Leave it to the BBC to give a history lesson on British film from the late twenties to the end of the thirties using trashy factoids, lurid visuals (including raw porn stag loops), and an emphasis on everything controversial and naughty.
Directed with flair by Ben McPherson, Shepperton Babylon is a bit broader than dealing with the various stars, directors, producers, technical innovations, and egos that worked under the roofs of Shepperton, one of Britain 's biggest and most celebrated film studios.
Matthew Sweet's narration is vicious, witty, and often breaks the barrier by having narrator Charlie Higson (Randall & Hopkirk, (Deceased)) aurally lean into one's living room and give a good nudge and wink after citing some naughtiness or idiocy supported by some related or cheeky archival footage.
The editors clearly had a field day raiding and snapping together montages for the personalities that dominate the doc, which include Alfred Hitchcock telling a filthy joke to poor Anny Ondra in a primordial sound test; collecting examples of actors whose thick central European accents ended their careers once sound films arrived; and highlighting thespians who survived and prospered in talkies, including goofy Ivor Novello.
There's also segments on the venus flytrap behaviour of man-eater Tallulah Bankhead during her brief sojourn in Britain before hopping back to the U.S. under a Paramount contract; and the careers of Gracie Fields and George Formby, whose popularity apparently baffled producer Basil Dean while he sunk a great deal of money into the films of waifish Victoria Hopper, his bland and mildly talented wife.
Murders, self-destructive careers, bad behaviour, and sexual escapades are the main highlights in this doc, plus a nod to the emerging power of the sleazy News of the World tabloid, and the ridiculous power of tabloid writers, whose poison pens mercilessly focused on the stumbles, fumbles, and bumbles of film people.
One does get small doses of history, but the thrill of Shepperton Babylon is watching history unfold in trashy detail, with a beautifully engineered sound design (nicely playing with archival mono sound and stereo music and sound effects), and crisp use of Adobe AfterEffects to create zippy montages from formerly flat still photos.
Filthy, unapologetic fun.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan