Cinema of the United Kingdom

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The United Kingdom has been influential in the technological, commercial and artistic development of cinema. Despite a history of successful productions, the industry is characterised by an ongoing debate about its identity (including economic and cultural issues) and the influences of American and European cinema.



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UK film production from 1912 to 2001

Film production in the UK has experienced a number of booms and recessions. Although many factors can be used to measure the success of the industry, the number of UK films produced per year ([1] ( gives an overview of its development: the industry experienced a boom as it first developed in the 1910s, but during the 1920s experienced a recession caused by superior US competition and commercial practices. The Cinematograph Films Act 1927 introduced protective measures, leading to recovery and an all-time production high of 192 films in 1936. However, over-expansion caused a major crash, and low production continued throughout World War II.

Film production recovered after the war, with a long period of relative stability and growing American investment. But another recession hit the industry in the mid-1970s, reaching an all-time low of 24 films in 1981. Low production continued throughout the 1980s, but it increased again in the 1990s with renewed private and public investment. Although production levels give an overview, the history of British cinema is complex, with various cultural movements developing independently. Some of the most successful films were made during 'recessions', such as Chariots of Fire (1981).

Early UK cinema

Modern cinema is generally regarded as descending from the work of the French Lumière brothers in 1892, and their show first came to London in 1896. However, the first moving pictures developed on celluloid film were made in Hyde Park in 1889 by William Friese Greene, a British inventor, who patented the process in 1890. The film is the first known instance of a projected moving image.

The first people to build and run a working 35 mm camera in Britain were Robert W. Paul and Birt Acres. They made the first British film Incident at Clovelly Cottage in February 1895, shortly before falling out over the camera's patent. Soon several British film companies had opened to meet the demand for new films, such as Mitchell and Kenyon in Blackburn. From 1898 American producer Charles Urban expanded the London-based Warwick Trading Company to produce British films, mostly documentary and news. He later formed his own Charles Urban Trading Company, which also produced early colour films.

The 1930s boom

By the mid-twenties the UK film industry losing out to heavy competition from Hollywood films, helped its much larger home market. In 1914 25% of films shown in the UK were British - by 1926 this had fallen to 5%. The Cinematograph Films Act 1927 was passed in order to boost local production, requiring that UK cinemas show a certain percentage of British films. The act was technically a success, with audiences for British films becoming larger than the quota required. But it had the effect of creating a market for 'quota quickies': poor quality, low cost films, made in order to satisfy the quota. Some critics have blamed the quickies for holding back the development of the industry. Many British film-makers learnt their craft making quota quickies, including Michael Powell and Alfred Hitchcock.

Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail (1929) is regarded as the first British sound production. In the era of silent films audiences were receptive to movies from all nations. However, with the advent of sound films, many foreign actors or those with thick regional accents soon found themselves in less demand, and more 'formal' English (received pronunciation) became the norm. Sound also increased the influence of already popular American films.

Starting with John Grierson's Drifters, the 1930s saw the emergence of a new school of realist documentary films: The Documentary Film Movement. It was Grierson who coined the term documentary to describe a non-fiction film, and he produced the movement's most celebrated film of the 1930s, Night Mail (1936), written and directed by Basil Wright and Harry Watt, and incorporating the poem by W.H. Auden. Other key figures in this movement were Humphrey Jennings and Alberto Cavalcanti, both of whom would go on to produce important films during World War II.

Several other new talents emerged during this period, and Alfred Hitchcock would confirm his status as one of Britain's leading young directors with his influential thrillers The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938), before moving to Hollywood.

Music hall also proved influential in comedy films of this period, and a number of popular personalities emerged, including George Formby, Gracie Fields, Jessie Matthews and Will Hay.

Many of the most important British productions of the 1930s were produced by London Films, founded by the Hungarian emigre Alexander Korda. These included Things to Come (1936), Rembrandt (1936) and Knight Without Armour (1937), as well as the early Technicolor films The Drum (1938), The Four Feathers (1939) and The Thief of Bagdad (1940). These had followed closely on from Wings of the Morning (1937), Britain's first colour feature film.

