The 1980s: Recession and Revival.
The social, economic, political and cultural landscape of the 1980s was dominated by Thatcherism. Her governments espoused the principles of the free market, deregulation of industry, abolition of government subsidies for industry and a policy of non-intervention. The overall net effect of such policies was that British Cinema, being an industry like any other, would have to ensure its own viability or die. The government was not overly-sentimental about the British film industry and certainly did not see that it had any role at all to play in fostering the conditions for success.
Despite this backdrop and the parlous state of British Cinema in the 1970s, there were nonetheless grounds for optimism.
- The emergence of new talent, from an advertising background, who were successful in creating a new visual aesthetic.
Directors included Ridley Scott, (Alien, 1979 and Blade Runner, 1982), Alan Parker (Midnight Express, 1980 and Mississippi Burning, 1987) as well as David Puttnam and Hugh Hudson (Chariots of Fire, 1981)
- Chariots of Fire had won the Best Picture Oscar, leading producer Colin Welland, to claim at the award ceremony that “…the British are coming…!”
- The establishment of Channel Four and Film on Four boosted opportunities for the new independent film making sector to thrive. Channel four invested heavily in British films, usually offbeat in nature. C4 funded over 300 British films in the 1980s and provided a showcase for talents such as Peter Greenaway, Derek Jarman, Sally Potter, Isaac Julien, Julien Temple, Mike Leigh, Stephen Polliakoff, Mike Newell, Stephen Frears and Ken Loach. Prior to C4 many of these directors had struggled to obtain distribution deals and theatrical release.
Despite these grounds for optimism, British cinema was beset by a number of structural difficulties:
- The lack of government recognition of the idea that the British film industry was not an industry like any other and in fact was a special case. The abolition of the Eady levy in 1984 made home-grown production, distribution and exhibition even more difficult.
- The recession of the early-mid 1980s had two entirely predictable effects. There was a lack of investment. No film finance meant no home –grown product. There was also a decline in the number of theatres and in admissions which reached a post-war low point of 54m in 1984.
- The growth in home video also had an impact on cinema admissions. Pirate video cassettes were a great concern for the industry and there was also a great deal of concern over the content of the so-called ‘video nasties’, culminating in the Video Recordings Act, 1984). Small production companies had become very profitable, exploiting the loophole in the law that did not require certification of films on VHS. These companies produced straight to video films, mainly in the horror genre.
Three distinct types of film could be delineated during the 1980s.
- The Museum aesthetic piece: Chariots of Fire, Hugh Hudson, 1981) and Room with a View, Merchant Ivory, 1984). These heritage films showed a concern and preoccupation with a mythic colonial English past, rather than a British present dealt with in the social realism tradition.
- The Social Realism piece: My Beautiful Launderette, (Stephen Frears, 1983) High Hopes, (Mike Leigh, 1988)
- The Avant-Garde Art Film: Carravaggio (Derek Jarman, 1987), The Draughtman’s Contract (Peter Greenaway, 1982) and Drowning By Numbers (Peter Greenaway, 1987).
The 1980s is the decade when a number of highly significant political and social changes occurred
Other notable films of the period include:
Burning an Illusion
Looks and Smiles
The Ploughman’s Lunch
Defence of the Realm
Made at the time of civil unrest in Birmingham, this key example of the essay film at its most complex remains relevant both formally and thematically. Handsworth Songs is no straightforward attempt to provide answers as to why the riots happened; instead, using archive film spliced with made and found footage of the events and the media and popular reaction to them, it creates a poetic sense of context.
The film is an example of counter-media in that it slows down the demand for either immediate explanation or blanket condemnation. Its stillness allows the history of immigration and the subsequent hostility of the media and the police to the black and Asian population to be told in careful detail.
One repeated scene shows a young black man running through a group of white policemen who surround him on all sides. He manages to break free several times before being wrestled to the ground; if only for one brief, utopian moment, an entirely different history of race in the UK is opened up.
The waves of post-war immigration are charted in the stories told both by a dominant (and frequently repressive) televisual narrative and, importantly, by migrants themselves.
The Last of England
Tracing the decline and fall of Britain as seen from the vantage points of London and Belfast, Jarman creates a mosaic using old home movies, newly shot hand-held 8 millimeter photography, erotic imagery, scenes of war and urban decay, newsreel-style footage and a barrage of familiar music and street sounds. Quite Apocalyptic, surreal and very difficult to watch.
Sammy and Rosie Get Laid
The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover