Shepperton Babylon by Matthew Sweet

published 2005   chapter 2

The Rat presents [Ivor] Novello in imago form: the impossibly beautiful, morally compromised, extravagantly feminised sex object – or, as he put it, a ‘curious mixed character [who] seems to have made an immediate appeal to all kinds of audiences, for it is a curious blending of child, angel and devil.’ For the first half of the film, Novello’s anti-hero radiates bravado and confidence. (On the run from the police, he dips below a grille in the street, reaches up through the bars and slices an officer’s shoelaces with his flick-knife.) The female regulars of the White Coffin – a dockside dive populated by boys with long hair and Anna May Wong eye shadow and girls sporting men’s jackets and frizzed bobs – are prepared to hurl each other across the bar-room to compete for his attention. When Boucheron wants to hang up his cap, he flings it at the wall and impales it against the woodwork with his flick-knife. When he wants to tango with a tart, he slits her pencil skirt from hip to hem, allowing her legs to wrap around his.

observations: Anybody with the slightest interest in films should read this book. The title is not misleading in terms of its racy interest, its gossipy stories and brilliant anecdotes – but it does underplay the rich treasure of the book, the feeling that it tells a history you can find nowhere else, and that Matthew Sweet has had unique conversations with people who either were never asked before, or are now dead, or both. The subtitle is more like it: The Lost Worlds of British Cinema.

Novello is a great subject for Sweet – he had huge success in a wide range of theatrical and film activities, but now people know his name (and the song awards named after him) and perhaps his character in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, but not much else. But Sweet has chased up many more obscure people, and got the best anecdotes ever from or about them. One favourite, tucked away in the footnotes, concerns an obscure actor who was needed to re-dub his dialogue: ‘Re-recording… was hampered when Basil Sydney** announced that he was a member of a religious sect whose members were forbidden to look upon their own images.’

It goes against the grain to say anything about this book other than extravagant praise - but this is really more of an Apache dance than a tango. The Apache dance was a great favourite in the Paris underworld and then high society of the period, but apparently it was too hard to do, and needed too much space, thus could never be taken up by the general public, and was displaced by the tango. Apache dancing is mentioned in several of the early Agatha Christie novels.

These are two stills from the 1925 film of The Rat, and you can watch the dance on YouTube. The first shows him slitting the skirt - the actress, Sweet says, is Julie Suedo. The photo of Ivor Novello is a picture from the Library of Congress used for an earlier blog entry

** ADDED LATER the very informative blog reader Ken Nye tells us below in the comments that Basil Sydney was married to Doris Keane, star of Romance, mentioned by both Graham Greene and Nancy Mitford, and a great blog favourite. He also played opposite her in Romance.

Links on the blog: Last week’s Out of Time dealt with the early days of the American film business, while a glorious tango in a 1920s Michael Arlen nightclub happens here. British film-making somewhat later is the backdrop of this murder story.


  1. Wonderful images, as always. So, now want to see the film.

  2. I must put this on my reading list. And were you aware that Basil Sydney played opposite Doris Keane in "Romance"? They were married in 1919 but later divorced.

  3. Moira - Oh, I do like those behind-the-scenes fleshed out perspectives on films and the people in them. This sounds terrific. And it sounds as though it presents Sweet in a new light too.

  4. Kennye - thanks so much for that extra piece of info, I had no idea. I have added a note in the entry above.


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