John Hill's British Cinema in the 1980s

By Gill Henderson


The starting point of this highly readable and thought-provoking overview is 23rd March 1982, when Chariots of Fire picked up four Oscars and Colin Welland infamously boasted: “The British are coming!” Two weeks later, “we” were at war with the Argies and Chariots of Fire, produced, directed and written by a team of card-carrying non-Tories, was re-released in the cinemas in the UK as a morale-boosting double bill with Gregory’s Girl. Quite how Bill Forsyth’s whimsical take on girl power and the essential frailty of men bolstered our national resolve I’m not sure, but Chariots of Fire was there to pack a patriotic punch.

John Hill has a lot of fun in unpacking the mixed messages contained in what appears to be the quintessential Brit. film, and then takes grim satisfaction in chronicling the complete collapse of British dreams of rivalling Hollywood. If the British were coming in 1982, they hadn’t got very far by 1986, when only 41 UK film features were produced. The last year of the decade saw film production down to 30, just one more than the annual total for 1980. Not an unmitigated success as a film-making decade then, but ironically, given all the patriotic flagwaving, one in which traditional notions of being British and of the nation state were blown away by a sense of multiple identifications that more closely mirrored the world we inhabit. As Hill states: “While the British cinema of the 1980s failed to assert the myths of ‘nation’ with its earlier confidence it was nevertheless a cinema which could be regarded as representing the complexities of national life more fully than ever before”.

The book divides into three parts. In Part One, Hill analyses the Thatcher project, and the fact that possibly the most distinctive element of films of the period was the disavowal of the Thatcher ethos. It’s easy to see why Thatcher didn’t attract the unstinting support of the film industry as her administration seemed to do everything in its power to destroy an indigenous British production base. However, this by no means distils down to a common cause, as Hill amply demonstrates. The supreme irony in a decade plastered with them, is the establishment of Channel Four as the prototype publisher-broadcaster. Whilst acting as “Trojan Horse” for the introduction of a more “flexible” mode of production, it became the lifeguard that dived in, saved the British film industry from drowning, and opened it up to new visions, particularly through Independent Film and Video.

“Representations of the Past” deals largely with heritage film, particularly in relation to the convoluted relationship with the Raj, but it also dips briefly into the films made in the ’80s but based in the ’50s. John Hill is particularly astute about the liberal politics of the modern heritage movie, and how time after time this liberalism is undermined by the visuals which glorify the dreaming spires and distant pavilions of imperialism.

Unfortunately the section on ’50s nostalgia is curiously truncated and doesn’t really get going on an exploration of the conflict of conformity and repression versus rebellion that Hill puts forward. Only one film, Dance with a Stranger, is analysed in any detail. Given the interesting parallels between 1980s Britain and the decade prior to the sinful Sixties, more on this would have been welcome.

“Contemporary Representations” concentrates on the “other side” of 1980s cinema, the films so lambasted by Norman Stone, advisor to Maggie, in his notorious diatribe in the Sunday Times: “They are all very depressing and are no doubt meant to be. The rain pours down; skinheads beat people up; there are race riots; there are drug fixes in squalid corners: there is much explicit sex, a surprising amount of it homosexual and sadistic; greed and violence abound; there is grim concrete and much footage of ‘urban decay’; on and off there are voice overs by Mrs Thatcher, Hitler etc.” (Norman Stone: “Through a Lens Darkly”, 10 Jan 1988).

John Hill makes an excellent job of outlining the differences and the similarities between the films which had their roots in socially critical cinema, but were united by a dissatisfaction with straight realism and a concern to push back its boundaries. These films are characterised as hybrids, containing elements of the European art film, the British New Wave and a considerable dollop of ’80s postmodernism. With few exceptions, the examples Hill supplies come across as better at demonstrating and lambasting the effects of the Thatcher experiment than putting forward viable alternatives. We canter through Defence of the Realm, My Beautiful Laundrette, High Hopes, Passion of Remembrance, Riff Raff and, inevitably, The Last of England, touching upon the issues of class, race, gender and sexuality, and the politics of form. Hill’s ability to combine film theory with political ideologies and good old fashioned narrative skills are particularly welcome here, but it’s a frustrating section because there simply isn’t space to unravel and then rewind the contradictions and links, and so there are inevitably omissions and simplifications. For instance, I think there are more layers and meanings in the conspiracy/paranoia genre than the writer uncovers, and I wished he’d brought something about Fellow Traveller and more about Hidden Agenda into the discussion of Defence of the Realm.

Finally, I didn’t realise that in 1976 the Terry Report, commissioned by Harold Wilson, argued for the establishment of a British Film (Authority) to co-ordinate and be responsible for the various activities undertaken by government. Accepted by the then Labour government, the dual nature of this proposed body was stressed in another report in 1979: “The object of government policy for films was not simply economic and to create employment, encourage investment and increase exhibition; it was also cultural and to provide aid for an art form and films which reflect British life”.

Although dumped by the Tories, twenty years on is that British Film (Authority) rising before us? Wouldn’t it make a refreshing change if those involved in its creation read John Hill’s book before embarking upon the usual notions of national cinema and dreams of Hollywood on Thames?

Gill Henderson is chief executive of the London Film and Video Development Agency.