Why Rachael Low matters – a tribute to the pioneering British film historian

When Rachael Low died in 2014, it passed relatively unnoticed in the film world. But she deserves to be honoured as a trail-blazing historian of British cinema. Here’s why…

Elaine Burrows , Janet McCabe , Christine Gledhill

Rachael Low

Rachael Low
Credit: Duncan Melvin/BFI National Archive

No one studying the early decades of British film can ignore Rachael Low. Best known for her colossal, seven-volume The History of the British Film series, she started the project when film wasn’t particularly respected as an art form. It certainly wasn’t an academic discipline. Yet, Low, who died in 2014, did much to give UK cinema its history.

Born in 1923, she was the daughter of the New Zealand-born political cartoonist and caricaturist Sir David Low. Low gained a BSc in sociology and economics from the London School of Economics in 1944, followed five years later by a doctorate from the University of London based on research for what would become the first volume.

In 1945, she went to work for the BFI’s information department and shortly after became a member of the ‘history committee’. Established by the BFI in 1946, and chaired by Cecil Hepworth, this group was tasked with researching a complete and authoritative history of British cinema.

The first volume focused on the ‘difficult’ 1896-1906 period; difficult because, at that time, only a relatively small number of films from the period had found their way into the National Film Library collection and contemporary secondary sources were in short supply.

Partly as a result of this, Low began a process she would use throughout her work, interviewing as many of the filmmakers as she could, and incorporating this first-hand information into her history.

The initial volume was written in collaboration with Roger Manvell (1909-87), who had moved from his post as the BFI’s research officer to become the first secretary general of the newly established British Film Academy (BFA). He took with him both Low – who became the Academy’s first librarian – and plans for the book.

Notice in Sight & Sound, spring 1946, announcing the History of the British Cinema project

Notice in Sight & Sound, spring 1946, announcing the History of the British Cinema project

Both The History of the British Film 1896-1906 and the second volume, covering 1906-1914, were published in 1948, the latter, along with the subsequent five volumes, authored by Low alone.

By 1950, and following the publication of the 1914-1918 volume, the BFA had insufficient funds to continue subsidising the enterprise. Low had, at this point, resigned from the BFA and gone abroad with her husband, Michael Whear, first to Iran (1950) and later Bengal (1952), where she worked as an economic research assistant for the Bengal Chamber of Commerce, before returning to the UK in 1964.

The BFI ‘facilitated’ The History of the British Film 1918-1929 (1971) but had no funds to help with the project. Research for the last three volumes – The History of the British Film 1929-1939: Films of Comment and Persuasion of the 1930s (1979), The History of the British Film 1929-1939: Documentary and Educational Films of the 1930s (1979), The History of the British Film: Filmmaking in 1930s Britain (1985) – was made possible with an award, which gave Low a research fellowship based at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge.

Like any other scholar, Low was shaped by her times – and while she gave value to a diverse range of sources to compile a contextual history of British film production and its circulation, she was nevertheless caught within the trends, prejudices and obsessions of her day.

Subsequent decades have drawn on different sources, methods and conceptions of cinema to write that history. Film histories with different assumptions have reassessed the detail Low once dismissed.

Her reputation as an historian of British film has thus been at the mercy of these shifting trends, so much so that her death on 14 December 2014 passed relatively unnoticed in film-history and academic circles.

But women’s film history can only gain from a more historically and culturally sensitive reassessment of her work and its value for film historiography. Below, scholars, archivists and researchers reflect on why Rachael Low mattered and why she should still matter now.

Elaine Burrows, Janet McCabe and Christine Gledhill, Women’s Film and Television History Network

Low’s groundbreaking series on the history of British cinema…

Low’s groundbreaking series on the history of British cinema…

The History of the British Film 1929-1939: Films of Comment and Persuasion and Documentary and Educational Films of the 1930s by Rachael Low

Prof. Sarah Street, University of Bristol

I actually didn’t know that Rachael Low had died until invited to the BFI Library event in December (which says a lot about how the news wasn’t publicised). She was a big influence on my work, particularly in the early days when I was researching the material that became Cinema and State.