After the boom years of the late 1920s and early 1930s, rising expenditure and over-optimistic expansion into the American market caused the production bubble to burst in 1937. Of the 640 British production companies registered between 1925 and 1936, 20 were still going in 1937. Moreover, the 1927 Films Act was up for renewel. The replacement Cinematograph Films Act 1938 provided incentives for UK companies to make fewer films of higher quality and, influenced by world politics, encouraged American investment and imports. One result was the creation by the American company MGM of a British studio MGM British in Hertfordshire, which produced some very successful films, including A Yank at Oxford (1938) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), before The Second World War intervened.

World War II

The constraints imposed by World War II seemed to give new energy to the British film industry. After a faltering start, British films began to make increasing use of documentary techniques and former documentary film-makers to make more realistic films, like In Which We Serve (1942), Went the Day Well? (1942), Millions Like Us (1943) and The Way Ahead (1944). In the later war years Gainsborough Studios produced a series of critically derided but immensely popular period melodramas including The Man in Grey (1943) and The Wicked Lady (1945). These helped to create a new generation of British stars, such as Stewart Granger, Margaret Lockwood and James Mason. Two Cities, an independent production company also made some important films including This Happy Breed (1944), Blithe Spirit (1945) and Laurence Olivier's Henry V (1944) and Hamlet (1948). The war years also saw the flowering of the Powell and Pressburger partnership with films like Forty-Ninth Parallel (1941), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and A Canterbury Tale (1944) which, while set in wartime, were very much about the people affected by war rather than battles.

Post-war cinema

British cinema hit new heights of creativity in the immediate post-war years, with David Lean's Brief Encounter (1945) and his Dickens adaptations Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), Carol Reed's Odd Man Out (1947) and The Third Man (1949), and Powell and Pressburgers A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1946) and The Red Shoes (1948). Ealing Studios also embarked on their series of celebrated comedies, including Whisky Galore (1948), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Man in the White Suit (1951). Towards the end of the 1940s, the Rank Organisation, founded in 1937 by J. Arthur Rank, became the dominant force behind British film-making. It acquired a number of British studios, and bank-rolled some of the great British film-makers which were emerging in this period.

In the 1950s the British industry seemed to concentrate on producing popular comedies and World War II dramas. The war films were often based on true stories and made in a similar low-key style to their wartime predecessors. Popular actors in these films included John Mills, Jack Hawkins and Kenneth More. Successful examples include The Cruel Sea (1953), The Dambusters (1954), The Colditz Story (1955) and Reach For The Sky (1956).

Successful comedy series included the St Trinians films and the 'Doctor' series, beginning with Doctor in the House (1954). The latter series starred Dirk Bogarde, probably the British industry's most popular star of the 1950s. The writer/director/producer team of twin brothers John and Roy Boulting also produced a series of successful satires on British life and institutions, beginning with Private's Progress (1956), and continuing with Brothers in Law (1957), Carlton-Browne of the F.O. (1958), I'm All Right Jack (1959) and Heavens Above (1963). The Italian director-producer Mario Zampi also made a number of comedies including Laughter in Paradise (1951), The Naked Truth (1957) and Too Many Crooks (1958).

The British New Wave

The British New Wave, or Free Cinema, describes a group of films made between 1959 and 1963 which portray a more gritty realism. They were influenced by the Angry Young Men of the mid-50s along with the documentary films of everyday life commissioned by the Post Office during and after the Second World War, and are often associated with kitchen sink drama. The group was established around the film magazine Sequence that was founded by Tony Richardson, Karel Riesz and Lindsay Anderson who together with future James Bond producer Harry Saltzman established the company Woodfall films which made their early films. These included adaptations of Richardson's own stage productions of Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer. Other significant films in this movement include Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), A Kind of Loving (1962), and This Sporting Life (1963). After Richardson's film of Tom Jones became a big hit the group broke up to pursue different interests. The Free Cinema films also made stars out of their leading actors Albert Finney, Alan Bates, Richard Burton, Rita Tushingham, Richard Harris and Tom Courtenay.

