A light on the silver screen

25th April 1997 at 01:00
Cinema in britain: the first 100 years Education pack from the National Museum of Film, Photography and Television Pictureville Bradford BD1 1NQ Pounds 13, plus Pounds 1.50 pp

This is a timely resource tracing the development of cinema in the UK. The central feature of the pack is a group of 14 essays on various aspects of British cinema, each presented as a four-page pamphlet, supported by teachers' notes suggesting student activities on topics including genre, mise-en-sc ne, narrative and representation. These elements are independent of one another, giving the teacher a good deal of discretion in the use of the materials. As a whole, the package is similar to the study guides published by Film Education.

The core essays outline the history of cinema in Britain. Four concern mainly tech-nical issues: the invention of the medium ("Before Cinema"), the pioneers ("The Arrival of Cinema in Britain"), colour ("Chasing Rainbows") and "The Coming of Sound". A further two look at newsreeldocumentary and the early development of the industry (production and exhibition). The remainder focus on individual studios, directors and movements from the 1930s onwards.

Inevitably, this arrangement means some topics are omitted or not fully dealt with. For example, while we are given much information about pioneer cinematographers and photographic processes, there is virtually nothing on the development of narrative techniques in silent cinema - although several of the suggested activities in the teachers' notes involve analysing narrative conventions.

In the later essays, too, some of the emphases are questionable. Michael Powell would no doubt have been irritated to see his work reduced to a paragraph or two in the essay on Alexander Korda, while David Lean and Merchant-Ivory are accorded separate essays.

Some of the choices reflect changing values. If a similar survey was being made 30 years ago, it is unlikely that Hammer Horror and the Bond movies, for example, would have been examined at such length, or that the documentary movement of the 1930s would have received such summary treatment.

The high profile of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory must be partly explained by their association with adaptations of literary classics, including some set books. The section devoted to them will be of interest to English teachers.

Overall, the pack seems as good a starting point as any for discussing the history, achievements and recurrent problems of cinema in the UK. Though much studied, British cinema still lacks any clear line of development, veering between arty and witless, epic and intimate, unashamedly parochial and ambitiously universal. It is also seemingly contemptuous of its strengths (for example, animation), and is at times so closely bound by money and language to the US that it can hardly be said to have an independent existence.

The pack does reflect the new orthodoxy, which accepts the dominance of Hollywood, rather than the old, which saw European cinema as less commercial, but aesthetically superior. The "Overview" which precedes the 14 essays constantly relates developments in the UK to those in the US, but fails even to nod in the direction of the French New Wave (despite giving it a mention in the essay "Free Cinema") or Italian neo-realism.

The exercises ask students to consider how characters are created, what film representations reveal about attitudes to women, what we mean by "realism", how adaptations relate to literary texts and how films are marketed and distributed.

All this is in line with the requirements of GCSE and A-level media studies, and the need to make activities easily adjustable to suit varying levels of ability. The possibility of adapting some of the exercises for English, or even history, makes this publication a useful and flexible resource. Just add films.

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