Sunday, July 29, 2007

Film Flam

Apparently this is the Summer of British Film. That could be a punch line in itself, except there’s really nothing to laugh about.

Friday evening on BBC2, the half-hour Once More with Ealing followed the owners of the revitalised Ealing Studios as they went about filming their completely unnecessary remake St Trinian’s and then trying to flog the project at the recent Cannes Film Festival. God it was a depressing sight.

Missing the beginning meant I didn’t catch their names and job titles. When it came to the promotional poster design there was one woman, whom I frankly wouldn’t have trusted to make the tea, who decided that rather than push the fact that Rupert Everett and Colin Firth had been dragged into the sorry affair/headlined the film, the poster should just feature a line-up of schoolgirls and trade on the St Trinian’s name. Luckily she was overruled.

That sequence alone displayed the narrow-minded, parochial mindset of British filmmakers and the overall folly of the venture. Does St Trinian’s mean anything to the younger generations of today?

Cartoonist Ronald Searle created St Trinian’s in the late 1940s to be the complete antithesis to the posh boarding schools for girls of that era. The initial quartet of films made by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat that began with 1954’s The Belles of St Trinian’s played up the mayhem with contemporary social satire.

By the time of The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery in 1966, the series had run out of steam, while 1980’s late entry, The Wildcats of St Trinian’s – which proved to be Launder’s swansong – was a dispiritingly feeble and pointless entry. Now, at a time when the little hoodied fuckers roaming the streets wear their ASBOs with pride and are far worse at wreaking havoc than the school’s ferocious Fourth Form or sexually overt Sixth Formers, what is the point of St Trinian’s in this day and age?

Maybe it was answered at the top of the show and I missed it. Then again, one of the most recent of the new Ealing films was the execrable Alien Autopsy starring Ant and Dec that stank and sank. Given how few foreign sales they managed in Cannes, St Trinian’s looks like it’s destined to take the exact same route.

Then last night came Guns, Gangsters And Getaways: The Story Of The British Thriller. This was the first part of the seven-part British Film Forever, the BBC’s “flagship series” of The Summer of British Film. This time last year, BBC2 had the marvellous eight-part documentary series The Story of Light Entertainment. Entertaining and informative, and certainly benefiting from the 90-minute running time per episode, the series started with Double Acts before moving on to All-Round Entertainers, Radio Stars, The Comics, Pop and Easy Listening, Impressionists, Chat Shows, and finally Variety.

British Film Forever followed pretty much the same format. Rather than go decade by decade, which would have certainly ended on a downer, has been divided into genres – Thriller this week then Romance, Social Realism, Costume Drama, Horror/Fantasy, War before ending with Comedy. Whereas The Story of Light Entertainment was entertaining and informative, virtually leaving no stone unturned as it told the history of the popular strand of television, Guns, Gangsters And Getaways: The Story Of The British Thriller was a complete and utter fucking mess.

Obviously one hundred years of British cinema has to lot of ground to cover. There was an instance in the programme where it looked like British Film Forever was going to make the effort. Then it gave up. The Story of Light Entertainment took each of its categories and created a tight chronological narrative. British Film Forever occasionally strayed toward trying to put the chosen films in some kind of context, but it increasingly looked like someone had started out devising a history then not quite figuring how to get a handle on it and giving up.

For some reason it started with The Long Good Friday before lurching off all over the place. Nearly all the films were the obvious choices: Get Carter, Brighton Rock, The Ipcress File, The 39 Steps, Mona Lisa, The Third Man, The Italian Job, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Even when it came time for James Bond to make an appearance, the segment bounced from Dr No to You Only Live Twice then back to Goldfinger. Live and Let Die got a look in before it leapt to the present and Casino Royale.

Pick key and iconic films by all means but create a narrative thread that explains why the selected movies are relevant. According to the BBC press release, “the series reveals untold stories from behind the scenes and examines what makes British film unique and what it reveals about British culture.” Er, no. There was no real examination and absolutely no contextualization. Untold stories amounted to the likes of veteran director Bryan Forbes admitting that he was first approached to direct Dr No and turned the offer down. Okay.

It may have helped if the programme makers had interviewed surviving writers, directors and producers as well as sourcing relevant archive clips to that people had something relevant to say. The Long Good Friday’s John Mackenzie had the occasional look in, as did Danny Boyle to talk about Shallow Grave, but neither were on screen long enough to say anything worthwhile. Remarkably Len Deighton even put in an appearance to talk about The Ipcress File but after one brief sound bite of little consequence he disappeared for good.

All that was left was a long parade of talking heads – most of who had nothing to do with the project – giving their opinions of the various films, just like one of Channel 4’s 100 Best lists. Actors would talk about their favourite scenes or recite lines of dialogue, which would then, rather obviously, segue into the exact scene they had just described. Oh, and Kate Winslet popped up to declare she wouldn’t make a good Bond girl. No offence love, but fuck off.

It was like if the BBC Natural History Unit’s next series cut away from their routinely spectacular footage to irrelevant non-entities like Richard Bacon saying “Well, my favourite animal is the orangutan,” or have James Brown, taking a break from wanking off over Michael Caine films, to say how much he liked aardvarks. It was documentary for tabloid television and nothing more.

