How British Was It?


It’s often been said that Britain would have a thriving national cinema if everyone in the United States spoke Spanish. The British director Terence Davies reiterated that point recently at Cannes, where he’s showing his latest film, Of Time and the City. "If we are going to have a national cinema we have got to make stories which arise from our islands," he told the Independent. "What we do most of the time is make sub-American nonsense. The American template is very often lousy ā€“ why do we want to imitate it?" He goes on to denounce native talent he considers "third rate," singling out Ricky Gervais, one of the most widely imitated British comics in the US.

I haven’t seen a Davies film since he spoke after a screening of The Long Day Closes at a film festival in Philadelphia in 1992. I remember that film, as well as Distant Voices, Still Lives (still above) as having a distinctly un-American stillness to them. They are quiet films so confident in their formal integrity, so enamored with the past and with their own Britishness, that one overlooks the boggy ground of nostalgia upon which they are based. I remember leaving the screening of Distant Voices impressed by Davies and his film, both of which radiated integrity, but at the time I thought there were other British directors doing much more exciting and innovative work, all without imitating in any conspicuous way American-style filmmaking. This was the time when Stephen Frears, Mike Leigh, and Peter Greenaway were still working at the top of their game. Alan Clarke had only recently died. Middle-aged white guys didn’t have a monopoly on provocative filmmaking in a very specifically British context. One film that attracted a lot of attention during that time was Pratibha Parmar’s documentary Sari Red, about a young Indian woman killed in a 1985 racist attack in England. Davies, by contrast, seemed timid, out of touch, and closer to the venerable if stuffy tradition of the heritage film.

With the exception of Greenaway, British filmmakers of the late Thatcher period were interested in exploring contemporary post-colonial British life. Davies’ own filmmaking practice suggests that making stories that arise from the British islands means retreating into a mythic past during which Britain was inhabited solely by white people who loved music halls. Davies is hardly a National Front filmmaker, but his vision of Britain and British filmmaking is narrow and retrograde. Of Time and the City, which is set in 1940s Liverpool, is another admirable film from this unprolific filmmaker, but it’s hardly an exemplary study of what Raymond Williams would have called the structures of feeling in post-Blair British life.

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  1. “If we are going to have a national cinema we have got to make stories which arise from our islands,” he told the Independent. “What we do most of the time is make sub-American nonsense. The American template is very often lousy ā€“ why do we want to imitate it?”
    So it’s the stories that aren’t British enough, not the way they’re told…
    …which is rather funny, because one of the reasons British cinema died out in the early days was because British filmmakers didn’t follow the American formulas — and made stuffy adaptations of classical literature and drama instead.


  2. I agree, Pacze: the British cinema has been too dependent on literary adaptations and heritage films–many of them made for the American market. Another reason some people advance for why Britain has never been a major force in world cinema is that Britain doesn’t have a very strong visual arts tradition, like the French and the Italians.
    I like British cinema, and I even have a weakness for those old Merchant-Ivory literary adaptations, especially of E.M. Forster. I was at a talk by Peter Greenaway in which he dismissed a lot of contemporary British film as “television.” I didn’t agree, but he was on to something, I think. The common British practice of having television networks–most prominently BBC 4–fund movies productions has had mixed results.


  3. I like British cinema, too. I don’t think it’s any kind of crisis. And when the British cinema was popular, before WWI, I think it was due as much to transportation networks and empire as to the quality of its films. Which is not to say the films were bad; just that there wasn’t a sudden drop-off in quality.
    The US simply stepped in, New York replaced London as the film capital, the empire eventually gave way, and there was a British decline.
    PS: One of those “television” types of British films that Greenaway mentioned and that I especially like is the documentary, which the British have always been very good at making. BBC very much included.


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