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March 27, 2007

How well does film explore Britishness? Lilian Pizzichini goes to the British Film Institutes Mediatheque

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

Mediatheque at the British Film Institute
BFI Southbank, London
Tuesday - Sunday 11am - 8pm

In a speech to the Fabian Society earlier this month, Education Secretary Alan Johnson quoted George Orwell who once described Britain as

the most class-ridden society under the sun.
Class, he went on to say, has dominated the thoughts of successive generations of writers and politicians to such an extent that even now, in Tony Blair's "classless society", it remains a potent and emotive issue.

Class would not seem, at first, to have much to do with the opening of the British Film Institute's archives on the South Bank. It is the first of a series of Mediatheques which promise to "revolutionise" the way people across Britian see their film and television heritage. The BFI has the largest film archive in the world, so making it accessible to the public for free is cause for great celebration. It is so refreshing to be able to go to a public place and watch rare film footage that would otherwise only be available on expensive, speciality DVDs. It is truly democratic, that other notion to which the British lay claim.

The Mediatheque works like this: a dark room full of computer screens arranged in a series of cubby-holes replete with soft furnishings, headphones and arm rests. You are assigned a computer; you plug into it via your headphones. The menu on your screen offers you a range of films to choose from. You search for a specific film or browse lists of films that are arranged thematically. I chose to plunge into the 100-strong list of films, documentaries and shorts that explored the notion of Britishness. After two hours (thatís how long each session lasts) it would appear that class plays a crucial role in how we define ourselves.

Another thing:

Grandfathers should be sent into schools to provide role models for under-achieving working-class boys.
This is another statement from Alan Johnson. In the anxiety to promote diversity and gain the conservative Asian vote, the government has cottoned on to the fact that we have forgotten about the indigenous population. Those of us who have not entered the classless arena via education and merit are floundering in an underclass solely occupied by young, economically disadvantaged whites. Given the absence of grandparents, these "under-achieving working-class boys" (what about the girls, I'd like to know) should spend two hours in the Mediatheque to learn where they come from.

A Day in the Life of a Coal Miner (1910) is where I would start them. The industries that employed their forebears are no longer with us but industry helped form our collective identity. With no industry, no extended family and a consumer culture posited on instant gratification, it is a matter of urgency that we address who we, the British, are. The past can tell us.

Charles Urban's Kineto company initially specialised in

what we venture to assert are the more permanent uses of the Kinematograph, namely its application to purposes of instruction, and the widening of general knowledge.
Urban started making what he called "interest" films and what we now call "documentary" - a specific genre, distinct from other forms of non-fiction. Instruction is rarely done so subtly and movingly as in this cinematic distillation of the remorseless industrial processes that defined human lives in the 20th century.

The film is bookended by two staged sequences, each depicting a family. We see a miner leave his wife and two small children at the door of their cottage in the morning. They wave obligingly for the camera. He and his colleagues then enter a cage at the pitface and descend into the darkness. Men work at the earth with pickaxes; their scrawny backs and pigeon chests a world away from gym-honed and sculpted musculatures. We see the women at work on the conveyor belt, sifting through the coal. Their faces are nude of refinement, their bodies are bulky. A woman, probably much younger than she looks, stares abjectly at the camera. Given the film's sanctioning by the Wigan Coal and Iron Co., ascribing subversive political intentions to it would probably be an interpretation too far, but it might have gently shaken some middle-class viewers from their complacency.

The final scene depicts a wealthy family enjoying an evening by their coal fire. This is the classic documentary device: a contrasting case study, and it illustrates a class structure fuelled by the mineworkers' backbreaking work.

But what would we do without work? In the case of under-achieving, working-class boys, we sink into apathy, drugs and violence.

According to the Mediatheque, another component part of Britishness is our reception of the asylum-seeker. Return to Life is from 1959/60: World Refugee Year. A 35mm film, it was made for screening in embassies across the globe, celebrating British generosity and asylum-seekers' misery. The story of the shooting of this "story-documentary" is more affecting than the film itself. The family in the film was played by real, but unrelated, refugees. Off-screen the "mother" and "father" despised each other: one was Croatian, the other Serbian. The grandmother, haunted by her tragic life, committed suicide before the film was even released. Optimism, it seems, is another British characteristic, coupled with faith in the resurgency of the human spirit. Laudable though this is, sometimes optimism is a means of avoiding the complexities of human nature.