The 1960s Boom

In the 1960s British studios began to enjoy major success in the international market by making striking genre films such as the Hammer Horror and James Bond films. By the time of the third Bond film, Goldfinger (1964), the series had become a worldwide phenomenon, reaching its commercial peak with Thunderball the following year. Co-producer Harry Saltzman also instigated a rival series of more realistic spy films with Michael Caine as Harry Palmer beginning with The Ipcress File in 1965.

The Hammer Horror films had started life as cinema versions of Nigel Kneale's popular Quatermass science fiction serials for the BBC, before their new versions of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958) and The Mummy (1959) brought them international fame.

The success of these films and others as diverse as Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Tom Jones (1963), Zulu (1964) and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) encouraged American studios to invest significantly in British film production.

Major films like Becket (1964), A Man for All Seasons (1966), Khartoum (1966) and Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) were regularly mounted, while smaller-scale films including Billy Liar (1963), Darling (1965), Alfie (1966), Blow-up (1966), Accident (1967) and Women in Love (1969) were big critical successes. Four of the decade's Academy Award winners for best picture were British productions.

Overseas film makers began to come to London too, including Roman Polanski and Michelangelo Antonioni. Blacklisted in America Joseph Losey had a significant influence on UK Cinema in the 60s as did the voluntary emigres Stanley Kubrick and Richard Lester. Lester had a major hit with The Beatles film A Hard Day's Night (1964) after which it became standard for each new pop group to have a veritee style feature film made about them.

The 1970s

With the film industry in both Britain and the United States entering into recession, American studios cut back on domestic production, and in many cases withdrew from financing British films altogether. Major films were still being made at this time, including Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), Battle of Britain (1969), Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) and David Lean's Ryan's Daughter (1970), but as the decade wore on financing became increasingly hard to come by. Large-scale productions were still being mounted, but they were more sporadic and sometimes seemed old-fashioned compared with the competition from America. Among the more successful were adaptations of the Agatha Christie stories Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Death on the Nile (1978). Other productions like Shout at the Devil (1976) fared less well, while the entry of Lew Grade's company ITC into film production in the latter half of the decade brought only a few box office successes and an unsustainable number of failures.

The British horror boom of the 1960s also finally came to an end by the mid-1970s, with the leading producers Hammer and Amicus leaving the genre altogether in the face of competition from America. Films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) made Hammer's vampire films seem increasingly tame and outdated, despite attempts to spice up the formula with added nudity and gore.

Some British producers, including Hammer, turned to television series for inspiration, and the big screen versions of shows like Steptoe and Son and On the Buses proved surprisingly successful with domestic audiences.

The continued presence of the Eady levy in the 1970s, combined with a loosening of censorship rules, also brought on a minor boom of low-budget British sex comedies and softcore porn movies. Most notable among these were films starring Mary Millington such as Come Play with Me, and the Confessions of... series starring Robin Askwith, beginning with Confessions of a Window Cleaner.

More relaxed censorship in the 1970s also brought several controversial films, including Ken Russell's The Devils (1970), Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971) and Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971).

The 1980s

The 1980s began with the worst recession the British film industry had ever seen. In 1980 only 31 UK films were made, down 50% on the previous year, and the lowest output since 1914. Production was down again the following year, to 24 films. However, the 1980s soon saw a renewed optimism, led by companies such as Goldcrest (and producer David Puttnam), Channel 4, Handmade Films and Merchant Ivory Productions. Under producer Puttnam a generation of British directors emerged making popular films with international distribution, including: Bill Forsyth (Local Hero, 1983), Hugh Hudson (Chariots of Fire, 1981), Roland Joffe (The Killing Fields, 1984), Alan Parker and Ridley Scott. Handmade Films, part owned by George Harrison, had produced a series of modest budget comedies and gritty dramas such as The Long Good Friday (1980) that had proven popular internationally.

