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Britishness by Michael Brooke
Introduction The British Character Ancient & Mediaeval Royalty & Empire The Class System Conflict
Landscape Foreigners Culture Leisure Eccentricity Shopkeepers
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Still from Hillsborough

A family football outing
in 'Hillsborough' (1996)

The British have always taken their leisure intensely seriously. Whole books have been written about the art of making a simple cup of tea (the definitive British beverage), and for many people the pub is an extension of their living room - it's no coincidence that the two most successful British television soap operas base their action around, respectively, the Rover's Return (Coronation Street) and the Queen Vic (EastEnders).

Many of the pioneering Victorian and Edwardian filmmakers captured the British at leisure, partly for pictorial reasons but mostly because this was one of the most effective ways of establishing instant recognition with the crowds they were hoping to attract to their screenings. One of the earliest genuine "newsreels" depicted the 1896 Derby, footage of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race dates back to 1897, and Mitchell & Kenyon's cameras recorded many similar turn of the century sporting events, including the oldest footage of Manchester United (1902). There is also footage of ladies cycling in Hyde Park (1896), fashion parades on Brighton Pier (1898), boys playing in the snow (1900) and much more in a similar vein.

Later on, dramas would use the holiday season as a dramatic device to showcase the concerns of a wide range of British characters. Carol Reed's film Bank Holiday (1938) is primarily a romantic triangle, but much attention is paid to the other families and individuals bustling in and out of the action. Forty years on, Alan Bennett's play All Day on the Sands (ITV, tx. 24/2/1979) cast a caustic eye on the shortcomings of the traditional British seaside holiday, with "abroad" being cited as an unmatchable ideal that our own resorts can never hope to match up to. Failure to enjoy a holiday is another key British characteristic.

The traditional British sports of football, rugby and cricket feature constantly in its film and television history. Two legendary cricketers, W.G. Grace and Prince Ranji, were captured on film in 1901, and the game has since featured in such diverse films as Joseph Losey's The Go-Between (1970) and Horace Ové's Playing Away (1986) used a cricket match as a means of exploring multiracial relationships and tensions. The definitive rugby film is Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life (1963), but it's football that has had the most widespread appeal.

Though there have been hardly any artistically successful films that are primarily about the game itself (actual televised football matches will remain superior by definition), there have been plenty of others that demonstrate how deeply it's penetrated the national psyche. The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939), the children's film Cup Fever (1965), Those Glory Glory Days (Channel 4, tx. 17/11/1983) and Go Now (BBC, tx. 16/9/1995) all use the game as a springboard for human-interest drama, and in 1996 Go Now's co-writer Jimmy McGovern dramatised the most emotionally wrenching of all British football stories.

The Hillsborough tragedy, where 96 people died after crowd control went disastrously wrong, would have been ghastly under any circumstances, but it owed its peculiar potency to the fact that it happened at a football match at a time when football fans were being demonised as the lowest of the low (though as the end of Alan Clarke's The Firm takes care to highlight, hooligans weren't true fans of the beautiful game). It united the nation in general, and the city of Liverpool in particular, in collective grief, and McGovern's film (ITV, tx. 5/12/1996) never forgets this.

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