Sometimes, optimism descends into propaganda. The BFI bills Housing Problems (1935) as

both a propaganda piece and a document of optimism.
It shows the lastest in housing design: blocks of flats rising behind an old row of slum terraces in Stepney. The plum-in-the-mouth voiceover mentions "enlightened" local authorities and planners, and exhorts others to follow suit. The beauty of this film is that rather than merely asserting the necessity of new housing, it uses the voices and stories of working class men and women to demonstrate the slums' dreadful conditions, and the benefit of the new estates.

Its method - people talking straight to the camera about their lives - was an innovation in documentary. The full horror of the slums is brought home (are you watching children? This is where you come from), as grim-faced women talk about dead babies and over-familiar rats, and the camera pans across walls seething with bugs, up crooked stairs, and over collapsed roofs. The condescension is there, however: the narrator tells us that slum-dwellers "quickly respond" to their improved living conditions by becoming more hygienic themselves. What really comes across is their heroic endurance, something we have lost, and something that must come from having values.

Planned housing as the solution to social problems is in line with the naÔve optimism of the British do-gooder. Leeds' Quarry Road Estate, displayed as an exemplary piece of planning, was never fully completed; the estate was demolished in 1978. And the film-makers' hope that in the next ten years the slums would be cleared was crushed by the Luftwaffe.

The class system, endurance in the face of adversity, kindness to strangers - confusingly coupled with xenophobia, are all British characteristics. The most British of them all, though, is eccentricity.

In just 15 minutes, Peter Greenaway introduces us to a series of obsessive-compulsive users of the telephone. Dear Phone (1976) focuses on the once-ubiquitous red telephone box and the ever-ubiquitous English eccentric. This is the best Greenaway film I've ever seen. The use of text as image and the game of deciphering personality are interwoven through shots of telephone boxes in every conceivable location, and hand-written texts that are initially barely legible - scribbles on the backs of envelopes - but that systematically becoming increasingly more legible, almost official documents. The games he plays are the stuff of his cinema, but the focus on phones is especially relevant when now we walk around with them stuck to our heads.

Lindsay Anderson's O Dreamland was made in 1953, with a single 16mm camera and a tape recorder. Watching it is like being slapped in the face. A 12-minute tour of the Margate funfair, Dreamland, the film shows crowds of working-class holiday-makers enjoying the dubious "attractions". It's like Hogarth's Gin Lane Ė all human misery is there. There is a "Torture through the Ages" exhibit which shows lifesize models of men and women being plunged into vats of boiling oil or subjected to Death by a Thousand Cuts. Hangings, electrocutions, drawings and quarterings, this film is Foucauldian in its appreciation of scapegoating, sadism, and the discharge of cruelty and violence. Bingo, of course, is there, as are penny arcades, cups of teas, ladies' fat bottoms, and wretched tigers pacing in cages next to sad-eyed monkeys clinging to each other. The most sinister element is the seemingly endless mechanical puppets that provide the laughter for the soundtrack.

The effect of O Dreamland is summed up by Gavin Lambert in his article on Free Cinema, the movement to which this film was a precursor.

Everything is ugly... It is almost too much. The nightmare is redeemed by the point of view, which, for all the unsparing candid camerawork and the harsh, inelegant photography, is emphatically humane. Pity, sadness, even poetry is infused into this drearily tawdry, aimlessly hungry world.
If this is Britishness, it is that part of it that makes singular art out of the worst excesses of our humanity. Further to Anderson's ruminations, what sums up Britishness in the eyes of a contemporary British film-maker is our instinct to hunt. Cubs is a short that was made in 2006. It is set in a housing estate that borders disused railway lines and wasteland. It shows young people engaging in that classic British sport: fox-hunting. Instead of pinks, horses and hounds, we have hoodies, bikes and Staffies. The bloodlust is still there, the propensity to form gangs, or elites, the adaptability to seemingly hostile environments, the making the most of inadequate resources, a sometimes misplaced optimism and a somehow endearing lack of sophistication are the classic traits of Britishness that are on display at the British Film Institute's brand-new Mediatheque.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.


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