A very British affair;Reviews;Film and media studies;Features amp; Arts

12th November 1999 at 00:00
BRIT PIX. Video resource pack. Film Education pound;9.99.

Cinema in this country has long been preoccupied with class and nation. Now there's race, religion and gender to worry about as well. Robin Buss reports.

This glossy, well-produced book and accompanying video offer a history of British cinema since the 1940s, designed chiefly for students of film and media studies but also of interest to historians and others on courses concerned with British society and culture.

Although the field is wide, covering genres from war films to horror and low comedies to high-class literary adaptations, the central aim is to suggest what these films have to say about changing images of the national identity.

It starts with the war years and the depiction, in Noel Coward's In Which We Serve, of a Britain divided by clearly-defined class barriers but united in a common purpose. The crew of a destroyer, which has just been sunk by a German submarine, are clinging to a life-raft and remembering events from the past. Two video clips illustrate some of these flashbacks, showing Christmas celebrations, first in a working-class family, then in the captain's upper-middle class one - a nice example of "compare and contrast", adding up to the message that, faced with the common enemy, "we was all one".

Not for long, we wasn't. Class and social conflict are the recurrent themes in our national cinema over the past 50 years, from I'm All Right Jack to High Hopes and Brassed Off, with the additional element of race in Young Soul Rebels and gender as a subtext almost everywhere.

Each chapter focuses on a particular decade and starts with a summary of world events, plus a list of Oscar winners and box-office hits (essentially, a brief parallel history of American cinema).

The book then gives an overview of British cinema in the decade, considers the state of the industry and the changing nature of the audience and analyses different themes and genres, with questions on the relevant video clips. There are also lists of other films to watch on video and, at the end of the book, appendices on film language, censorship and topics for more extended work.

Though the pack is aimed at GCSE as well as higher levels, it is the more advanced students that are likely to find the material most appropriate to what they are doing.

It has to be said that the story that emerges from all this is not a happy one. Comedy may, as the book says, be the mainstay of British cinema but even in this genre we are apparently obsessed by snobbery, embarrassed by sex and uncertain about our identities. You start to wonder what there is to laugh at.

The narrative moves from a period (the 1940s) in which we had a fairly clear idea of who we were, through the choppy waters of the 1950s and 1960s when we started to question these notions, past the "lack of direction" that characterised the 1970s, to the illusions of the 1980s and the (questionable) revival of the present.

To begin with, we had class and nation to worry about, now we have race, religion and gender as well. Worse still, it is no longer even possible to say what constitutes a "British" film. Is it to do with where it was made, where it was set, who directed it, who acts in it, who distributes it or where the production money comes from? British audiences who enjoyed Sliding Doors (1997) might be surprised to know that it is technically American, despite being set in London and having a British director. The same applies to Notting Hill.

Worse confusion is to come: we cannot even be sure, any longer, what we mean by a "film", when so many of them are made with television money and primarily intended for exhibition on the small screen, though occasionally after a brief cinema release.

Oddly, British cinema has a clearer profile when seen from abroad. The French, who hold an annual British Film Festival, have no problem in deciding what they like about British films, laughing at our traditional comedies, applauding the social realism of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, and not throwing up their hands at the intellectualism of Peter Greenaway. British critics on the other hand, seem to find it harder to judge the work on its merits.

This Film Education pack will certainly give students a good introduction to the problems; let's hope they will also discover something to enjoy and to celebrate in 50 years of British film-making.

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