With filmmaking in the UK becoming increasingly difficult due almost entirely to lack of funding, it’s hardly surprising that defining what can be classed as ‘British Cinema’ is nigh on impossible. Is a film British if it is made by a British director, deals with ‘British issues’ and is shot in Britain – even if the majority of its funding comes from overseas? Whilst many film awards’ bodies would argue not, there is certainly a case for striking funding from the list of things that make a film British. We can and do happily chop and change this idea as it suits us (all Hitchcock films are British because he’s one of the best directors of all-time, as is Antonioni’s masterpiece Blow Up), but if funding was the defining tenet of what constitutes a British film, we’d hardly have anything to call British at all. British cinema can generally be defined by a few words or phrases that are internationally recognised as being synonymous with the genre; phrases such as ‘kitchen sink’, ‘social realism’ and more often than not, ‘bleak’. But of course, as Joseph McDonagh argues, it didn’t always used to be like that. We no longer have Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger laughing at the establishment in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Where are our magical, sweeping epics, crafted by the likes of David Lean? The truth is, I think, quite simple. They’re wherever we left Casablanca, Citizen Kane and Singin’ in the Rain.
The fact of the matter is that cinema, as with every other art form in society, naturally changes as time progresses – in every country. Perhaps this is why Powell and Pressburger stand out as key figures in Britain’s cinematic history; without their display of audacity in challenging Churchill, who knows where we’d be? In the UK, we have arguably some of the strictest film censorship boards in the world, and as a result, British filmmakers have become remarkably good at sneaking around censorship laws. The ability to adapt to the times whilst still managing to challenge the establishment is something that many prolific British directors continue to have in common; take Basil Deardon’s Victim, a film about a homosexual, made before homosexuality was even legal in the UK. Fast forward slightly and there’s the ‘Ooh Matron!’ of the Carry Onfilms, followed by the explosion of Channel 4 in the 80’s. Mix in a bit of rave music and Hugh Grant being caught with a prostitute, and you basically have an Olympic opening ceremony.
With the worst of the BBFC’s censorship behind us, we no longer have to skirt around controversial issues. The British people want the truth, and they can handle it; this is where we are in the present day. Never before have we had the freedom that we have now, to experiment, to express and to challenge. Even Powell and Pressburger, despite Colonel Blimp’s rebellious overtones, were restricted to the relatively formulaic style of storytelling of their time. However, it is Powell and Pressburger’s spirited insistence in making Colonel Blimpdespite Churchill’s protests that is still alive in British cinema today. It is alive in Loach, Leigh, Arnold, Meadows, McQueen and Ramsey, alongside an endless list of others.
Sadly, the films by the aforementioned aren’t necessarily the biggest sellers, neither here nor abroad. This is where we run in to problems; with no money coming in to the UK film industry due to lack of revenue being generated internationally, there is very little to spend on making films.
Occasionally, we are able to churn out the odd mega-hit but these are usually crowd-pleasers that pander to a romanticised (and often Americanised) perception of Britain. Consider Tom Hooper’s Academy Award-winningThe King’s Speech, which despite being well-made, has no real cultural relevance. Or, take one of Hooper’s predecessors, romantic-comedy veteran Richard Curtis; a writer-director who has gone from being known for the comic-writing genius of Blackadder to being known for being involved with an irritating, Andie McDowell-enabling, internationally-friendly cinema that isn’t terrible – just false (and terribly marketable).
There seems to be a gap between the international audience that want to buy into the warm, fuzzy view of the UK that is being marketed to them, and our own filmmakers who want to produce the exact opposite. But all hope is not lost; things are changing, albeit ever so slightly. I certainly wasn’t the only one whose heart burst with pride when reading an article about Warp Films in Variety magazine. Working Title’s Les Miserablesbecoming the fastest musical in U.S. box office history to cross $100m. This, alongside the international success of actors such as Michael Fassbender will surely draw international audience’s attention to the earlier work of such British household names – and hopefully inspire them to visit the work of British filmmakers they have collaborated with. If Powell and Pressburger have taught us anything, it’s to be completely fearless in our filmmaking, and to not allow our art to suffer at the mercy of the global market. We will never be satisfied if we continue to try and pander to international audiences. Funding films has never been easy, but it is not a problem that is going to be solved by churning out what we think international audiences want to see.
This article was written for Kubrick on The Guillotine