Baker believed that the ready supply of cheap fiction corrupted the tastes of working-class readers, and stated that ‘if they have not enough energy left to read anything but trash, we should be doing them a real service if we could prevent them from reading at all’.59 While there were some exceptions, there was a general distaste among librarians and library committees for the mass use of their facilities. This was driven, according to L. (p.50) Stanley Jast, librarian and president of the Library Association, by the belief that the working-class reading habit had ‘swung almost entirely around amusements’.60 Once again, then, we find cultural elites attempting to ‘improve’, the leisure activities of the working classes.

Of course, the growth of the public library system during the 1930s has long been regarded by historians as continuing the ‘rational recreation’ ethos of the nineteenth century. David Vincent has noted how library authorities had, since the public library's inception, advocated the purchasing of ‘good’ books in an attempt to ‘better’ the reading habits of the working classes.61 Jonathan Rose has similarly noted how the aims of the civic authorities in this period were not dissimilar from the mutual improvement principles of nineteenth-century philanthropists.62 Indeed, in 1927, the Kenyon Report – compiled by a committee of the Board of Education – identified the public library as ‘an engine of great potentialities for national welfare’.63 Many public librarians concurred. In Peterborough, for example, the public library was championed as a means of ensuring the working classes ‘become more sober, more industrious and more prosperous’.64 The way to achieve this, it was argued, was to stock books that ‘would furnish ideas INTELLECTUAL, MORAL, RELIGIOUS, POLITICAL, AND ETHICAL’.65 The public library movement's rationale, then, had changed little over time, and as Alistair Black has rightly pointed out, ‘producing “good”, passive citizens and contributing to the assets of the nation’ were the aims which predominated.66

Undoubtedly, it was the belief that popular fiction could be used for the dissemination of political propaganda which was a very real concern for the British establishment in the 1930s. In fact, while middle-class observers, such as J.B. Priestley, believed that mass commercialised fiction was drawing the working classes away from the political arena, many of those in the British establishment believed the opposite to be true, and were highly concerned that popular fiction was drawing the working classes towards that arena. Indeed, many perceived a link between popular fiction and political radicalism. The British establishment thus did everything in its power to prevent the distribution of political propaganda, in whatever literary form it appeared. The Home Office, for example, made repeated calls to curb the spread of political literature, whether in leaflet, magazine, or book form.67 In like manner, the Metropolitan Police sought to intercept literature that contained either Communist or Fascist propaganda.68 Meanwhile, the Colonial Office drafted in extra staff to check the supply of literature from overseas ports that was deemed to be of a ‘seditious and subversive’ nature.69

(p.51) Those working in the publishing industry similarly recognised the role that the written word could play in the dissemination of political propaganda. Some, such as publisher Victor Gollancz, who had set up the Left Book Club in the mid-1930s, saw the link between literature and politics as beneficial. ‘It was political publishing that I thought about night and day,’ Gollancz remarked, ‘the passion to make people see’.70 For others, the relationship was pernicious, and thus something to be disparaged. Frank Swinnerton, for example, was highly critical of fiction that was infused with a political theme. Indeed, he argued that it led to ‘a confusion of fixed ideas in the world of books,’ and thus made an impassioned appeal to his fellow authors for a return to fiction that was ‘free of subservience to Continental political tyranny’.71 Whatever stance was taken, though, the link between literature and radical politics had become a burning issue, and it was an issue which ensured greater constraints were placed on the distribution of popular fiction.

This is, in fact, borne out by the relatively small number of novels appearing in the country's public libraries which championed radical politics. Indeed, novels which were indoctrinated with Communist, Fascist, or socialist propaganda were frequently rejected by library committees.72 Despite the supposed unwillingness within the British establishment to censor works of fiction, covert measures were employed to ensure that certain texts were kept out of public reach. In fact, one contemporary, William Munford, observed a marked growth in the number of libraries refusing to stock works of a political nature, and concluded that political censorship had become ‘a thing to be reckoned with’.73 In contrast, and to no great surprise, novels which criticised radical politics were permitted to be placed in the country's libraries. In Aberystwyth Borough Library, for example, the accession lists contain several works of fiction which criticised totalitarian regimes, of which the anti-Nazi adventure stories of Percy Westerman (At Grips with the Swastika) and Major Charles Gilson (Out of the Nazi Clutch) are but two.74 These were the decisive elements when works of fiction were being evaluated by the country's public library committees. Like controversial films, novels that were imbued with a political theme were always liable to be excluded, unless they presented their subject-matter in a manner which invalidated any form of anti-Establishment propaganda.

