Smoke Signals from the Seventies

By Sylvia Harvey


Whatever Happened To Independent Film?

Clicking our way across the vast but densely populated spaces of the net, embraced by its perpetual present of information unlimited, it might provide a moment of welcome relief to switch off the computer, open a book and follow a brief diversion into the past. Margaret Dickinson’s Rogue Reels: Oppositional Film in Britain, 1945-90 (British Film Institute, 1999) provides an opportune moment to reflect on some of the changes in independent film and video over the last few decades, and suggests what might need to be recovered.

reel-time-annabel-nicolson.jpgReel Time, 1973 Annabel Nicolson

There seem to be two watershed moments that separate us from the “other country” of the past: the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Although analysts with a sharper eye for the game of economic consequences might cite a third factor: the new-found political power of the oil producing states and the massive oil price rises of the 1970s. During the Thatcher decade the spiralling costs of energy, combined with the philosophy of monetarism, led to widespread unemployment and to the beginnings of a long-term challenge to the ideal of the welfare state as universal provider.

The independent film movement of the 1970s emerged in the decade before these developments and was broadly supportive of collectivist and welfarist philosophies, which had provided the context for the creation of the London Film-makers Co-operative in 1966. Similar philosophies had informed the proposal – made to a Labour government in 1979 – to establish film production units characterised by permanent employment and an element of workers’ control. Such were the preferred practices of the generation who benefitted from the range of new public services established by the 1945 Labour Government. Full employment and the post-war boom created feelings of confidence but also generated criticisms of the perceived inadequacies of capitalist society. The radical utopianism of the May 1968 movements with their irrepressible slogans: “It is forbidden to forbid” and “All power to the imagination” grew out of opposition to the impact of capitalism on both working conditions and the culture of everyday life. And to this economic and cultural critique was added a political opposition to the American war in Vietnam.

so-that-you-can-live-cinema-action.jpgSo That You Can Live, 1981 Cinema Action

The “Estates General” of the French cinema – established during the period of the general strike in 1968 and modelled after the “Estates General” of the French revolution – linked a critical analysis of the economic system and its cultural consequences to a more specific account of the cinema itself: “…the system is characterised by its constant search for profit. In consequence films are reduced to the level of mere merchandise. The manufacture, distribution and consumption of films gives only subordinate consideration to their artistic, critical and cultural value”[1] a point pre-figured by the European émigré film-maker, Billy Wilder, in his American film, Sunset Boulevard (1950).

In Britain the independents that created the Independent Film-makers Association in 1974 were committed to the twin goals of artistic innovation and social critique, with some seeking to combine a radicalism of form and of content. Moreover, the social role of film-making was emphasised in a 1976 document which argued that the “preservation and development of critical thought” should be seen as the defining characteristic of independence.[2]

night-cleaners-berwick-street-collective.jpgNight Cleaners, 1976 Berwick Street Collective

The creation of Channel 4 in 1982, and its relatively well-resourced Department for Independent Film and Video, seemed to promise the means for the attainment of these inter-twined aesthetic and political goals. The old twilight world of under-employment and reliance upon inadequate grant aid seemed about to give way to the prospect of regular employment as Channel 4 endorsed, for a while, the arrangements of the Workshop Declaration. This innovative industrial model – essentially for small workers’ co-operatives – had been developed by the film and television trade union in association with various arts organisations and was designed to facilitate equal pay, continuity of employment and long-term project development.

But the broader social context was changing under the impact of economic crisis and Thatcherite reconstruction. Individual freedom and self-employment came to be valued over collective provision and workers’ rights. Public spending was cut, reducing from 44.8% of gross domestic product in 1979 to 38.5% in 1999. In the audio-visual world the word “independent” was shorn of its aesthetic and political significance and came to mean those production units not owned by or part of a licensed broadcaster. New laws encouraged price competition and required broadcasters to commission a minimum of 25% of independent programmes from “out of house”. The little “homes” built or imagined by the independents of the seventies were bulldozed away by corporate expansion and market competition.


[1] Rogue Reels p.112
[2] Ibid p.135

With thanks to the web journal Screening the Past, where some of these ideas were first developed. Sylvia

Harvey is Professor of Broadcasting Policy at Sheffield Hallam University