When the Putnam-produced Chariots of Fire (1981) won 4 Academy Awards in 1982, including best picture, its writer Colin Welland declared "the British are coming!" (quoting Paul Revere). When in 1983 Gandhi (also produced by Goldcrest) picked up best picture it looked as if he was right. It prompted a cycle of bigger budget period films, such as the Merchant Ivory adaptations of the works of E. M. Forster. However, further attempts to make 'big' productions for the US market ended in failure, with Goldcrest losing independence after a trio of commercial flops. By this stage the rest of the new talent had moved on to Hollywood.

With the continued support of Channel 4 a number of new talents were developed in Stephen Frears, Mike Newell and Neil Jordan while John Boorman who had been working in the US was encouraged back to Britain to make Hope and Glory (1987). Following the final winding up of the Rank Organisation, a series of company consolidations in UK cinema distribution meant that it became ever harder for British productions. Another blow was the elimination of the Eady tax concession by the Conservative Government in 1984. The concession had made it possible for a foreign film company to write off a large amount of its production costs by filming in the UK — this was what attracted a succession of blockbuster productions to UK studios in the 1970s. With Eady gone many studios closed or focused on television work.

British cinema since 1990

Film production in Britain hit one of its all-time lows in 1989. While cinema audiences were climbing in the UK in the early 1990s, few British films were enjoying significant commercial success, even in the home market. Among the more notable exceptions were the Merchant Ivory productions Howards End (1992) and The Remains of the Day (1993), Richard Attenborough's Chaplin (1992) and Shadowlands (1993) and Neil Jordan's acclaimed thriller The Crying Game (1992). The latter was generally ignored on its initial release in Britain, but was a considerable success in the United States, where it was picked up by the distributor Miramax. The same company also enjoyed some success releasing the BBC period drama Enchanted April (1992). Kenneth Branagh's filmed Shakespeare adaptations were also gaining some attention, including his 1989 version of Henry V, and Much Ado About Nothing in 1993.

The surprise success of the Richard Curtis-scripted comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), especially in the United States, lead to renewed interest and investment in British films, and set a pattern for British-set romantic comedies, including Sliding Doors (1998), Notting Hill (1999) and the Bridget Jones films. Several of these were also written by Curtis, who went on to make his directorial debut with Love Actually in 2003. Working Title Films, the company behind many of these films, quickly became one of the most successful British production companies, with other box office hits including Bean (1997), Elizabeth (1998) and Captain Corelli's Mandolin (2001).

The enthusiastic reception given to The Madness of King George (1994) proved there was still a market for the traditional British costume drama, and a large number of other period films followed, including Sense and Sensibility (1995), Restoration (1995), Emma (1996), Wings of the Dove (1997), Mrs Brown (1997), Shakespeare in Love (1998), Topsy-Turvy (1999) and Gosford Park (2001). Several of these were funded by Miramax Films, who also took over Anthony Minghella's The English Patient (1996) when the production ran into difficulties during filming. Although technically an American production, the success of this film, including its 9 Academy Award wins would bring further prestige to British film-makers.

American productions began to return to British studios in the mid-1990s, including Interview with the Vampire (1994), Mission: Impossible (1996), Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999), as well as the French production The Fifth Element (1997), at the time claimed to be the most expensive film made in Britain.

After a six year hiatus for legal reasons the James Bond films also returned to production with the 17th Bond film, Goldeneye. With their traditional home Pinewood Studios fully booked, a new studio was created for the film in a former Rolls-Royce aero-engine factory at Leavesden in Hertfordshire.

With the introduction of public funding for British films through the new National Lottery something of a production boom occurred in the late 1990s, but only a few of these films found significant commercial success, and many went unreleased. These included several gangster films attempting to imitate Guy Ritchie's black comedies Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000).

Other new talents to emerge during the decade included the writer-director-producer team of John Hodge, Danny Boyle and Andrew Macdonald responsible for Shallow Grave (1994) and Trainspotting (1996) and Nick Park, the creator of Wallace and Gromit and the Creature Comforts series. Park's first feature length film, Chicken Run (2000), was one of the most successful British films of its year, together with Stephen Daldry's crowd pleasing debut Billy Elliott.

The turn of the new century saw a revival of sorts of the British horror film, with The Hole, 28 Days Later, Dog Soldiers and the comedy Shaun of the Dead among the more successful examples.

