Thursday, 13 August 2009

British Low Culture

The first thing to say about British Low Culture is that it's an academic rather than a popular book, author Leon Hunt being a lecturer in film and TV studies. The second is that this shouldn't be a deal breaker for the cult film fan, inasmuch as Hunt prefers to build up from the objects themselves rather than imposing a theory upon them from above.

The book, published in 1998, is perhaps now dated in the way that any study looking at one decade from the perspective of another is going to be, in that now we're well into nostalgia for the 80s. It's also perhaps been superceded in some areas by more recent work, such as Steve Chibnall's study of Pete Walker's films or Simon Sheridan's guide to British sex films, while the references to Gary Glitter are obviously before that performers paedophiliac predilections came to light.

Nonetheless, it's still a valuable read on the whole and a useful introduction to a wide range of 70s “low” culture – low being distinguished from the “popular” in terms of its double marginalisation, as neither part of the 'official' high cultural canon nor of the 'alternative' cultural studies canon as it has emerged.

What this means in practice is that Hunt concentrates not so much upon the now-recuperated and respectable likes of Powell and Pressburger and Hammer horror, but upon the likes of the Carry On films, the Confessions series, On the Buses – whose films were Hammer productions, and highly successful ones at that – and the independent post-Hammer productions of Walker, Norman Warren, and James Kenelm Clarke. Or, in that he does actually discuss Peeping Tom, it's more in relation to Pamela Green and Harrison Marks's involvement.

As a consequence, the discussions tend to be more socio-political than aesthetic, as these texts, with their endemically problematic discourses around class, gender and race are read in relation to the various crises and discontents of the time. If much of this is predictable, it's also interesting to read how Carry on at Your Convenience, set in a lavatory factory, engaged with the subject of industrial unrest and unionisation – or, rather, the awkwardness of its engagement as a sign of a collapsing consensus.

The chapter on the New English Library, coming at a time when the Skinhead novels of Richard Allen had been reprinted – and thus perhaps already begun to become part of a cultural studies canon – but Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange not yet re-released again serves as a reminder of how things have changed: What do Anchor Bay's handsome DVD box-sets of Walker and Warren mean for their recuperation? Is it is now possible, or even necessary, to look even lower?

If Hunt's endnotes provide indications for where such a project might go, towards the likes of Harrison Marks's Corporal Punishment magazines or Hellcats Female Mud-Wrestlers, the issue for the potential scholar is precisely there triple marginalisation, that these are things relegated to the sidelines even here. (While Ramsay Campbell has written about CP stuff, he is a successful horror author rather than an academic.)

Another project that suggests itself is looking at British East Asian representations and experiences around this time, with 1970s racist discourses as they are discussed structured very much in terms of 'Blacks' and South Asians. (An essay on Me Me Lai's film and television career anyone?)

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