Even the reasonably sensible remarks had the superficiality of the standard Electronic Press Kit footage. If you knew the films you wouldn’t learn anything. If you weren’t familiar with a particular film, bad luck because they invariably gave the ending away. Meanwhile, the ill-judged narration barely reached the level of the user comments on IMDb. The appearance of Richard Attenborough as Pinky Brown in Brighton Rock came with the reminder that he was “the old man who made the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.” Yes, really.

One thing the season should have going for it, even if every episode is similar to this horribly wasted opportunity, is the accompanying selection of films, although during the week most of them appear to be scheduled late into the night. Yesterday afternoon the ‘thriller week’ began with a welcome Hitchcock double: The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes. Immediately after the first part of British Film Forever were two Stephen Frears-directed films: Dirty Pretty Things and his first feature, the rather eccentric Gumshoe.

While the latter is always welcome, I couldn’t quite see how Dirty Pretty Things fitted into this week’s ‘thriller’ category. The Social Realism strand in a couple of weeks time seemed the more appropriate place, but then again it was just another example of how none of this had been properly thought through. It’s a shame they couldn’t have gotten hold of The Hit from 1984, Frears’ second film after a decade working in television, starring Terrance Stamp as an ex-gangster who grassed up his colleagues a decade ago, and John Hurt and Tim Roth as the hitmen who snatch him from his home in Spain and take him north to face the music.

Next week’s episode is Longing, Loving And Leg-Overs: The Story Of British Romance. Even if you don’t bother watching it, try and catch the afternoon double from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger: I Know Where I’m Going followed by The Red Shoes.


At 10:28 pm, Blogger English Dave said...

Ah the story of British Romance. AKA tea and shagathy. lol

Here is the perfect series for BBC2 to give us something like the best commentaries on DVD.

What do we get? Some twat we've never heard of trying to be funny racing through a screed of movies, all deserving a lot more intelligent commentary and thought. Hey ho.

At 10:53 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


That's the thing that really annoyed me. You get better material off a fucking DVD.

Where the fuck was Mike Hodges or Neil Jordan or Troy Kennedy Martin or anyone else connected to the actual productions who could say something relevant.

I thought the clips of Diana Dors were interesting but then it got really snarky, suggesting that her career had gone in the crapper. The same way that the material on The Third Man concentrated on Orson Welles' disappearances from the set.

It didn't surprise me when I saw that it had been written by Matthew Sweet. His book Shepperton Babylon, while informative in places, is quite nasty and gossipy.

What did surprise me was that the 'series consultant' was Sir Christopher Frayling. Fuck me, did he just take the cheque and fuck off on holiday?

It could have been brilliant. Instead it was put together by a bunch of useless cunts who just shat it away.

Oh, and speaking of cunts, the St Trinians has Russell fucking Brand as Flash Harry. Cunts!

At 9:06 am, Blogger Riddley Walker said...

Sounds like it was the film equivalent of that awful Seven Ages of Rock crap that was on a while back - ill-thought-out, sloppily assembled and basically just airtime filling tripe.

Ho hum. Won’t be catching any of that then.

At 6:01 pm, Blogger Phill Barron said...

Is it me or is most British cinema aimed at people in their 50s, when the average cinema-goer is 16-24?

Hmm, and is goer a real word?

At 6:38 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

It was WORSE than Seven Ages of Rock!

That series at least tried to connect some dots. This thing just shoved the dots up its arse and shat them into the air.


You know, I haven't got a clue who British films are aimed at. Certainly not the target age range. you mention. The dramas appear so dour that only older audiences probably watch them. The comedies are so utterly juvenile that only youngsters or idiots would get any entertainment from them.

The only new Brit films I've gone to the cinema to see in the past... ten or fifteen years have been the James Bond flicks - and they're more of a British institution than a British film. Everything else has seemed so bloody parochial.

Sure goer is a world. Blimey, I've known some real goers in my time.

At 12:36 pm, Blogger Riddley Walker said...

“goer is a world”?

You’ve obviously got a few goers on the brain, fella... ;-)

At 5:38 pm, Blogger Jaded and Cynical said...

That's a typically thoughtful post, GD.

Thanks for taking the time.

At 6:06 pm, Blogger Clair said...

I am now going to be thorougly wet and gurly, chiz chiz, and sa that St Trinians will flop miserably, as the new version will be full of slags and hoodies, as opposed to brilliant brats, and whilst I find Russell Brand magnetic (and yes, horny), he's too sexy to be Flash 'Arry.

The last British film I adored was To Kill A King, and I actually wished it had been half an hour longer.

At 10:40 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


I expect to see you at the forefront singing,

Maidens of St Trinian’s
Gird your armour on.
Grab the nearest weapon
Never mind which one!
The battle's to the strongest
Might is always right,
Trample on the weakest
Glory in their plight!
St Trinian’s! St Trinian’s!
Our battle cry.
St Trinian’s! St Trinian’s!
Will never die!

Just before we raise a glass to the obvious demise of this nasty piece of sorry nonsense.

At 4:12 pm, Blogger Clair said...

You've discovered I look good in a, I'm more of yer Joyce Grenfell.

And did you see St Trinian's star Rupert Everett be deliberabely rude on BBC Breakfast this morning? Alaistair Sim would be turning in his grave.

At 7:19 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

I missed it, but I checked the news piece on the BBC website. Obviously he was being the usual tiresome dork/cliché. Still....

Mmmmmm.... gymslip.


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