What Did We Learn From Our National Cinema?

Christopher Fowler
ABC, Odeon, Regal, Gaumont, Roxy, Biograph - the names feel resolutely British, attached to a time when we had a separate national cinema keeping smoky houses filled every night of the week. But the films inside them slowly shifted from London to Hollywood and we no longer saw our own island lives represented on film. That task went to television, first with milk-bottle-on-the-table realism and then with salty sex talk, and it remains there now. Look for a British identity in modern film and you'll find some imaginative independent gems from Ireland and a few genre stabs from London outfits shot in the countryside. The scripts usually share a common factor; they need another polish and a bit more of a budget. The problem is that there's no longer any reason for British cinema to exist. TV reflects our lives (although I got halfway through 'Sherwood' and lost the will to live). A bit of magical realism would do the trick - we're good at it too, with everything from The Innocents to The Thief of Baghdad.  We churn out a bit of heritage cinema like 'The Railway Children Return' and 'Downton Abbey', which followed a timeworn path backwards from telly to cinema rather as 'On The Buses' did, and there are a few mavericks like Ben Wheatley and the smug middle-class arthouse of Joanna Hogg, but that's it. As a child I saw every single British film I could from ages seven to eighteen. A third of them were mediocre, a third were flawed but interesting and the rest stayed with me forever. Now when I check their credits I realise that they were made by the same tiny handful of writers and directors, starring variations of the same cast over and over. I didn't learned much from these films but I remember a lot. A phenomenal number featured waistcoated men in offices, plus secretaries pneumatic or dowdy. There were plenty of scenes in gentlemen's clubs, a lot of housewives clearing dinner things, plenty of bullion robberies with police vans sporting great clanging bells and of course, Sid James poring over a map in a basement. There was a lot of worrying about what the neighbours might think. Families did not remove their clothes at the beach. They went to funfairs in shirts and ties. The women spent their lives behind mangles until they eventually became like dithery, panicky Esma Cannon. And even the lower middle classes had maids or 'Ladies Who Do'. In 'This Happy Breed' Edie the maid runs around screeching, 'The car's 'ere! It's 'ere!' because a taxi has been booked and hang the expense, it's for a wedding. Women weep in kitchens. Men stoically smoke pipes in the garden. Cliff Richard turns up as a rebel, looking like a mormon, with such an air of such innocence that you want to destroy him. What none of these films had was action. When actors fought they looked like children trying to slap each other. Nor was there ever any suspense, and romance tended to turn sniggeringly to smut. So why do I still watch them from time to time? Because they are memory boxes, filled with the sights and sounds of a barely recalled past. And even The Husband will occasionally watch one because 'the streets are so clean'. Talking Pictures TV (TPTV) is the British free-to-air vintage-film and nostalgia television channel that's perfect for those rainy day remembrances. I was going to suggest you protect your street cred by balancing the channel with more cutting edge fare, but the last time I saw anything that made me think was 'Years"> & Years'.


snowy (not verified) Sun, 07/08/2022 - 21:26

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

British film industry? What's one of those then?

Oh that.... don't expect it to come back anytime soon, all the studios and the talent in the country are tied up churning out content for the streaming giants.

The last successful film that I can think of that was 'British' in the quintessential sense was 'Hot Fuzz'*



[* I you have other ideas for successful 21stC British films that don't pander to a global audience, do shout up in the comments].

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Mon, 08/08/2022 - 01:07

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

National identity (or mythology) in film and TV, in particular, has always been pretty much of a 'chicken-and-egg' question: does what you see on the screen reflect the society it's portraying or does the society take at least some of its values from the media. I tend to believe in the former, although there is little question that cinema and TV reinforce certain values or mythologies, if you will, or establish a hierarchy of sorts, with emphases as creative choices --- not necessarily where viewers might place them in their daily lives.

I think 'identity' is far more in the eyes of the beholder than a filmmaker's conscious effort to express it --- whether that beholder is a Cornishman or Kansan in the US watching the same film to do with London. So, at best, it varies with the audience and the values selected by the creatives. Over time, of course, this more or less same set of values used as creative choices does become 'an' identity, but not necessarily 'the' national identity, if there is really any such thing. For example, is 'Chariots of Fire,' (with its American financial backing) a paean to Thatcherite nationalism or a critique of class privilege. It was/is considered both. How 'real' were the celebrated social realism films of the '60s ? Although often compelling, to many, their 'reality' was selective and presented a largely romanticised and false narrative of British life. Now, of course, this original working class 'reality' has shifted to that of the middle and upper-classes --- attempting to demonstrate that the self-absorbed and wealthy are flawed 'real' people too --- just with designer open plan kitchen-diners, not cramped little kitchens.

