Books: The Revolt of the Pendulum — Made in Britain, More or Less |
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Made in Britain, More or Less

Even as Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni came to the end of their lives, the BBC, to accompany a long summer season of British films, gave birth to a multi-part documentary round-up called British Film Forever. The first part was called “Gangsters Guns and Getaways”: no comma, no apologies for brashness. “Us British love films,” the commentary began, grammatically daring from the first word. Had Bergman ever spoken like that in Swedish, or Antonioni in Italian?

But the slapdash exuberance of language, one hoped, might still leave room for a less approximate underlying idea. Perhaps us British — I was keen to include myself in this possibility, having once, while still in short pants, seen The Sound Barrier two nights running at the Rockdale Odeon in Sydney — did love films. On the level of handing out addictive free samples, the series had to be counted a success from the jump. Clips from much-loved British films abounded: Brief Encounter, In Which We Serve, Gone with the Wind...

Wait a second: Gone With the Wind was made in Hollywood. So why were we looking at Clark Gable? Well, he was holding on to Vivien Leigh, a star born and raised in Britain. And why were we looking at Wuthering Heights, which was also made in Hollywood? Well, Laurence Olivier was in it, holding on to Merle Oberon. Follow the British stars and you could often get to a great big film that us British loved, although it might not always be a British film. In Britain, Leigh and Olivier, the nation’s second most regal married couple, starred together in very few films, most notably That Hamilton Woman, an Alexander Korda misfire which not even us British love any longer.

In Britain, Olivier on his own made Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III, each of them as home-grown as his kipper breakfast on the Brighton Belle: taken together, they put him at the apex of achievement in world cinema both as actor and director. But on the scale of international box office, which effectively meant Hollywood, Olivier never became established as a film star. He could say it didn’t matter to him, but it still matters to everyone who writes about him. It certainly mattered to Matthew Sweet, who wrote the commentary for British Film Forever, and might have done better to subtitle it Despite the Yanks before going on to face the subject of the Special Relationship squarely, instead of finding a dozen different self-deceiving ways of leaving it out.

The most glaring self-deception was a persistent failure to follow the money. The director John Boorman once said that film turns money into light. In cinema, money might not be everything, but it is always the first thing. In the chapter devoted to Romance (“Longing Loving and Leg-overs” was the exciting title), the commentary, when it dealt with Dr Zhivago, followed Julie Christie (British star) into the arms of Omar Sharif (not British star) without noting that David Lean (British director) was bankrolled, for his big international films, by Sam Spiegel (not British producer), the erstwhile S.P. Eagle of Hollywood. If Spiegel, in his role as Lean’s bagman, had needed to rely on British money, his yacht would have been propelled by a pair of oars.

Spiegel put the dough together on the assurance that the finished product would be readily intelligible to an American audience. There was never then, and still isn’t, a reservoir of finance within Britain to sustain a film industry without a pipeline to the American market. Korda’s productive heyday lasted for a while, and Michael Balcon’s for a while longer, but without one eye on America nobody can last indefinitely: the true wording of British Film Forever should have been British Film Sporadically. This was the biggest theme demanding to be treated by a documentary survey of the history of British Film. Its almost complete absence guaranteed that the commentary could not be serious. So we got sprightliness instead.

It pains me to say that the results were seldom tolerable and all too often deadly. But Jessica Hynes, the actress who was given the task of speaking the words of Mr Sweet, is yet young, and it wasn’t her fault that she had to say, when evoking the directorial rigour of David Lean, “And if it meant getting the shot he wanted, Lean could lean.” It probably wasn’t even Mr Sweet’s fault that he had to write such stuff. It’s a tone, the tone of British documentary television in its last speeding inches of terminal decline before it hits the concrete, and the tone was almost certainly imposed on him by producers who no longer know any better.

Leaden verve used to be the occasional mistake made by documentary production teams who, when the task dictated, thought that they could achieve humour just by fiddling with their diction. (Cue archive close-up of Kenneth Williams with mouth forming a small circle.) They had seriousness to depart from, and could always get back to it. But the British Film Forever bunch think that an unswerving facetiousness is the only way to talk.

Would-be liveliness came stumbling from the screen. Every few minutes the stream of semi-consciousness unintentionally revealed that Hollywood was being held as the measure of true success. Who was the author of some of “the greatest thrillers in the history of Hollywood?” Alfred Hitchcock. “Where else could he come from but good old Blighty?” Alas, the voice-over narrative was not alone in its capacity to irritate. Too large a number of the numberless guest experts talked the same way.

