Cinema VS Netflix: A World Of Difference


In my files I have around 20 projects that have been abandoned. Many of these are adaptations of my own published stories and novels. Some are written intended to be feature films, because that’s what we all wanted to do, write films. It’s a fantasy still entertained by British writers; believing that there’s an infrastructure for feature films in the UK. The idea is outmoded, but like ageing singers clutching to the idea of making it big in music, we go on fantasising.

British cinema is, as Truffaut suggested, an oxymoron. The UK has an astonishing history of innovative filmmaking, from Lean and Hitchcock, Powell & Pressburger through the Hammer films (which now play out as delightful fairy tales – it’s hard to imagine that anyone was ever offended by them) to the recent delightful re-imagining of David Copperfield by Armando Iannucci and the terrific ‘Rocks’ (above) about a teenaged girl trying to keep her family together in London.

But at the end of the last century the industry suffered a crash brought about by the dominance of Hollywood product, the collapse of funding and the dominance of mega-budget films. Now the European and UK emphasis is on neo-realism and kitchen sink dramas. Many films are still made but most are barely seen. There are small budget neo-realist dramas, but too many misery-fests like the downbeat drama ‘Saint Maud’.

Films of wonder and the fantastic have always explored the power of cinema, from ‘The Red Shoes’ and ‘The Innocents’, ‘Jason and the Argonauts’, ‘Brazil’, ‘Franklyn’, ‘Anna and the Apocalypse’ and ‘In Fabric’. And this is the sector that has suffered most.

The BBC fitfully (and often very badly) attempts to make up the shortfall with Dr Who, Phillip Pullman’s books and unsuccessful forays into HG Wells, while Netflix buys in works destined for the lower levels of cinema and churns out endless soft-SF series. The UK terrestrial channels make ‘telly’ stories about nuclear families and cheating spouses.

This leaves writers like us with few places to go. Bryant & May books seem defiantly the opposite of everything the programmers want. Who needs fantastical comedy-dramas about older people? Again and again I become aware that producers don’t see the books I and my readers see. My main characters were chosen precisely because they satirise traditional attitudes – but few programmers want that. I’ve always been drawn to satire, but as they say, ‘Satire closes on Saturday night’.

An ideal streaming series is a seemingly SF concept that isn’t. An apocalypse forces us to leave the planet, but we’re not interested in what’s out there so much as what’s in us. The SF element is a device to explore the self and becomes solipsistic, weepy mirror-gazing.

In the pile of stories-to-scripts I have in my cupboards, there are projects like ‘Bloody London’, a portmanteau film in which a cabbie’s passengers tell him strange tale of London. I adapted a tale of mine, ‘Down’, for the film and brought in director Tom Shankland (who made the excellent ‘The Children’) to work with me on it.

The first thing he did was remove 80% of the dialogue. He was right to do so. The story was extremely visual and the intentions of the characters were clear without extra banter. Trimming away the dialogue is what most directors do.

But wait, haven’t Armando Iannucci and yes, Aaron Sorkin, built a career on exactly the opposite? It can be done if there’s confidence in the script. The early decades of British film are filled with filmed plays, stodgy, flatly shot and dull, but now the opposite, sensation and atmosphere, has triumphed over smart storylines. Trying to watch and understand terrestrial TV I alight on something called ‘The Sister’. Russell Tovey was in the far-sighted and powerful ‘Years & Years’ but after watching two painfully drawn-out episodes in which secrets are revealed at a miserly pace, I can see this isn’t about unfolding a drama but keeping viewers on the same channel. It’s why so many series feel padded out.

Now a new question presents itself. Will there even be a future for the big screen? I hope so; there was a wonderful feeling this summer when I was finally able to go to a London cinema and see a film (‘Tenet’ – arrant bollocks I know, but most definitely Cinema). Films like, say, ‘Peninsula’, ‘Parasite’ and ‘Zama’ are big movies that push you out of the house. TV is always there, always available, and very often terrible. And perhaps during lockdowns we rely on it too much.


10 comments on “Cinema VS Netflix: A World Of Difference”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    There is something else involved in going to the cinema – the screen. I saw Lawrence of Arabia when it first came out – in a theatre. I have since seen it on the television and it lost three quarters of its power. When the physical scene requires space you can’t beat the theatre with a wall sized screen and darkness around the viewer. Suspension of disbelief is so much easier in the dark without the familiar objects of home.