The British establishment, then, had a vested interest in what type of fiction was made available to the working-class reader through the public library system, and it was not driven by a mere altruistic desire. In fact, steps taken by the various government bodies show that they viewed the public library with some scepticism. It was identified as both a danger and a benefit. (p.52) Indeed, Charles Nowell noted that many critics of the library movement were concerned about ‘the risk of revolution that would surely follow this free circulation of books’.75 While these misgivings were not new to our period, they did undergo intensification because of the heightened social tensions in the 1930s. The aforementioned steps were taken, therefore, to ensure that the libraries did not become hot-beds of political activity. Indeed, according to Alistair Black, the primary aim of the Establishment was to ensure that public libraries fulfilled a political role by ‘dampening social unrest’.76 Certainly, many contemporaries believed they could fulfil such a role. A journalist writing for the Weekly Chronicle in 1932, for example, noted that ‘the institution was especially valuable in preventing, or minimising discontent’.77 The public library, then, as Black rightly concludes, ‘acted as an ideal instrument for conveying the socially calming messages that government and social elites wished to broadcast’.78

However, these libraries merely acted as conveyers of the messages that the authorities wanted to promote. This does not mean that they were used, or indeed the books borrowed from them were read, in the way that was desired. Working-class consumers used public libraries for a number of reasons, many of which would not have been approved of by library authorities. William Woodruff has outlined motives behind visiting the public library (and, indeed, the cinema) that had far more to do with socio-economic and political needs than those of a cultural nature. Woodruff noted that public libraries provided warmth (‘Some of the unemployed workers just sat there with vacant, watery eyes daydreaming, killing time, glad to be off the cold streets’), and the opportunity to meet like-minded people (in Woodruff's case, communist activist Peter Shad, whom Woodruff met ‘every Saturday morning in the library’ to read the Communist Manifesto).79 Therefore, while Black is right to highlight the important social and cultural role that these libraries and their contents were expected to fulfil, he is wrong to assume that they were successful in achieving such lofty objectives. Indeed, if this were the case, it would follow that the novels made available to the working classes, through both public and commercial libraries, functioned as mere tools of the Establishment. Not so.

The act of reading is a two-way exchange, popularity always prevails. In fact, if we turn again to the accession lists of Aberystwyth Borough Library, we find that the acquisition of so-called ‘light’ fiction was constant; novels written by the period's most popular authors – Dell, Farnol, Wallace – regularly feature.80 This was fiction that was meant to be pleasurable; that was meant to be read and enjoyed; and it was this type of fiction which was (p.53) preferred by the majority of working-class readers. The public library accession lists, then, are also fascinating documents of working-class taste because public library authorities, very much like publishers, could not afford to ignore the demands of the working-class reader, and thus, despite their many objections, purchased for their libraries the type of fiction that the working classes wanted to read. Indeed, in Peterborough, the level of fiction books loaned out massively outnumbered borrowings of any other type of book, despite the culturally educative stance taken by library officials; librarians had no choice but to purchase large numbers of fiction stock to meet consumer demand.81

It bears repeating, then, that while popular fiction was undoubtedly chosen primarily for pleasure, it should not be dismissed as mere escapist entertainment; read, as Leavis (and indeed many historians) assumed, to while away a few hours, without making any demands on the mind of the reader. The working classes made conscious choices over what type of fiction they preferred, and it follows that they were using popular fiction to perform a variety of cultural roles. The cinema similarly performed a variety of social and cultural functions, and working-class cinema-goers likewise made mindful choices regarding which films they chose to see. To understand what these tasks were, it is necessary to analyse the nature of the working-class cinema-going and reading habits. We have identified what types of establishment working-class consumers chose to frequent to watch a film or borrow a book; what we need to ascertain now are the characteristics of the films and books they chose to consume. Before I move on to this area of discussion, however, I would like to turn to evaluate the attitudes of those working in the film and publishing trades regarding working-class taste. Were they any more approving of mass taste than Establishment figures?

Notes

(1) Dickinson and Street, Cinema and State; Julian Petley, ‘Cinema and State’, in Charles Barr, ed., All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema, London, 1986, pp. 31–46.

(2) Michael Balcon, Michael Balcon Presents … A Lifetime of Films, London, 1969, p. 13 and p. 28.

(3) NA HO 45/15248: Sunday Opening of Cinemas; report by Oswald H. Davis dated 29 October 1932. All subsequent references to the NA indicate documents held at the National Archives, Kew.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Hansard, 5 series, LXXXIX, c. 292. House of Lords debate on the Importance of British Films, 4 May 1932.

(p.54) (6) See ‘Perils of Popular Education’, PC, 9 May 1931.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Hansard, 5 series, LXIX, c. 284. House of Lords debate on the Cinematograph Films Act, 28 November 1927.

