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British Film in the 1970s

Sex comedies, sitcom spin-offs... and the rise of a truly independent cinema

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Popularly known, for reasons well beyond cinematic ones, as "the decade that taste forgot", the 1970s was certainly a decade that the mainstream British film industry would prefer to forget. Beset by funding problems and dwindling audiences (193 million admissions in 1970 down to a mere 110 million in 1980), it was faced with small-screen competition on two fronts (television and the newly-invented domestic video recorder), as well as a plunge in Hollywood investment and the arrival of Margaret Thatcher's first Conservative government, which would carry out its threat of cutting state funding of the film industry. But if mainstream cinemas struggled, genuinely personal work thrived, with the BFI Production Board and London Filmmakers' Co-op amongst many organisations offering unprecedented opportunities for new filmmaking talent.

Of the major British production companies, EMI started the decade in a strong position, having recently taken over Associated-British and Elstree Studios and secured production funding from MGM. But its Chief of Production, actor-director Bryan Forbes, had an unhappy tenure, resigning in 1971 after only a handful of high-profile titles (The Railway Children, 1970; The Tales of Beatrix Potter, 1971), though Joseph Losey's The Go-Between (1971) won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Elstree's staff was halved in 1973, and EMI struggled through the rest of the decade with only the occasional big hit (Murder on the Orient Express, 1974; the David Essex duo That'll Be The Day, 1973 and Stardust, 1974) keeping them afloat.

The Rank Organisation, owner of Pinewood Studios, had a similarly difficult time. By 1970, its main commercial interests were largely elsewhere, managing director John Davis having cannily invested in the Rank Xerox photocopying business. The film side was largely kept afloat by popular franchises such as the Doctor and Carry On cycles, though these had both fizzled out by the end of the decade, and the title of the final Carry On (bar a 1992 revival) spoke volumes: Carry On Emmannuelle (1978).

Unlike EMI (which scored the biggest domestic hit of 1974 with Confessions of a Window Cleaner), Rank opted not to get involved in one of the decade's two reliably profitable British film genres, the lowbrow sex comedy. The Confessions cycle aside, most of these were produced by fly-by-night independent companies, and virtually all of them were decidedly unsexy and unfunny (1974's witty Eskimo Nell being a rare exception), though many were inexplicably popular.

Though Hammer Films scored its biggest hit ever in 1971, it was with the TV spin-off On the Buses, and it struggled to find markets for its traditional horror films, despite attempts at beefing up their sexual content (Lust for a Vampire, 1970) or updating familiar warhorses (Dracula AD 1972). Hammer eventually abandoned big-screen horror in 1976 (with To the Devil a Daughter), and the cinema altogether in 1979 (with an unnecessary remake of Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes), switching its operations to television. In the studio's place came lots of smaller independent concerns, whose films were mostly aimed at the trashier end of the marketplace, though Pete Walker and Norman J. Warren showed genuine talent. However, they too would be struggling by the start of the 1980s.

Besides the sex comedy, the other genre indelibly associated with 1970s British cinema was the television spin-off, based on the belief that high small-screen ratings would automatically translate to round-the-block cinema queues. This wasn't necessarily deluded: as already mentioned, On the Buses topped the 1971 box-office charts and many others generated decent returns, boosted by the reduced development and marketing costs of already-established franchises. Some spin-offs were even quite good (Porridge, 1979), though most made the mistake of trying to 'open out' a format that was most comfortable in a flatpack studio setting.

Another television spin-off was And Now For Something Completely Different (1971), an attempt at repackaging sketches from Monty Python's Flying Circus (BBC, 1969-74) for the international marketplace. Rightly feeling that it lacked imagination, the Pythons ensured that their next big-screen ventures would be altogether more ambitious, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) remain the most enduring British comedies of their era.

The religious satire Life of Brian was one of the most talked-about films of a controversial decade, which began with the new Secretary of the British Board of Film Censors, Stephen Murphy, regularly having to defend the release of high-profile films by major directors that explored what were considered the outer limits of cinematic sex and violence. But Ken Russell's The Devils, Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs and Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (all 1971) were patently serious works, the last in particular regarded as an important snapshot of the mood of the times. Murphy resigned in 1975 and his successor James Ferman would later crack down hard on issues such as sexual violence.

If the mainstream film industry was beset by financial uncertainty, this was an unprecedented decade for genuinely personal work. John Boorman (Leo the Last, 1970; Zardoz, 1973), Nicolas Roeg (Performance and Walkabout, 1970; Don't Look Now, 1973; The Man Who Fell To Earth, 1976) and Ken Russell (The Music Lovers, 1970; Savage Messiah, 1972; Mahler, 1973; Tommy, 1975) even managed to get some of their highly individual films funded by major studios (as did Robin Hardy with the memorably weird The Wicker Man in 1973), while Russell's former designer Derek Jarman moved from Super-8 shorts into features (Sebastiane, 1976; Jubilee, 1978; The Tempest, 1979) whose ambition belied their tiny budgets.