  2. Brian Evans says:

    Helen, the same can be said for comedy films. Both my mum and nan (dad’s mum) saw the Ealing Comedy “Whisky Galore” (“Tight Little Island” in USA ) in the cinema when it came out, and like the loads of people who saw it at the time were rolling on the floor laughing, but when it was first shown on British TV one Christmas Eve, they didn’t think it anything like as funny when it came out. It hadn’t dated much then and they realised it was the “shared experience” of seeing it with hundreds of other people, laughing together in an auditorium and setting each other off, that was missing and made it seem flat.

  3. Brian Evans says:

    Mr F, to address the above, I think there will always be a role for the cinema, or “going to the pictures” whenever comedy is around, for the reason I mentioned.

    There must be more books written about Hammer films, and also Amicus films, than any other British film genre. I love your statement-” Hammer films (which now play out as delightful fairy tales – it’s hard to imagine that anyone was ever offended by them) ” as that is always as I have viewed them. Some are probably even less violent than some fairy tales. I think they are not dissimilar to pantomime-a similar exaggeration and the moral that “good always triumphs at the end.”

  4. David Ronaldson says:

    That, for me, Brian, was the joy of The Wicker Man: that Edward Woodward didn’t burst out of the framework to arrest Christopher Lee after a brief struggle.

  5. Peter Dixon says:

    Who needs fantastical comedy-dramas about older people?
    I think ‘New Tricks’ worked well until it started changing the actors. It was very popular in Europe, proving that it was a good concept well done. Of course a lot of it was down to the ever excellent Alun Armstrong, James Bolam and Dennis Waterman.
    Bolam also starred in the much loved ‘Beiderbeck Tapes’ which was also about older (not elderly) people.
    I once had a pint with Peter Flannery when his play ‘Our Friends in the North’ had been optioned by the BBC – he’d rewritten it twice, had it cancelled and then re-optioned. At that point he despaired of ever seeing it on TV. It was another 5 years before it went into production. The system and budgets seems to produce inertia in the UK, making new productions difficult to get off the ground, yet in America a perfectly good series that should conclude after 12 episodes gets the ‘next series coming soon’ treatment that inevitably means a poor second series with no satisfying conclusion.

  6. Brian Evans says:

    David, fair enough, not all fairy tales have a happy ending. “Wicker Man” is an interesting film. I have thought for years that is a rather over-estimated. I have both the cinema release copy DVD, and the restored director’s cut copy. I actually think the cut version is better as I don’t think anything in the restored version adds to the story. The cut version is much tighter and pacey and that to me is a plus.

    Whilst I dislike E. Woodward’s character-a pompous priggish religious zealot-I wouldn’t wish to see him burnt alive. I also have a problem with Christopher Lee. There is a brilliant and long dialogue scene between him and Woodward. This is the one in the former’s home. This is a text book example of excellent acting, writing and direction But later, he becomes so unintentially comical when he is seen mincing along in a frock and waving a lamp in front of his followers. When Lee is good, he is very good (as Dracula and as the lead in “The Devil Rides Out”) but when he is bad he is hilarious (“I Monster”, Rasputin the Mad Monk”)

    I suppose, overall, I find the film to be a little too striving for effect.

    Lastly, I would like to draw attention to a book by Howard David Ingham, “We Don’t Go Back”-a Watcher’s Guide to Folk Horror.” He discusses “Wicker Man” in it. It’s brilliant. (No, I don’t know the bloke so I can promise I’m not trying to help a friend by trying to push a sale!)

  7. Colin says:

    Sister was based on the Neil cross book Buried. The book was pretty good, the series hasn’t been.
    Where can we watch ‘Down’?!

  8. admin says:

    ‘Down’ was not filmed as the film collapsed. Like every other damned British film project I’ve ever been involved with!

  9. Davem says:

    @Peter Dixon … the ‘Beiderbecke’ Affair/Tapes/Connection made excellent viewing

  10. Ian Luck says:

    I think that the BBC should leave HG Wells alone. Their last go at ‘The War Of The Worlds’, was, to be brutally frank, utter shit.

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