French/U.K. Cinema Debate

Nigel Watson

Talking Pictures alias






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If you ever needed proof that the British film industry has had it's day, then you should have attended this French/U.K. cinema debate. It was held at the Institut Francais on 21 November 1992, as part of the London Film Festival. The panel was composed of Michel Ciment, a writer for the journal Positif, and Philippe Pilard, who represented the French view. The U.K. was represented by Geoff Andrew, of Time Out, and Richard Combs, co-editor of Sight and Sound

The discussion was divided into four parts. 1) The critical attitudes towards British film; 2) The lack of filmmaking continuity; 3) The relationship between British and the U.S. film industry; 4) The role of cinema and theatre in Britain. Other than saying that there is a class division between theatre and film, the former having more respect from the 'quality' media, there was not so much discussion about this point. The three other issues were discussed in more detail: 

The Critical View of British Film

Philippe Pilard thought that many British filmmakers are not regarded as 'British' in this category he put the works of Stephen Frears and James Ivory. He also thought that there is a lack of knowledge of British films in France. 

Richard Combs contended that the concept of the cinema was foreign to Britain. Our nature is opposed to it and we don't want to, or cannot, reveal our national character on screen. 

The faults in our industry were due to lack of government support, reliance on TV funding, the alignment of our film tradition with documentary filmmaking and the theatre, and the fact that our films are aimed at a mid-Atlantic or middlebrow audience - according to Geoff Andrew. 

Lack of Continuity

Michel Ciment said that the British are too self-deprecating. For example, the work of Lindsay Anderson's Sequence publication in 1947, and the resulting Free Cinema movement is less well-known or respected than the French New Wave. 

Part of the British problem is that we lose directors to the U.S.A., claimed Geoff Andrew. The good directors who do remain, like Peter Greenaway, are marginalised. 

Michel added that it was easier to make films in France, and that culturally it is a more fertile ground for filmmaking. Also, lots of films that are regarded as U.S. productions, are really British (e.g. A Clockwork Orange). 

Another problem, according to Geoff Andrew, is that British films are not very cosmopolitan or contemporary. They tend to show nostalgic, exotic or not very honest imagery. 

British and U.S. Film Industries 

Richard Combs asked "why did Hitchcock go to the U.S.A. ?" Combs thought it was for "more expression". In the end he wondered if we really need a British cinema. 

In defence of Britain, Michel Ciment quite rightly proclaimed that it would be cultural suicide for British cinema to disappear. The Free Cinema movement was killed by the in-rush of U.S. finance in the 1960s. When the U.S. money disappeared in the 1970s our industry collapsed, and when it has recovered through the likes of Goldcrest it has quickly lurched into further financial disasters. 

Geoff Andrew's view was that we had a lack of will to develop our industry. We imitate Hollywood and don't take cinema seriously. The U.S. just uses us and isn't a great help. 

General Discussion & Audience Questions

Philippe Pilard did not believe in a hard-and-fast distinction between film and television. He observed that much of the TV work directed by Mike Leigh and Stephen Frears is largely ignored. Only films get the chance for more detailed acknowledgement and review. Indeed, there is too much snobbery towards TV. 
Richard Combs wondered how a body of mainstream British films might be created. He noted that Michael Powell, who stayed in Britain, was not able to develop in the same manner as Hitchcock who went to the U.S.A. In reply, Geoff Andrew countered that Powell was not so good without the aid of Emeric Pressburger. 

The media in general and the lack of serious journals was considered as being detrimental to British cinema, although Michel Ciment noted that even in France it was difficult to sustain such publications. 
It was intriguing to see that the French critics seemed to have a greater understanding and concern for British cinema. Rather than ask questions, members of the audience made quite emotional speeches appealing for the preservation of a British film industry. The evidence of this debate shows that our influential critics have given-up or could not care less. 
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Material Copyright © 2001 Nigel Watson