What qualifies as a “culturally English film”? How about this: it is a film which either has an English context such as The Libertine or has a cast which consists wholly or largely of English actors playing “English”, for example, Girl with Pearl Earing.
English themes and English actors have always had a good bite of the Anglophone filmic cherry, but they are making a particularly strong showing in recent years. A look at the all time global box office, that is, money taken solely at the box office, is revealing.
Of the ten largest grossing English language films in history, six have an indubitably English ambiance: Alice in Wonderland (Tim Burton), Lord of the Rings: the return of the king and two each of the Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Carribean. The odd men out are Avatar, Titanic, Toy Story 3 and the Dark Knight. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_highest-grossing_films
Three of the odd men out have significant English flavour, whether from overtly English characters (Titanic, Shrek) , a story with English associations (Titanic) or actors using an English persona (Star Wars, for example, the characters of Obi wan Kenobi, the Galactic President and C3PO).
The six highest grossing English language film franchises are in descending order Harry Potter, Star Wars, James Bond, Shrek, Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Carribean. http://finance.yahoo.com/family-home/article/111362/highest-grossing-film-franchises . Of these only Star Wars and Shrek do not have a specifically English tone. (The Chronicles of Narnia and His Dark Materials – both very English in tone – also have the making of lasting franchises. )
It is true that those films and franchises are are ranked on revenues unadjusted for inflation.* However, that does not stop them for being a a good pointer to what was popular. What they tell us is that there is a considerable appetite for Englishness amongst modern film goers. (It is also true that adjusting for inflation has its problems because of changing exchange rates and multiplying tickets sold by an average present-day ticket price is a dubious practice because ticket sale data is often dubious, especially for older films).
What is the attraction of Englishness?
It is obvious why Englishness should have appeal within England, but why does it have international appeal? The fact that we have English is our language might seem a significant advantage internationally, but it is doubtful whether that advantage actually counts for much in practice because English films are competing against large numbers of other Anglophone films, including the output of the most potent film industry in the world, that of America.
If it is not the language is it the nature of the films themselves which attract? Perhaps part of the reason for the recent success lies in the type of Englishness that is generally depicted. What foreign audiences see most are versions of middle and upper class Englishness.
Often this is a version of Englishness which has a large dollop of fantasy such as that shown in “Notting Hill” or is Englishness in an historical setting, with Jane Austen and Dickens adaptions being perennial favourites. But even these films, somewhat distant as they may be from the realities of modern English life, still have a very English feel to them. The settings are English, the voices are English and above all the personalities are English.
Such films have the dramatic advantage of both appealing to the foreigner’s general stereotype of the English, which is largely derived from the English middle and upper classes, and of providing unusual and glamorous settings. Such themes and settings also mean these are often characters who have influence and power and a good deal to lose, all good dramatic material.
There is also the legacy of the British Empire, an institution which was not only dominated by the English in terms of personnel but also culturally – the history and literature taught to colonial peoples was English to the end and the institutions implanted – Parliaments and Common Law – were English institutions. Even after the end of Empire the BBC, particularly the World Service, continued to project the middle/upper class version of Englishness through the dominant use of received pronunciation speakers.
The Empire was an institution which affected not merely those peoples and territories which were formally colonised but other countries such as Argentina, countries which were heavily influenced by English capital and settlers. Nor was the Empire simply that which existed at its end, vast as that was in both geographical and ethnic scope. There is also the USA, which was an English founded and culturally dominated state, hence the fact that its language is English and its most important public institutions variations of English institutions. More of the USA later.
Perhaps there is also a purely aesthetic aspect of the attraction. It could be that the English middle class/upper class persona is simply arresting, interesting in itself. In particular, perhaps that persona seems specially apt for characters in position of power and privilege.
It is worth noting that important people in English language films dealing with historical subjects have long been acknowledged by Hollywood to be best played by English received pronunciation (RP) speakers. This trait began early in the history of the Talkies and continues to this day. In the recent film Troy only Brad Pitt playing Achilles “disgraced” himself by not being able to muster a serviceable RP voice. Received pronunciation and the persona it creates may naturally seem authoritative not merely to the English but to many other peoples, even if those peoples are not naturally well disposed to the English.
The dramatic shape of English films must also play its part. Take the three great English “franchises”: LOTR, Harry Potter and James Bond. In addition to their Englishness they all have very strong dramatic architecture.
