Death of the British Hero

Darren Slade

 
Talking Pictures alias talkingpix.co.uk

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Even during the long years when British filmmaking barely existed, British actors have always been present on the world's movie screens.

Recently, of course, a handful of British films have done enormously well in America, and British actors have never been in more demand in Hollywood. yet the images we export of ourselves - the picture we offer of 'British-ness' - couldn't be more negative.

I'd like to look at the way the British represent themselves in films aimed at a worldwide market. And, I'd like to try and illuminate that by comparing the way Britishness is represented now to its portrayal in the 1960s.

In the 1960s, when the economy was booming, British films were being exported on a bigger scale than ever. There were a whole range of images of Britishness exported in these movies, but almost all of them had one thing in common; it was cool to be British. British fashion, British locales, British manners, British music - our films were unashamed of holding these things up to the world market. We had outgrown social realism and the kitchen sink drama, with its angry, gloomy, protagonists, and we were enjoying prosperity.

In the early sixties, the image of Britishness that conquered the world was James Bond. In many ways, Bond was anything but a revolutionary. Certainly, as Ian Fleming wrote him, he was a defender of the old-fashioned British high-life, and he saw women and foreigners alike as inferior species to be mistrusted and used to his own ends. But Sean Connery's Scottishness and his nice line in irony helped take the sting out of Bond's imperialism. And importantly, Bond made it fashionable to be
refined, suave, in command of emotions, to be educated and to have good taste in clothes, food and cars. Bond's first appearance in Dr No is not in an action sequence but at a card game, and in the early Bond films a lot of the action is actually quite low key, taking place in 'sophisticated' venues
such as the golf course or the casino.

The fact that Bond made it cool to be British is nicely attested to by Danny Peary, who in Cult Movies 3 writes about the Bond series from an American perspective. He links Bond with the arrival of British pop bands just a few months later:
 

For a time, Bond and the Beatles were a phenomenal one-two punch that made us believe Britain was where it was at, and hunger for anything (music, movies, miniskirts) and anybody (Freddie and the Dreamers?) our one-time landlords would send our way. (1)


Peary's point brings us to the other key world-beating British icons of the 1960s, the Beatles. In 1964's Goldfinger, Bond says that serving Dom Perignon above 38 degrees Fahrenheit would be "almost as bad as listening to the Beatles without ear muffs", which is a reminder that these two cultural landmarks came from different worlds. But they are connected in the public imagination because Britishness was fashionable.

The Beatles had, of course, made their mark before they turned to films with A Hard Day's Night. And Robert Murphy, in his book Sixties British Cinema (2) points out that people would have flocked to see A Hard Day's Night even if it had been no better as a piece of film-making than your average Tommy Steele vehicle. But the fact that the Beatles' film debut was stylish and innovative was all-important.

The image of the Beatles as portrayed in A Hard Day's Night is significant in all kinds of ways. To begin with, there's the fact that they are so working class - perhaps the first time that British working class men have been allowed to be stylish heroes rather than put-upon protagonists of the kitchen sink dramas.

Clips of the group cockily dealing with the press and the representatives of fashionable society show them to be more than just cheeky teenagers enjoying their youthful rebellion against the establishment. Instead, they are self-confident, witty people coming face-to-face with establishment figures and sending them up. It's also important to look at the way the movie was shot. Its cinematography seems to owe a lot to the fashionable new British photographers of the day, and Richard Lester's camera movement and cutting broke new ground, even though we have seen them imitated a thousand times in pop videos since then. This is important because it shows us how the rebellious Beatles were linked to all that was new and exciting aesthetically - everything about them was chic, quite apart from the significance of their music.

I've chosen these two examples of Britishness as cool, but there are plenty more. Take Michael Caine, another working class character who epitomised rugged individualism in the unconventionally-filmed Harry Palmer films. Or take a theatrically trained actor like Peter O'Toole, who became a big star and then aligned himself with unusual, challenging movies. Or take Richard Burton, who, like Connery, proved you didn't have to be English to be British, and exuded magnetism in the weakest vehicles.

Leaving all these examples to one side, I want to move up to date and look at the image of Britishness which we export today.

In 1988, A Fish Called Wanda, although American financed, showed British   film-making talent could still mean big business worldwide. Clever and funny as it was, it didn't do the British image any favours. The British man, as represented by John Cleese's character in Wanda, is incapable of expressing emotion rationally. He finds it difficult to accept affection either, without turning embarrassed. He's drawn to attractive, emotionally bold American women, but when he attracts them it's in spite of his own ham-fistedness.

After the success of A Fish Called Wanda, American producers were briefly keen to try other comedy vehicles featuring British comics. And the fact that comedians like Lenny Henry and Rik Myall failed so dismally in Hollywood probably has something to do with the fact that these people weren't your insecure, vulnerable repressives.

Which brings us to Four Weddings and a Funeral, the film that conquered America more surely than any other British product, and which made a star of Hugh Grant. And here we see the same stereotype as in A Fish Called Wanda, only even less subtly: the British man is emotionally repressed, gauche, incapable of relating to the attractive American woman he badly desires.  What's more, the characters in Four Weddings come from a higher social class than even the barrister in A Fish Called Wanda. Andie McDowell's character at one point asks whether all English  people live in castles, and the film suggests they do - except for one scene in which we see a token shot of a working class estate. It's the funeral scene, of course.

The social world the film depicts, coupled with Hugh Grant's twitchy, embarrassed performance, means the most successful image of Britishness we have exported to date is that of the upper class twit. And not even a charming, caddish, calculating bounder of the kind Terry-Thomas and Leslie Phillips used to be, but a pathetic, clownish one.

Why do we manufacture these negative images of Britishness? Is it some national modesty, the same refusal to show off that prompted us to make  films about our military disasters, such as A Bridge Too Far, much more often than our successes? Or is it that 15 years of economic decline has somehow shaped our national self-confidence? (3)

A more likely cause, I think, is the fact that British films can no longer make money from the British market alone. We need the US dollars and the American reverence for everything British has evaporated. Movies like In the Name of the Father and The Crying Game are much more suited to the American tendency to see the British as old-fashioned colonialists. And the fact that Americans like the British to be villains rather than heroes can be seen from the kind of roles Hollywood gives our actors: Jeremy Irons in Die Hard With a Vengeance or The Lion King; Alan Rickman in Die Hard or Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves; Nigel Hawthorne in Demolition Man; or a talented Shakespearean actor such as Roger Rees in nothing but comic villainous roles.
 

So our economically weak film industry perpetuates stereotypical views of Britishness because they sell. But surely it's time for a change, Britain may still be in economic decline, but we have a vibrant multi-cultural society which rarely ends up on film. And we have plenty of talent in acting, writing, directing, music. If we want a sea change in the world's attitudes to British movie-making, I think it's about time we made ourselves the heroes in our own films.
NOTES

1.  Danny Peary, 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service' in Cult Movies 3, London, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1988. I think my remarks about the Bond series still apply in the wake of Goldeneye, which features the least British, most safely transatlantic 007 yet.

2. Robert Murphey, Sixties British Cinema, London, BFI, 1992, page 136.

3. Andrew Lydon, in 'One Europe - Separate Cinemas?' Talking Pictures No. 2, July-September 1992, gives a perceptive account of The Eagle Has Landed (1976) a war film which replaced British heroes with sympathetic Germans at a time Britain was having its doubts about the EC.
 
 
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