Elegy For the Unheroes

As the third Harry Potter film steamrolls across Europe, no-one seems aware of its central irony; that this latest example of turbo-retro High English Gothic Peculiar reaches us courtesy of a Hollywood company intent on aggressively selling back to us an image we had hoped to shed; 1950s public school ethics, wedding-cake baroque, potty old dodderers, fog-shrouded chambers, and the rest of the assorted Victorian tat our grandparents inherited from the crumbs of the Empire. We’re being sold English ethnicity, repackaged for a world that wants to keep us in a snow globe of quaintness, just as Disney makes films in which a depopulated Africa exists solely to house cute animals.

You can’t entirely blame Hollywood; they’re simply filling a void left by the collapse of our own indigenous cinema. English film is dead, but will anyone here notice? Only Working Title, the hitmaking family company built on a Hollywood business model, remains alive. There’s no one left to finance the English stories enjoyed by discerning home audiences for the past 80 years. Our studios have never been busier, but now we’re in the employ of the Hollywood machine. Talking to English scriptwriters is as grim as discussing the death of a friend. No one can believe English cinema has gone; what about The Full Monty, they say. Well, that was funded by Fox. Calendar Girls? Made by Buena Vista. Gosford Park? One of ours, true, but it was another English period romp aimed at overseas sales. So where did we go wrong?

If you’ve ever wondered why England, with its wealth of creative talent, languishes so near the bottom of the world cinema league table, here’s a sobering thought. By the time the English authorities decided to tear down the doors of Newgate Gaol, London’s notorious 700-year-old lair of highwaymen and cutthroats, America was already showing its first motion pictures. It’s one of those peculiar historical overlaps that seem impossible, like the idea of Oscar Wilde travelling by tube, or the fountain pen being invented after the telephone.

While our venerable literary traditions provided blueprints for taking stories to the world, they restrained us from endorsing the techno-wizardy of cinema. A crippling war shut down production, an exhibition duopoly reduced the choice of outlets and a property boom hastened cinema closures. The great movie-houses were carved into poorly insulated multiplexes, so that you could go to see Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo but hear Dracula Has Risen From the Grave. Audiences came to regard English films as a tepid sidebar to quality television. Our studios produced some of the most creative technicians in the world, but homegrown films were doomed by their quaint parochiality, and faded beneath the razzamatazz of the Hollywood charm offensive. Our habits changed, and now we watch blockbusters, plus a bit of world cinema, which we think does us good, like going to the gym.

So it’s easy to forget England’s unique moviegoing history. Our cinemas sprang from converted music halls, and our films played like verbose stage shows. We grew up with odd loyalties — why else did we sit through over 30 “Carry On” films? There’s a paralysing stiffness in old English movies that didn’t entirely disappear until after 1980. English cinema was a world of pipe-clenching chaps in sensible jumpers, spivs, drag queens and dolly birds. It was a world of toilet humour, sexual innuendo, smoke and beer that starred saucy sailors, bureaucrats, hockey teachers, cheery constables, nurses in black stockings and predatory schoolgirls. The common language was “Received English”, a cut-glass accent of exquisite clarity that now sounds more alien than rural Chinese. If such films really were a reflection of our lives, they presented an image of a very strange country indeed; bloody-minded but liberal, arrogant but apologetic, class-ridden, petty, proper, girl-shy — and very slightly magical, if only because it has now gone forever.

We needed English films because Hollywood didn’t reflect our lives. I watched in confusion as Californian kids went to school in sports cars, and girls with nose-rings were branded “bad”. What was it with the brown paper grocery bags that had no handles? How were you meant to carry them? Fathers called their daughters “Pumpkin”, boys called their fathers “Sir”, the police handcuffed people right in the street, and there were all these guns. To children taught that displays of public emotion were a sign of innate vulgarity, the mix of violence and sentimentality I saw on the screen was thrilling and shameless.

English films acted as a constant alternative to the view from Hollywood, and even though many of them were terrible, we were able to find reflections of our lives there; our language, aspirations, fears, weaknesses and humour. Our attitude to class and culture percolated through most of all; we condescended to the working classes, sneered at the nouveau riche, vilified management, and pilloried the state and the church. English cinema originated in ideas, so content preceded style. Nothing looked very good, but it always had a decent plot.

For a long time, the culture gap was insurmountable. In Hollywood, the word “pilot” conjured Tom Cruise suited and booted in Top Gun. In England you got a gentleman called Terence Alexander in leather flying goggles fondling the ends of a handlebar moustache. Our sheriff came from Nottingham. Hollywood’s came from Dodge City.