In the end, for me, (and yes, shockingly, this is the end...) it is the acting which I most remember, even if the actual titles of the films or programmes in which it takes place are sometimes vague. Memorable performances, made even more so, considering the often less than memorable material to work with.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Mon, 08/08/2022 - 03:36

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@snowy Off the top of my head, I can think of two sure-fire, fruit-based epics: 'Snowy of Kilimanjaro" in which a suicidal pomologist finds the 'Kumquat of Life' on the slopes of the famed Tanzanian mountain and noshes himself into immortality. Then there's, 'Snowy's Plums' --- A poignant story of self-examination --- and gin.

Paul C (not verified) Mon, 08/08/2022 - 09:50

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Agree that British films are in the doldrums but I really enjoyed The Duke recently which could have been a lost Ealing comedy, it's so old fashioned and unambitious.

I like wallowing in old films on TPTV too - especially Friday night horrors in The Cellar Club presented by Caroline Munro.

Best British film of the last fifteen years for me was In Bruges which I can watch happily every few months. The writer / director Martin McDonagh naturally went straight off to Hollywood after that - losing such talents is one reason for the poor state of our films.

Brooke (not verified) Mon, 08/08/2022 - 12:56

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Snowy, re wireless story time. Try Bitesized Audio Classics (YouTube, Bandcamp and Patreon). I don't always like Simon's voice but he does rescue the stories and some strange authors, among them A. J. Alan.

DavidC (not verified) Mon, 08/08/2022 - 13:51

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Just to point out that Hot Fuzz was jointly produced by 3 companies. Only one is UK owned, others being French and US. Distributors were French and US. At least least the production companies for No Time To Die were 50% British.

There are a few, mostly British films made but they tend to be low budget. I'd also argue that Netflix's The Dig is probably more quintessentially "British" than Hot Fuzz.(I like Hot Fuzz btw.)

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Mon, 08/08/2022 - 15:50

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Let me say at the outset ---Neil Gaiman makes me tired. Not a great fan of fantasy, but told I 'must' read 'The Sandman' I did (in the omnibus edition) and was pleasantly surprised. But, I have to assume that I'm not the only one who found the Netflix adaptation (35 years in the making apparently)--- politely --- very much wanting. Stunningly realized with what has to be expensive CGI and intricate costuming and set design --- I found the 10 episode series stultifying in presentation and especially, the second half of the season. It was almost as if the creatives felt the acclamation received by the original work could somehow automatically overcome the lack of any unifying arc or a hotchpotch of stories and moods, seemingly randomly piled on top of one another. Perhaps one more object lesson that some intricately plotted print creations, in particular, should remain in their original form, however strong the siren song of the screen.

Christopher Fowler Mon, 08/08/2022 - 17:19

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Brooke, thanks for the tip on AJ Alan. If I find the energy I may revive the forgotten authors here.

Joel (not verified) Mon, 08/08/2022 - 19:39

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

TPTV...we have a couple channels like that here in the US...they show old tv shows and movies...very fun to watch...i usually pull out a british show to watch on sundays...cuz that's what i do...and laugh and sometimes tear up, did just last night watching "as time goes by"...occasionally new shows interest me, but being able to watch the whole season all at once, means i don't have to make any investment in the show and can watch it, enjoy it or not, and then forget it...like the marvel tv shows...they feel like very long movies...cuz i watch the whole dang season at once...and there is so much content now, that the "watercooler chat" is long gone and dead...everyone is watching everything all the time, all at once (which "everything, everywhere, all at once" was one of the best movies i've seen in awhile)

Brooke (not verified) Mon, 08/08/2022 - 19:44

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Mr. Fowler, save the energy--just listen to the stories. Simon does a good job with shorts bio of the authors. Alan was rather interesting.
Everyone has picked up on the forgotten authors concept. The Library of Congress is republishing crime classics, including books by C.W. Grafton, father of the famous Sue G., and Rudolph Fisher, said to be the first published black crime/mystery writer. His The Conjure-Man DIes is nice; good writing with authentic NYC Harlem dialogue. Definitely readable. .

Helen+Martin (not verified) Mon, 08/08/2022 - 19:54

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Since Chariots of Fire has been mentioned what about Lawrence of Arabia? War stories are intended to either buck up the home people during a war or firm up the loins for the upcoming one (there's always another war, they say). Lawrence is a lost hero because he died before WWII and probably just as well from that point of view since he would not have had an opening for his type of bravado and the Arabs wouldn't have trusted him.Was it made to glorify past British heroes?