The new decade also saw a major new film series in the US-backed but British made Harry Potter films, beginning with Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in 2001.

Art Cinema

The release of Derek Jarman's Jubilee (1978) marked the beginning of a successful period of UK art cinema, continuing in the 1980s with film-makers like Peter Greenaway and Sally Potter. Unlike the previous generation of British film makers who had broken into directing and production after careers in the theatre or on television the Art Cinema Directors were mostly the products of Art Schools. Many of these film-makers were championed in their early career by the London Film Makers Cooperative and their work was the subject of detailed theoretical analysis in the journal Screen Education. Peter Greenaway was an early pioneer of the use of computer generated imagery blended with filmed footage and was also one of the first directors to film entirely on high definition video for a cinema release.

With the launch of Channel 4 and its Film on Four commissioning strand Art Cinema was promoted to a wider audience. However the Channel had a sharp change in its commissioning policy in the early nineties and the likes of Jarman and Greenaway were forced to seek European co-production financing. Ken Russell and Nicolas Roeg were two other directors whose highly personal visual styles and narrative themes might class them as 'Art Cinema' directors who also struggled during the nineties to finance their productions.

Another account for the decline of 'Art Cinema' is that with the spread of music video there is steady demand for emerging talent without the requirements of seeking feature film funding. Julien Temple and John Maybury are two examples of this. Also the widespread acceptance of video art as a form has made it possible for British artists such as Sam Taylor-Wood and Isaac Julian to make film works outside of the demands of cinema exhibition.

Film technology

In the 1970s and 1980s British studios established a reputation for great special effects in films such as Superman, Alien, Star Wars and Batman. Some of this reputation was founded on the core of talent brought together for the filming of 2001: A Space Odyssey who subsequently worked together on series and feature films for Gerry Anderson. Thanks to the Bristol-based Aardman Animation the UK is still recognised as a world leader in the use of stopmotion animation.

British special effects technicians and production designers are known for creating visual effects at a far lower cost than their counterparts in the US, as seen in Time Bandits (1981) and Brazil (1985). This reputation has continued through the 1990s and into the 21st century with films such as the James Bond series, Gladiator and Harry Potter.

Throughout to the 1990s to the present day, there has been a progressive movement from traditional film opticals to an integrated digital film environment, with special effects, cutting, colour grading, and other post-production tasks all sharing the same all-digital infrastructure. The availability of high-speed Internet Protocol networks has made the British film industry capable of working closely with U.S studios as part of globally distributed productions. As of 2005, this trend is expected to continue with moves towards (currently experimental) digital distribution and projection as mainstream technologies.

The UK film This is Not a Love Song (2003) was the first to be streamed live on the Internet at the same time as its cinema premiere.

Black and Asian film

Until the 1980s Black British and Asian British culture was significantly under-represented in mainstream British cinema, as they were in many areas of British life. Pioneers such as Horace Ové has been working in 1970s (Pressure, 1975), but the 1980s saw a wave of new talent, with films like Burning an Illusion (1981), Majdhar (1985) and Ping Pong (1986). Many of these films were assisted by the newly formed Channel 4, which had an official remit to provide for "minority audiences." Commercial success was first achieved with My Beautiful Laundrette (1985). Dealing with racial and gay issues, it started the career of its writer Hanif Kureishi.

1980s mainstream British cinema also reflected a change in attitudes, with Heat and Dust (1982), Gandhi (1982) and Cry Freedom (1987), although it rarely directly addressed the experiences of Black or Asian British people. However, the mainstream continued to be criticised, as it does today, for lack of minority representation. The hit film Notting Hill (1999) was noted for not featuring any significant black characters in its ensemble cast, despite Notting Hill being home to many British Afro-Caribbeans.

The turn of the century saw a more commercial Asian British cinema develop, starting with East is East (1999) and continuing with Bend It Like Beckham (2002). Some argue it has brought more flexible attitudes towards casting Black and Asian British actors, with Robbie Gee and Naomie Harris take leading roles in Underworld and 28 Days Later respectively.


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