The future of Englishness in films

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.

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