Which is more important the source of the money or the source of the creativity?

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Mon, 08/08/2022 - 23:45

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Speaking of 'national cinema' --- for those who aren't already aware, britbox, the ITV/BBC joint streaming service, has a new, very good four part series, 'Reel Britannia,' tracing five decades of British cinema history ('60s to the Naughts) narrated by Nick Helm. If you're not a subscriber, there always seems to be a free seven-day trial available. The service is presently available in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark. You can run britbox on your computer as well as, of course, a dedicated streaming device.

snowy (not verified) Tue, 09/08/2022 - 01:00

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

So the question posed was films that were: 'Successful', 'British', '21st C'.

And so far mentioned, [Spoiler - it's not looking good for the UK Film Industry].

'Chariots of Fire', succesful [$5m budget/$59m box office, 4 Oscars], British [a bunch of toffs get angsty about a bit of PE for two very long hours, well I suppose it counts, but boy is it dull], 1981 [so not the 21stC unless somebody has been fiddling with the calendar... again].

'In Bruges', successful-ish [$15m budget/$35m box office, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA, well nobody lost money], British? [Two Irish hitmen flee to Belgium, after a child is killed in a hit on a Irish priest in Ireland, forgive me if I'm not seeing 'British'].

'The Dig', successful? [Hmm...Netflix are notoriously cagey about figures, and I don't remember howls of protest when it finished in the Cinema after a 3 day run]. It's certainly about British people in Britain, being terribly, terribly British, fiddling about in a field while a war rages across Europe, [I'm not quite sure why anybody thought it was a story worth telling, what they find is more interesting than the finding of it, and what is going on in the rest of the World is more 'vital'].

'Lawrence of Arabia' successful, well it was in 1962, so not exactly 21stC... It's not looking good... A 1960's retelling of a 1920's myth about events very few people knew anything about, [and heavily fictionalised, to make it fit to a film narrative form].

[The first [long] half is an American western with tea-towels standing for stetsons, lots of moody silences, squinting into the blazing sun. But what should be the key set-piece, the seizing of Aqaba is completely missing; [and for a reason].

To fix the particular scene in mind, the attacking force steal their was across a waterless barren desert to outflank the defenders unaware of what is about to befall them. They creep into position on the plain, spread out into a line, their mounts twitching getting ready to Charge!

And you blink, and it's all over! Wait! What!

In a rare bit of historical accuracy, you never see the battle, nor did Lawrence. When the order to charge was given everybody shot off towards Aqaba weapons drawn, yelling blood curdling cries.

Unfortunately Lawrence picked this moment to accidentally shot his camel in the head, leaving him unmounted and covered in embarrassment [and quite possibly brains].]

snowy (not verified) Tue, 09/08/2022 - 01:10

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Brooke, I did dip a <del>toe</del> ear in, there is something very disconcerting about the way he records his voice.

Hard to convey in words, he seems to be much, much too close to the listener, as if he is sitting on your lap, [terrible explanation].

Richard (not verified) Tue, 09/08/2022 - 01:51

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Paddington and Paddington 2: two of the most popular and successful films over the last decade. With the exception of Nicole Kidman and a Peruvian bear, these British-French co-productions feature major British actors and London settings. And for adults as well as children, they are so much more enjoyable and meaningful than (for instance) The Dig. British cinema ain't quite dead yet.

Andre (not verified) Tue, 09/08/2022 - 03:48

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Dear admin, on the side topic of forgotten authors, I have always wondered about Talbot Mundy. He seems like a natural for that list.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Tue, 09/08/2022 - 05:49

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Didn't know MS Grafton had had a writing father - must look into that.

Snowy, you have solved the puzzle of 1964 (when we saw Lawrence &amp; my soon to be husband complained it was a waste of money if I hid my eyes through half the movie) which was how did I miss the taking of Aqaba? As you say, one minute everyone is going gung ho for the city and the next it's all over and we're cleaning up. I thought I'd hidden my eyes again. Well, maybe I'll go back to The Seven Pillars and try again (another book I've never finished.) I've never been certain about Lawrence except that he was right that the Arabs were entitled to their independence, just as any other group is.Regardless of how much oil there is under their land. Britain has never been able to look at a situation without throwing its own economic interests into it.

Oh, and War &amp; Peace which I've always boasted I've read, I dug out to check a quote &amp; found that mine is an abbreviated version - probably left out all the technical bits.

Peter T (not verified) Tue, 09/08/2022 - 08:20

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Our best films seem to revolve around war, comedy and lost empire. If that says anything about national character, it's one that's lost its way. I prefer comedy and war, find lost empire tedious and hate kitchen sink.

