Marcus Berkmann: Ah, bliss... it's that Great British Film time again

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The Independent Online

Back from their holidays race the connoisseurs of hype, blather, bilge and puffery, as the great new autumn PR season gets under way. The forthcoming release of the film of Ian McEwan's novel Atonement has already featured prominently in all newspapers, countless magazines, the Today programme, and the 10 o'clock news. Indeed, I am writing another piece about it here. Such is the military relentlessness of the publicity onslaught that long before any of us has seen the damn thing we seem to know everything about it.

By the time we do get to see it – for see it we shall, whether we truly want to or not – we shall all feel slightly bored with it and tell our friends that it wasn't quite as good as the reviews said it was. By which time the publicity machine will have moved on. (I always imagine it as a huge ungainly vehicle with loads of flashing lights, the type that always seems to break down on motorways in the rush hour.) What's the next product, the next Great British film we will all be compelled to sit through? Will Judi Dench be in it? It's hard to quell the excitement.

It is curious, though, the way that a certain sort of British film has become a cornerstone of the cultural (and by association, public relations) calendar. It's probably set in the past, and often in what's left of the English countryside. Location managers already know the seven houses, four meadows and one babbling brook that can stand in for 18th, 19th and early 20th-century rural England, and all of them are booked solid until 2015.

Alternatively, the film might be set abroad, probably somewhere terribly hot and sweaty, allowing Ralph Fiennes to reproduce his award-winning Take Handkerchief Out Of Pocket And Mop Brow With It routine.

Actors will have been hired for their ability to look good in period costume and, as an optional extra, portray a certain type of clenched Britishness that we all remember from British films of the past but have never actually encountered in real life. One or two American actors may also have been hired to placate the money people and will either be (a) hugely admired for the quality of their accent coaching, or (b) widely compared to Dick Van Dyke.

When the publicity starts, everyone will talk airily about Oscar nominations, and Julian Fellowes will be approached by the Daily Telegraph to write about the incorrect use of fish knives in the dinner party scene.

Not a few of these films, of course, will have war scenes, because although we have had 60 and 90 years respectively to get over them, the two world wars continue to hold us in their thrall. Much loved, mildly disliked and widely loathed characters will all die unpleasant deaths, as war is hell. Other characters will fill time by smoking. Flasbacks to war are often experienced as nightmares, and show the now proven inadequacy of the stiff upper lip as a first line of defence. Great British films set in wartime aren't just fighting the Germans; they're fighting the assumptions set up by The Cruel Sea. Jack Hawkins loses every time.

In contemporary films, meanwhile, everyone lives in north London in much larger houses than they would be able to afford in real life. Poor people, meanwhile, live very near a loud railway line and eat in caffs. Parking spaces are laughably easy to come by. When the publicity starts, Julian Fellowes will be approached by the Daily Telegraph to write about the incorrect use of champagne flutes in the dinner party scene.

Most of these films, of course, will have been based on famous novels, which either are very old and have been made into films many times before, or were read by everyone on European beaches three or four summers ago. (At this point the world divides neatly and conveniently into those people who don't mind being seen on public transport reading the film tie-in paperback and those who would rather run naked across Trafalgar Square on New Year's Eve.)

Obviously no genre novels will be considered: middlebrow literary fiction is the preferred source material, partly because of brand recognition – we have all heard of these books even if we haven't read them – and partly because they are a recognised mark of middle-class good taste (The new Ian McEwan? Says more about you than cash ever can). And if there's a role for Keira Knightley with her amazing roving eyebrows, even better. What do you mean, there isn't? Write one in immediately.

Should we worry if these films bear no relation to life as it is lived in Britain today? Probably not. No one really wants to see films about any of that stuff, whatever they may say. It's no coincidence that, against all evidence to the contrary, the rest of the world still sees us as brave, stoical, slightly repressed and forever mopping our foreheads with clean white handkerchieves.

The Great British film may only tell us part of the story, but it appears that it's the only part we want to hear, and it's the only part anyone around the world wants to hear. How nice to escape from real life for a couple of hours, including ads and Previewtime, with a box of Revels and a plastic cup of something faintly coffee-flavoured. This, of course, is the only purpose of all that hype, blather, bilge and puffery – to get us into the cinema, ideally in the film's first couple of weeks. We are connoisseurs of the process and also its willing victims. When is Atonement opening? Must remember to book some tickets...

marcusberkmann@macace.net

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