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The British Are Coming?

Robert Weedon | Film | Sunday 2nd August 2009

I'm a big fan of British films, not necessarily because of any massive sense of patriotism, but I expect simply because I can relate to them. There seem to be roughly three types of British film - heritage cinema (set in the past, often costume dramas, for example The Other Boleyn Girl), modern social realism (the sort of thing Ken Loach directs) and cosy Middle England films (best demonstrated by Richard Curtis's romantic comedies). All are as equally valid as each other, although the first and third are generally the most commercially successful, with the middle one tending to be the most critically acclaimed (but usually only seen by about five people, two of whom are probably there by mistake).

Arguably, the most successful British films seem to encapsulate several of these elements, for example the hugely successful 2000 film Billy Elliot (set in the 1980s against a backdrop of the miner's strike, but featuring a feel-good story about a boy aspiring to become a ballet dancer).

British cinema always appears to teeter on the edge of recognition, and whenever a British film wins a "Best Picture" Oscar, there is always an introspective sense of disbelief, usually accompanied by the clamour of critics and news reports hailing a new era of British cinema as if it's suddenly appeared from nowhere. As the screenwriter Colin Welland said after Chariots of Fire won a Best Picture Oscar in 1981 "The British Are Coming", and much the same sentiment was echoed when Slumdog Millionaire won it in 2008. In reality, British cinema has always been there, it just seems to come as a shock when it does well internationally. After being in the doldrums for years, it was probably the unexpected international success of Four Weddings and Funeral in 1994 that saw a revival in British film that lasts to this day.

That film also saw the first major success of two of the three big names in British cinema today. In what is a gross simplification with many exceptions, these days there seem to be three major companies making British films - Working Title, FilmFour and BBC Films. Working Title used to attach themselves to Channel Four films during the whole of the 1980s, but now have a lucrative distribution contract with Universal Pictures.

Of these three, I personally rate Working Title and FilmFour higher than BBC Films. Working Title, with a few exceptions, never seem to put a foot wrong, and are also probably the most commercially successful of the trio. Recently, they've been responsible for making most of the big-budget literary adapations, such as Atonement, Richard Curtis's comedy films, more laddish films such as Hot Fuzz and more experimental/low budget films through WT2. FilmFour, meanwhile, specialise in slightly edgier, grittier films, for example Slumdog Millionaire, In Bruges and This is England.

What is wrong with BBC Films, then? Nothing, really - they're always well made, with interesting directors, good casts and usually well written. The only problem is that they always feel a bit...dry. For some reason, their comedy films never seem to be as funny as they could be, and their dramas rarely feel as emotionally involving as they ought to. I have no idea why this is, but suspect that it may be over-production - too much executive interference, maybe; I wonder whether the company simply suffers from looking over their shoulder too much. Two exceptions to this "BBC Film-itis" are Billy Elliot, which was mainly produced by WT2, Working Title's new cinema arm, and Mrs Brown, which was made by the BBC's television drama section and originally intended for TV broadcast, both which are excellent.

Anyway, these are just three of the companies that appear regularly on British films of the last few years. A little more detail on some British films, both past and present, will hopefully be appearing in the future.



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