Friday, 30 May 2008


Paul Dave, Senior Lecturer in Film at the University of East London, analyses the relationship between what makes the notion of « Englishness » and British contemporary cinema, through the prism of the core of this notion and of British culture in particular: Class.

« To put it bluntly [...] there [is] a certain incompatibility between the terms « cinema » and « Britain »... » (François Truffaut, quoted by Roy Armes in A Critical History of the British Cinema)

« The class war is over and we have won it. » (British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, 1959)


Cinema is both an industry and an art, but it is also the reflection of the societies, of the Histories, and of the cultures movies originate from. And one of the first (and numerous) merit of Paul Dave's book is to recall us - in spite of François Truffaut provocative's declaration - that British movie industry is not only a reservoir of technical and artistic talents for delocalized Hollywood blockbusters like Harry Potter and the excellent Basic Instinct 2 (with a fascinating use of its London locations), or « a bunch of people in London who can't get Green Cards » (Alan Parker, Will Write and Direct for Food, Page 85).

But the most intellectually attracting element of Visions of England is the angular stone of the book: the notion of Class as the essential component of the English culture, mirrored by contemporary British cinema.

« The Enchantment of Englishness is the dissociation of class and class struggle or, what amounts to the same thing, class and capitalism. » (Paul Dave, Visions of England, Preface)

Following brilliantly the illustrious paths of Eileen Meiksins Wood and Andrew Higson with an original synthesis between sociology and Cinema study, Paul Dave explores a vast period of the History of the British film industry, from the « Heritage » films of the Thatcher-Major Era to more experimental movies (e.g. London Orbital - 2002), not to forget « Fairy-tales » entries such as Notting Hill (1999), or milestones like Trainspotting (1996).

« Film historians agree that between the 1940s and the 1980s there was a progressive dislocation of the unity of the National community as imaged in wartime films. » (Paul Dave, Visions of England, Page 10)


« Let's play Master and Servant » (Depeche Mode)

« The Upper reaches of the English class system seem to fascinate film makers. In particular the monarchy, the aristocracy and the upper middle classes featured prominently in what some critics have referred to as the British « Heritage Film » . » (Paul Dave, Visions of England, Page 27)

The Heritage genre includes Merchant Ivory Productions - what director and cartoonist Alan Parker called « the Laura Ashley school of film making » in a cult-classic cartoon (See Will Write and Direct for Food, page 93 - this book is a definitive all-time favourite for the author of this review), movies like A passage to India (1984), or even Television dramas such as The jewel in the crown. In some respects it is what Midsomer Murders or Miss Marple are for British Television: postcards from the non-edge, the way continental Europeans or US viewers often represent themselves british cinema in a sort of collective phantasm (1).

« The authorities were disappointed to find, not the remains of Big Fat Paulie, but instead The Remains of the Day, a boring Merchant Ivory Film starring Sir Anthony Hopkins.
- Hum, funny how they could have confused that... » (Diane Simmons and Tom Tucker, Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story)

The main characteristics of the genre, as idenfied by British film Historian Andrew Higson, are « sumptuous mise en scène showcasing heritage properties (landscape, interiors, architecture, costumes) » (Higson in Paul Dave, Visions of England, Page 28) and « a nostalgic and conservative celebration of the values and lifestyles of the privileged classes » (Ibid.)

Visions of England explores and expands the work of Higson on the subject with analysis of a string of typical Heritage films such as Chariots of Fire (1981), The Remains of the Day (1993) or later avatars like Angels and Insects (1995) or The Tichborne Claimant (1998), and even establishes a filiation between Heritage and Working Title's Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) - the matrix of some the most famous films of this company until Thunderbirds (the book of Paul Dave proposes further excellent developments on this specific point).


« Do you remember Mark Darcy, darling? Malcolm and Elaine's son? He's one of these super-dooper top-notch lawyers. Divorced. Elaine says he works all the time and he's terribly lonely. I think he might be coming to Una's New Year's Day Turkey Curry Buffet, actually. » (Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones Diary)

Paul Dave links what he calls « the culture of the « millenial » neo-liberal capitalism » and the evolution of middle-class as reflected in the British commercial hits of the 1990s, where London has been transformed into a « Fairy-tale city of delights » or an « enchanted village » (Robert Murphy, quoted Page 45).

« The film [Notting Hill] prefers to suggest that the privilege is the reward of an unassuming English charm... » (Paul Dave, Visions of England, Chapter 2, Page 47)

Not only within this perspective, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones Diary (2001) and its sequel are the objects of the author's scrutiny but the recall by Dave of the production context of these movies (from the Working Title company) will remain to cinephiles and movie specialists as a very precious instrument of comprehension of the recent History of the British movie industry.

Such a morceau de bravoure would be sufficient for the satisfaction of the reader but Paul Dave goes on his demonstration with Miramax's Sliding Doors (1998) - six pages that deserve a lecture in cinema schools (« Sliding Doors opens up the cracks in this « new middle class » - its identity is seen to unravel under the impact of a capitalist dynamic. », Page 55).


« A working class hero is something to be. If you want to be a hero well just follow me, If you want to be a hero well just follow me. » (John Lennon, Working class hero)

« As if by a process of delayed action, Brassed Off gave expression to a popular mood disturbed by the legacy of the struggles between the neo-liberal state and organised labour that had taken place a decade earlier in the mid 1980s » (Paul Dave, Visions of England, Page 62).

Brassed Off (1996) - one of the most beautiful British film of the last century, The Full Monty (1997), Among Giants (1998), The Navigators (2001), Late Night Shopping (2001) and Billy Elliot (2000), are the on-screen elegies of the British working class selected in Visions of England, with sometimes nuances that non-British readers will certainly consider with the highest interest (« Billy Elliot is at its closest to the ideology of Blairism here in its representation of the glittering trajectory of an individual talent and success as an adequate answer to structural social problems... », Page 75).

« Thank you, your honor. With God's help I'll conquer this terrible affliction. » (Trainspotting)

Beyond downstairs lies what the British New Right called « the underclass », a notion covering « the systematically destructive effects of capitalism on particular sections of the working class... » (Page 83) Trainspotting is there used as the center of an aesthetic and cultural reflexion.


The last part of the book offers us an in-depth analysis of Performance (1970), the masterpiece co-directed by the late Donald Cammell, and, among others elements, a look at experimental documentaries such as Robinson in Space (1997) and London Orbital (2002).

Visions of England (Berg Publishers, Oxford), by Paul Dave, reinvents the study of British cinema with talent, intelligence, clearness and style through a sociological point of view that makes his work not only useful to cinephiles and searchers, but also for everyone who wishes to learn more about a revealing aspect of what constitutes the contemporary History of United Kingdom.

We would be delighted if Mr Dave could someday do the same work with British Television, or at least a 2nd tome of his great book, this time with England as portrayed in British-based American productions. Until then buy Visions of England and have a look at the catalog of Berg Publishers, especially film studies.

« The beauty of cinema is it's something that can be made locally and consumed the world over. » (Doctor Who)

(1) Interestingly enough, in an episode of the BBC Hustle tv series, when the con-artists heroes want to trick a mobster into believing they’re working in the Cinema industry they choose the shooting of a Merchant Ivory style costume drama.

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