Film Criticism: Professionalism and the mediated performance of critique


This project seeks to understand the contested meanings of film criticism in mid 20th century Britain. The 1940s and 1950s were a time of transition in British film culture; serious approaches to cinema were gaining traction beyond the bohemian elite, and with the national institutions (BFI and the Federation of Film Societies) that aimed to support this new ‘quality’ film culture still struggling to find their feet after the war, film critics embraced a self-consciously pedagogic role within the emerging ‘film appreciation’ movement. Their championing of the possibilities, if not the realities, of British cinema meant they clashed regularly with the American film industry. As they ventured beyond print into new platforms – educational films, personal lecture appearances and particularly radio broadcasts – debates about the proper conduct and performance of critique grew more intense. Through archival research, funded by a Carnegie Trust Small Grant, Dr Melanie Selfe’s study explores the different cultural, institutional and legal factors shaping the discursive construction of responsible film criticism during this key period in British film culture.

Project Aims

  • To compare the presentation of film criticism across BBC radio broadcasts, BFI educational films and print, evaluating how media specific factors contributed to the performance of film critique in different facets of the post-war public sphere.
  • To consider two key mechanisms (the Critics’ Circle Film Section and BBC policy on broadcast reviews) by which film criticism joined the respectable spectrum of cultural critique, and to evaluate its relationship to the reviewing of other art forms.
  • To explore the role of press screenings as a site of conflict between critics and the trade.
  • To examine a case study of a legal conflict that became a rallying point for critical freedom – the libel action, brought by BBC film critic, E. Arnot Robertson against Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer – and consider its impact on both the BBC’s broadcasting policy and the collective sense of purpose within professional film criticism.
  • To connect the national debates about professional film criticism to the amateur sphere of film appreciation, as practiced within the film society movement and promoted by the BFI.
  • To evaluate the extent to which the performance of gender was a factor in debates about the place and purpose of film criticism. 

Conference Papers

‘Cultural Critics in the Radio Age: Evolutions in the policy, practice and form of the BBC's broadcast criticism’, an invited talk delivered at Cultural Criticism in the Digital Age: Media, Purposes, and the Status of the Critic, a symposium held at the University of Kent, Canterbury, June 2012.

‘Circles, Columns and Screenings: Mapping the spaces of film criticism in 1940s London’, an invited talk delivered at the Institute of Historical Research, Film History Series, London, November 2011.

‘Quality, National Authenticity and the Evolution of the BBC’s Policy on Film Criticism’, presented at Broadcasting in the 1950s, at Gregynog Hall, University of Wales, July 2011.

'Critics On the Air: BBC policy and the performance of film critique' presented as part of a panel 'Performing Film Criticism 1945-1959' at Screen, Glasgow, July 2010.

‘Film Criticism in the Dock: Examining the proper performance of cultural critique in postwar Britain’ presented at SCMS, Los Angeles, March 2010.

‘Film Critics in the Circle: negotiating professional standards, prestige and strength’ presented at MeCCSA, LSE, January 2010.


Selfe, M. (2012) Circles, columns and screenings: mapping the institutional, discursive, physical and gendered spaces of film criticism in 1940s London. Journal of British Cinema and Television, 9(4), pp. 588-611. (doi:10.3366/jbctv.2012.0107) 

Selfe, M. (2011) Intolerable flippancy: the Arnot Robertson v. MGM libel case (1946-1950) and the evolution of BBC policy on broadcast film criticism. Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 31(3), pp. 373-398. (doi:10.1080/01439685.2011.597995)