January 2, 2017

British Cinema History

001bExcessive theatricality was for many years a hallmark of the British film, the cosy scale of the country led to the grouping of the major film studios in and around the capital so that an actor could film all day and appear on the West End boards in the evening. Within the British cultural establishment the theatre is still regarded as superior to the film. For years the Arts Council has quite rightly supported the theatre, but only towards the end of the 1960′s was any government support forthcoming for the setting-up of regional equivalents of the National Film Theatre.

On a business level it would appear that the film has been remarkably lucky to have survived at all. Throughout its whole ninety-five years or so it has stumbled from crisis to crisis, prey to political folly on the one hand and semi-fraudulent wheelerdealing on the other. So often the industry has been flat on its back, awaiting rape, and then disagreeably surprised when the violation has taken place. Even in its period of greatest acclaim the effects of war and a crippling entertainment’s tax kept the fruits of its success tantalisingly at bay and robbed the industry of a chance to consolidate at a time when the will was there approval. Should Powell and Pressburgers admirable and thoughtful A Matter of Life and Death really be regarded as an allegory of Britain under socialism, and if so, was not the conceit somewhat obscure, since it eluded every major critic of the time?

1940: The Thief of Bagdad
1941: 49th Parallel
1942: In Which We Serve
1943: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
1944: Henry V
1945: Brief Encounter
1946: A Matter of Life and Death
1947: Brighton Rock
1948: The Red Shoes
1949: The Third Man

Almost without exception the film-makers of the 1940′s had respectable middle-class backgrounds and as often as not public-school education’s. For all their left-wing sympathies, the Boultings, Anthony Asquith (son of a Liberal Prime Minister) and Carol Reed held a very remote view of the working class. If the lower orders intruded into the film they were treated whimsically as in Passport to Pimlico, patronisingly as in countless war films where the real action with the officers is punctuated by glimpses of comic cockney stokers below decks. Significantly, a success of 1950 was The Blue Lamp, hailed as a triumph of realistic, documentary-like portrayal of common life. In fact it was a eulogistic tribute to the police, excellently written by an ex-special constable.

1950: The Blue Lamp
1951: The Lavender Hill Mob
1952: Hunted
1953: The Cruel Sea
1954: Hobson’s Choice
1955: The Ladykillers
1956: Reach for the Sky
1957: The Bridge on the River Kwai
1958: Room at the Top
1959: I’m All Right Jack

Several pressures prevented films from adopting more radical social positions in that period. Foremost was the industry’s fear and suspicion of involvement in controversy, part of the entrenched belief that the public went to the cinema in order to he entertained, not to think. But behind this was the repressive form of censorship imposed at that time by the British Board of Film Censors. Attacks on the establishment were not only discouraged, they were actively forbidden. Social criticism, at least of things British, tended to be retrospective. Hence the flurry of historical costume pieces. It was all right to discuss the bad behaviour of the Victorians (Captain Boycott, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, Esther Waters, Hungry Hill and many others).

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