Book Review: National Heroes - British Cinema in the Seventies and Eighties, by Alexander Walker
National Heroes: British Cinema in the Seventies and Eighties - also published as National Heroes: The British Film Industry in the Seventies and Eighties - is the second book in Alexander Walker's trilogy exploring British cinema from the 1960s to the turn of the millennium. The first book, Hollywood England, looked at the 1960s and the very beginning of the 1970s. National Heroes overlaps with that book a little, beginning in 1971 and ending in 1984.
Compared to the all-conquering sixties portrayed in Hollywood England, the 1970s was a very different era for British film-making. The domestic cinema audience was in freefall and a crisis in film financing left many film makers scraping around for funding, or else leaving Britain altogether. After the investment bonanza of the 1960s, the American studios had cut back drastically on financing film production in Britain, while the former homegrown champion the Rank Organisation had given up on making films altogether.
More generally, Britain in the 1970s was marked by seemingly terminal economic decline. The country experienced increasing unemployment, rising industrial strife, spiralling inflation and even terrorist violence spreading from Northern Ireland to the mainland. The mid-seventies also saw Britain's tax regime become markedly more unfriendly to high earners, sparking a further exodus of film making talent. This also made it harder to attract American stars to work in Britain.
Like Hollywood England, National Heroes puts the British film industry in this era into its socio-economic context, at least as far as the 1970s goes. That means there is also discussion of subjects as varied as the trial of London gangsters the Krays, the Longford committee report on pornography and the Oz magazine obscenity trial.
As Walker describes it, the early 1970s were effectively the hangover from the 1960s. British society was increasingly fractious and discontented and the economy on a downward spiral after the boom years of the previous decade. Many of the more downbeat, more violent and more questioning British films of the early 1970s reflected this new reality.
Walker points to the crime films of the early part of the decade, particularly Get Carter and Villain (both in 1971) as symptomatic of this, switching from British cinema's more usual siding with the police to adopt instead the perspective of the criminals. British films did traditionally prefer the viewpoint of the trusty copper and the dogged detective over that of his criminal counterpart until the 1960s, but Walker probably over-states the extent of the change in the seventies, since there were plenty of films about criminals well before this.
The early 1970s was also a particularly difficult period for film censorship in Britain, with the arrival of controversial and taboo-busting films, including The Devils, A Clockwork Orange and Straw Dogs, all in 1971, as well as problematic imports like Soldier Blue, The Exorcist and the Andy Warhol films Flesh and Trash.
Unlike in many other countries, Britain's film censors were created by the movie industry itself, to discourage state regulation, and were not set up by the government. Technically, though, local councils still had their own powers of censorship and they began to exercise those powers over some of the controversial films of the 1970s, over-ruling the official censors. Sometimes local authorities were more lenient than the censors and other times less. But the result was the same, an undermining of confidence in the official censorship system.
Walker obviously sets himself against what he describes as a backlash against the permissiveness of the 1960s, but sometimes he tries a bit too hard. He haughtily dismisses the contemporary criticism of A Clockwork Orange, claiming that it can only be explained by the fact that people were "waiting for it" and that they were "ready and willing to be outraged". Well ... maybe. But A Clockwork Orange would almost certainly have been controversial whenever it was released, be it ten, twenty or even thirty years later.
Generally, when individual films are featured in National Heroes it's not in as much detail as in Hollywood England. Some 1970-71 films - such as Performance and The Go-Between - were already covered in that book, so are not explored further here.
From the 1970s, Walker does look at John Schlesinger's Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971), Nic Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), the Agatha Christie mystery Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Derek Jarman's punk fantasy Jubilee (1978), among others.
The early 1980s saw a revival in the British film industry's fortunes, with the introduction of more attractive tax policies under the Conservative government, not only for individuals but also in the realm of film financing and investment.
Early 1980s films covered in the book include London gangster thriller The Long Good Friday (1980), Bill Forsyth's gentle comedies Gregory's Girl (1980) and Local Hero (1983), Oscar-winning Olympics drama Chariots of Fire (1981) and Lindsay Anderson's savage satire Britannia Hospital (1982). Because it was published in 1985, there's not much from 1984 in the book, except Neil Jordan's dark fairytale The Company of Wolves and Michael Radford's film of George Orwell's 1984.
