Far from being a celebration of a century of British cinema, George Perry's "The Great British Picture Show" is a long series of excuses for mediocrity. As its ironic title suggests, Perry's is a tale of false starts, unfulfilled potential and unhappy endings.
American readers who thrilled to "Chariots of Fire," took heart from "Gandhi" and learned from "The Killing Fields" may feel Perry sells British cinema short. He starts by saying that everything since 1906 has been a "disappointing diminution" and ends by offering no brighter hope than the equivocal "It is unlikely that the British film industry will collapse."
It seems there were a few bright spots along the way--Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean, Laurence Olivier--but Perry declines to identify any real high points. To some observers, for instance, British films in the mid-'60s were the best in the world. But Perry passes over this vital period with only scattered paragraphs about some individual pictures.
The book reads as if it were drudgery to write. Lacking any theme beyond "disappointing diminution," Perry sticks to a loosely chronological form. He skips between detailed accounts of government financial strictures and capsule reviews of hundreds of films. Most of the book, in fact, is Perry's summaries of old movies--and sometimes not the best old movies. John Huston's "Sinful Davey" gets twice the space given to the film that follows, Fred Zinnemann's "A Man for All Seasons."