Charge of the light brigade

Charles Drazin salutes the heroic failures of British film: Films and British National Identity: from Dickens to Dad's Army by Jeffrey Richards, Manchester University Press, pounds 14.99 Waving the Flag: constructing a Natio nal Cinema in Britain by Andrew Higson, Clarendon Press, pounds 13.99

There is a new optimism about the British cinema. The National Lottery has poured millions into production, a new film-friendly government has given the industry generous tax breaks, cinema attendances have rocketed, and the British-made The English Patient, although admittedly financed with American money, cleaned up at the Oscars. But if the British film industry is indeed enjoying yet another "renaissance", it is only because it has collapsed so many times before. Fabulous achievement has always been a prelude to disaster. Remember Colin Welland, flushed with the success of Chariots of Fire, warning Hollywood that "The British are coming!" Shortly afterwards the industry was on its deathbed - again.

Andrew Higson's Waving the Flag contains some sobering lessons from the past for those film producers lucky in the Lottery. He writes of a film which was hailed by the trade papers as "perhaps the outstanding picture of the year", yet with its imported American star was acknowledged to be "produced on lines frankly designed to appeal to America". Not Four Weddings and a Funeral, with its travel-brochure vision of Britain and Andie MacDowell in 1994, but Woman to Woman with Betty Compson - in 1924.

Twenty years later its producer Michael Balcon, who in the Thirties lost a lot of money trying to appeal to the Americans, pursued the opposite policy at Ealing. He championed a native, self-sufficient cinema, "projecting Britain and the British character".

This has always been the dilemma for the British producer - make big films that will appeal to an American market, or little ones that can get by in the British. If the National Lottery seems a peculiarly apt source of funding, it is because whatever the decision, the only certainty hitherto has been that sooner or later the losses will far outweigh the gains.

Higson's dry but thorough analysis of the British cinema's strategies for survival in the face of Hollywood's dominance has its depressing aspect, but there is something genuinely heroic about the way the British keep on trying. This is in itself, I suppose, a very British quality. We are, after all, the nation of Scott, Dunkirk and the Charge of the Light Brigade: one of our most treasured ideas about ourselves is that we lose with style.

In Films and National Identity, Jeffrey Richards traces the representation of the British on film, from the Korda Empire epics of the Thirties to the "heritage" films of the present day. "National identity" is such an imprecise notion, cutting across class and region, that these celluloid images of Britain are inevitably full of contradiction. Is it the English who are famed for their reserve, or just the middle to upper classes in the Home Counties? The passage of time has also brought with it stark contrasts. The notions of duty, civic responsibility and restraint that so permeated the cinema of the Forties became a joke in the Sixties. Richards describes attending a showing of Brief Encounter in 1967 at which the audience were "convulsed with laughter throughout, incredulous that the lovers did not just leap into bed together". Thirty years on - perhaps because the permissive society has long lost its novelty - the film rings true again.

Rooted as much in sentiment as in objective observation, national identity is as different from true character as heritage is from history. It is a tool we resort to, especially in moments of crisis. So it is not surprising that the most powerful images of this country date from the Second World War. Of Humphrey Jennings's wartime films, Lindsay Anderson wrote in the early Fifties that "They will speak for us to posterity, saying: `This is what it was like. This is what we were like - the best of us.'" Yet at the end of the Sixties Raymond Durgnat could complain of "their near- jingoism" and "the cliches at which the gorges and hackles of Osborne's generation were to rise".

What kind of cinema will the new generation of British producers bet their Lottery money on? As illuminating as his book often is, it would be a pity if they followed Richards's recipe. Profoundly disenchanted with the materialism of contemporary society, he believes the Sixties to be the decade when the rot set in. A period in British cinema we should treasure for its joie de vivre and openness, he regrets for its "self- indulgent individualism". In his final chapter, celebrating Dad's Army for its vision of "common purpose and good neighbourliness", he reveals himself to be a "nostalgiast". In past ideas of national identity we can find lessons for now, he suggests - as if the sense of community and idealism of the Thirties and Forties could be separated from the conflicts and adversity that brought them into being.

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