Donald Clarke says movie trivia isn’t a trivial pursuit
Just the other day I had a dispiriting experience while watching an episode of University Challenge. During a typically competitive clash between St Snoots, Oxford and Bognor University (formerly West Bognor Polytechnic), one team managed to correctly answer questions on particle physics, phases of the moon and Latin gerunds, but seemed utterly bewildered when asked about films starring people named Hepburn.
I would have thought that identifying the female star of My Fair Lady is a considerably less taxing task than numbering the tributaries of the Yangtze. Yet the first set of undergraduates appeared utterly bewildered by the movie trivia question.
Some months previously a fellow guest at some function or other leant across the canape to ask me what my favourite blackand-white film was. In my acquaintance’s defence, he appeared to know his Philadelphia Story from his Adam’s Rib, but the fact that black-and-white films are now regarded as some separate genre is a tad depressing. The category is so broad it barely constitutes a category at all.
It goes without saying that people who are ignorant about everything will be ignorant about older cinema. When a contestant on, say, The Weakest Link is asked a question about Barbara Stanwyck or Bette Davis, you fully expect him or her to scratch a sloping cranium and allow an already slack jaw to drop further. After all, many of these people would have trouble picking a banana out from a line-up otherwise composed of walruses.
The worry is that smart people no longer feel that a knowledge of vintage cinema is an essential part of any pontificator’s intellectual arsenal. Instead, fans of black-and-white films are now classed with the same hobbyists who give their weekends over to brass rubbing or plane spotting.
Rather than seeking out explanations for the swelling lack of interest in older films, we should, perhaps, tackle the question from the opposite direction.
How come so many people from my generation developed an interest in films made many decades before our birth? It’s all to do with television. If you grew up in Ireland during the 1970s you were stuck with a limited number of channels, which, unlike their contemporary counterparts, would show black-and-white films somewhere near primetime.
When the only alternatives to watching, say, Now, Voyager were reading a book or, worse, going outside, you would (if you were me) happily prostrate yourself before Bette Davis and allow all that exquisite self-sacrifice to wash over you. By the time Rupert Murdoch backed up his truck containing a million channels, we were already hooked.
Now, I’m not saying that young people should, like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, have their eyes prised open and be forced to watch classics of the 1940s, but . . . Hang on! Who am I kidding? That’s exactly what I am saying. Let the indoctrination begin.