(9) NA HO 45/15206: Entertainments: Film Censorship in the United Kingdom, report dated 9 November 1931.

(10) NA FO 371/21530: United States film industry: British film legislation, memo from Bevin, 10 January 1938.

(11) Noreen Branson and Margot Heinemann, Britain in the Nineteen Thirties, London, 1971, p. 253.

(12) Hansard, 5 series, LXIX, cc. 289–290. House of Lords debate on the Cinematograph Films Act, 28 November 1927.

(13) Petley, ‘Cinema and State’, p. 41.

(14) NA INF 1/178: Film Censorship, 14 April 1939, correspondence between Mr Woodburn and Mr Waterfield.

(15) Kinematograph Year Book, 1935.

(16) Ibid., 1932.

(17) NA HO 45/15207: Entertainments: Film Censorship in the United Kingdom, 24 August 1932.

(18) Ibid., correspondence between Lord Bledisloe and Herbert Samuel, 6 September 1932.

(19) NA HO 45/15206: Entertainments: Film Censorship in the United Kingdom, House of Commons, Deputation from the Parliamentary Film Committee in regard to the censorship of films, 17 March 1932.

(20) Rowson, ‘Statistical Survey’; ‘Discussion on Mr Rowson's Paper’, 1936, p. 123.

(21) Ibid., p. 128.

(22) NA HO 45/15206: Entertainments: Film Censorship in the United Kingdom, 28 April 1932.

(23) Commission on Educational and Cultural films, The Film in National Life, London, 1932, pp. 62–69.

(24) W.H. George, The Cinema in School, London, 1935, p. 19.

(25) NA ED 136/143, Educational Films, 26 July 1937. See also NA HO 45/15206: Entertainments: Film Censorship in the United Kingdom, 27 February 1932.

(26) Quoted in Jeffrey Richards, ‘British Film Censorship’, in Robert Murphy, ed., The British Cinema Book, London, 1997, pp. 167–177; p. 169.

(27) See, for example, NA BW 2/35: Joint Committee on Films: agenda, minutes and correspondence, 1936–38.

(28) NA BW 2/31: Joint Committee on Films: agenda, minutes and correspondence, 31 January 1939.

(29) Ibid., 9 March 1939.

(30) For a comprehensive account of the role of the Historical Association see Sue Harper, Picturing the Past: The Rise and Fall of the British Costume Film, London, 1994, pp. 64–76.

(31) Ibid., p. 65.

(p.55) (32) Hankin is cited in ibid., p. 66.

(33) Ibid., p. 76.

(34) Ibid., p. 181.

(35) NA HO 45/15208: Film Censorship Consultative Committee, 1931–1933, 6 October 1931.

(36) Ibid., 4 November 1931.

(37) NA HO 45/24945: Entertainments: Film Censorship Consultative Committee reconstituted as Cinematograph Advisory Committee, memo dated 7 June 1934.

(38) NA HO 45/15207: Entertainments: Film Censorship in the United Kingdom; Film Censorship in Scotland, 2 June 1933.

(39) For a list of film genres see ‘Reports on Programmes,’ in NA HO 45/15206: Entertainments: Film Censorship in the United Kingdom, 9 November 1931.

(40) NA HO 45/15139: Books and other Literature: questions on obscenity; memo on the work of the Public Morality Council.

(41) PC, 30 July 1932.

(42) NA HO 45/15139: Books and other Literature: questions on obscenity; memo on the work of the Public Morality Council.

(43) Ibid., report dated 3 October 1929.

(44) Ibid.

(45) Ibid., report dated 5 October 1929.

(46) NA HO 45/15139: Books and other Literature: questions on obscenity.

(47) Ibid., HO memo on the position of the Home Office regarding ‘obscene’ or ‘indecent’ literature.

(48) Ibid., memo on the work of the Public Morality Council.

(49) Ibid., letter to the Nation and Athenaeum, dated 23 March 1929.

(50) Ibid., letters to the Nation and Athenaeum, dated 23 March and 30 March 1929.

(51) Ibid., report dated 3 October 1929.

(52) NA BW 70/1: British Council: Books and Periodicals, 19 October 1936.

(53) Ibid., 19 March 1940.

(54) NA FO 395/641: British Council: its work abroad, 29 December 1938.

(55) PC, 2 January 1937.

(56) Ibid.

(57) Nowell, ‘The Public Library’, p. 188.

(58) Storage Box: 1905–1991, Peterborough Public Library Archive, Peterborough.

