Thursday 2 July 2009

The Best Of British: What's it all about?

Once upon a time the British had a film industry. Some might say that it was not up to Hollywood standards - others will disagree.

To me the British film came into it's own in the 1950s and 1960s and I base that on the fact that these are the films that I grew up with.
Many were based on novels or were novelised by good authors.
Of course, for me the first British movies that I saw on a regular basis was the war film. 'The Colditz Story', 'The Dam Busters' and 'The Cruel Sea' and their like.
And then there were the Ealing comedies like 'Passport To Pimlico' and 'The Lavender Hill Mob'. And the 'St. Trinians' movies.
But the late fifties and early sixties took the British movie into a new world of real life social dramas.
Authors like Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow and Colin Wilson gave us the working class heroes and with those came a new bunch of actors. The likes of John Mills, Richard Attenborough and Michael Redgrave were joined by Richard Burton, Albert Finney, Alan Bates, Oliver Reed and Michael Crawford. Also, the rise of an acting dynasty with Juliet and Hayley Mills (daughters of John) and Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave featuring in many notable movies.
As the movies moved into explorations of social history so too did the big names.
Richard Attenborough defying Union power in 'The Angry Silence'; John Mills as the patriarch unable to understand his son's (Hywel Bennett) marital problems in 'The Family Way' and Dirk Bogarde outing himself as the homosexual barrister in 'Victim'.
Forty or fifty years on and I still get a lot of pleasure from watching these old movies because on the one side they are slices of British social history and, all the more depressing, is that there are no modern films that can do the same.
They tried with 'Educating Rita' and 'Billy Elliott'. Watching the latter with it's background of the Miners strike there are shades of 'The Angry Silence' tucked away in the body of the film.
And the new 'St. Trinians' movie - now I would have expected the usual smoking and drinking and the possibility of a cannabis farm - in other words follow the good old St. Trinians traditions. But, no, such scenes would only be seen to encourage young people to drink and smoke. So what I got was a diluted version while, and with the same 12 Certificate, 'Wild Child' did what 'St. Trinians' couldn't do.
In today's world the ending to 'Cosh Boy' (reviewed earlier) would not be permissable. Impossible to show a father punishing his child. The police on seeing Bob Stevens with a leather belt in his hands would not say that they would come back later. No, they would be on the phone to Social Services and arrest the father for assault after all the father would be abusing Roy's childrens and human rights.
The nearest that anyone has come to show life back then is a minor movie called 'Anita and Me' in which a young Indian girl, Meena, records life in the late sixties/early seventies. What surprised me was that this 2002 movie mentioned such things as Paki bashing and wogs and the accuracy of many of the things that happened to evoke the feeling of the period.
This in an age where the BBC sacked Carol Thatcher for mentioning the word 'nigger' in private and Prince Harry had to apologise for calling a Pakistani a Paki.
Many of the films and books of the period - Nell Dunn's 'Up The Junction', Bill Naughton's 'Alfie' and Alan Sillitoe's 'Saturday Night And Sunday Morning' all have scenes of attempted back street abortions. These scenes highlighted a problem and, eventually, abortion was legalised. Now in the 21st Century a bunch of very vocal minorities wants abortion to be made a thing of the past - a foetus has rights they say. OK. But if abortion in clinics is made illegal - it's back street abortions again.
To write a book or make a film about real life today - to create some real cutting edge social history drama with a working class hero and the language of the streets - is to invite a visit from the Fahrenheit 451 squad. Or a member of the Ministry Of Love to re-educate the writer.
Writing books and screenplays about real life is not being racist, sexist or any other 'ist' - it is called being realist.
In America they have Constitutional Rights which means something and they are damned proud of them.
Britain has the Magna Carta which means diddly squat. Freedom of speach and freedom of expression is down to what Big Brother says that we are free to say or express. Britain cannot make the films or write the books in the same vein as back in the sixties - someone might be offended. Well, I'm offended but there ain't a damned thing I can do about it.

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