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The British Hero by Michael Brooke
Introduction Stiff Upper Lips Working-Class Heroes Heroic Outsiders Heroic Failures The Antihero
Historical Heroes Literary Heroes Cultural Heroes Local Heroes    
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Cultural Heroes
Still from Love is the Devil (1998)

Francis Bacon (Derek Jacobi)
in Love is the Devil (1998)

Although the British have a long-standing indifference to intellectuals, we're far more ready to champion the notion of the creative artist as hero, even via popular comedies like The Rebel (1960), which shows Tony Hancock casting off the shackles of office life in favour of a bohemian existence as a (dreadful) Paris-based painter. It's easy to see why films about artists have been so attractive to film-makers: the subject-matter is seen as elevating their work from the start, and if the film is a success in its own right, it becomes permanently associated with the original work.

Although British cinema has often championed foreign artists such as Rembrandt (1936) or Johann Strauss (Waltzes from Vienna, 1933), we've also elevated our own. William Shakespeare is the leading character in two films (The Immortal Gentleman, 1935; Shakespeare in Love, 1998), as are Gilbert and Sullivan (The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan, 1953; Topsy-Turvy, 1999), while D.H.Lawrence (Priest of Love, 1981), Joe Orton (Prick Up Your Ears, 1986) and Francis Bacon (Love is the Devil, 1998) have also inspired biopics, most of which take the quality of the work for granted and concentrate on the life. The Dublin-born Oscar Wilde was technically British during his lifetime, and our film industry has made amends for his cruel mistreatment by the British establishment of the 1890s, producing three films (Oscar Wilde, The Trials of Oscar Wilde, both 1960; Wilde, 1997) depicting him as an authentic tragic hero.

Few film-makers have championed the heroic artist more comprehensively than Ken Russell - he's depicted literary figures (Byron, both Shelleys, Wordsworth), visual artists (Henri Gaudier-Brzeska), actors (Rudolph Valentino), dancers (Isadora Duncan) and above all composers (Elgar, Delius, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Liszt, many others), varying wildly in quality but their imaginative energy and obsessive championing of the art-as-heroism angle is common to all. Most of his specifically British artistic heroes have been in television films, though an exception is Gothic (1986), which depicts Lord Byron and Percy and Mary Shelley in full-blown Romantic mode as they tell each other horror stories on a dark and stormy night.

More recently, Regeneration (1997) depicted Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfrid Owen as patients in a psychiatric hospital, using their poetry to escape from their appalling circumstances. Owen's 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' is a title that could also apply to Joy Division's lead singer Ian Curtis, who killed himself at 23 - his story adds an uncharacteristically tragic note to the otherwise upbeat 24 Hour Party People (2002).

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