The Roaring Mouse

British Cinema: The Lights That Failed

James Park
B.T.Batsford. London. 1990.
Pbk. 192 pages. £14.95.

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This is a very good over-view of British cinema since its beginnings to the present day. It charts the roller-coaster progress of British studios and British films, and tries to explain why the industry rapidly lurches from disaster and occasional success. 

The importance of the American market is shown to be a major psychological and financial obstacle to any consistent output. For a successful indigenous film industry some have argued that we should emphasise and highlight our ‘Britishness’ to capture our own national audience. Such an approach could also interest the international market, if done well. Others believe that we should compete directly with Hollywood and play it at its own game. 

In the history of British cinema both approaches have been attempted, but neither has been totally successful. The output of the Ealing Studios, controlled by Michael Balcon, certainly had a ‘British’ quality. The Ealing films of the 1950s showed the class divisions, aspirations, humour and frustrations of the British. In contrast, the likes of Alexandar Korda in the 1930s, and Lew Grade in the 1970s, went for the international market. 

Park argues that the euphoria that surrounds the success of low budget or medium budget films often leads producers to become increasingly ambitious. The care and work that went into the original successes are abandoned for more risky big-budget ventures. Such was the fate of David Puttnam's Goldcrest which lost control of the millions spent on Revolution and Absolute Beginners

The definition of what British cinema should be, and how it might evolve, are still matters that trouble us. The success of the Gainsborough melodramas showed that us Brits do have life beating beneath our reserved and cold emotional surface. Equally the Hammer horror films revealed the fantasies that dominated our worst nightmares. The work of both studios was largely ignored by serious critics at that time and tended to be looked down on (see for example the attitude towards Hammer horror films in Darren Slade’s' article Curse of the Middlebrows ). 

Many critics and filmmakers have felt that British cinema should be in sharp contrast with Hollywood cinema. This either results in costume dramas usually based on literary classics (a plundering of our quaint real and mythical past which is hand- in-hand with the concept of Great Britain as simply a Theme Park) , or we get ‘radical’ films that allegedly show the real contemporary existence of British people (usually extolling the nobility of the working classes. and obviously made by left-wing middle class directors who slum-it to show their hip street-cred). Such approaches are financial suicide and are rejected by mass audiences. It has to be admitted that audiences still eagerly go to see Hollywood films. 

The stranglehold of television since the 1950s has increased the dilemma. One solution was to make film versions of popular TV series, or to make films that feature pop groups or pop performers. Each tactic has only resulted in a short- term benefit. Television itself has taken over the type of subjects and stories that would have graced the screens of the local fleapit (e.g. series like Heartbeat, plus television soap operas, news, sport and documentary programmes have virtually eliminated such forms from the cinema screens). The initiatives of Channel 4 and BBC 2 have aided film production but their commitment to cinema is not very strong. Too often such films look like extended television programmes rather than feature films that can sustain the interest of a paying audience. 

Things got so bad that there was virtually no British film industry. In an anguished cry for unity within the British film community Don Boyd has stated that: 

We will never have a thriving film community so long as we continue to vilify our successful and active film-makers. Everybody is poisoned by this appalling negative atmosphere from our idealistic film students to our brilliant technicians, from our reluctant financiers to our disappointed and apathetic audience. 
(Look Back In Angers in The Guardian 22/23 February 1992.) 

It is a pity that Boyd has a poisonous attitude towards television so he isn't a glowing example for love and peace amongst filmmakers! James Park suggests that we create ‘script factories’ that ‘could generate ideas about cinema that would percolate out through the rest of the culture.’ Some how I don't think this is the answer either. 

Now that everybody is wondering where the British film industry has disappeared to, and there are calls for government action to ‘save’ it, perhaps we should ask if it needs saving? If Britain's greatest industries can be sacrificed to market forces why should the film industry be seen as an exception? 

Since this book appeared money from the National Lottery has boasted British film output, but the problem has been getting these films screened and properly promoted. Hollywood continues to dominate and it looks like things are unlikely change.

Nigel Watson 

For a discussion of British cinema a decade after this book see We're Writers, Not Sheep.
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