Chronic mediocrity is what ails the British film art and industry according to London critic Roy Armes whose dour volume fills a historical gap and is therefore welcome -- with reservations. Facts, dates, citations, scholarly observations, and vinegar abound as Armes traces British feature and documentary filmmaking from clarion beginnings (""In all aspects of film activity . . . Britain was surpassed only by France around 1896"") on a downhill run to the present, taking stabs at such sacred cows as Alfred Hitchcock and the Free Cinema movement en route. He has a keen eye for the genius of a Joseph Losey or a Stanley Kubrick (not coincidently, both American-born), but his dismissal of others is often more petty than discriminating. Tony Richardson's The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, for instance, ""merely borrowed New Wave tricks""; and Hitchcock, during his British era, ""never questions his role as an entertainer constrained by commercial pressures."" Such perjoratives as ""backward-looking"" and ""stylistically unadventurous"" are deployed over and over as Armes attributes England's movie woes to vague societal pressures (cultural ""conservatism,"" ""enormous social and economic change"") also familiar to the cinematically healthy Japanese and West Germans, among others. The author is clearly susceptible to the eccentric or the gritty, and he is thus far quicker to applaud the ""strictly realistic"" tone of Humphrey Jennings' Fires Were Started and the ""dazzling"" form of Nicolas Roeg's Performance than to seek virtues in the more pedestrian style of the ""Victorian"" Hammer horror classics. Many will quibble with the taste and few question the scholarship in this most comprehensive history of British cinema to date.