I met her once, when my supervisor in Oxford invited Low for lunch and I joined them. She was really lovely and very generous with her time and advice. In many ways she was a real pioneer for film history – in particular her books were excellent advertisements for the fantastic information to be found in the trade papers. Her work was the first I read that referenced Kine Weekly, The Bioscope, etc, so the books were really helpful for learning how to construct narratives about film history with some sort of empirical precision.

Her ability to summarise events, and also films, in succinct, readable prose, was a real inspiration. I think of her as the first serious historian of British cinema, and at the time I was researching in the 1980s her books were the best available models from which to base future work and develop methodological approaches to historical material.

Prof. Christine Gledhill, formerly University of Sunderland

Rachael Low’s books on British cinema history were vital starting points for me, when, intrigued by Ivor Novello’s ‘Rat’ films, I wanted to explore the quirks of 1920s British cinema, and later in researching entries on Guy Newall, Betty Balfour and scriptwriter Lydia Hayward.

I didn’t always agree with Low’s pithy assessments of individual films or filmmakers, but her detailed mapping of the ever-shifting, crisscrossing network of British companies and personnel provided invaluable context. And those incredible inventories of credits that completed each volume taught me their value in tracing changing career paths and working relationships that enabled interpretative speculation.

I met Rachael Low once, when she graciously invited me to lunch to talk about her meetings with 1920s filmmakers – Graham Cutts, Adrian Brunel and others – and I nervously asked about women, such as editor Alma Reville. But this was not where her heart lay: it was painful for me to hear that she had not kept her precious 1920s interviews, feeling instead that the real centre of British cinema lay in the 1930s documentaries and social realist features.

But there is no questioning the firm grounding provided by her histories, detailing the material working conditions and practices from which any cultural or aesthetic analysis must stem.

Dr Janet McCabe, Birkbeck, University of London

When I started my MA in Film Studies at the University of East Anglia in the early 1990s it was impossible to begin any piece of research into the early history of British film without encountering Rachael Low. She offered an invaluable roadmap for how we might conduct our research into film history, but also the meticulous detail she provided was raided for the ‘facts’.

Her work was punctilious, if sometimes a bit dry, but always rich in invaluable detail. Still, she had become the orthodoxy that others challenged, in part because of the sheer scale of her enterprise that first had to be negotiated, and in part because, and certainly when I was studying, she had become the rules of traditional film history.

The turn to film theory did Low few favours; gender politics also played its part. A wannabe feminist film scholar like me was always searching for the women within the rubble of Low’s material histories. That I couldn’t find them or felt I had to look elsewhere in the archive allowed me to position myself in opposition to the traditional film history that she practised and embodied.

Put another way, her approach to stuff wasn’t mine. Yet reclaiming Rachael Low alerts us to our blind spots, reminding us not to forget either the histories of our film histories, or the contribution women like her have made to the writing.

Dr Luke McKernan, Lead Curator, News and Moving Image, British Library

I first came across Rachael Low when I found a copy of the 1896-1906 volume in The History of the British Film series in a second-hand bookshop in the mid-1980s. I was only just starting to discover British cinema, and knew nothing of her writing and still little about its subject. It opened up a window to a strange but entrancing world, expressed with the understanding of one who knew that world from the inside yet also from a distance.

I soon learned that the writer, nearly four decades later, was still at work and about to produce the seventh volume in her series, Filmmaking in 1930s Britain. It was the films of the 1930s that most excited me, and Low’s final volume seemed like a miracle of organisation and authority, with an answer for seemingly any enquiry you might make of it. British cinema was to be understood through Rachael Low.

Three decades on and the book series seems not to have shrunk in value at all. Many others have now researched those areas where Low was the pioneer, but I still turn to her work first. Where she writes on a subject, it is always sensible. Where she has (on rare occasions) neglected something, a thrill goes through me. Now a discovery can be made.