Among those that didn’t, some weighty people had been interviewed for the usual half a day so that the occasional single short utterance could be extracted. From the top of the heap, Harold Pinter was intermittently present, and one doesn’t doubt that his complete interview would make an excellent programme about British film on a serious channel in a serious world: for one thing, his jokes, even when bitter, would be funny. The same could be said of Frederic Raphael, who was called upon to say exactly one line. Sir Richard Attenborough, who has never talked for less than a whole day about anything, was cut to a few paragraphs. Anna Massey was briefly there too, and many another established actor, although one doubts that Mischa Barton falls into that category quite yet. She was there because she was a real live American.

After a clip showing a fragment of the tremendous performance by Diana Dors in Yield to the Night, Pauline Collins spoke with authority when she said she couldn’t help wondering why Dors was never rewarded with “a really big Hollywood career.” Thus was the game given away completely, or would have been if it hadn’t already been given away ten times in every episode.

Canvas-chair veterans from Jack Cardiff through to Bryan Forbes were on hand for a few seconds each. Cardiff, if asked, could have told them that the only thing that might have stopped him from being lighting cameraman on a Spiegel-global international blockbuster like The African Queen was a few more all-British projects like Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, but they were in short supply, because not even Powell and Pressburger put together added up to a British Film Industry. Forbes, if asked, could have told them what he once told me, that if his popular thriller The League of Gentlemen had featured even one American big name, it would have cleaned up.

These and many other formidable people of the British film world deserved better than to be given equal time, or even less, with some standard television face-workers whose specific qualifications weren’t always obvious. Daisy Goodwin might conceivably know something about poetry, a subject she had previously been deputed to make approachable for audiences who presumably knew nothing about poetry at all. But speaking about British Film, she deployed an even less analytical vocabulary. About the famous scene in Tom Jones when Albert Finney and his next female target eat themselves into bed, Daisy had this to say. “It’s all very kind of, you know, phwoar!” I couldn’t remember her speaking the same way about John Donne.

To remind us that she was not just a hot number but a highbrow as well, Daisy managed to squeeze the word “quintessentially” into her lightning discussion of Far From the Madding Crowd. In the new low language of the higher journalism gone wrong, “quintessentially” is the only way to say “essentially”, just as “implode” is the only way to say “explode”. Ever more grandiose and less accurate, this detestable meta-language is always in the process of — to use one of its favourite words — “reinvention”, as in “reinvention very much the name of the game.”

Very much characteristic of a self-generating patois like this is its levelling effect, by which nobody can think but everybody can have an opinion. Speaking of The Long Good Friday, someone billed as a broadcaster said that “Thatcherism, the IRA and the Mafia” gave the film its edge. He might have at least considered that Thatcherism gave the film some of its finance. Haunted all over again by the film’s savage visual imagery, I wondered if he would have spoken more to the point, as it were, if he had been hanging upside down from a hook with Bob Hoskins breathing the aftermath of a hot curry into his face.

What nobody said was that this deservedly celebrated nailbiter, for all its crackling plot and stellar performances from Hoskins and Helen Mirren, was yet another British film that gave the game away: the Mafia were in it because the local gangland scene was thought to need beefing up a bit for international distribution. From just the same perennial impulse, Yield to the Night had featured a Ford Thunderbird in the streets of Soho.

But Get Carter stuck manfully to a Sunbeam Alpine, not to mention a G Reg. Cortina. Against all odds, there have been British gangland films that have managed to snare a world audience while remaining socially realistic. It might have had something to do with the unexpected success of Social Realism itself. After half a century, the chapter on Social Realism (“Hardship Humour and Heroes”) was still getting over the shock inflicted by the unexpected interest shown by a respectable number of British people in films concerned with their own unadorned lives.

As the commentary told us in a rare moment of pertinence, the directors, most conspicuously Lindsay Anderson, were, in the main, distinctly upstairs. Whether their view of downstairs was in service to a political programme was not questioned here, but their daring was made plain: realism should have been a formula for bankruptcy. (The culminating example was Ken Loach’s Kes, which, though it looked good, sounded as if designed to go broke, with dialogue that would have benefited from being subtitled even in Britain.) My own memories, however, tell me that Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, one of the movement’s first international hits, worked not so much because of its cutaway view of the decaying class system as because of its view of Albert Finney’s face.