Paul C (not verified) Tue, 09/08/2022 - 09:07

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Further to In Bruges, the principals Martin MacDonagh, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson have reunited for a new film opening in October : The Banshees of Inisherin. If it's anywhere near as good as In Bruges it will be a treat.

(I thought Ireland was part of the British Isles ? Always was rubbish at geography......)

Brooke (not verified) Tue, 09/08/2022 - 11:46

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Snowy, I agree about Simon's voice. He's a WFH producer which accounts for a lot. And his voice does not have much range and nuance. Still I appreciate his efforts to find these gems.

Joan (not verified) Tue, 09/08/2022 - 18:13

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I just listened to an interesting interview with Matt Hookings, who wrote/produced and starred in Prizefighter: the Jem Belcher Story, movie was about an early boxing champion, around the time of the birth of the sport in the UK. Hookings talked about his struggle to get promised funding from Film Wales which was denied when the filming started, because they were funding some of the big streaming giants (non British) projects, eventually he had to decamp to Lithuania and finish in my Malta to complete his small film which did have an Impressive cast of mostly British actors, exceptions being Russell Crowe and Marton Csokas from down under. When completed their was so much wrangling with film rights and money owing that Amazon swooped in and scooped it up. He sounded quite defeated in the interview about the British Film Industry and their failure to help and promote home ventures, I felt sorry for him as it took him 5 years to get it off the ground. The one good thing to come out of it was that through the streaming, millions can get to see it as subscribers. It’s hard to compete with that!

OMF (not verified) Thu, 11/08/2022 - 19:52

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Again, on the topic of forgotten authors: Dornford Yates. It's silly stuff and boys' adventures stuff, but if you have a rainy weekend to kill, you could do worse than spending it with cocoa (and rum), Mansell, Chandos, and the Berrys.

Granny (not verified) Thu, 18/08/2022 - 03:47

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Your book Paperboy is deliciously nostalgic, it is such a slice of time, I am remembering how your dad wore suits, even on the beach, because men did not have beach clothes in those days. Thank you for all the chuckles

snowy (not verified) Thu, 18/08/2022 - 12:05

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Lists of the best British films in the 21stC seem to be scarce, [that doesn't bode well does it?]

Here is one plucked from a very short selection, [quite how they define 'British' is unclear]:

