Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Signifiers of 'Britishness'?

The post below links into the lesson, but note I've created MANY ... MANY posts on this topic which are accessible through the archive!!! There are even themed links lists down the side of this blog...

We've started considering what factors go into designating a film as 'British' or not, discovering first of all that there isn't necessarily a definitive answer ... though (as we'll explore later) there are some legal definitions tied into financing (a film's level of Britishness decides whether it is eligible for tax breaks or not).
We looked at some or all of the following; make sure you've got a full, detailed list of factors which go into deciding whether a film is British or not - with examples to back this up. (That approach reflects the way the exam is marked: on Use of Examples; Explanation, Analysis, Argument; Use of Terminology)

The Wind That Shakes the Barley
 (Ken Loach, 2006 - approx £5m budget. $23m worldwide box office, £3.2m in UK)
Seventeen co-production companies!!! Not least various European co's; many British Indie films only get made by pre-selling distribution rights (before production) to European markets such as France and Germany. Directors like Ken Loach find it easier to get their films into cinemas in continental Europe (where its a foreign language film don't forget) than their own country! The UK cinema market is utterly dominated by US films - even last year when 'British' films had an exceptional success, they still accounted for only 13% of UK cinema box office in 2011.

(DVD is in Media stock in Library)
Main characters Irish and British;
negative representation of British though - Irish the victims, British the villains;
mainly shot in Ireland (but also Scotland - tax breaks were a key consideration; the issue of state funding for cinema, or tax breaks, is a key one in the relative strength of domestic, as opposed to American imports, cinema);
a co-production, with the UKFC, Irish Film Board, various European co's and small UK Indies among the 17 companies to co-finance the production - see
the director was English.
So: British, Irish (or even just 'European')? There is no definitive answer, but it is interesting that with the exception of The Guardian, UK newspapers were extremely hostile towards the film: although it was historically accurate, it dared to challenge the established narrative that the Irish were violent terrorists and the British innocent victims of these savage people. Noam Chomsky would call this criticism 'flak', one of the 'five filters' he argued made up the 'propaganda model' (read more:

Mickybo & Me
(Terry Loane, 2004 - $5m [approx £3m]. UK box office £172,336!!! No release elsewhere. 1 week's release at Edinburgh International Film Festival + in N.Ireland, peaking at 28 screens [IMDB] [Wiki])
Also in Lib.
An excellent WT2 film that NBC-Universal and its subsidiary StudioCanal decided not to fund for a distribution that would mean expensive prints for cinemas and the cost of advertising and marketing ... despite its success at film festivals and positive critical reception.
Is this what YOU think of when the term 'British cinema' is raised? Why do you think it failed to get a full cinema release?

Factors in Britishness then:
British director;
British setting;
British characters and cast;
Mix of UK (WT2), US (Universal) and European (StudioCanal) funding, with additional finance from film boards in NI and RofI/Eire. See

The problem here was an unwillingness to gamble further funds on a film set in N.Ireland featuring strong NI accents. NI is British as part of the UK, but not what 'we'/you think of when using the term British. 
Consider the narrative of this film: two young boys from the 1970s are obsessed with a film and start to act it out. Now consider the following film...

See Working Title's past and upcoming movies listed by IMDB.
A lot of these are in the Lib!!! Plus Hammer boxset, Shane Meadows boxset, WT2 films, Ealing ...

Son of Rambow
(Garth Jennings, 2007 - £4m, took £3.4m in UK (at peak 311 screens), $1.8m USA (at peak 155 screens) - see IMDB. 9 co-production co's (see IMDB). Distributed by Optimum Releasing in UK and Paramount Vantage in US. StudioCanal owns Optimum Releasing... [see Wiki])
Also in Lib
The narrative may sound familiar ... two young boys from the early 1980s are obsessed with a film and start to act it out... Ring any bells?!

Factors in Britishness then:
British director;
British setting;
British characters and cast;
Mix of UK, US and European financing; as with Mickybo & Me, enjoyed critical acclaim and was a success at film festivals.
The key difference? These boys are English, Southern English to be precise.
Its not just Americans that are accustomed to thinking of British as meaning white, middle class (and upwards) Southern English - its YOU too!

I'll be briefer on the following...

Kes (Ken Loach, 1969)

Classic social realist, Indie, low budget
Social realist: handheld camera (the camera movement unconsciously connotes documentary/news style, and thus seriousness ... or realism; most such films do not use SFX); protagonists are socially excluded or minority groups typically (working class, ethnic or sexual minority, even female - rarely the lead, rarely a truly serious role, in most fiction films!); unglamorous - low key instead of high key lighting (basically natural lighting, for speed and thus cheapness of filming). Regional accents are common, not the exception. Setting outwith the South also common.
See Kes Wiki; IMDB; clip from BBC doc on social realism (YouTube).