Out there in Sydney I copied Finney’s libidinous smirk the same way that I had previously copied Marlon Brando’s sneer. It was a portent: there was as much glamour in the muck as in the brass. But unless they employed star power, the consciously subversive British films nearly always tanked: whatever the commentary to these programmes thought, A Taste of Honey will remain obdurately un-forever, and Scum, which the BBC refused to transmit in its original form as a television drama, survives as a film now only because Ray Winstone became well-known later. (See him in the wonderful Sexy Beast, featuring Sir Ben Kingsley as a psychopath with an unsettling resemblance to Gandhi.)

But with the right cast, British Social Realist films could, and did, give the makers of gangland and action movies the idea that the whole thing could stay British and still interest the world. If the story was good enough, even the Americans would sit still for the preposterous idea that there might be another country that spoke their language but looked different, with tiny cars and plates with hardly any food on them. Somewhere out of that idea came Get Carter, whose permanent status was only momentarily compromised when it was remade with Sylvester Stallone in the leading role.

That role, as we all know, belongs always (British Film Forever!) to our (all right, your) very own Michael Caine, lips pursed with contempt over teeth bared in anger — the greatest thespian feat of his life, and a living demonstration of the eternal truth that all a star has to do is be. (An actor has to do more, but even Olivier, with thousands of lines of Shakespeare in his head, would have given a lot for even one role in which he only had to stand there in a smart blue raincoat while the surrounding action made a hero of him.)

When Get Carter came out, I saw it several times on the trot, dazzled by the neatness with which it was put together. In The Ipcress File, which I had also memorised shot by shot, Michael Caine had worn glasses. In Get Carter he didn’t. What a range! And once again, the leading man had a superbly suave, impeccably British heavy to outwit. In The Ipcress File it had been the great Nigel Greene, he who had murmured “Look to your front” in Zulu and died too young. In Get Carter it was none other than John Osborne, unforgettably proving that he could have had an authoritative screen career had he wished, although he might have needed a fully functioning British film industry to hold his magnetically petulant face aloft, up there where the money turns to light.

There for a triumphant moment and then gone again, exultant at the black-tie awards ceremony and then back scrambling for a pittance, the British Film Industry has always been a creature in oscillating transit, somewhere between a phoenix and a dead duck. Even in the glory years of J. Arthur Rank, the man beating the gong was the only reliable element in the picture. As the Americans discovered in the earliest days of their studio system, a film industry must have two tiers, in which the second-rate output is good enough to pay the overheads: rely on the first-rate and you’re dead. But who would be allowed to say so? At one of the serialised commentary’s many moments of concentrated fatuousness — Ruth Ellis was being described as having been “hung for a crime of passion” when, unless I have always been misinformed about her gender, “hanged” must have been the word they meant — I started to concoct my own ideal version of the script in my mind.

Pinter would say more than just a few words about how he and Joseph Losey and Dirk Bogarde put The Servant together, and then, after the clip of Muriel Pavlow saying that in Doctor in the House she and Bogarde were just having “innocent fun”, there would be someone else to say that Dirk Bogarde was a brilliantly complex one-off whose idea of innocent fun was to don full leather and rev his motorbike in the attic, and then Sir David Puttnam would give a twenty minute lecture on just why, in Chariots of Fire, the two lovers had to look out of the window of their hotel in Paris and discuss an Olympic stadium that the audience couldn’t see. (The budget barely ran to three pairs of long white shorts.)

And then there would have been selected readings, perhaps by Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judy Dench, from the best book ever written about the British Film Industry, My Indecision is Final, by Jake Eberts and Terry Llott, wherein it is explained how Goldcrest, even after Gandhi became a sacred cash-cow world wide, still managed to go bust because there was nothing else on the production slate that made money except a television serial about Robin Hood. And then...

I noticed, however, that my ideal script was leaving less and less room for the clips. The far from ideal script on the screen still had the only right idea, which was to introduce the history of British movies to an audience that knew little about the movies and nothing at all about history. That, you had to remind yourself, was the purpose. For a few lucky young people out there, half a minute of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard struggling to make their clipped accents heard above Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto (“You know what’s heppening, don’t you?”) would introduce them to Brief Encounter, not to mention Rachmaninov.

