Little read today, Edgar Wallace was a bestselling author during the first half of the twentieth century. Estimates suggest that in 1928 a quarter of all books sold in the UK were authored by Wallace. In America, his books were reported to be selling 250,000 copies per year. Germany was, and remains, a strong market for his novels. During his most commercially successful period, he was reported to have sold half a million books in West Germany.
In the post-war era sales of Wallace’s novels declined in the UK. ‘The King of Thrillers’ was regarded as old-fashioned by a generation of war-weary readers who had switched their allegiance to hard-boiled American crime fiction. Wallace’s imperialistic, and misogynistic narratives were out of place in an era that saw the British Empire’s dismantling.
All too aware of declining commercial prospects, Wallace’s estate sought to reinvigorate the back catalogue’s commercial appeal through the sale of options to adapt novels for stage and screen. In 1959 agreements were in place for two film series; Danish film producer Preben Phillipsen acquired rights to adapt Wallace’s novels for German-speaking territories, and Anglo-Amalgamated secured an agreement to film ninety books for English speaking territories.
The 1960s cinemagoing experience differed significantly from its modern day counterpart. A pre-multiplex era may on cursory examination signal fewer films being made available to the ticket-buying public. This was an era when the number of cinemas was greater than today. Whereas today people go to see a single film, in the 1960s and earlier, audiences went to the cinema for an evenings entertainment. In addition to the main feature, cinemagoers viewed a supporting film (usually referred to as a B-movie).
To stimulate the UK’s film industry and protect it from being suffocated by American imports, the government legislated to increase the number of domestically produced films screened in cinemas. In order to meet quotas and qualify for any available subsidies, producers churned out B-movies secure in the knowledge that they would be able to secure some form of distribution for their product. Disdained by the industry, largely forgotten, many British B-movies were locked away in vaults after their initial exhibition and never screened again.
In recent years seasons at the BFI, Talking Pictures broadcasts, DVD releases, and academic studies have brought renewed interest to the British B-movie, its stars, directors, production companies, and modes of distribution.
Despite the industry’s ambivalence about supporting features, evidence suggests they may have had a core group of dedicated fans. Cinemagoers deciding which “fleapit” to visit for their night of entertainment may have been swayed by the selection of advertised support features on offer. One series of films that received prominent front of house promotion was The Edgar Wallace Mysteries.
Cinema attendance in the UK peaked in 1947. In the following years as attendance fell a number of cinemas were demolished or converted into bingo halls. To protect the domestic industry the Harold Wilson’s government introduced a tax on cinema tickets, known as the Eady Levy. Funds raised were collected by HM Customs and Excise and passed onto the British Film Fund Agency. Revenue was distributed between British film-makers, the British Film Institute, the Children’s Film Foundation, the National Film Finance Corporation, and funds were to be allocated for filmmakers training.
The Eady Levy was a key piece of legislation at a time when doubts were being raised about the British film industry’s long-term viability. By the 1960s the Eady Levy was helping to sustain a culture of second feature filmmaking that included crime dramas, exploitation films, horror, travelogues, and sex comedies. At this time the UK film exhibition and distribution industries were dominated by two chains, the Rank Organisation and the Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC).
In 1959 Producers Nat Cohen and Stuart Levy secured the rights to adapt Edgar Wallace’s novels. Cohen and Levy’s production company Anglo Amalgamated is today best known for being the initial producer of the Carry On franchise, and the controversial Michael Powell film Peeping Tom. Despite significant forays into mainstream production, the company’s bedrock was low budget crime B-movies. Owning its own studio, Merton Park, the company’s assembly line approach to production churned 130 films. With production costs subsidized by the Eady Levy revenue the producers realised they could generate extra funds by selling content to the then emerging international television market. To this end, they created several series that would be exhibited in UK cinemas as support features and then sold to overseas television networks. Among this batch of productions were Scotland Yard, The Scales of Justice, and The Edgar Wallace Mysteries.
Initially exhibited at ABC cinemas, forty-seven films were produced as part of The Edgar Wallace Mysteries. Merton Park Studios was famed for its efficiency. Able to shoot an entire film in 8-10 days, reports suggest its directors were expected to achieve 10-14 camera setups a day. To minimise production costs and speed up the process Edgar Wallace’s novels were updated to take place in the then present day. Despite previously recorded declining sales of the novels, the films were well received by the public, exhibitors, and critics. A cover version of the series’ theme tune by pop group The Shadows reached number 5 in the hit parade. Following theatrical screenings in the UK and commonwealth, the entire package of films was sold to American television where it was screened as Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre.
Viewed today, the films’ use of suburban locations presents images of a country that was still recovering from World War II. Bomb damaged buildings are occasionally seen in the background of shots. The juxtaposition of 1920s thrillers and then contemporary locations creates a discontinuity which suggests that in the pre Swinging London era the nation was trapped by the legacy of its past and unsure about how to define itself in a post-colonial era.
The “quota quickies”, an earlier form of British B-movie, tended to cast stage actors. Their theatrical performances were required to compensate for static camerawork. The Edgar Wallace Mysteries cast screen character actors. Part of the appeal of watching the series today is spotting actors who would later find acclaim for playing very different roles (Michael Caine, Harry H Corbett, John Thaw, William Hartnell, Wilfred Brambell, Bernard Lee, Paul Eddington).
B-movies are a part of British screen history that has been overlooked for far too long. Series like The Edgar Wallace Mysteries are invaluable documents worthy of greater analysis.