(59) Baker is cited in Alistair Black, The Public Library in Britain 1914–2000, London, 2000, pp. 59–60.

(60) Jast is quoted in ibid., p. 65.

(61) David Vincent, ‘Reading in the Working-Class Home’, in J. K. Walton and J. Walvin, eds, Leisure in Britain, 1780–1939, Manchester, 1983, pp. 207–226; p. 213.

(62) Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, London, 2001, pp. 58–59.

(63) Black, Public Library, pp. 54–56.

(64) Storage Box: 1905–1991, Peterborough Public Library Archive, Peterborough.

(65) Ibid. See folder 1880–1905, newspaper article (n.d.).

(p.56) (66) Black, Public Library, p. 59.

(67) See, for example, NA HO 144/17832: Memo regarding the distribution of political literature.

(68) See, for example, NA MEPO 2/3084: Distribution of Nazi literature in England.

(69) NA CO 737/3: Memo concerning the censorship of seditious literature, 1937.

(70) Victor Gollancz in cited in Betty Reid, ‘The Left Book Club in the Thirties’, in Jon Clark, Margot Heinemann, David Margolies and Carole Snee, eds, Culture and Crisis in Britain in the Thirties, London, 1979, pp. 193–207; p. 199.

(71) Swinnerton, ‘Authorship’, pp. 18 and 34.

(72) Black, Public Library, p. 64.

(73) Ibid.

(74) The Library Accessions Book for Fiction: Library Accession Register, Aberystwyth Borough Library, 1933–1939.

(75) Nowell, ‘Public Library’, p. 182.

(76) Black, Public Library, p. 59.

(77) Ibid.

(78) Black, Public Library, pp. 66–67.

(79) Woodruff, Road to Nab End, pp. 365 and 369–370.

(80) Library Accessions Book for Fiction.

(81) Fiction borrowing accounted for nearly seventy per cent of all books borrowed. See Peterborough Public Library, Analysis of Stock, 1930–1939, Peterborough Public Library Archive, Peterborough. See also Accessions Register, vols. 1–3.

Notes:

(1) Dickinson and Street, Cinema and State; Julian Petley, ‘Cinema and State’, in Charles Barr, ed., All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema, London, 1986, pp. 31–46.

(2) Michael Balcon, Michael Balcon Presents … A Lifetime of Films, London, 1969, p. 13 and p. 28.

(3) NA HO 45/15248: Sunday Opening of Cinemas; report by Oswald H. Davis dated 29 October 1932. All subsequent references to the NA indicate documents held at the National Archives, Kew.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Hansard, 5 series, LXXXIX, c. 292. House of Lords debate on the Importance of British Films, 4 May 1932.

(p.54) (6) See ‘Perils of Popular Education’, PC, 9 May 1931.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Hansard, 5 series, LXIX, c. 284. House of Lords debate on the Cinematograph Films Act, 28 November 1927.

(9) NA HO 45/15206: Entertainments: Film Censorship in the United Kingdom, report dated 9 November 1931.

(10) NA FO 371/21530: United States film industry: British film legislation, memo from Bevin, 10 January 1938.

(11) Noreen Branson and Margot Heinemann, Britain in the Nineteen Thirties, London, 1971, p. 253.

(12) Hansard, 5 series, LXIX, cc. 289–290. House of Lords debate on the Cinematograph Films Act, 28 November 1927.

(13) Petley, ‘Cinema and State’, p. 41.

(14) NA INF 1/178: Film Censorship, 14 April 1939, correspondence between Mr Woodburn and Mr Waterfield.

(15) Kinematograph Year Book, 1935.

(16) Ibid., 1932.

(17) NA HO 45/15207: Entertainments: Film Censorship in the United Kingdom, 24 August 1932.

(18) Ibid., correspondence between Lord Bledisloe and Herbert Samuel, 6 September 1932.

(19) NA HO 45/15206: Entertainments: Film Censorship in the United Kingdom, House of Commons, Deputation from the Parliamentary Film Committee in regard to the censorship of films, 17 March 1932.

(20) Rowson, ‘Statistical Survey’; ‘Discussion on Mr Rowson's Paper’, 1936, p. 123.

(21) Ibid., p. 128.

(22) NA HO 45/15206: Entertainments: Film Censorship in the United Kingdom, 28 April 1932.

(23) Commission on Educational and Cultural films, The Film in National Life, London, 1932, pp. 62–69.

(24) W.H. George, The Cinema in School, London, 1935, p. 19.

(25) NA ED 136/143, Educational Films, 26 July 1937. See also NA HO 45/15206: Entertainments: Film Censorship in the United Kingdom, 27 February 1932.

