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
Saturday 16 August 1997
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.
Is the comedy album making a comeback?comedy
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Secret Cinema: Why were Back to the Future screenings cancelled?
- 2 Christians: The world's most persecuted people
- 3 The secret report that helps Israelis to hide facts
- 4 Danish TV reporter is all business up top, all party down below
- 5 Ross Burden dead: MasterChef and Ready Steady Cook star, dies aged 45
Top Gear Burma episode breached Ofcom rules over Jeremy Clarkson's racial slur
Secret Cinema: Why were Back to the Future screenings cancelled?
Game of Thrones season 4 blooper reel unveiled at Comic-Con 2014
Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 teaser trailer sees Katniss lead rebellion against the Capitol
The Simpsons Family Guy trailer: First look at crossover episode after Comic-Con debut
The secret report that helps Israelis to hide facts
A day in the life of Vladimir Putin: The dictator in his labyrinth
Were 'Poor Doors' added to mixed developments so wealthy residents don't have to go in alongside social housing tenants?
A new Russian revolution: The cracks are starting to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Arizona execution lasts two hours as killer Joseph Wood left 'snorting and gasping' for air
Opponents of Israel's military operation in Gaza are the real enemies of Middle Eastern peace