‘It was good to get out into the fresh air after seeing this film’: Horror, realism and censorship in post-Second World War Britain

Paul Frith

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Existing research on British cinema during the 1940s has often assumed an opposition between realism and fantasy or, as it is also known, ‘realism and tinsel’. However, through an analysis of contemporary critical reception and censorship discourses, it becomes apparent that this division was nowhere near as clearly defined as is often argued. While the ‘quality’ realist film of the 1940s demonstrates a concern with verisimilitude and the reproduction of the surface appearances of reality, when confronting the darker aspects of reality, realism was deemed to be far more closely associated with the horrific. Following a number of decisions made by the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) which were heavily criticised by the local authorities and the press, the Board became increasingly wary of these horrific confrontations with the everyday. The release of The Snake Pit (1948) in the UK sparked a series of debates in the press, with one side questioning the suitability of a film dealing with the particularly sensitive subject matter of mental illness for the purpose of shocking and horrifying audiences, and the other side championing the maturity shown by Hollywood when dealing with an important social issue. This article therefore looks beyond traditional perceptions of 1940s British cinema in order to demonstrate a shift in the role played by both realism and horror in the post-war period.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)98-115
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of British Cinema and Television
Issue number1
Early online dateDec 2016
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • Censorship
  • Horror
  • British cinema
  • realism

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