(26) Quoted in Jeffrey Richards, ‘British Film Censorship’, in Robert Murphy, ed., The British Cinema Book, London, 1997, pp. 167–177; p. 169.

(27) See, for example, NA BW 2/35: Joint Committee on Films: agenda, minutes and correspondence, 1936–38.

(28) NA BW 2/31: Joint Committee on Films: agenda, minutes and correspondence, 31 January 1939.

(29) Ibid., 9 March 1939.

(30) For a comprehensive account of the role of the Historical Association see Sue Harper, Picturing the Past: The Rise and Fall of the British Costume Film, London, 1994, pp. 64–76.

(31) Ibid., p. 65.

(p.55) (32) Hankin is cited in ibid., p. 66.

(33) Ibid., p. 76.

(34) Ibid., p. 181.

(35) NA HO 45/15208: Film Censorship Consultative Committee, 1931–1933, 6 October 1931.

(36) Ibid., 4 November 1931.

(37) NA HO 45/24945: Entertainments: Film Censorship Consultative Committee reconstituted as Cinematograph Advisory Committee, memo dated 7 June 1934.

(38) NA HO 45/15207: Entertainments: Film Censorship in the United Kingdom; Film Censorship in Scotland, 2 June 1933.

(39) For a list of film genres see ‘Reports on Programmes,’ in NA HO 45/15206: Entertainments: Film Censorship in the United Kingdom, 9 November 1931.

(40) NA HO 45/15139: Books and other Literature: questions on obscenity; memo on the work of the Public Morality Council.

(41) PC, 30 July 1932.

(42) NA HO 45/15139: Books and other Literature: questions on obscenity; memo on the work of the Public Morality Council.

(43) Ibid., report dated 3 October 1929.

(45) Ibid., report dated 5 October 1929.

(46) NA HO 45/15139: Books and other Literature: questions on obscenity.

(47) Ibid., HO memo on the position of the Home Office regarding ‘obscene’ or ‘indecent’ literature.

(48) Ibid., memo on the work of the Public Morality Council.

(49) Ibid., letter to the Nation and Athenaeum, dated 23 March 1929.

(50) Ibid., letters to the Nation and Athenaeum, dated 23 March and 30 March 1929.

(51) Ibid., report dated 3 October 1929.

(52) NA BW 70/1: British Council: Books and Periodicals, 19 October 1936.

(53) Ibid., 19 March 1940.

(54) NA FO 395/641: British Council: its work abroad, 29 December 1938.

(55) PC, 2 January 1937.

(57) Nowell, ‘The Public Library’, p. 188.

(58) Storage Box: 1905–1991, Peterborough Public Library Archive, Peterborough.

(59) Baker is cited in Alistair Black, The Public Library in Britain 1914–2000, London, 2000, pp. 59–60.

(60) Jast is quoted in ibid., p. 65.

(61) David Vincent, ‘Reading in the Working-Class Home’, in J. K. Walton and J. Walvin, eds, Leisure in Britain, 1780–1939, Manchester, 1983, pp. 207–226; p. 213.

(62) Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, London, 2001, pp. 58–59.

(63) Black, Public Library, pp. 54–56.

(64) Storage Box: 1905–1991, Peterborough Public Library Archive, Peterborough.

(65) Ibid. See folder 1880–1905, newspaper article (n.d.).

(p.56) (66) Black, Public Library, p. 59.

(67) See, for example, NA HO 144/17832: Memo regarding the distribution of political literature.

(68) See, for example, NA MEPO 2/3084: Distribution of Nazi literature in England.

(69) NA CO 737/3: Memo concerning the censorship of seditious literature, 1937.

(70) Victor Gollancz in cited in Betty Reid, ‘The Left Book Club in the Thirties’, in Jon Clark, Margot Heinemann, David Margolies and Carole Snee, eds, Culture and Crisis in Britain in the Thirties, London, 1979, pp. 193–207; p. 199.

(71) Swinnerton, ‘Authorship’, pp. 18 and 34.

(72) Black, Public Library, p. 64.

(74) The Library Accessions Book for Fiction: Library Accession Register, Aberystwyth Borough Library, 1933–1939.

(75) Nowell, ‘Public Library’, p. 182.

(76) Black, Public Library, p. 59.

(78) Black, Public Library, pp. 66–67.

(79) Woodruff, Road to Nab End, pp. 365 and 369–370.

(80) Library Accessions Book for Fiction.

(81) Fiction borrowing accounted for nearly seventy per cent of all books borrowed. See Peterborough Public Library, Analysis of Stock, 1930–1939, Peterborough Public Library Archive, Peterborough. See also Accessions Register, vols. 1–3.