BFI Film Academy – Studying British Cinema

As part of the BFI Film Academy the group has spent several sessions looking at British Cinema. Participant Lucy E writes about what she has learnt so far:

Well, what is a British film?

A British film is something that we can perceive as culturally British.  This could be something such as landmarks, history or even something simple like humour. British humour is something that stands out, and why is this?
American Humour translates well in Britain, that’s a fact. This is why big Hollywood comedies do well at box office and films such as Ted and Superbad did well in this country, we got the comedy. Whereas films such as Submarine are grafted for a niche audience as other countries simply don’t understand it. Especially independent films or dry humour, it just doesn’t make sense to foreign audiences. I love the film Sightseers and that is the same. We only found it funny because we could relate to those summer holidays spent in a caravan and the humour that only we understand because it is part of our culture. 

How do we define a British film?

This is the difficult aspect of defining British cinema, nowadays with collaborations right, left and center how do we know what to class as British or not. Are the crew British? What about the cast? The director? Where is the film set? It all adds up. We now have forms which will define this for us and take away all the arguing opinions. To be a British film you must pass a cultural test, this means that you must apply for the opportunity to define your film as British.  This offers tax relief  as well as encouraging the British Film Industry. The more films produced as British films the better it looks for the country. You must score 16 points out of a possible 31 to be eligible. This could be for having British locations or crew etc.

British Film History

Early use of sound in British Film was dominated by Hitchcock before he went to Hollywood. Some of his early work includes Rebecca and Black Mail. The war had a big impact on film making. During WW2 films were still made but these tended to have strong propaganda influences, they often showed adventures and fighting. An example of a WW2 film is In Which We Serve (1942). After the war ended David Lean, who had made his name by
In Which We Serve made films that tended to be very dramatic, melodramas almost.  In 1945 he made the film Brief Encounter based on the play by Noel Coward who wrote the screen play based on a one act play called Still Life that he wrote in 1936. The film uses voice over as well as dissolve edits and the beginning and ending are the same. The film actually began shooting whilst the war was in its later days, this meant filming at night far from London in a place called Carnforth. The film is about a married woman who has an affair yet chooses to stay with her husband despite not loving him, this shows the social expectations at the time. The cinematographer of Brief Encounter Robert Krasker also worked on The Third Man which is reflected in the use of lighting.

In 1946 one of the most successful collaborations took place between Powell and Pressburger; they made films such as Red Shoes and A Matter of Life and Death.  The cinematographer of
A Matter of Life and Death was Jack Cardiff. The film was a romantic fantasy and was clearly influenced by Melies. Set at the end of WW2 when the Americans were stationed in the UK, the film acted as a way to improve relations between the USA and the UK. Heaven in the film is referred to as the other worlds as a man argues with Heavens court to debate whether he is allowed to live or not. The set was elaborate with the staircase costing £100,000.

In the 50s there was one dominating film studio in Britain, Ealing studios. The Ladykillers (1955) was a typical film from the studios. Ealing studios is the oldest continuously used studio in the world from 1902. Post war comedy became their hallmark genre.

Another big name for the 50s was Hammer. Hammer Horror started a daring roller coaster into the horror genre. Dracula (1958) showed the studios typical use of Gothic horror conventions.

The 60s birthed the James Bond collection with Dr No (1962), conventions were created and polished. The film used graphics as there was body cut out edits. The theme and style has continued to present day.  At the same time  the British New Wave inspired by the French New Wave began (1958-1959). This turned film towards realism. British New Wave concentrated on Northern England and current social issues. This was the start of social realism.  At the time there were two directions of film; kitchen sink dramas and the swinging sixities. Kitchen sink dramas were often based on short novels, examples of kitchen sink dramas from this time include A Taste of Honey and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. They often focused on angry young men protesting against old conventions such as racism. These films tended to be independent and set in rural locations such as Wales.  There was also a wave in US investment and co-productions. 

Iconic swinging sixties films such as Blow Up (1966) contrasted kitchen sink drama. In Blow Up there was the bold use of nudity which was shocking to audiences.

Ken Loach powered the North with films like Kes (1969). Loach used social realism to be political. He showed the perspective of the exploited and had strong principles. He also liked strong uses of character interaction within his films. There was also a sense of real time using long takes and avoiding rapid cuts. His films had a dull colouring using cinematography of browns and greys. Kes was set in Yorkshire and shows a mining community; it highlights the working class with simple use of Mise En Scene – they share a bed. The lead character is bullied and has an attitude and he gains order with the training of the bird Kes; there is a strong focus on the under dog.  Other examples of Ken Loach’s work include Looking for Eric, Land and Freedom and The Wind That Shakes the Barley
In the late 60s and 70s censorship was relaxed, this lead to controversial cinema including films like Get Carter (1971) and A Clockwork Orange (1971).

The 80s was a different story because of Thatcher’s Britain. Films such as My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) began to be produced which explored social issues. This film launched two careers; Daniel Day Lewis went on to act in films such as There Will Be Blood (2007) and Oscar award winning Lincoln (2012), Stephen Frears the director also went on to make films like Dirty Pretty Things (2002) and The Queen (2006). My Beautiful Laundrette is set in an Asian community in London and tells the tale of an unusual love story. The film shows a homosexual relationship between two characters which at the time was not done, in fact it was revolutionary. The film also dealt with economic and political issues. My Beautiful Laundrette was a co-production between Working Title and Channel 4 which was also unusual at the time. In 1987 it was nominated for an Oscar. In the same year as My Beautiful Laundrette the film Room With A View was made, this was a costume drama which had a lavish production in comparison to Frear’s film. Strangely enough Daniel Day Lewis acted in this film also, however here he adapted a very different role.

The 90s was a time of new talent. Mike Lee began to be financed by Channel 4 and Danny Boyle also began making films like Shallow Grave (1994) and Trainspotting (1996). In the 90’s a lot of regional films were made, Shallow Grave is an example of this. Lynne Ramsey and other female directors began to appear more prominently in the industry, she made Ratcher in 1999, to read more about her check out this. This showed realism, composed shots and a edge of cinematic beauty contrasted to the harsh Mise En Scene. There was also a strong regional dialogue, showing resemblance to the social realism that began in the late 60s, and later continues to appear in films like Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2009). In 2010 Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech did particularly well winning 4 Oscar’s. This appealed to a wide audience, from young to older ages.

The history of British Film is incredibly interesting for a few reasons. Firstly there is always strong contrasts in films produced, for example Kitchen Sink Dramas vs The Swinging Sixties. Secondly the range of perspectives shown in our films is huge whether this be class, race or sexuality. Most importantly Britain is not classed as world cinema, we have a league of our own and we compete with Hollywood head on, I think this is such a wonderful thing as it simply portrays how much talent we have in this country as we have the capacity to win awards against the huge American film industry. I think there is better things to come for Britain’s Film Industry and I’m am thrilled I get the chance to witness as more talent emerges.