The appetite for Englishness in films

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.

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. . 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.

This entry was posted in Culture, Nationhood, World influence and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The appetite for Englishness in films

  1. namejastin says:

    Magnet in vast numbers.

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