Sunday, August 19, 2007

All Dressed Up And Going Nowhere Fast

Is it that time of the week to froth at the mouth over the hideous ineptitude British Film Forever? Well, yes, but I figured there’s really no point ragging on it anymore. At least not to the extent that fissures start erupting in your skull. You know when you get so utterly fucking angry at something that it reaches the point where it just saps all the energy out of you and you give up? I guess I’ve reached that point. So my head isn’t going to explode. Sorry Mr Barron.

British Film Forever isn’t a great documentary series. It’s not even a good documentary series. In fact it’s not even barely adequate. If, in the final few weeks, it gets just a little touch better then it might be able to put a tick on the box next to HIDEOUS MESS when it comes to the final summation.

Listening to the dreadfully ill-judged voiceover on last night’s Corsets, Cleavage and Country Houses: The Story of the British Costume Drama, I finally figured out what it had been reminding me of since the very first episode, four weeks back. Lacking any kind of through-line narrative, each edition reads like an exam essay from someone who only started revising the night before after wasting their lead time off on a massive bender, and then writing it up in the grip of a crippling hangover.

British “Costume Drama” basically breaks down into Literary Adaptations, Historical Epics & Biographies, and Costume Drama. With that as a starting point it could have led somewhere. You have Alexander Korda’s London Film Productions, which made the critically and commercially successful The Private Life of Henry VIII in 1933 and The Rise of Catherine the Great the year later; Gainsborough Pictures’ costume melodramas in the 1940s; David Lean’s post-WWII Dickens’ adaptations that would put him on the path to Lawrence of Arabia; films based on great British writers and playwrights like Austen, Hardy, Forster, the Brontes, Shakespeare, Wilde. Begin with that kind of template, branch out, and the story should pretty much start to tell itself.

Watching the episodes and the examples given throughout, the question that kept popping back into my head is: What makes them British movies, especially as we move from the 1960s onwards? This certainly isn’t an instance where you follow the money.

When the first part of the series bigged up the James Bond films, I was wondering whether they weren’t more of a British institution like Sherlock Holmes or... er, Biggles?! The money for the Bond series came from United Artists or now Sony in America. Cubby Broccoli was an American who came to the UK in the early 1950s, his producing partner Harry Saltzman was Canadian. The only thing rooting it in the UK was Eon Productions, their production company, being based here.

So it must come down to production companies, which includes the likes of Ealing and London Film Productions, Gainsborough, Charter Film Productions, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Archers, Hammer and Anglo Amalgamated, Enigma and Goldcrest. But if that’s the case how come Corsets, Cleavage and Country Houses highlighted Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility and Shakespeare in Love?

Both had a lot of British talent both in front and behind the camera, and were filmed in England. But the former was made by Columbia Pictures and Sydney Pollack’s Mirage Enterprises, while the latter came from Miramax Films, Bedford Falls Productions and Universal Pictures. The subject matters may be English, but the films are anything but.

Looking back at the previous episodes of British Film Forever, if Merchant Ivory get a good look in this week with their Forester adaptations, how come The Remains of the Day – one of the very best examples of unrequited love – was omitted from the instalment on romance? While last week’s look at social realism highlighted Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, why wasn’t Barry Lyndon is this latest episode? Come to think of it, where was Ridley Scott’s sumptuous adaptation of Conrad’s The Duellists, made on a relative pittance and produced by David Puttnam?

Still, at least ending Corsets, Cleavage and Country Houses: The Story of the British Costume Drama with A Cock and Bull Story, Micheal Winterbottom’s film of Laurence Sterne’s “unfilmable” novel, showed a marvellous unforgiving self-awareness by the filmmakers. The next episode is Horror and Fantasy. So, no change from the last four weeks then.


At 10:52 am, Blogger Andrew Collins said...

Key point to make about structure: even though it's a history programme, essentially, they never start with an old film, for fear of sending casual viewers running to the hills. Hence, the simplest structure - chronological - is not an option open to them.

What a sad world we live in.

At 7:06 pm, Blogger Riddley Walker said...

TV for retards.

Probably why I watch so little UK broadcast material now. There's so much better stuff coming in from across the water.

At 8:23 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

Andrew, oh I’m certainly not suggesting that the latest episode should have been in chronological order. Thank goodness the series has been categorised by genres rather than decades otherwise the last couple of parts would have been quite woeful.

That said, there doesn’t seem to be any kind of structure employed at all. Films and clips seem to be slapped up on screen like someone on roller-skates racing along beside a buffet table and grabbing everything they can at random. There has to be some order in place.

Obviously the series has to be entertaining rather than ‘academic’ and dry, but the way it’s pitched it isn’t that informative either. Once again the narration certainly doesn’t help and neither does the lack of any real background information. I can’t remember if, when the film clips were initially identified by supers, they listed the director as well. I hope so because when it was stated that Tom Jones won both Best Picture and Best Director the narration didn’t even mention dear old Tony Richardson’s name.

At ninety minutes a pop, they could have spent the first few minutes of each episode putting together some kind of overview. Instead, this week we got scenes of Helen Mirren in The Queen for some reason and Tim Spall saying something like “every costume makes it a costume drama” which probably wasn;t the best thing for him to say. And was that the Begrano burning in the news clip? With the hovering Sea King it looked more like the Sir Galahad or Tristram off Fitzroy. But that’s minor compared to the appearance of Shakespeare in Love. How is it a British film?

I wonder if an initial “introductory” episode would have helped. Planet Earth started off with an overview before concentrating on specifics in the following episodes. Obviously it all depends on the budget and schedule available – and really we’re lucky to get any darn documentaries on television these days – but such a subject really needs more thought, more archive to replace talking heads, and more informed narrative. I notice even Alison Graham had a pop at it in the current Radio Times.

Fella, I bet the missus made you watch you-know-what on Saturday night though.

At 10:19 pm, Blogger Riddley Walker said...

You hav caught me sir, like a Treen in a disabled spaceship... ;-)

At 10:21 pm, Blogger Riddley Walker said...

Actually, I was sick all weekend, so missed out on all telly - hurrah! cheers, cheers...


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