It may be that the present popularity of Englishness in films will pass, although it shows no sign of doing so soon. But even if overtly English films do not maintain their present high global profile the use of English actors, whether playing “English” or not, will surely continue for there is an immense cast list of acting talent in England – I never cease to marvel at exactly how good the average English actor is.
There is a problem with films projecting Englishness , a narrowness of subject. What is missing from most modern English films, or at least those which get a wide release, is the representation of English society outside the middle and upper classes, something which was the staple of British cinema in the Fifties and Sixties. Films set in the second world war have been long out of fashion – these by their nature tended to depict people of all classes – and there is nothing equivalent now to the flow of Ealing comedies and their ilk or even the Carry On films.
Good films which deal with a broader range of English society and character are still being made. Some of the best in the last 15 years are Croupier, Last Orders, Nil by Mouth, Twenty-four Hour People, Sexy Beast, Human Traffic, The Full Monty, Football Factory, and My Summer of Love and many of the films of by Mike Leigh, especially Life is Sweet, High Hopes, Naked, Career Girls, last orders and Vera Drake. But these, with the odd exceptions such as The Full Monty and Vera Drake, get little international exposure.
Nonetheless, the fact that films such as the Full Monty and the two Guy Ritchie “mockney” gangster films Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch did have significant international success, including success in America, does suggest that the appetite for Englishness is not simply a liking for middle class and upper class Englishness. It could be that it is simply a lack of widespread distribution of films with workingclass English settings that sways Englishness in modern films towards the middle/upper class representation.
It is a great shame that such films do not get a broader release. Take a film like Last Orders. The cast alone tells you it is worth seeing: Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Tom Courtney, David Hemmings and Helen Mirren. It is a film which traces the lives of four working class Englishmen from the 1930s to almost the present day. It is a master class in showing how even the lives of the poor can carry the full weight of drama. I doubt whether it was shown on a hundred screens in England.
Sadly, the greatest problem for our filmmakers is getting their films into cinemas, not least because the main distributors in Britain concentrates almost exclusively on “safe” commercial films backed by massive marketing, which means in practice the showing of “surefire” Hollywood products. Many English films never see a cinema screen and others receive such a limited distribution they might as well have been left in the can. Many do not deserve to, especially those funded by lottery money. That public money would have been better spent buying a national distribution network. That would have given British filmmakers the reassurance that if they produced something halfway decent it would get a decent distribution. Fewer films would be made no doubt but more would be worthy of showing widely and more would be shown. A more rounded view of Englishness would also be on show. Variety being the spice of life, that would be the greatest guarantee of the continuing health of English cinema, for there can only be so much of a market for one type of Englishness.