The greatest difference was in our heroes, who were cut from different cloth; they had trouble falling in love, solving crime, or tackling evil because they usually in a state of emotional turmoil. They tended toward the Boy-Next-Door cheeriness of John Mills, the elegant sturdiness of Richardson and Gielgud, the daydreaming Tom Courtenay, the effete charm of Alec Guinness, the neurasthenic mannerisms of Peter Sellers. The starring roles in postwar English films were eccentric (The Man in the White Suit), driven (Lawrence of Arabia), dishonest (The Wrong Arm of the Law), elderly (The Ladykillers), black (Mona Lisa), intellectual (The Draughtsman’s Contract), Jewish (Chariots of Fire), gay (My Beautiful Laundrette), Asian (Bend It Like Beckham), anarchic (If . . .) or simply operating under false illusions (The Long Good Friday). There was often something apologetic and embarrassed about them. They dressed in sensible jumpers, caught buses, and lost their confidence. It was a hell of a long way from John Wayne.

And yet Peter O’Toole, Dirk Bogarde, David Niven, Stanley Baker, Michael Caine, Peter Sellars, Albert Finney, Vanessa Redgrave, and Julie Christie were raised into the pantheon of world stars. Throughout our history the prim and wholesome images — Moira Shearer inspiring a generation of girls to take up ballet in The Red Shoes, Noel Coward keeping a stiff upper lip in In Which We Serve — were balanced by those of the English Peculiar — Norman Wisdom singing an eye-chart in On the Beat, Michael Redgrave silencing his ventriloquist dummy in Dead of Night, Joyce Grenfell’s gormless Miss Gossage (“Call me Sausage”) in The Happiest Days of Your Life, Barbara Windsor’s airborne brassiere in Carry On Camping.

The Union Jack minis that never broke red, white and blue file in the original Italian Job weren’t the only iconic ’60s image from England (trust the English to come up with a car chase involving the least glamorous cars on the road). Ken Russell dominated with a spectacularly strange string of films that included Roger Daltry riding a giant phallus in Lisztomania and Ann Margret being sprayed with tons of baked beans in Tomy. There was the perverse paganism of The Wicker Man, featuring a sexually rampant Britt Ekland and Christopher Lee in drag, offering a masterclass of English peculiarity, and the haunting power of Witchfinder General, the only English western ever filmed, from dead-at-24 genius Michael Reeves.

English films were always different from Hollywood films. We didn’t have too many sex bombs, although Diana Dors offered blowsy charm and Vanessa Redgrave had hippyish hauteur. The luminous Julie Christie operated from a place above everyone else, in the way that Catherine Deneuve does for the French, but generally, English women went from the Celia Johnson school of buttoned-down frigidity, via a brief period of adult frankness in films like The L-Shaped Room, to being treated with a mixture of fear and schoolboy sniggering in endless smutty sex-comedies. Our women rarely exhibited the frontier emancipation of Hollywood heroines.

English performers had grown up handling the twice-nightlies and provincial tours. They eschewed method acting and considered their work a craft. While making Brief Encounter (a coded love story written by a gay man in which a doctor seduces Celia Johnson by describing the symptoms of lung disease), the actress asked David Lean if he could hurry up shooting her big romantic scene because she had a train to catch.

We excelled in presenting absurd dark comedy, horror and melancholia, often in the same package, in films like The Whisperers, Brimstone & Treacle, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Kind Hearts and Coronets and The National Health. Few were highly regarded by English critics. The moderate reviews that greeted The Whisperers, for example, contrasted markedly with the enthusiastic reception it received in the US, where Dame Edith Evans was nominated for an Academy Award.

English fiction remains peppered with weak men who observe the action of their lives from a distance. They originated in dozens of satirical monochrome comedies featuring casts so familiar it was possible to name every single speaking part in them. Our films starred boffins in libraries and laboratories, chaps on the sidelines, headachy women who apologised about their nerves and arranged flowers, and men who never loosened their ties.

The English nature still seems drawn to such stories; we admire plucky losers and anti-heroes. English comedies were self-effacing. Our dramas ran against the grain of epic, elegiac heroism. We liked our books dry and our films drier. Our writers could afford to be cruel because they were ultimately liberal — as warm, at any rate, as the English ever get. English humour still takes a great deal of explaining. When an American friend asked why we found Mike Leigh films so funny, I had to explain that everyone could manage a quote from Abigail’s Party, a comedy in which a man lies dying of a heart attack on the living room rug. (I saw Mike Leigh’s Life Is Sweet in New York, where the audience fell about laughing every time anyone offered to make a cup of tea.) Our cruelty is tempered with humour, but it makes us allergic to cuteness.

The idea of English cinema as a separate canon with its own stars, dreams and themes has now gone for good. As I look up and see Ben Affleck’s toothpaste smile, as big and bland as a supermarket, I long for the return of my flawed heroes. It’s too late now, of course; Princess Diana’s death drew us into public displays of emotion, and unwittingly helped to close the door on the hushed, private world of English cinema. The films that accompanied my moviegoing life now lie unloved and unrestored in damp basement facilities, awaiting a new breed of hero to come to their rescue.