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British Film in the 1980s

'The British are coming!' - but how far did they get?

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The 1980s began with the bleakest outlook yet seen for British film. Most of the well-heeled film companies such as Rank, EMI and assorted Hollywood majors had either pulled out of British production altogether or were just about to. The newly elected Conservative government carried out its threat to scrap the Eady levy, which subsidised British film production via a percentage of all ticket sales. Competition from television and video did further damage, and the UK box office fell precipitately from 101 million admissions in 1980 to an all-time low of 54 million in 1984.

And yet the decade began with the clarion call "The British are coming!", uttered by screenwriter Colin Welland on the night that Chariots of Fire (1981) won the first of the decade's three British Best Picture Oscars. The second, for Richard Attenborough's long-gestating Gandhi (1982) and the third, for The Last Emperor (UK/Italy/China, 1987) suggested that we had also started producing genuinely popular big-budget epics for the first time since David Lean's 1960s heyday. Lean himself returned with A Passage to India (1984), and he seemed to have a successor in Roland Joffé, who made The Killing Fields (1984) and The Mission (1986) under the aegis of David Puttnam, the closest thing to an authentic British film mogul since the days of Alexander Korda and Sam Spiegel.

But the 1980s was generally a time of downsizing, retrenchment and upheaval. The standout production companies of the era - Goldcrest, HandMade, Palace, Working Title - generally operated on a much smaller scale than their predecessors. Indeed, a warning note was sounded when Goldcrest overstretched itself by simultaneously backing a big-budget star-driven historical epic (Revolution, 1985), an ambitious and innovative musical (Absolute Beginners, 1986) and the large-scale South American historical drama The Mission (1986) - and although the latter won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and became a modest commercial success, this came too late to make a difference. Hubris similarly met nemesis when Israeli moguls Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, via their Cannon Group, bought up Thorn EMI Screen Entertainment, including its substantial cinema chain. The intention was to create a vertically-integrated business along the lines of the old Rank Organisation, but Cannon expanded too quickly and the mediocre box office performance of many of its films (mostly low-budget exploitation fare) proved unable to sustain it.

HandMade and Palace were far more typical of the era. With a few exceptions such as the ill-fated Madonna/Sean Penn vehicle Shanghai Surprise (HandMade, 1986), their films were conceived on a modest scale: even Palace's ambitious fantasy The Company of Wolves (1984) only cost £4 million, and HandMade's surprise hit Time Bandits (1981) was even cheaper: director Terry Gilliam would later rue the day that he got involved with the runaway extravaganza The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), because until then his reputation stemmed from creating wildly imaginative worlds out of absurdly limited resources. (1985's Brazil also came in at much less than its baroque visuals would suggest). Perhaps appropriately for a company created to fund Life of Brian (1979), much of HandMade's output consisted of modestly-budgeted comedies, including A Private Function (1984) and Withnail & I (1986).

The decade's other key theme was the greater synergy between large and small screen. Channel Four, which debuted in November 1982, would rapidly become a major player in British cinema once agreements had been reached over shortening the agreed window between cinema release and television airing. The domestic videocassette became a genuine mass medium by the early 1980s, unnerving the mainstream industry, which relished the chance to develop a genuine secondary market, but which was also concerned about piracy. Because major rightsholders initially shunned the video market, it was left open to scores of fly-by-night independents, many of whom took full advantage of the fact that censorship legislation had yet to catch up with technological progress. A moral panic over what the tabloids called 'video nasties' led to a draconian crackdown via the 1984 Video Recordings Act, which required almost all UK video releases to be officially vetted by the British Board of Film Censors (the last word was changed to 'Classification' in 1985). The only exceptions were some documentary and music videos.

The music video, or pop promo, had been around since the mid-1970s, but the 1980s was the decade in which it first flourished, its aesthetic influencing several big-screen films (Absolute Beginners, 1986; Aria, 1987) and providing an invaluable experimental training ground for many young directors - Julien Temple and Bernard Rose being good early examples, though old-timers like Ken Russell and Lindsay Anderson also jumped on a large and growing bandwagon.

Of the established directors, Anderson,Russell, Ken Loach and Nicolas Roeg generally failed to match their earlier achievements. However, John Boorman, Jack Clayton, Derek Jarman, Terence Davies, Bill Douglas and the team of Ismail Merchant, James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala produced some of their best work - as did the veteran Lewis Gilbert, who turned the Willy Russell plays Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine into box-office gold (in 1983 and 1989 respectively). Mike Leigh and Stephen Frears returned to the big screen after more than a decade in television, although their contemporary Alan Clarke's cinema films never matched the incendiary power of his best small-screen work.

Many outstanding filmmakers saw their feature debuts released in the 1980s, including Bill Forsyth, Michael Radford, Alex Cox and Peter Greenaway, the latter graduating from the avant-garde to genuine commercial success with The Draughtsman's Contract (1982) and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) with remarkably few compromises along the way. Several writers picked up the directorial megaphone, including Clive Barker, David Hare, Neil Jordan, David Leland, Philip Ridley and Bruce Robinson. The theatre proved a fertile breeding ground for new directors, including Richard Eyre, Mike Figgis and Kenneth Branagh, who made an enormous splash when he directed and starred in Henry V (1989) at the age of twenty-eight, a much darker, more sombre adaptation of Shakespeare's play than Laurence Olivier's wartime flagwaver.

The 1980s also saw a substantial increase in the number of female directors, hitherto a vanishingly rare species. Sally Potter, Zelda Barron, Conny Templeman, Lezli-Ann Barrett and Beeban Kidron all made their feature debuts, while Mai Zetterling directed Scrubbers (1982) following several films in her native Sweden. Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen continued their creative collaboration, and Cinema Action's Ann and Eduardo Guedes moved into features thanks to the backing of Channel Four.

Other C4 beneficiaries included Amber Films, the Black Audio Film Collective, Ceddo and Sankofa - the last three providing welcome evidence that black filmmaking in Britain was building on the roots laid down by Horace Ové the previous decade. Although mainstream British cinema seemed obsessed with the Raj, new voices from Asian communities emerged, notably Hanif Kureishi, whose My Beautiful Laundrette (d. Stephen Frears, 1985) was one of the decade's most memorable state-of-the-nation snapshots, and also struck a major blow for gay cinema. Even Anglo-Chinese filmmaking, moribund for many decades, sputtered briefly into life with Ping Pong (1986) and Soursweet (1988).

The 1980s also saw the start of what would become a genuine golden age of British animation, thanks to the enlightened patronage of organisations such as Channel Four and the BFI Production Board, which openly encouraged the kind of self-expression that had hitherto been much harder to slot in between bread-and-butter commercial commissions. Animators as diverse as Aardman and the Quay Brothers made major creative breakthroughs, while the decade's end saw the emergence of exceptional new talent such as Nick Park, David Anderson, Mark Baker and Joanna Quinn.

As is often the case throughout British film history, some of the decade's best films were made by foreigners, including David Lynch (The Elephant Man, 1980), John Landis (An American Werewolf in London, 1981), Jerzy Skolimowski (Moonlighting, 1982) and Nagisa Oshima (Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, 1983). Prominent British directors who worked mainly abroad in the 1980s included Alan Parker, Alex Cox, Adrian Lyne, and the brothers Ridley and Tony Scott, while David Puttnam headed Columbia Pictures from 1986-88 - but this came to a premature end after one clash too many with the conservative Hollywood community. The British may have been coming, but building a lasting empire proved a bigger challenge.

Michael Brooke

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