Children and the Movies: Media Influence and the Payne Fund Controversy

Children and the Movies: Media Influence and the Payne Fund Controversy – Review

A.J.B. Barrat

In All Pals Together, Staples traces ‘the story of children’s cinema’ in the UK. This subtitle hardly does justice to the breadth of themes encompassed within the book. The story of children’s cinema refers not only to film production aimed at the child audience, but is broadened by Staples to include a history of children’s cinema clubs and matinee performances. Along the way, the author also casts an eye over the development of legislation governing film production, distribution and exhibition in Britain, as well as the emergence of industry-sponsored regulation in the form of the British Board of Film Censors (as was). Reference is also made to the constitution of the child audience and the changes it has undergone over the course of the first century of cinema. What is more, the book provides a very intimate portrait of the simple pleasures of going to the pictures as a child, fashioned from the testimonies of audience members from past generations and topped off with some insightful readings of film texts popular in the periods examined. By and large, the author succeeds in weaving these threads together, but there are places where the reader is left wanting a little more cohesion in the account. However, this is a minor criticism for a book which demonstrates a scholarly attention to detail while remaining accessible and intelligible to a non-specialist readership.

The story gently meanders in a broadly chronological trajectory, beginning with an account of early cinemagoing experiences for young audiences before World War I. This was a time when the dangers of death or injury lurked within the cramped confines of poorly operated film theatres. The story then takes in the post-war ‘golden’ age of children’s cinemagoing, a time when efforts were made, by organisations like the Children’s Film Foundation (CFF), to cater for children as a special audience in need of both informative stimulation and protection from ‘unsuitable’ material. The main part of the book draws the narrative to a close in the 1970s when cinema clubs for children dwindled in number with falling attendances and the CFF’s production schedule began to wind down.

Staples’ account is well paced, although there are a couple of structural anomalies in the book. Chapter 11, which deals with the reception of the influential Wheare report into children and cinema, is too short (it is only four pages in length) given the importance of the events it chronicles. It ought either to have been expanded or else incorporated into the surrounding chapters. In addition, the material contained in the Epilogue is worthy of more detailed consideration. Here Staples tries to render the insights of previous chapters meaningful in the contemporary context of multiplexes and multimedia. Yet no mention is made of the apparent displacement of children’s films by ‘family’ films (those marketed as ‘fun for all the family’) in the 1980s and 1990s. What is the significance of this shift and how does it relate to broader cultural debates about ‘the family’ in contemporary political discourse?

On the positive side, the photographic illustrations are deployed well and lend the story an evocative visual dimension. It is interesting to compare pictures of child audiences from the 1900s onwards. Gazing at the faces in black and white, there is a surprising lack of outward change in 70 years. This is in stark contrast to the changes below the surface which Staples rightly identifies, most notably the increasing sophistication of the film-literate child audience.

I think readers’ responses to this book will vary according to their own recollections of children’s cinema. Representatives of older generations will identify with the book on an entirely different level to those of subsequent generations. For younger readers (those below the age of 30 years), the evocation of inter- and post-war cinemagoing experiences will be of real historical rather than immediately personal interest, not least because many of the debates about children’s relationships with entertainment media which were popular earlier this century are still in circulation today.

The most pervasive of these controversies, concerning the ‘influence’ of entertainment media on young audiences, provides the link between All Pals Together and Children and the Movies. For while Staples motions towards the theme of ‘media influences’ as it recurs throughout the story of children’s cinema, Jowett et al. make the issue central to their project. They provide an account of the earliest, modern mass communications research designed to tackle the question of ‘media influence’–the so-called Payne Fund Studies (PFS).

The longevity of debates about ‘media influence’ provide Jowett et al. and, to a lesser degree, Staples with justification for their backwards-looking accounts. For both sets of authors, the fact that this controversy continues unabated demands that we retain a proper and balanced historical perspective on matters. Children and the Movies succeeds in demonstrating just how little has changed in the types of concerns voiced by well-meaning adults about children’s viewing habits and in the types of research questions posed which address these concerns.

The book is divided into two parts, the first of which tells the story of the Motion Picture Research Council (MPRC), whose work (the PFS) has been neglected by subsequent generations of academics since its publication in the early 1930s. This organisation came under the zealous leadership of the Reverend William H. Short, a classic example of the type of person Howard Becker has termed a ‘moral entrepreneur’. Short was determined to amass a body of scientific evidence which could be mobilised in support of his crusade against films. This is a familiar strategy of more recent moral crusades. For example, in 1983 the OK had its own version of the MPRC the Parliamentary Group Video Enquiry (PGVE). In that year the PGVE publicised its ‘scientific’ research, which fuelled public consternation about ‘video nasties’ and led ultimately to the passage of the Video Recordings Act 1984. The similarities are palpable: both the MPRC and the PGVE were determined to present scientific evidence in support of reform and both were led by men whose ambitions for the work frequently diverged from those of the social scientists they employed.

The second section of the book contains previously ‘lost’ or neglected manuscripts from the PFS archives. To this end, an edited version of Paul Cressey’s study ‘The Community–a social setting for the motion picture’ and his ‘Intervale’ study are included which, along with an article on ‘media influences’ reprinted as an appendix, lend substance to the authors’ claim that he is the ‘unsung hero of the PFS’. Cressey was a perceptive and energetic thinker and it is quite tight that his work (what little remains) be brought to the attention of a wider audience. Also included in this section is Herbert Blumer’s compilation of ‘motion picture autobiographies’ which formed the basis of his contributions to the PFS and a curious piece entitled ‘Private Monograph on Movies and Sex’ which was never originally intended for publication.

This section of the book tends to repeat a lot of the narrative of the first when introducing the unpublished materials, which can be irksome in places. There is also some discrepancy between the way the authors treat Cressey’s work compared with Blumer’s. The former largely escapes critical scrutiny, despite the fact that his work displays considerable methodological naivety (based as it is on self-report data). In contrast, the authors offer strident criticism of Blumer’s work (he is described as being either ‘careless’, ‘confused’ or ‘sloppy’ in his treatment of the life histories he collected). Although the criticisms levelled at Blumer are undoubtedly justified, the difference in tone taken towards his work compared with Cressey’s is far from balanced.

Despite these criticisms, the book is well structured with some nice touches along the way. I particularly welcomed the inclusion of a dramatis personae, which adds to the sense that we are reading a history which is as much about individual people and their relationships as about the cultural politics of early cinema. Too often accounts of ‘moral panics’, which is how debates about ‘media influences’ are regularly cast by commentators, tend to portray events as unfolding at the hands of anonymous historical forces. This book does well to counter this trend, by presenting a detailed reconstruction of the actions of a number of players in the unfolding drama of the PFS. Coverage of the MPRC’s internal dynamics makes compelling and revealing reading, not least because those involved include some of the most important US academics of the time (L. L. Thurstone, John Dewey, Robert E. Park, Mark A. May, Frederic M. Thrasher and Herbert Blumer to name a few).

The authors have been meticulous in the compilation, use and documentation of their sources. However, I do think the book would benefit from a greater degree of commentary on the films which were popular at the time of the PFS and which were felt to be so objectionable by campaigners. All Pals Together steals a march on Children and the Movies in this regard, although both books make a valuable contribution to our understanding of the long-standing controversy connected with children and popular entertainment media.

A. J. B. BARRATT, Middlesex University ing controver

COPYRIGHT 1998 Carfax Publishing Co.

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