This Is England (Shane Meadows, 2006)
The opening montage is a great illustration of the truth of Stuart Hall's theory of levels of reading a text: a teen in 2006 (or today) is very unlikely to fully follow Meadows' preferred reading of the opening montage; they won't be able to identify the individual groups and events pictured. But a negotiated reading is more likely than an oppositional reading - the general mood is quite clear. Whilst very young at the time, I remember most of the events included in this montage (and have an interest in/knowledge of politics, one half of my BA Hons degree [with Film & Media]) and thus can follow the preferred reading (whilst recognising the polysemy of some of it).
The very title screen, with the bold white font covered in black marks like dirt and grime, neatly captures the difference between the Indie social realist aesthetic and the glitzy middle/upper-class glamour of the Curtis/Grant WT rom-coms or any Merchant Ivory film; TisEng starts with a panning shot of rundown, graffitied blocks of flats, a binary opposite of the posh country houses (or glitzy London apartments) we see Hugh Grant endlessly popping in and out of, not to mention the castles, kings and queens so often featured in other higher budget Brit flicks (eg Elizabeth, Howard's End).

IMDB; Wiki.

Withnail and I (Bruce Robinson, 1987)
Classic Indie flick which flopped at the cinema but has become a cult classic still selling heavily on DVD. It nearly didn't get made: Robinson ran out of finance during the shoot and only a chance encounter with Beatles member George Harrison saved the production!
Its a dramedy with social realist stylings: really downbeat colourings and bleak humour, with the binary oppositions between the two main characters themselves, them as young city dwellers and the older, genteel (and snobbish) rural folk, and as heterosexuals with the gay uncle Monty, all drive the narrative.
Here's the tearoom scene:

(The clip, with strong language, we viewed is here)
IMDB; Wiki.

Hammer Horror
This clip is from a typical Hammer flick with Christopher Lee: Count Dracula (1970). Hammer were through the 1960s the world's most successful horror production company, never mind the biggest British one!

Castles were a common setting, as were cutglass Southern English accents: white, middle/upper class Souther English was again the norm.
Once more realistic and graphic or explicit films like Wes Craven's Last House on the Left (1973) came in - ironically, American cinema heavily influenced by the social realist style - it wasn't long before the theatrical, even camp, Hammer style fell out of fashion ... though they've recently returned to our screens with more contemporary films.
UK horror is beginning to thrive again: Eden Lake was an inventive slasher (NB: this trailer is 18-rated):

The Woman in Black is currently racking up money worldwide:

Merchant Ivory
Extremely successful British co, with a record of Oscar success and global hits, and known for their ultra-glossy style. Films focus on middle/upper class (often aristocrats, often set in the past) protagonists (sometimes with a relationship with a working class/servant character the central conflict or dis-equilibrium of the narrative). Helena Bonham-Carter often the star, as here in Howard's End:

Here's a nice spoof of the MI style:


Ealing Comedy
Often based on the interplay/juxtaposition of working class rogues and innocent middle class characters (although also sometimes featuring rich business owners as antagonists/villains, and downtrodden working class characters as protagonists), an extmely successful company in the 1950s, but like almost every British film production company, they inevitably folded and went out of business.
We looked at the trailer for 1955's The Ladykillers (recently remade - badly!). See also the Lavender Hill Mob trailer. Just as with Warp today (Paddy Considine) and WT (Hugh Grant, and maybe Simon Pegg), certain actors were associated with the Ealing studio ... not least Alec Guinness, as featured in this nice 10min vid:


Green Zone (Paul Greengrass, 2010)
Social realist in look if not themes, this is a film by a British co (WT) centred around Americans... set in Iraq ... with an American cast...


Notting Hill (Roger Michell, 1999)
In Lib with many more.

This is the kind of typical representation Shane Meadows was responding to with his title This is England. Its also the dominant representation of 'Britishness', both domestically (to a UK audience) and internationally - Hugh Grant is how the world primarily views Brits!!! Rhys Ifans, though, is how the other, non-Southern English, white middle-class parts of the UK are represented: unhygienic idiots used for cheap laughs.
The A-list American star and budget (and where the finance comes from) all pose questions as to how British a film this is - the primary target audience is international, especially American, not British (as there's too little money to be made from UK cinema alone).
IMDB; Wiki.

Have a think about which 'British' film YOU think best represents YOU...

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