Film, from its beginning, was considered a realist medium because its mechanical reproduction by a photochemical process appears to ‘catch reality on the wing’. Although it is also the ‘dream factory’, ‘the camera never lies’, so it is an eyewitness whose evidence holds up in the court of history, an image sustained by such conventions as ‘don’t look at the camera’. It is the ‘cinema eye’ as objective observer, scientific and male. Both amateur and mainstream films reflect this.
Amateur films provide the visual equivalent of ‘oral history’ as eyewitness evidence and Nation On Film provides excellent examples. Amateur film-makers quickly adopted the new technology, but this was mostly limited to the prosperous who could afford it for their home movies - like the predominantly middle-class London Film Society. But other voices did enter the scene such as trade unions in the 30s, with the communist Federation of Workers Film Societies’ attempts to counter the official ideology of the National Government, or the Labour Party’s Masses Stage and Film Guild, shooting on 16mm and thus avoiding official censorship rules.
Much of the amateur movement arose from the oppositional counter-culture of the 60s. Amber Films captured working-class life in the North East while other groups appeared like The London Film-Makers Co-operative, as well as co-ops with more specific agendas, for example, the London Women’s Film Co-op and black and Asian workshops such as Sankofa. Many of these have disappeared but there still remains the Lux. Many mainstream directors emerged from these, and while some, such as Derek Jarman, stuck to Super 8, later directors like Shane Meadows developed into more mainstream feature films.
Within British cinema, there has been a documentary realist tradition which has won critical acclaim and is the form celebrated for its quality when compared with the other strand of fantasy. Of course, we are no longer so innocent and with CGI and special effects, we no longer trust the camera, although fantasy had been there right from the very beginning in trick photography and animation. And within British cinema, there had always been genres that steered away from realism, such as comedies (Carry On) and horror (Hammer) but these were seen as ’mere entertainment’ for the lower classes.
The ethos of the documentary tradition was very much present within the paternalist Reithian BBC, with its public service remit to ‘educate, inform and entertain’. Although not a public corporation like the BBC, British cinema got government protection in 1927 as both an industry and as a bulwark of British culture. As cinema was also regulated by the British Board of Film Censors, it’s not surprising that 1930s films while not jingoistic were patriotic, consensual and reinforcing of the social and cultural values of the day. As such, they are highly revealing as social documents of their time. For example, the issue of unemployment is tackled in a ‘happy-go-lucky’ musical comedy Sing as We Go (1934) with Gracie Fields in a factory that gets closed down but miraculously reopens after a new scientific invention (by, naturally, a middle-class man) and all ends happily - with the Union Jack flying. The official message for the working class is clear and in an entertaining format.
Conversely, the adaptation of one of the most famous novels about the depression, Walter Greenwood’s Love On The Dole got vetoed by the BBFC as liable to incite insurrections and only finally got made and released in 1941 - when, with the war industries running, unemployment was no longer a problem. The story, though, got an interesting twist with the message that such conditions would not be tolerated after the war, predicting the reforms of the 1945 Labour government with the Welfare State and a commitment to full employment. Here, then, some propaganda for the war was inserted in a realist depiction of social conditions.
Other films tackled the war to boost morale while also providing information and narratives about the contemporary experiences, within the documentary realist format. The Second World War was the ‘people’s war’ - the first where women were involved just as much as men, and we can see the two strands coming through.
Millions Like Us (1943) is the story of a young, single, working-class woman going into the munitions factory; while Mrs Miniver (1942) made by William Wyler for MGM, features a middle-class wife during the first year of the war. It was the most successful film of 1942, and not just in Britain, but totally decried by the purist critics of the realist tradition. Miniver was seen as a Hollywood melodrama and raised the questions of who constructs the stories, whose voice is it?
Here, the depiction was considered as being filtered from an American point of view, albeit a very sympathetic one. MGM British had established as a huge film studio in north London at the end of the 30s and produced one of the classic public school stories Goodbye Mr Chips (1939), which also reinforced that very Hollywood-version construction of Britain - one which was not all that dissimilar to those of George Orwell or Stanley Baldwin.
A key critic of this approach was Michael Balcon, head of Ealing Studios, who favoured ‘realism’ over ‘tinsel’ - with a clear allusion to Hollywood as Tinseltown. Although Ealing is best remembered for its comedies, Balcon was most proud of realist accounts such as Scott of the Antarctic (1948) and Dunkirk (1958). Working at Ealing, Basil Dearden developed the ‘social problem film’ within a fictional format, such as The Blue Lamp (1950) dealing with juvenile delinquency, reflecting a contemporary moral panic, and later Sapphire (1959) which dealt with issues of race and immigration following the Notting Hill riots of the previous year. (These issues were addressed again later, but from the point of view of the immigrant community in films such as the Stephen Frears' directed My Beautiful Laundrette in 1985.) Dearden then addressed the highly controversial topic of legalising homosexuality following on from the Wolfenden Report in Victim (1961).
Another strand in the documentary realist tradition was developing in the mid-50s: that of Free Cinema with short documentaries like We Are the Lambeth Boys (Karel Reisz 1958) about a London youth club with a very patronising BBC style voice over, which took a very different approach to The Blue Lamp. These were practically amateur films made by film buffs.
Their work would lead to the British New Wave giving a voice to the working class, to the regions and to youth in films like Saturday Night Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz 1960). The ‘permissive society’ is depicted, a challenge to long-held taboos about sex, bad language and nudity.
Even so, these films still generally provided the viewpoint of the male. One film of the time that was not of the New Wave but dealt with the nature of film was Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), the story of an amateur film-maker obsessed with using his camera to capture the faces of women as he kills them. Interestingly Powell used his own amateur home movie footage of himself with his son to explain the psychology of this sadistic scopophilia.
The New Wave, however, was short-lived as Hollywood studios actually were established in Britain (following the lead of MGM British in the 30s), starting with the James Bond franchise (put together by Cubby Broccoli, an American, for the Hollywood studio United Artists), to the extent that by the end of the decade nearly all British films were actually Hollywood products. Continuing from MGM’s Mr Chips, Columbia’s To Sir, with Love (1967, with American star Sidney Poitier) looked at an East London school as a social problem but with a Hollywood feel-good happy ending. Almost as a riposte, there was Lindsay Anderson’s anarchic, surreal If... (1968) about an armed revolt in a public school, mirroring the student events of 1968, but also about the state of the nation from a New Left stance.
British cinema, whether mainstream or amateur, has always reflected contemporary society but always engaged with its cultural and social values. It’s usually reinforced them, occasionally contested them but always provided an insight into the social history of the period, from the official voice of the 30s (generally middle class, middle-aged, male and English) to the multicultural mix of today. Cinema might be the ‘dream factory’ or a culture industry of mere entertainment. It might be our rational, conscious, objective stories we tell ourselves, or our dreams and nightmares - but we always need these representations to help construct our identities, past and present, and to understand them.