On an even smaller scale, talents supported by the BFI Production Board included Bill Douglas, Terence Davies and Peter Greenaway. The first two made uniquely personal trilogies inspired by their harsh upbringing, while Greenaway produced a series of idiosyncratic film-essays. Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and Alan Clarke made most of their best work for television, though Loach's Kes (1969) was belatedly released in 1970, Mike Leigh's first cinema feature Bleak Moments (1971) followed shortly afterwards, and Clarke's Scum (1979) caused a stir when he remade it for the cinema after the BBC refused to broadcast the original version. Barney Platts-Mills followed his debut Bronco Bullfrog (1969) with Private Road (1971) but then fell silent for the rest of the decade.

Outside the conventional distribution entirely, numerous co-operatives and workshops either started or came into their own. The most prominent of these were the London Film-Makers' Co-op, Cinema Action and the Newcastle-based Amber Films, all of which had been founded the previous decade, and they were joined by workshops such as the London Women's Film Co-op (1972), the Sheffield Film Co-op (1975) and Leeds Animation Workshop (1978). To protect their various interests, the Independent Filmmakers' Association was founded in 1975, to promote its members' interests, secure funding and negotiate with industry bodies.

The Seventies also saw major breakthroughs in the field of minority filmmaking, with the first British Asian feature (A Private Enterprise, 1974) followed in quick succession by the first Black British features (Pressure, 1975; Black Joy, 1977), while Derek Jarman and Ron Peck (Nighthawks, 1978) made equally important contributions to gay British features. Anglo-Chinese filmmaking, however, was moribund, the kung fu boom of 1973-4 being fuelled almost entirely by foreign imports, though Hammer attempted to jump on the bandwagon with its two co-productions with Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers studio: Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires and Shatter (both 1974).

One unarguable success story was the James Bond franchise, with a new film roughly every two years and a new leading man in Roger Moore, who took over in Live and Let Die (1973). Although many missed Sean Connery, few could deny that Bond skiing over a cliff into free-fall, broken at the last possible moment with the release of a Union Jack-decorated parachute at the start of The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) was an iconic image. In many ways, it sums up the entire decade, dominated as it was by the need to ensure a soft landing as the funding outlook seemed increasingly bleak.

Michael Brooke

Related Films and TV programmes

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Stanley Kubrick's visually ravishing reconstruction of the 18th century

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Mike Leigh's debut, about a lonely girl caring for her learning-disabled sister

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Whimsical children's film that marked Powell and Pressburger's swan song

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Alan Parker's delightfully original children's gangster musical

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Comedy about union unrest at the W.C. Boggs toilet factory

Thumbnail image of Children (1976)Children (1976)

The first part of the Terence Davies Trilogy

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Documentary observing the work-in by Upper Clyde shipbuilders in 1971

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Stanley Kubrick's dazzling and disturbing vision of near-future Britain

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Dazzling psychological thriller about grief and loss set in wintry Venice

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Acclaimed adaptation of L.P. Hartley's novel about a boy's loss of innocence

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Amber documentary about a worker-run drift mine in Cumbria

Thumbnail image of Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)

Controversial but hilarious comedy about a reluctant messiah

Thumbnail image of Murder on the Orient Express (1974)Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

Star-studded adaptation of the Agatha Christie mystery

Thumbnail image of My Childhood (1972)My Childhood (1972)

Bill Douglas' debut, about 8-year-old Jamie and a German POW

Thumbnail image of Nighthawks (1978)Nighthawks (1978)

The first British fiction feature with a realistic portrait of the gay community

Thumbnail image of Performance (1970)Performance (1970)

Dazzling psychological drama about a gangster and a rock star

Thumbnail image of Pressure (1975)Pressure (1975)

Britain's first black feature: a powerful portrait of inter-generational tensions

Thumbnail image of Private Enterprise, A (1974)Private Enterprise, A (1974)

The first British Asian feature, about a would-be entrepreneur in Birmingham

Thumbnail image of Protect and Survive (1976)Protect and Survive (1976)

Short animated films advising what to do in the event of a nuclear attack

Thumbnail image of Railway Children, The (1970)Railway Children, The (1970)

The definitive version of E.Nesbit's classic novel

Thumbnail image of Tempest, The (1979)Tempest, The (1979)

Derek Jarman's wildly imaginative version of Shakespeare's play

Thumbnail image of That'll Be The Day (1973)That'll Be The Day (1973)

David Essex is teen rebel Jim Maclaine in this 1950s rock'n'roll fable

Thumbnail image of Walk Through H, A (1978)Walk Through H, A (1978)

Peter Greenaway's journey through maps of an imaginary landscape

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Cult favourite about the pagan inhabitants of a remote Scottish island.

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