A cinematic look at empire

The New Statesman's media partnership with BFI Southbank for its End of Empire season.

The New Statesman is the media partner next month for the BFI Southbank's End of Empire season; a fascinating series of screenings and special events devoted to cinematic representations of the fall of the British Empire. The season emerged out of a collaboration with colonialfilm.org, a project by the BFI, UCL and Imperial War Museum to digitise the BFI's and IWM's collections of colonial film.

The films to be shown in the season range from rare masterpieces such as Windom's Way (1957) to well-loved classics like Zulu (1963.) Participating in the accompanying talks series are, on 9 November, actor Earl Cameron, who starred in Simba (1955) alongside Dirk Bogarde and Virginia McKenna, and, on 11 November, director Cyril Frankel, who will take part in a Q&Al following a screening of Man of Africa (1953)

End of Empire captures how cinematic visions of empire have evolved. During the early days of film, an imperialist agenda heavily informed the exotic and adventurous colonial scenes which fascinated British audiences. Victory in the Second World War stimulated national optimism, which led to continued affection for glamorous portraits of colonialism. However, the rise of national independence movements from the mid-1950s on helped to inculcate a more liberal perspective. For example, Dirk Borgarde was pitched into the Mau Mau emergency in Simba and John Grierson considered the crisis of resettlement in Man of Africa. Britain's dramatic imperial decline after the Suez Crisis of 1956 further affected film; the problems associated with withdrawal and a lingering sense of colonial responsibility took centre stage, at the expense of patriotic adventures.

End of Empire runs at BFT Southbank, London SE1 from 3 to 30 November. You can book tickets here.

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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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