Reel Britannia

Reel Britannia (2022)

Reel Britannia first published by

The word ‘cinema’ comes from the Ancient Greek for ‘movement’. This is because cinema is the domain of the moving image – but in his latest documentary on cinema, writer/director Jon Spira (Elstree 1976, 2015; Hollywood Bulldogs: The Rise and Fall of the Great British Stuntman, 2021) is also very much interested in societal movements, and the way that change itself is fleetingly captured by the national cinema. Reel Britannia is impressively ambitious, albeit within self-imposed limits. For it takes on five decades of British cinema history (from the Sixties to the Noughties), and compresses them into four hour-long episodes (the first two of which are covered here). Spira’s script (narrated with a real sense of character by Nick Helm) pulls off the miracle of being both incisive and insightful, while the editing deftly combines film excerpts (with some fantastic montages), interviews and animated inserts. All this is in the service of a stylish, synoptic chronicle that also feels like an engaging, often eye-opening alternative history of where we came from, who we are and how we got here. This whistle-stop tour of Britain’s internal revolutions and international relations over half a century is exhausting, exhilarating, and might even change the way you look at both the country and its self-expression in film.

Reel Britannia in fact starts at the beginning of the Fifties, with the 1951 Festival of Britain that renewed the bombed-out area of South Bank, and with the handing over to the BFI of the Festival’s popular Telekinema building, which would then become the National Film Theatre. Here a collection of Britain-based filmmakers (Karel Reisz, Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson, Lorenza Mazzetti) would launch the new ‘Free Cinema’ movement, complete with its own manifesto, and so set the British New Wave rolling with a series of short films about the working class and the marginalised. The social realist mode of these works would have a significant influence on the cinema of the Sixties, and has continued to be championed, arguably with far greater political commitment, by Ken Loach to this day – but the decade would also see a rise in the fanciful and the surreal, as films gradually shifted away from the theatricality of the ‘angry young men’ to something more, well, cinematic. This perhaps culminated in the mainstream internationalist escapism of the otherwise quintessentially British James Bond (his first outing was in Terence Young’s Dr No, 1962), but also included truly mannerist films like John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar (1963), Lindsay Anderson’s If…. (1968) and Donald Cammell & Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (1970). Of course the national cinema would also both celebrate and satirise the illusory enticements of ‘Swinging London’, even as Soho at its centre would see the rise of a cottage industry producing ‘stag films’ in its backrooms and garrets. There is even space here for the Carry On films (1958-92), a “hugely popular and successful” series catering to a very specifically British sensibility – “but”, as the narrator points out, “we don’t really like to talk about them now.”

This is part of the beauty of Reel Britannia: while it finds room for the big hitters at the box office and the critically approved entries in the British canon, it also accommodates the dismissed, the overlooked and the purely paracinematic, all shown equally to reflect different realities – economic and sociopolitical – of the times as well as the tastes, variously simple and sophisticated, of the national character. So while its second part, on the cinema of the Seventies, certainly surveys rightly feted titles like Mike Hodges’ Get Carter (1971), Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971). Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973)and Terry Jones’ Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) – not that the last of these received much critical attention let alone approbation at the time of its release – it pays just as much forensic attention to the then hugely popular sex comedies and sit-com adaptations which have since fallen out of both favour and the collective memory, while also taking on board the Central Office of Information’s terrifying public awareness campaigns, accurately described by the narrator as a “bizarre bid to save the lives of British children by scaring the living shit out of them.” Spira even addresses the films that were never, or only barely, made, giving due attention to Horace Ové’s Pressure (1976), the first British film to have been directed by a black filmmaker, while pointing out that that there were fewer features about black experience made in the Sixties and Seventies combined than there were titles in the godawful Robin Askwith Confessions… series of sex comedies. Spira makes up for this shameful gap by highlighting what there is. Similarly he is careful to trace, through films like Basil Dearden’s Victim (1961) Tony Richardson’s A Taste Of Honey (1961), John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), Paul Humfress & Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane (1976) and Ron Peck’s Nighthawks (1978), the evolution of gay representation during decades when homosexuality was still outlawed in Britain.

The takes on these films, though always compelling, are not always obvious or predictable. Spira does, for example, situate Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) in a discussion of anti-establishment attitudes and contemporary anxieties about rising youth violence, but then shifts his focus to the brutalist buildings in the background of one scene, and spins from this a more general disquisition on the ambivalence of filmmakers in the early Seventies to contemporary urban renewal programmes that seemed all at once brightly futurist and grimly dystopian. For Spira never forgets to read broader movements in culture through the palimpsest of cinema – and never loses sight of the degree to which changes in state financing (especially tax legislation) and in capital flow affected the entire film industry and its output, artistic or otherwise.

Fresh and far-reaching, Reel Britannia is a tale of both a cinema and a country, told in a manner that is engagingly free-associative without ever feeling arbitrary or purposeless. It is also, at times, very funny,  grinning cheekily even as it looks deep and hard into the peculiarities and peccadillos of the British psyche. Elegantly written, eclectic and irreverent, it observes a sweeping cultural landscape while always keeping cinema’s margins within its peripheral vision. I cannot wait to catch up with Episodes Three and Four, respectively on the Eighties and 1990-2010.

strap: Jon Spira’s four-part guided tour through five decades of British cinema (and societal change) is eclectic, engaging and insightful

Anton Bitel