Shiny Shelf

British Film Forever

By Mags L Halliday on 20 August 2007

There used to be a television clip series called ‘Best of British’. ‘British Film Forever’ is a modern, arch version of my old wet bank holiday friend. And that just makes it worse.

‘Best of British’ was not a great documentary series which created a thesis around a theme of British cinema. It was a bunch of clips from some similar films, probably literally spliced together in a back room in Soho. This new twenty-first century take on it is also not a great documentary series, but adds the obligatory talking heads and a commentary incapable of taking itself seriously, just to make it more irritating.

The flighty narration by Jessica Stevenson is doing what it can with a truly awful script by Matthew Sweet which assumes the audience is incapable of understanding that Richard Attenborough (or ‘cuddly old Sir Dicky’ as the script has it) might once have been a young actor known for playing murderers unless it is repeatedly pointed out in incredulous tones. The narration tells us what we are about to see in a clip, we see the clip, then a talking head tells us what we just saw. This assumption by the programme makers that the audience are incapable of watching and understanding a clip of a film betrays an appalling disregard for the viewer’s intelligence. Cinema is not something which the majority of viewers need explaining to them: it’s been around for well over a century now and most of us have got the hang of it.

I can live with a documentary which desperately attempts to argue that ‘A Clockwork Orange’ is part of the British social realism genre (despite the fact Kubrick was perhaps one of the least realist filmmakers in cinema history), if the documentary served to introduce a series of historical and contemporary classics of British cinema to a wide audience. But this is where the season really falls over, and it’s a failing of BBC2 in general.

If, having watched the documentary about the British social realist movement, you want to watch ‘A Taste of Honey’ (and you should, it’s great) then you can’t see it on BBC2. The only one of the many great kitchen sink films included in the week’s schedules is ‘This Sporting Life’, which is on after midnight. To see ‘Flame in the Streets’, you’d have to set the video/DVD/Tivo box as well, as that is on in the mid-afternoon. ‘Kes’? Nope. ‘Scum’, perhaps, or ‘Nil by Mouth’? Nope. All films heavily featured in the realist documentary, but none of them screened. Those that are aired, are put on in the graveyard slots.

The same is true of the thriller week, and the romance one. I’d be totally happy never to see ‘Brief Encounter’ again but how about ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, ‘Brighton Rock’ or ‘The Long Good Friday’ being shown outside of the graveyard slots? Why not go insanely brave and show Hitchcock’s original, British, version of ‘Blackmail’, his first talkie?

BBC2 is supposed to the alternative to BBC1. It was designed to provide programming which is not in competition with ITV for ratings. Yet it now cannot countenance dropping the gardening and cooking programmes for the summer in order to show that British cinema has a century long tradition of making excellent films. I don’t expect it to devote a week to, say, the impressive history of British documentary film making (the very thing which encouraged the social realist movement) because that would now be in the domain of BBC4. But would it kill the channel, a channel supposedly the non-conformist of the BBC family, to have the guts to actually commit properly to the season? Not dress it up with oh-so-funny irony and hide it away for fear of losing the odd lifestyle obsessed viewer for a few weeks?

I know the counter argument: you can set something to record the film, or it is displacing something equally worthy. But really, is the two hours of inane quizzes at teatime actually more important than illustrating how clever, witty, brave and downright weird British cinema was and is?

As it is, they should have just repeated ‘Best of British’ and given everyone a free ticket to the BFI South Bank.

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