This is what that first volume promised and which every page in every volume continues to do. It guides, it advises, and it reminds one that this history matters.

Prof. Ian Christie, Birkbeck, University of London

Low was where we started. Her three initial volumes laid the groundwork for a ‘proper’ history of cinema in Britain, which many of us approached with something like reverence. The only time I met her, I asked her to autograph my copy of volume one, covering the first decade of moving pictures.

The careful distinctions she made, between ‘the industry’ and ‘the films’, while paying attention to ‘showmanship’, ‘market conditions’ and to the institutional framework, seemed a clear improvement on the anecdotes, and mere enthusiasm for classic movies and personalities, of other early histories.

Yet the price we paid was her lack of first-hand contact with the films themselves, and with their audiences. Low’s sources were all catalogues, periodicals, documents; and her judgements, in retrospect, seem to reflect her civil service background, before she started work on cinema, as well as a surprising primness in her judgements (films featuring ‘marital strife, drunkenness and absence of clothes’ are deplored).

The BFI history committee that launched her work included at least two survivors of the pioneer generation, George Pearson and Cecil Hepworth, as well as the BFI’s formidable archivist Ernest Lindgren, who must all have exerted considerable influence.

She certainly started the canonisation of Hepworth’s Rescued by Rover, judged one of the few early British films that could stand comparison with Griffith, while damning many of the others as curiosities or displaying ‘poor taste’.

Dr Lucie Dutton, who completed her PhD on Maurice Elvey in 2018

Rachael Low’s History of British Film continues to be the starting point for any serious study of British cinema between 1896 and 1939. Impressive in its breadth and detail, the volumes provide an essential backdrop for research. But while recognising the debt we owe to Low, we must also recognise that her conclusions can – and should – be challenged. To Low, whose opinions still carry so much weight, “most British films of the period [1914-18], when examined for artistic merit, seem better forgotten”.

However, as the ever-growing interest in British silent films demonstrates, watching, remembering and celebrating these films is a vital response to her work.

Jeremy Boulton, National Film Archive Viewings Supervisor 1971-77

Rachael was the most constant and consistent researcher during my seven years at the Archive. For her epic coverage of all British films from 1929-39 we managed to devise a simple way of recording the on-screen credits that, if I recall correctly, covered the Archive’s complete holdings of feature films of that period, whether from nitrate originals or safety copies.

On top of that were the equally numerous Documentary and Educational Films and Films of Comment and Persuasion, a massive project that she quietly but doggedly pursued and left me wondering about her staying power.

Despite this, she also found time to be a charming and generous host at her home in Worcestershire. I would sum up Rachael’s research ethic as restrained but determined, and the results speak for themselves.

Anthony Slide, writer and silent-film historian

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Rachael Low was a kindly mentor to me. She would invite me to join her as she viewed unique prints of 1930s films at the BFI, and she would then take me, as her guest, to lunch at Pizza Express on Dean Street.

She was far from academic in her comments on the films we watched, comparing situations and characters to the behaviour of her family. Many of the cans were rusted closed and we would happily drop them on the floor to force the lids open.

I am so honoured in retrospect that she asked me to programme a season of British films at the NFT to celebrate the 1971 publication of her History of the British Film 1918-1929, and she and husband Michael even invited me to stay with them.

An author in 1991 announced she was no longer living, and Rachael wrote to me asking that I inform him that he was a bit premature. Sadly now, the report of her death is belated. As far as I am concerned, she was, and always will be, the doyenne of British film historians.

Why Rachael Low Matters 
If you’d like to learn more, and contribute to this discussion, why not join us for our Why Rachael Low Matters BFI Library event, where a panel of experts will discuss this first major historian of British cinema? Who was she, what was her work, and what is her legacy?

With Ian Christie (Birkbeck, University of London), Luke McKernan (British Library) and Sarah Street (University of Bristol), chaired by Elaine Burrows (formerly National Film and Television Archive), and concluding with a BFI Collections presentation by Nathalie Morris (BFI Senior Curator).

Read more

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