Is it time for British cinema to rediscover the Aga saga?
Since the new wave in the 1960s, films with middle-class characters have been out of favour. When will UK directors get over their social hang-ups, asks Geoffrey Macnab
Friday 02 July 2010
It is hard to avoid a certain nostalgia while watching Stephen Frears' new film, Tamara Drewe (adapted from the Posy Simmonds graphic novel.) The British film industry hasn't been making this kind of bucolic comedy since the days of Kay Kendall, Kenneth More and Genevieve (1953). Admittedly, there is much more sex in Tamara Drewe than in most of the films made by the Rank Organisation in the 1950s. Tamara (Gemma Arterton) is promiscuous in a way that Phyllis Calvert and Patricia Roc characters in Fifties melodramas never were. However, Frears' characters are types who haven't been much seen on British screens in recent years – middle-class folk who have Aga ovens in their kitchens and listen to Radio 4.
"Cosy" and "smug" are two of the terms often used to characterise a style of film-making prevalent in British cinema of the 1950s. This was an era of "stagnant complacency" (in the words of historian Robert Murphy) and of "tepid humanism" (according to film-maker and critic Lindsay Anderson). It was the age of John Mills war films and earnest dramas in which "chaps" like Jack Hawkins and John Gregson smoked pipes. Rank still had its well-spoken young starlets under contract. Dirk Bogarde was a huge star largely on the back of his performances as the winsome Simon Sparrow in the Doctor films.
Half a century on, these kinds of characters have all but disappeared from British cinema – which is why Tamara Drewe makes such disconcerting viewing.
Speaking during the Edinburgh International Film Festival, director Hattie Dalton said that one reason her film, Third Star (which closed the Festival) had struggled to attract financing was because of the social background of her characters. "It wasn't so much the subject matter involving cancer. I think that there was a tentativeness toward the fact these boys were middle class," Dalton said of her protagonists, three twentysomething men who accompany a terminally ill friend on an emotionally charged final journey. Dalton makes the point that in contemporary British cinema, "there is some really good gritty realism of films representing the working class" and that upper-class types are represented in period films but that Britain has no equivalent to "that more cerebral Woody Allen style" found in US independent films.
If Dalton is right and middle-class characters and stories have disappeared from British screens, many would see this as a cause for celebration.
"At the end of the 1950s, we were attacking the class system – not because we were political but because we were bored with the middle classes and we took on material which reflected this," Lindsay Anderson commented in a late interview with historian Brian McFarlane.
That boredom with the middle-classes pushed British new wave directors like Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson in the early 1960s to make films like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, This Sporting Life and A Taste of Honey.
The boredom with middle-class characters still seems to be felt just as acutely by British film-makers today. Whether Danny Boyle's Trainspotting, about heroin addicts from Leith, or the Nineties wave of British gangster films, or the more recent critical favourites like Andrea Arnold's Red Road and Fish Tank and Steve McQueen's Hunger, the most notable British films have had nothing to do with middle-class experience. They've been far more likely to be set on impoverished housing estates than in leafy suburbia.
French cinema has its tradition of playful, talkative drama (perhaps best epitomised by Eric Rohmer's "Moral Tales" and "Tales of the Four Seasons") in which middle-class young characters ponder life and love. US independent cinema has Woody Allen and his many followers as well as the more recent, low-budget mumblecore movement in which twentysomething college types muse over the ups and downs of their relationships. The closest that British cinema has come to this has been the glossy Richard Curtis comedies on the one hand or harrowing, acutely observed Mike Leigh dramas like Secrets and Lies or his brilliant new film, Another Year.
One obvious irony is that British film-makers themselves still tend to come from white middle-class backgrounds. British cinema's record on diversity isn't impressive. Research on the "Film Labour Market" published by Skillset last year revealed that the proportion of people from black, Asian or ethnic minority backgrounds working in film production hasn't changed since 2005 – and stands at a meagre five per cent.
During the 1950s, when Anderson and his followers took over Sight & Sound magazine (published by the BFI) there was a mini guerrilla war against the British film establishment.
One particular review caused a huge scandal. Writing under the pseudonym Frank Enley, its editor Gavin Lambert savaged the Ealing Studios film, The Blue Lamp (1950), railing against its "specious brand of mediocrity" and its patronising treatment of working-class characters. Lambert caused outrage by suggesting it was "boring and parochial."
The attacks by Lambert, Anderson and co on what they perceived to be the middle-class complacency of British cinema had an effect. Slowly, the films about middle-class characters stopped being made. In Swinging London, the Ealing ethos seemed very old fashioned indeed.
"As a result of British films being middle class, they didn't attract a very large popular audience," Lindsay Anderson later noted of Fifties British cinema. "A popular audience in this country has always preferred American pictures, which have seemed to them to be classless (although they're not.)"
Anderson's observations aren't entirely accurate. Genevieve, the eminently cosy and middle-class 1953 comedy set against the backcloth of a London-to-Brighton vintage car rally, was a huge box-office hit.
Doctor in the House (1954), by producer/director team Ralph Thomas and Betty Box, was likewise a big-money spinner. At the same time, actors like Montgomery Clift, James Dean and Marlon Brando were blazing a trail across Hollywood, the British film industry's leading men were Dirk Bogarde, Kenneth More and Donald Sinden as medical students in a jolly romp. A reported 25 million people within the UK went to see it – in other words, almost half the entire British population.
Whether wittingly or not, Frears' Tamara Drewe evokes memories of the Ralph Thomas/Betty Box comedies. The lascivious humour is quite in keeping with that of the Doctor films too. (As we watch Gemma Arterton in her low-cut denim shorts stirring up unholy passions in the locals, it's worth remembering that Brigitte Bardot had a similar effect on the passengers when she appeared alongside Bogarde in Doctor at Sea.)
Ealing Studios under its new management recently announced that, following its success with St Trinian's, it is now planning to revive the Doctor in the House franchise too. "I think England is a different place," suggests Ealing boss Barnaby Thompson. "In the same way, we contemporised St Trinian's, we would hope to do very much the same with Doctor in the House, setting it very much in a contemporary England that would take account of all the diversity and social change that has gone on."
As Hattie Dalton's struggles to make Third Star attest, films featuring middle-class characters of any type are regarded with the gravest suspicion. What is also evident is that class is still as much a preoccupation (albeit an unspoken one) for the British film industry as it was in the days of Genevieve, The Blue Lamp and Doctor in the House. No one wants to return to the complacency of the era of Pinewood comedies of the 1950s.
At the same time, it would be a healthy move if the British film industry was able to overcome its hang-up about the middle classes. After all, they have stories to tell too.
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