They might even be introduced to the bewildering concept that there was once an almighty war in which the Americans, when they finally came to the aid of us British, saved us from tyranny, but the salvation led to the dissolution of our empire, and then to slowly dying dreams of power, and then, finally, to a new assessment of reality — a process in which British film has played a vital part, if only by providing us with a store of visual and verbal markers we can exchange when we meet. In that regard, even the pitiable epigrams supplied to James Bond come in handy, to remind us that Felix Leiter and all the other Americans really do regard Britain as a source of sophistication.

And they’re right. One of the clueless viewers who needed informing was myself, because I hadn’t yet got round to seeing Steve Coogan in Cock and Bull Story, the film based on Tristram Shandy. The quoted clip made me determined to tune in when the complete film took its allotted place in the season. I did so, and I was bowled over. Coogan is so adventurous that other people catch originality from him: when I realised that the voice his sidekick Rob Brydon was using to impress Gillian Anderson had been borrowed form Roger Moore, I fell out of the couch.

The Americans can do some weird and wonderful stuff, but they can’t do anything as bent as that. Us British have got Laurence Sterne in the background. Us British have got Jane Austen in the background. Let’s face it: us British have got background in the background. Administrative talent — the talent to handle talent — might always be hard to find, but creative talent has been omnipresent since Shakespeare wrote his first Oscar-winning original screenplays for Larry. Some of it has even been creative enough to do the whole thing in Britain, with no concessions to the Americans at all.

That’s what Coogan says he wants to do, although the British press, incurably servile in this respect, finds it impossible to accept that a British filmmaker has dreams of anything except Hollywood. Joe Wright, the director of Atonement, has announced that he wants to make more films in this country. The press will no doubt remind him that his wife, Rosamund Pike, wants to make films in America. She is too lovely and gifted not to. Half a century ago, the equally lovely Patricia Roc was lashed by her contract to a small island, waiting for the British Film industry to materialise and save her. It never did.

By now, though, the penny has irretrievably dropped. Rosamund Pike will appear in American films, in that strange land where men make love with their clothes on, even to someone as beautiful as her. If she appeared only in British films, she would hardly ever appear. The duality is the reality. But at least we can now see the reality for what it is. What makes the post-imperial era so much more interesting than the imperial era is that it nurses fewer delusions. When I first saw The Sound Barrier I fell so hard for Ann Todd that I believed the script, and concluded that the British really had been the first to go supersonic. But it was the Americans.

Even then, they had the financial power. Luckily they have not always used it as crassly as it suits the rest of us to suppose. For a miracle, the final script of British Film Forever didn’t end with a phone-in quiz. My ideal script does. Who insisted that The Third Man, perhaps the greatest film us British ever made, should have a scene to convince the audience about the hideous effects of Harry Lime’s dud penicillin — the scene that gives the story its moral core? Was it (a) Carol Reed, (b) Graham Greene, or (c) the clumsily interfering American producer David O. Selznick? But you already knew.

(TLS, September 28, 2007)


Out there in the remains of the old Empire, we were brought up on British war films. They were invariably less silly than the American equivalent. But they were fighting a losing battle. John Mills was boring as the ordinary chap doing his bit, Richard Attenborough was boring as the apprehensive chap below decks, Richard Todd was boring as the heroic chap with his hands on his hips delivering an inspiring address to all the other chaps. It helped that Richard Todd really had been a war hero, whereas John Wayne in The Sands of Iwo Jima had never left Hollywood. But in the long run the American war movies had the excitement, and the British war movie finally reached its imploding apotheosis when David Puttnam made Memphis Belle, which was all about how the Americans bombed Germany. In the long run, the money talked. British television, however, is better protected against global market forces. It can go to hell on its own tab. I should add that my remarks about the decline of British television's documentary style, though I think they have general validity, are subject to conspicuous exceptions. Under the guidance of Laurence Rees, historical programmes about the wartime period have never been better, and just because most of the TV producers can't tell the difference between good writing and rubbish doesn't mean that a one-off writer-performer like Jonathan Meades isn't turning out work comparable with Betjeman's at his height. But the general trend is downwards, and not because visual techniques are inadequate. On the contrary, they get better all the time. But the language is in decline. No British television company could produce a series like Californication even if it wanted to. The imbalance might be redressed, however: predictions about creativity are often confounded. Nobody ever expected that American network TV, in all its mediocrity, would be rivalled in power by the output of the cable channels whose competitive energy revitalized the networks before going on to conquer the world. In Spain, Pedro Almodóvar became a film industry all by himself. It depends on the people. But when art is an industry, there are a lot of people to organize, and the shortage is always in the number of people who can do the organizing. That's where the money should be spent, if there is any.