Saturday, May 24, 2014

Great British Film – Royal Mail First Day Cover

The idea of ‘British film’ grew in importance during the inter-war years. The coming of sound brought an abrupt end to the transnational norms of the silent era, and this technological shift, along with the growth of economic nationalism after the First World War, encouraged the championing of distinct national cinemas.
Since the establishment of the GPO Film Unit in 1933, ‘social realism’ has often been taken to be the most British of film styles, with realist, documentary and even ‘social-problem’ films arguably overrepresented in the national canon. Once obvious reason is that documentary has provided a training ground for so many British directors, including Hugh Hudson (Chariots of Fire) and Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham). It is also an obsession that perhaps takes us back to the Industrial Revolution and the literature that developed from it. Aside from the importance of their novels as sources of film, the mentality of authors such as Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy remains in the DNA of our national cinema.

The classics of British literature have long been a calling card: it is difficult to imagine British film without adaptations of Jane Austen, the Brontes or Mary Shelley.  But the peculiarly literary heritage of British cinema has been a flexible one, with film versions of works by the likes of Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Fleming and Arthur C Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey) becoming a key aspect of our film tradition. At the same time, the lives of literary and other figures – including Lawrence of Arabia – have provided fertile ground for cinematic treatment.
Unsurprisingly, the figure of Shakespeare, the national poet, crystallises many of these literary and theatrical wellsprings of British cinema, from Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944) to Derek Jarman’s The Tempest (1979) via the escalator that takes the hero of A Matter of Life and Death to ‘the other world.’ Contemporary theatre and theatrical talent likewise remain vital to British cinema with figures such as Danny Boyle and Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies) fitting creatively between them.
British film has always had to adapt itself to international tastes, and finance is increasingly international. One key tension in this process has been between the ways in which Britain thinks of itself and the ways in which British film-makers would like to present the country. Another tension exists between what international audiences can recognise as Britain and what Britain they would most like to see.
Defining ‘Britishness’ and what constitutes a British film remains a contentious question. Unlike French film, for example, British productions have had to find their voice within the norms established by the American commercial film industry. Britishness has become a series of subtle differentiations – of subject matter, sensibility, actors and audiences.

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