The state of the British film industry has been a standing joke since the 1970s, despite a number of superbly realised movies spread rather thinly across the subsequent decades. We maintained a penchant for kitchen-sink dramas after John Osborne wrote ‘Look Back In Anger’ in the 1950s (at the time, a much needed astringent, now dated), but in the 1960s our designers discovered the surreal and the fantastical. In this one area we’ve maintained an astounding level of excellence since before the war – in production design. From the films of David Lean, Powell and Pressburger, through Hammer and James Bond to Wallace & Gromit, Harry Potter, ‘Gravity’ and beyond, British-designed films have looked amazing. Indeed, if you removed the superb production design from Harry Potter there’s not a lot left – but a great many of the teams responsible for creating ravishing sets, lighting, costumes and effects remained unsung outside of the industry’s own awards.
It’s the look of British films that I come back to again and again. They simply don’t feel like Hollywood movies. Many craftspeople went from father to son, mother to daughter in the industry. The Hammer films were shot on such tiny reusable sets at Bray that if you watch two or three back to back, you see the same exteriors, costumes and furnishings, refreshed over and over again. Obviously we do ‘heritage’ very well, but we also manage a terrific line in the fantastic with underrated films like ‘Franklyn’, ‘City of Ember’ and ‘Brazil’.
There are a number of good books on the subject, looking at specific creators like Ken and Shirley Russell, Ken Adams and Derek Jarman. Ken Russell employed Jarman to design the extraordinary sets for ‘The Devils’ because Jarman had shown a mutual friend his portfolio on a train, something that simply wouldn’t happen anymore.
The main reason for this visual flair was simple; our studios had kept the same staff for decades, and they passed on their knowledge as they aged. In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher’s government decided to remove a tax break that allowed studios to keep employing permanent staff of craftspeople, in order to make the studios ‘more competitive’. What happened, in fact, was that they were forced to let their staffs go to reduce overheads. The talent dispersed, snapped up by other studios in other parts of the world. So a rather petty cost-cutting exercise helped to destroy an industry as the studios went ‘four-wall’ ie. when you hired them after this, you just got the four walls and brought your own team of designers and creators in with you.
The design of things like furniture, sets and fashion can be divided into schools. For example, in Spain a powerful modernism movement developed after 1975 that can be clearly seen in its creative output. But Hollywood has never developed a ‘look’, so British designers are still called in, hired project by project. The golden days of cross-generation teams working to create distinctive visual styles would have died out here entirely but for the advent of CGI – our density of post-production houses (one of which I owned) prepared us for the coming boom in design. But even now, the effects of that ill-advised decision in the 1980s can be felt.