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B Pictures

Second feature, but not necessarily second-best

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The origins of the British 'B' picture - a label which might loosely and very generally be applied to a short, low-budget film, designed for cinema screening in support of, a longer, more expensive, higher-quality 'main attraction' - can be traced back to the early 1930s. As the awkward transition from silent to sound cinema took place, cost-conscious patrons thought carefully before they bought a ticket. Some smaller cinemas competed with wealthier rivals by showing an extra film with the main feature (which became known, especially in America, as the 'A' picture) to provide value for money. The practice caught on, and the 'B' picture was born.

The Cinematograph Films Act (1927) was introduced to stem the flood of American films into British cinemas. This protective legislation obliged exhibitors to programme a certain percentage of home-produced film. Intended to encourage quality filmmaking, the actual result of the Act was a plethora of short, cheap, quickly shot supporting features - 'quota quickies' - derided by critics at the time as a disgrace to British cinema. In retrospect, it can be seen that the 'quickies' provided a valuable training ground for filmmakers, technicians and actors who would later go on to greater things in 'quality' British cinema (including such notable figures as Michael Powell and David Lean). New legislation was introduced in 1938, but the legal obligation to programme British films as well as Hollywood product - and the public's desire for the value for money offered by these lower budget 'supporting features' or 'programmers' - remained.

The war years saw a turn away from fiction film in the British supporting programme as documentaries - valuable tools for boosting patriotism and public morale - became an integral part of the cinema experience. With studio space earmarked for use by the Ministry of Information, and film stock becoming ever more expensive, independently made low budget supporting films were fewer in number and shorter in length. The most compact of these supporting features - perhaps running between 30 and 40 minutes - were labelled 'featurettes'. Quickly churned out by industry entrepreneurs including the prolific Harold Baim and Horace Shepherd, these films provided reassurance and escapism, sometimes by way of comforting travelogues, or successions of cheaply shot variety turns.

After the war, the major British (and American) studios, keen to maintain a firm grip on the market and less keen on the concept of the 'double feature', focused their resources on long, lavish, prestigious fiction features, designed as single attractions, without need of support. Meanwhile, small independent producers, unable to compete with the major studios in financial terms, relied on continued demand, both from the public and cinema programmers, for the value for money inherent in the full supporting programme. Meanwhile, the legal requirement to show British films on British screens continued. Cinema managers were often compelled to book 'B' pictures, regardless of their quality, to comply with the law, whether they liked them or not. Inevitably, however, the more popular the 'B' picture, the more bookings it was likely to get. A proliferation of small British studios - among them Exclusive/Hammer, Merton Park, Butcher's Film Services, Adelphi, Danziger Productions and New Realm - sprang up to fulfil this need, and their productions were vital to the livelihood of many writers, directors, actors and technicians.

Though inevitably overshadowed by big-budget screen extravaganzas, and taken for granted at the time, the humble British 'B' picture could offer more than escapist entertainment, vital though that was. Theirs was an unpretentious, down-at-heel take on society, a reminder of the concerns and aspirations of everyday people in an austere, pre-permissive Britain; often in refreshing contrast to the distinctly middle-class world glossily presented in the 'main feature attraction'. Devil's Bait (1959), a tense melodrama about a poisoned loaf of bread sold to an unwitting customer, also included an intriguing low-key sub-plot about a jaded baker and his wife coming to terms with their marital difficulties over a cup of tea and a biscuit. The quaint comedy Small Hotel (1957) contained valuable - and plausible - lessons from a shifty waiter on how to secure a more sizeable tip or a half-finished bottle of wine from an affluent diner. End of the Road (1954) explored the harsh realities of old age through the forced retirement of a skilled plater.

Though well crafted, by the mid 1950s British 'B' pictures were beginning to look somewhat shabby alongside expensive-looking full colour supporting features from across the Atlantic. Television was also beginning to make inroads into cinema attendance and was consuming scripts at an alarming rate. Entrepreneurs and filmmakers looking for a new angle packaged British 'B's with foreign features, or, drawing inspiration from abroad, diversified into the kind of exploitation territory television could not replicate, like horror (an effective example being 1960's The Tell-Tale Heart), or adult entertainment (such as Harrison Marks' 1961 nudist film-travelogue Naked - As Nature Intended). Producers also focused on niche markets where cheap, ephemeral product could be exploited quickly to a small but devoted audience; the early British rock 'n' roll film Rock You Sinners (1957) was one early attempt to lure teenagers into the cinema.

With film companies increasingly devoting their resources to stand-alone 'quality' releases, and television replacing the cinema as the cheap entertainment of choice, production of supporting features dwindled towards the end of the 1960s as the British film industry began a slow decline. The 'double bill', and the supporting programme (increasingly using cheap travelogues, or recycling films of previous years) lingered on, but by the lean times of the 1980s, following the Conservative Government's removal of the Eady Levy (a long-standing tax on cinema takings, intended to support British film production), the era of the supporting programme - and with it the British 'B' picture - was already fading into memory.

Vic Pratt

Further reading:
Steve Chibnall and Brian McFarlane, The British 'B' Film (BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)

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