Tolkein wrote the Lord of the Rings as a conscious attempt to create an English myth and he does admirably evoke a rural pre-industrial, timeless England. He also succeeded in creating an English Odyssey, a world full of the magical and fantastical. Harry Potter is the English public school story brought up to date and cunningly mixed with magic and co-education. Bond is the spy thriller plus social cachet.
The LOTR appeals to the deep human thirst for myths, of something utterly beyond the everyday. It is a world of trolls and magicians, of warriors and beautiful high born ladies. Tolkein is first rate at creating archetypes, especially Sauran (Evil), Gandulf (the good magician with a touch of the messiah) and Aragorn (the perfect hero, noble in thought and deed, beautiful, great at arms, gracious in manner, brave beyond what is human and above all utterly resolute).
LOTR attracts for the same reasons the Odyssey and Iliad have captured the imagination for the better part of three thousand years. It is epic.
The English public school story succeeds firstly because it is gives, Jane Austen-like, a small, enclosed society upon which to hang a drama. The traditional English Public school story has verve. The boys are anything but solemn. There is a good variety of personality and interest. There is competition within forms, within houses, and with other schools. Games loom large. The interplay between characters is between adults and children, something which is rare in other types of films where children are generally absent or peripheral. But the success of the public school story is more than just a setting. One only has to see an American attempt at the same theme such as Dead Poets Society to realise that merely setting a story in a boarding school is not enough. Dead Poets Society is dreadfully earnest and the boys so lacking in genuine high spirits as to be mere wraiths compared to the robust English fictional schoolboy in the line from Tom Brown and Scud East onwards through to Bob Cherry and William Brown.
There is an essence of Englishness which needs to be added to the setting. The Harry Potter phenomenon is not difficult to explain. Add magic to the traditional public school mixture and the already rich opportunities for plot and character are greatly multiplied. Children, despite the hype about adult Potter devotees, make up the large majority of Potter fans. They naturally gravitate towards school stories because it is their world. Children also adore the idea of magic, not least because the world of children, particularly young children, is subjectively magical because the child is inexperienced and deals with what they do not understand by comforting acts of imagination. The secret of HP’s success is Rowling’s creation of a convincing children’s world which includes the escape from the everyday.
As for Bond, spy stories are of course widely popular but none have the glamour or lasting power of Bond. That is because Bond is much more than a spy. He is a state authorised killer but he is also a gent, an old Etonian, expelled at the age of 14 for having an affair with one of the school’s maids, and a practised seducer of women in adult life. Such a background allows him to move in privileged circles with their concomitant glamour. Bond is a gentleman heavy just as Raffles is a gentleman burglar. He gives the viewer the thrill of violence and sex wrapped in gentility.
The irrelevance of “relevance”
The success of films such as LOTR and Harry Potter dismay those who believe that people will only show an interest in that which is relevant to their lives. How, they wail, can people be so fascinated by the depiction of societies so unlike, at least superficially, their own experience? How can the creatures of privilege be so attractive? The obvious answer is simple: human beings most enjoy dramas which are removed from the familiar mandating of their own lives.
There is nothing new in this. Shakespeare’s plays are full of the doings of kings, nobles and gentry which dominate the doings of the common man, yet from their first performances they played to audiences with a large proportion drawn from the lower ranks of society. Films from their early days have done a roaring trade in showing the great at work and play. In the heyday of the British boys’ comic, George Orwell wrote an essay wondering about the immense fascination which the Greyfriars stories (those with Billy Bunter, Bob Cherry et al) held for working class boys who bought the Magnet in vast numbers. They did so for the same reason that workingclass adults watched films of lives different from their own but not so removed from their understanding to be alien: it provided exciting novelty without weirdness. That is probably much of the answer to why Englishness is popular in film today.
*In real terms earlier films such as Gone With the Wind had world grosses larger than the films listed above, but the circumstances of modern film distribution are completely different from what they were when Gone with the Wind was made (1940), or even what they were twenty years ago. When Gone With the Wind came out the only way for the ordinary person to see a film when it was released was in a cinema, a situation which essentially remained until the advent of videotape. Now the ordinary person can not only go to the cinema, they can get the film not long after its release on DVD and often see it on television within a year.