British Cinema of the 1950s: The Decline of Deference


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The novels certainly attempt to convey the police as dedicated, reliable, well-informed professionals who will ultimately bring the weight of the law to bear on the guilty, but the periodic structure of the first three novels equally works to emphasise the never-ending dimension of crime, and the impossibility of its containment. The long life of George Dixon has had a distorting effect on memory, and revisiting these benchmark fictions of the s suggests a more complex encounter with social change than has so far been acknowledged.

These books, I will argue, articulate both a disturbing modernity and a narrative of national and masculine reconstruction. The wrath of Gideon was remarkable to see and a majestic thing to hear. Gideon, by contrast, is a family man with six children. His marriage has not been without difficulty: a seventh child died while Gideon was working, evidence of a conflict of loyalties that lies behind an initially detached relationship with his wife, Kate.

Yet, as the series progresses, Gideon and Kate gradually reanimate their marriage, as she shows renewed support for him, and he begins once more to talk to her about his work. Some of them are solved quickly and with an emphasis on the idea of a holistic society similar to that seen in The Blue Lamp , others are beyond resolution and more disturbing.


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The threat of crime is exacerbated by the proposal that the police must confront not only a criminal class, but also the potential criminality of every citizen. Unlike the fighting services, there is no need for more than a handful of senior officers and specialists. The policeman does not work in a squad under an officer.

He is an independent agent… Martienssen [] Between and , the war to preserve democracy was necessarily fought through the radical curtailment of individual liberty. The time was right, then, for the policeman to emerge as a model of exemplary citizenship and, by extension, masculinity. As modes of punishment and the power they symbolised underwent a transition from the public display of the sovereign to the containment of the disciplinary, so the quotidian criminal was textually displaced by a narrative of exceptionality.

Gideon, then, does not need to detect anything. Instead, the systems of recording and the network of observers beat policemen ensure the identification and control of a criminality only reported to his central authority. He is several times described as sitting at the centre of a web, and his office is at the centre of all information flows.

In this case, Gideon is central but powerless, and the fate of Netta Penn, the kidnapped woman, seems designed to emphasise the limits of police panopticism.


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  • The extent of her jeopardy is finally recognised, but rescue arrives too late. She is, in the end, a victim of a category error: murdered for a pathetic amount of money, by petty criminals acting out of their class. Yet these instances of police fallibility are juxtaposed against events that seem to confirm the emergence of an effective surveillance culture.

    Behind the ideal of a culture in which the common man is free to go about his business, innocent until proven guilty, lies a series of assumptions regarding normative behaviour and the appropriate place of the working man. Out of place, or out of well-regulated time, the subject is, immediately, rendered suspicious. It is not an heroic singularity that protects the public, but an all-encompassing—and in the case of the detective, anonymous—multiplicity:. There is no generalization, therefore, that can be made about detectives except the obvious one that there is no sign by which a good detective can be recognized for what he is.

    Martienssen [] However, that he also spectacularly fails to demonstrate the first quality—anonymity—troubles the reading of his power as panoptical. Rather, his role is to embody exceptional leadership: he is designed as an exemplary man, a father figure and a mentor to a generation cast adrift by the aftermath of war.

    The problems of succession can be seen as a factor quietly destabilising the confident assertion of monumental masculinity.

    British cinema of the 1950s: the decline of deference

    On the surface, in the combination of unseen panoptical power and spectacular sovereign visibility, Gideon emphasises the on-going power and narrative necessity of the heroic individual. Yet the more impressive his masculinity becomes, the more it throws into relief the failure of society to nurture or forge a generation of worthy inheritors. Like a doctor or a priest, he cares for the community, sympathising with widows and consoling women who have lost their children, he protects fatherless young men mistakenly accused of murder, and he shows exemplary fairness in his handling of criminals.

    As befits his pastoral role, he makes frequent house calls, departing the office to ensure that he continues to know his territory and be recognised. Yet his forays into the spaces of criminal activity, or indeed, his efforts at active reassurance, are not wholly successful. In the absence of her violent spouse, Ruby has reinvented herself: with a job, a new boyfriend and a new respectability she looks ten years younger than when Gideon sent her husband to prison. Gideon stands, very literally, as the law-of-the-father: stepping into the family structure and attempting to impose his authority.

    British Cinema of the 1950s: The Decline of Deference

    As the plot unfolds, Benson proves himself the ultimate in perverse parenting by using young Syd to facilitate the attempted murder of Ruby: he gives the boy poison in the guise of aspirins. The plan is foiled, but while the reader knows that young Syd did not know about the poison, neither his mother nor Gideon can be certain of this. His actions—and his unyielding hostility towards Gideon —have inscribed him as delinquent. In a series of novels that figures a never-ending cycle of conflict between culture and counter culture, crime and the law, a significant battle has been lost.

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    Time and again, then, the books emphasise perverse parenting and the absence of succession. Even at home the lack of a son and heir is evident. Finally in the third book, an element of hope is offered when Matthew, the problem child, expresses an interest in a police career. The collapse of the studio system also meant that the screenwriters and the art directors had to cede creative control to a new generation of independent producers and film directors.

    Harper and Porter explore the effects of these social, cultural, industrial, and economic changes on s British cinema.

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    British Cinema of the 1950s: The Decline of Deference British Cinema of the 1950s: The Decline of Deference
    British Cinema of the 1950s: The Decline of Deference British Cinema of the 1950s: The Decline of Deference
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