Here's another story about British fandom, this one from the 1950s. That decade
might be considered the Golden Age for British fandom; it featured a large number
of hyperactive and very talented fans: Ken Slater, Sandy Sanderson, Ron Bennett,
Terry Jeeves, Eric Bentcliffe, Ethel Lindsay, Chuck Harris, Arthur Thomson... One
of the most active of all was Vincent Clarke, who among his other accomplishments,
was one of the driving forces behind the founding in 1958 of the British Science
Fiction Association. Vincent's new article for Mimosa remembers an incident
that just *may* have influenced that event.
It all happened just before Xmas, 1957, and why it happened at that late date I just don't know. It had been years since I'd had any passionate regard for science fiction. Fandom was a Way of Life. And yet, this paragraph in the prestigious Sunday newspaper, The Observer, irritated me.
It was in a column by a very respected film critic, C.A. Lejeune, and mentioned in passing details of the policy of the New Shakespeare Theatre in Liverpool. I don't know if the NST gave performances of Shakespeare and Ibsen and Tennessee Williams, but Miss Lejeune mentioned that on Sunday nights, they let their hair down and showed films to the New Shakespeare Film Society.
They retained, though, a strong sense of propriety. A brochure was issued giving policy and general rules, and one was quoted:
"There will be no war films in the present Hollywood-Pinewood sense of the word -- or films of violence, horror, science-fiction or exaggerated sex."
I don't remember if I had a mental query or two about 'exaggerated sex', but the thought of SF being included amongst the damned gave me, inexplicably, a sudden passionate desire to do something. So I hauled out the old typewriter, inserted a stencil, and wrote a general letter to a dozen or so friends. I quoted the pertinent paragraphs, said "this obviously calls for indignant letters," and advised sending them to the NST via Miss Lejeune at the Observer.
I then spat on my palms, and did my own little bit.
"...I am not, of course, acquainted with the personnel of your Society. It may, for instance, consist exclusively of old ladies with strongly religious views, who would naturally tend to be critical of this particular sub-section of the Arts.
"Given, however, that your Society comprises a normal cross-section of those interested in the Cinema as an Art, like myself, I must say that I can see nothing irreconcilable between this and an interest in science fiction, in print or on the screen. Your classification of science fiction with distasteful sensationalism is insulting. ... Do you really imagine that the stuff Hollywood (and, alas, this country) so often issues under the label of science fiction is unreservedly welcome..." etc., etc.
I then sat back and awaited results. I didn't have long to wait. John Brunner sent a copy of his letter virtually by return:
"...I am disturbed and annoyed to see that yet one more wholesale generalisation has been made about science-fiction. At the time of the purge of obscene literature in pocket-books a few years back, one grew accustomed to this sort of thing from back-street newsagents; to find it perpetuated in the leading Sunday newspaper is altogether another question..." etc., etc.
Archie Mercer, an active fan from the early 1950s to -- as it turned out -- the early 1980s, also contributed:
"...And then there are classics, such as Things to Come, which one would have thought was just the type of film to deserve showing to a serious cinematic society -- surely to ban this sort of thing on the strength of 'The Vampire from Umpteen Thousand Megacycles' is absurd..."
Sid Birchby, a pre-War fan, also had his say:
"...As one who has for thirty years been reading science fiction with no marked crumbling of morals, I find the association [with horror, etc.] odd. ... After all, the mere fact that a film deals with, say, a monster emerging from a flying saucer, does not make it 'science fiction', any more than a handful of classic allusions make Titus Andronicus a great play..." etc., etc.
Sid was sufficiently moved by the occasion to sign his letter to these snobs 'B.Sc.Tech., A.M.I.C.E.'
And there was distant thunder from Northern Ireland, from one Walter A. Willis:
"It is sad when Hollywood producers bill cheap horror films as 'science fiction', but it is alarming when a film society lets itself be taken in. Your attitude is all too reminiscent of that of literary snobs to the film itself, twenty years ago..."
Other fans rallied around, including Ron Bennett and Manchester's Dave Cohen. Ron was the only fan to get a direct reply from Miss Lejeune, possibly because he addressed her as 'Mr.':
"...Although the subject [of SF films] doesn't fascinate me myself (perhaps because I'm a woman), I know what very wide appeal it has, and feel that the Wanamaker people [huh??] are misguided in putting a tabu (if in fact they have done so) on all films of this kind..." etc., etc.
And finally, there was a reply from the New Shakespeare Theatre Club itself, to all of the individuals who'd written to them via Miss Lejeune:
"...appreciate your kindness in making suggestions... The first General Meeting of the New Shakespeare Film Society was held yesterday, when the question of the content of films was briefly referred to and it was clearly the feeling of the meeting that each film would be judged on its merits ... any serious science fiction film of good quality would not be excluded solely on account of its subject matter
# # # #
So that was the end of a tempest in a tea-cup. But -- looking at the old APAzine from which most of the above was taken, I've had a few thoughts.
Sid's use of those letters after his name...
John Brunner wrote on World Science Fiction Society-headed notepaper...
The triumphant result, puny though the struggle was, of concerted action...
And the fact that this occurred in November 1957.
It was the very next month that I wrote a rabble-rousing piece so stirring that at the next Convention, mid-1958, various fans, principally Terry Jeeves and Eric Bentcliffe, got together and formed the BSFA -- the British Science Fiction Association. British fans then had the headed note-paper, the voice to represent them, the works. The BSFA is still going, after 37 years.
Is it possible that the original source, the straw which did the damage, that eventually led to formation of the BSFA, was the collective fuddy-duddies of the New Shakespeare Film Society?
Title illustration by Teddy Harvia
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