The Top 100

=98. Beats (2019) dir. Brian Welsh
=98. In The Cut (2003) dir. Jane Campion
=98. Looking for Eric (2009) dir. Ken Loach
=98. Monsters (2010) dir. Gareth Edwards
=98. Promising Young Woman (2020) dir. Emerald Fennell
=98. Remainder (2015) dir. Omer Fast
=98. Supernova (2021) dir. Harry Macqueen
=98. The Act of Killing (2012) dir. Joshua Oppenheimer
=98. The Hours (2002) dir. Stephen Daldry
=98. The Prestige (2006) dir. Christopher Nolan
=86. A Dark Song (2016) dir. Liam Gavin
=86. Another Year (2010) dir. Mike Leigh
=86. Birth (2006) dir. Jonathan Glazer
=86. Calvary (2014) dir. John Michael McDonagh
=86. Ear for Eye (2021) dir. Debbie Tucker Green
=86. Gosford Park (2001) dir. Robert Altman
=86. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) dir. The Coen Brothers
=86. London: The Modern Babylon (2012) dir. Julien Temple
=86. Moon (2009) dir. Duncan Jones
=86. Mr Turner (2014) dir. Mike Leigh
=86. The Arbor (2010) dir. Clio Barnard
=86. The Magdalene Sisters (2002) dir. Peter Mullan
=77. I for India (2005) dir. Sandhya Suri
=77. Sunset Song (2015) dir. Terence Davies
=77. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) dir. Tomas Alfredson
=77. Topsy-Turvy (2000) dir. Mike Leigh
=77. Disobedience (2017) dir. Sebastian Lelio
=77. Dreams of a Life (2011) dir. Carol Morley
=77. In Fabric (2018) dir. Peter Strickland
=77. Man On Wire (2008) dir. James Marsh
=77. The Deep Blue Sea (2011) dir. Terence Davies
=66. Under the Shadow (2016) dir. Babak Anvari
=66. Amy (2015) dir. Asif Kapadia
=66. Bridget Jones's Diary (2001) dir. Sharon Maguire
=66. Carol (2015) dir. Todd Haynes
=66. Censor (2021) dir. Prano Bailey-Bond
=66. Chicken Run (2000) dir. Nick Park, Peter Lord
=66. Ray &amp; Liz (2018) dir. Richard Billingham
=66. Sleep Furiously (2007) dir. Gideon Koppel
=66. The Power of the Dog (2021) dir. Jane Campion
=66. Two Years at Sea (2011) dir. Ben Rivers
=66. Wuthering Heights (2011) dir. Andrea Arnold
=63. Limbo (2021) dir. Ben Sharrock
=63. Sunshine (2007) dir. Danny Boyle
=63. The House of Mirth (2000) dir. Terence Davies
=61. Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) dir. Mike Leigh
=61. Tyrannosaur (2011) dir. Paddy Considine
=57. Skyfall (2012) dir. Sam Mendes
=57. Archipelago (2010) dir. Joanna Hogg
=57. Saint Maud (2020) dir. Rose Glass
=57. The Descent (2005) dir. Neil Marshall
=53. An Education (2009) dir. Lone Scherfig
=53. Hot Fuzz (2007) dir. Edgar Wright
=53. Phantom Thread (2018) dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
=53. Slumdog Millionaire (2008) dir. Danny Boyle
=49. Of Time and the City (2008) dir. Terence Davies
=49. Interstellar (2014) dir. Christopher Nolan
=49. Pride (2014) dir. Matthew Warchus
=49. The Selfish Giant (2013) dir. Clio Barnard
=47. Cold War (2018) dir. Pawel Pawlikowski
=47. The Lobster (2015) dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
46. Vera Drake (2004) dir. Mike Leigh
45. The Father (2020) dir. Florian Zeller
=43. Atonement (2007) dir. Joe Wright
=43. Mangrove (2020) dir. Steve McQueen
=41. Casino Royale (2006) dir. Martin Campbell
=41. Red Road (2006) dir. Andrea Arnold
=39. In Bruges (2008) dir. Martin McDonagh
=39. Unrelated (2007) dir. Joanna Hogg
=36. Dunkirk (2017) dir. Christopher Nolan
=36. 45 Years (2015) dir. Andrew Haigh
=36. Kill List (2011) dir. Ben Wheatley
35. Lady Macbeth (2016) dir. William Oldroyd
34. Attack the Block (2011) dir. Joe Cornish
=32. 28 Days Later (2002) dir. Danny Boyle
=32. The Death of Stalin (2017) dir. Armando Iannucci
31. Sightseers (2012) dir. Ben Wheatley
=29. Berberian Sound Studio (2012) dir. Peter Strickland
=29. I, Daniel Blake (2016) dir. Ken Loach
28. Dead Man's Shoes (2004) dir. Shane Meadows
27. Pride &amp; Prejudice (2005) dir. Joe Wright
=24. 24 Hour Party People (2002) dir. Michael Winterbottom
=24. American Honey (2016) dir. Andrea Arnold
=24. Four Lions (2010) dir. Chris Morris
=22. Paddington (2014) dir. Paul King
=22. Weekend (2011) dir. Andrew Haigh
21. Bright Star (2009) dir. Jane Campion
20. The Souvenir Part II (2022) dir. Joanna Hogg
19. Bend It Like Beckham (2002) dir. Gurinder Chadha
18. Hunger (2008) dir. Steve McQueen
17. Lovers Rock (2020) dir. Steve McQueen
16. Shaun of the Dead (2004) dir. Edgar Wright
15. Sexy Beast (2000) dir. Jonathan Glazer
14. Rocks (2020) dir. Sarah Gavron
13. Ex Machina (2014) dir. Alex Garland
12. We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) dir. Lynne Ramsay
11. Shame (2011) dir. Steve McQueen
10. God's Own Country (2017) dir. Francis Lee
9. You Were Never Really Here (2018) dir. Lynne Ramsay
8. Children of Men (2006) dir. Alfonso Cuaron
7. The Favourite (2018) dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
6. This Is England (2006) dir. Shane Meadows
5. The Souvenir (2019) dir. Joanna Hogg
4. Fish Tank (2009) dir. Andrea Arnold
3. Paddington 2 (2017) dir. Paul King
2. Morvern Callar (2002) dir. Lynne Ramsay
1. Under the Skin (2013) dir. Jonathan Glazer

[List courtesy of Massive-cinema.com, compiled from lists of top films from critics/writers - inc. Anne Bilson and Kim Newman who are both known here].

But some very obvious films seem to be missing, [in no particular order].

Kajaki, '71, 1917, Warhorse, Private Peaceful - [War].
Sherlock Holmes, St. Trinians - [Reboots]
Prevenge, Severance, The Cottage - [Horror/Comedy]

[Others will probably pop into mind the very second I press this butto...