When a season called “The Cinema of New Labour” is curated in 30 years’ time, what picture will emerge of our present delusions and daydreams? Perhaps the season will require an explanatory subtitle – “Slumdogs and Millionaires” or “the Feel-Good Factor” – to reflect the party that swung into government to the strains of “Things Can Only Get Better”.
Onstage interviews with Sir Jason Statham and Dame Keira Knightley will be hot tickets, as will Guy Ritchie’s biopic of Pete Doherty. And Michael Sheen should be present to discuss the unique accomplishment of playing every single UK prime minister since Tony Blair. How did Sheen get Gordon Brown’s posture just so? And what was it like to walk in Harriet Harman’s sensible shoes?
The commercial renaissance of British cinema under Labour is undisputed. While the two most significant influences on how UK films are now moulded and marketed – Four Weddings and a Funeral and Trainspotting – pre-date the 1997 election, they both reach forward to what Britain would become under Labour.
This country’s cinema, from Anna Neagle vehicles in the 1940s, through to Free Cinema, kitchen-sink drama and on to Merchant Ivory and Guy Ritchie, has predominantly been about one thing: class. And although that hasn’t changed, and probably never will, its presentation has shifted. The popular British successes at least feign interest in a world beyond the country house, even if the bias toward rags-to-riches stories betrays no less of a preoccupation with status than do Richard Curtis’s love letters to the independently wealthy.
Yet, despite a recent surge in adventurous new directors (Joanna Hogg, Duane Hopkins, Steve McQueen), mainstream British cinema is more enslaved than ever to the feel-good and aspirational. The dazzle from Slumdog Millionaire’s recent Oscar harvest has blinded us to the likelihood that our taste will prove neither durable nor sound. (How many of us now would claim 1981’s Chariots of Fire or 1998’s Shakespeare in Love as a masterpiece?) The British hits of the past 12 years show us to be suckers for fairy tales, nincompoops in flight from reality, covetous of fame. Whichever way you slice it, we aren’t coming out of this era looking clever.
Tony Blair’s government was broadly generous to the arts, but that generosity now looks like an inadvertent case of “give ’em enough rope”. It is understandable that any industry will try to repeat an effective formula, and that greater productivity is not synonymous with quality, but on a creative level it can only be disastrous for vast amounts of energy and money to be devoted to running off facsimiles of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. And even though it is common for anyone critical of modern British cinema, and Lottery-funded film in particular, to use the Johnny Vegas comedy Sex Lives of the Potato Men as a weapon with which to beat the assorted commissioning bodies, the hits do not reflect any better on our national identity than that notorious flop.
Imagine you are in charge of funding new movies. Someone presents you with the following pitches: unemployed northern steelworkers become strippers and find emotional fulfilment; a miner’s son becomes a dancer and finds emotional fulfilment; a group of ageing Women’s Institute members find international success, and emotional fulfilment, after baring their bodies. You would either say, “These are formulaic self-empowerment stories patently in thrall to overseas sales. Please leave my office immediately.” Or you would commission them all and have a succession of hits to your name. You might even follow up The Full Monty, Billy Elliot and Calendar Girls with Slumdog Millionaire, which is certain to trail those other titles on to the West End stage within a few years. But your legacy would be a string of fantasies tailored to soothe domestic audiences while flogging an Americanised Britain to the United States, in a piece of salesmanship to which the coals/Newcastle transaction cannot compare.
Most of the films by which we are defined in international eyes, and that we tout as our best, look distinctly feeble, placed alongside the abrasive British cinema of the Thatcher era. It is a truism that art flourishes in hostile climates, and among those who blossomed improbably in Thatcher’s philistine shadow were Derek Jarman, Terence Davies, Peter Greenaway and the Irish writer-director Neil Jordan. The strongest works came mostly from television, including two films by Stephen Frears: Bloody Kids, aired before the Tories’ champagne corks had finished popping, and My Beautiful Laundrette, which made it into cinemas in 1985. With its gentle intersection of race, class, sexuality and economics, it is the latter film, written by Hanif Kureishi, which endures both as a parody of Thatcherite ideals and as the decade’s defining cinematic snapshot. We might be on to something now if an equivalent modern picture could manage that film’s trick of combining healthy dissent with the commercial appeal craved so ardently by the British film industry (My Beautiful Laundrette being one of the few non-period dramas to find US favour in the 1980s).
Delivering a speech in March 2007 looking back on Labour’s commitment to the arts, Tony Blair said: “For me, the whole process of stimulation through plays, books, films, works of art; the delight in design, in architecture, in crafts: all of this enlarges a country’s capacity to be reflective, interested and bold. Dynamism in arts and culture creates dynamism in a nation.” However, Labour’s supportive approach to arts funding has translated at ground level into a happy-clappy positivity: it is chiefly those projects that reproduce the contours of proven hits, or push British life as an inspiring brand rather than a complex reality, that tend to get made and promoted. If you adored Notting Hill, if you can’t live without Bend It Like Beckham, you will love this, and this, and this . . .
Perhaps, with the exception of Iraq, there simply hasn’t been enough for film-makers to get worked up about – or else the unrest has been siphoned off into marginal compartments such as documentary (The Road to Guantanamo), film essay (Of Time and the City) or allegory (Prometheus, directed by the poet Tony Harrison), which scarcely influence the popular image of our national cinema. If anything, the success of Slumdog Millionaire, combined with inherent commercial nervousness, will inhibit creativity as the industry looks hungrily to the next phenomenon, the one that will nab nine Oscars instead of a puny eight. What is certain is that after Slumdog, no character who begins a British film in poverty or hardship will still be that way by the time the end credits roll.
“British cinema could be in a much better state if only we could take more risks,” Steve McQueen, the director of Hunger, told me last year. Indeed, what Labour and cinema need right now is films that reject any comforting template, as well as film-makers who take policy seriously enough to give it a decent bruising regularly (which is perhaps why hopes are so high for Armando Iannucci’s forthcoming political satire, In the Loop). “All of us in government take great pride in what has been achieved this past decade,” Blair said in that 2007 speech. “We have avoided boom and bust in the economy. We don’t intend to resume it in arts and culture.” This prematurely optimistic remark could become a hostage to fortune on two counts rather than one, unless the industry looks to innovation rather than duplication.
Without a film industry that sees biting the hand that feeds it as necessary as well as naughty, our popular cinema is doomed to become a PR industry. We have spent long enough painting ourselves as we imagine others want to see us, dolled up with American therapy-speak and self-empowerment mantras, those borrowed clothes that so ill become us.