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Response to Review of Hollywood and the Americanization of Britain: From the 1920s to the Present

It is a pleasure to read Jonathan Stubbs’ thoughtful review of my book. I am grateful to him for his engaged and informed comments, and also to Reviews in History for offering me the opportunity to respond. By and large, Stubbs’ summary of the book strikes me as accurate and astutely observed. He is certainly correct about the difficulty of locating audience views from the pre-internet era, and also in highlighting this as a key issue in reception studies. However, I would like to comment on the point he raises about the use of ‘hypothetical interpretation’ where little or no commentary from audiences has survived.

Studying historical film reception rarely involves audience commentaries or responses. Interpretation is informed by analysis of the film text in tandem with contemporaneous evidence concerning audience identity, the conditions of viewing, and social and historical circumstances. Hence, when I describe 1930s gangster films as ‘masculine fantasies of empowerment’, my analysis derives partly from a reading of these films, but also from the weight of evidence that shows that, in this era of high unemployment, the most appreciative audiences for these films were found among working-class men attending urban, ‘flea-pit’ cinemas. Similarly, when discussing the relevance of Gone with the Wind in wartime Britain, and Scarlett O’Hara’s ever-declining appearance, my observations are linked to comments in the popular film fan magazines about the struggle to maintain glamour in wartime, and the ‘make do and mend’ campaign that had a remarkable parallel in Scarlett’s ability to fashion a new dress from a pair of old curtains.

These are just two observations among many in the book that do not derive directly from audience comments. The appeal of studying film reception (for me at least) is not that it involves simply reporting what remains of audiences statements. Rather, the appeal of studying reception is seeking an understanding of what audiences in the past may have said, or thought, or found compelling and significant. In this endeavour, even direct statements must be analysed for their assumptions and values, and a wider array of historical factors and evidence must also be taken into account. In my view, this is a challenge rather than a limitation of studying reception, and, given how little information about audience views has survived, it is both an intriguing and a necessary challenge.