Great names of British film from Vivien Leigh to Kate Winslet are starring in a new academic role – as the subjects of seminars and lectures in a Masters course thought to be the first in the UK to focus solely on the country's home-grown film industry.
A group of Hull University academics who are passionate about British film, led by the author Professor Neil Sinyard, have come together to offer the course, aimed at restoring British film to what they believe is its rightful place in European cinema. Starting last autumn, the course, an addition to the undergraduate film studies already offered at the university, will initially run part-time over two years.
Sinyard, the author of books about directors such as Nicolas Roeg and the screenwriter Graham Greene (who was responsible for the great British move The Third Man), says British film-makers have struggled to compete with their Hollywood rivals. In spite of their talent, they don't have a big industrial base, he says. "It has been difficult to get things made and distributed. And it has been hard to get films shown at big multiplexes. Brave, exciting new work by directors such as Shane Meadows, Ken Loach or Michael Winterbottom can appear briefly on the art-house round, then disappear – blink and you miss them. Yet in Europe these directors are very popular – Loach, for example, has been a huge inspiration to East European film-makers."
Hull has a film heritage: J Arthur Rank and the actor Ian Carmichael came from the city. The university has encouraged a film tradition, regularly awarding honorary degrees to those involved in film, including Dame Judi Dench, John Hurt and Sir Ben Kingsley. The director Anthony Minghella was a student at the university and had close ties with its drama department.
On the course, students learn how, in the 1930s, Ealing Studios set out to establish a particular identity for British film. Little interested in competing with Hollywood (unlike their contemporaries at Rank), the Ealing crews made war films, and later in the 1940s were responsible for an outpouring of pioneering, genteel comedy. In a six-week stretch in 1949, Ealing produced Passport to Pimlico, Whisky Galore and Kind Hearts and Coronets, all from the same studios. Later in the 1950s, those subtle comedies gave way to the more raucous, working-class films of the Carry On tradition, made outside Ealing, but the west London studios remained a byword for first-class humour.
Sinyard's colleague Dr Melanie Williams is aiming to teach students about women in front of and behind the camera from the 1920s to today. With two new films starring Kate Winslet opening this month, Williams takes a well-timed look at what it requires to make the leap from British actress to Hollywood star. "In the 1930s, the stars were Gracie Fields and Anna Neagle: today, we have actresses of equal quality, such as Keira Knightley and Helen Mirren," she says.
"Looking at cinema is a wonderful way of approaching social history, a short cut to understanding mood. The contrast between the stars of the Fifties and Sixties – between Diana Dors and Julie Christie – says a lot about how the position of women changed over that period.
"We can also unearth some of the more forgotten stories – women as writers, designers and directors. From directors in the Fifties, such as Muriel Box, to Sally Potter, the director of Orlando, starring Tilda Swinton, or Gurinder Chadha, who gave us Bend It Like Beckham, women have not always been given their due."
Enthusiasts like John Wheatcroft, a journalist who started the course last September, say that it gives dedicated film-goers the chance to study in a more formal way the work of British directors they have always revered. "People underestimate the sheer diversity of British output," Wheatcroft says. "Film in the UK seems in a constant state of crisis, but for all that it produces great film-makers and actors. For me, the chance to study the work of people like Terence Davies, Mike Leigh or Bill Forsyth is hugely stimulating."
The course is attracting mature students with a passion for film, like Wheatcroft, but as it moves out of its first year it is likely to attract younger students too, Sinyard says. For those who see film as a career, or for those who are just keen enthusiasts, the new MA is much overdue.Reuse content