For the most part, Walker's focus is not on popular film genres or the work of individual directors, but on a small set of significant film companies and producers in the 1970s and early 1980s. These are Michael Deeley & Barry Spikings at British Lion (and later at EMI Films), Lew Grade of ITC Entertainment and his brother Bernard Delfont of EMI, and the independent producers Don Boyd, the so-called "Boyd Wonder", and David Puttnam.
There is a chapter on the publicly-funded investment body the National Film Finance Corporation and the more artistically-inclined British Film Institute and some of the films they backed. These include Peter Hall's rural drama Akenfield (1974), Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo's historical film Winstanley (1975) and Peter Greenaway's breakthrough feature The Draughtsman's Contract (1982).There is also some discussion of the tentative efforts to make films about the immigrant experience in the 1970s, in A Private Enterprise (1974), Pressure (1975), Black Joy (1977) Rude Boy (1980) and Babylon (1980), although most of these films were fairly obscure even when they were new.
Much of the book is spent exploring the business dealings and film production programmes of ITC, British Lion and EMI in particular. British Lion was run with more limited resources than the other two, but managed to produce a few notable films including Don't Look Now (1973) and the cult horror The Wicker Man (1973).
British Lion was taken over by EMI Films, successor to the Associated British Picture Corporation, partly it seems to acquire the services of its management team of Deeley and Spikings. The two men then undertook an ambitious programme at EMI of mostly American production, including in 1978 The Deer Hunter and Convoy, with a few token British efforts including Warlords of Atlantis and Death on the Nile in the same year.
ITC had a similarly ambitious programme of international production, assisted by Lew Grade's base at ATV. This was the Midlands television franchise holder and, as such, a reliable cash cow and broadcaster of ITC's own TV programmes.
Grade's confidence was boosted by his early success in films with Return of the Pink Panther, which reunited Peter Sellers and Blake Edwards in 1974. Although The Eagle Has Landed (1976) was a substantial hit, ITC's only really big blockbuster success was made in America. This was The Muppet Movie (1979), the big screen version of the TV series The Muppet Show. The film took the form of an American road trip and so, unlike the TV version, was filmed in the US. But ITC found there was less appetite among audiences for the likes of Voyage of the Damned (1976), March or Die (1977) or Escape to Athena (1979).
Ironically, both ITC and EMI came unstuck making American films, not British ones. ITC with Raise the Titanic in 1980 and EMI with the comedy Honky Tonk Freeway the following year. Both films were huge and expensive flops and caused retrenchment at their respective makers, Grade being forced out at ITC and EMI being bought by the electrical giant Thorn, becoming Thorn-EMI.
One curiosity of the book is that Walker spends a substantial amount of time on Lew Grade, including some of his most quotable remarks, information on his background in talent management, his work in television at ATV and his eventual defenestration at ITC. Despite this mass of information, the author then says that it's not worth going into any of his films as they are deliberately "international" and don't reflect contemporary British society or culture. In which case, why spend so much time discussing Lew Grade?
The answer, of course, is that Lew Grade is an interesting and colourful character. He is also very quotable, and Walker makes sure to include some good ones. Grade's most famous comes when he sees the final bill for Raise the Titanic -
"It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic".
Sadly, this may be apocryphal. But there's also:
"All my shows are great. Some of them are bad. But all of them are great."
And, when questioned if one of his programmes really was "culture", Grade's alleged retort:
"It must be culture; it certainly isn't entertainment."
Another significant figure is David Puttnam, probably the British film producer with the most impressive track record in the 1970s and early '80s. His early films, the music industry dramas That'll Be the Day (1973) and its follow up Stardust (1974), are discussed in some detail. Which makes it all the more surprising that these two films, critically and commercially successful at the time and featuring various music stars (David Essex, Ringo Star, Keith Moon, Adam Faith, Marty Wilde and Billy Fury) are not very well known now.
Puttnam went on to even greater success with two Alan Parker films, the childrens' musical Bugsy Malone (1976) and prison drama Midnight Express (1978), and to a lesser extent with The Duellists (1977), the directorial debut of Ridley Scott. Puttnam, Parker and Scott had all come into feature films from the advertising industry.
In the 1980s Puttman produced Local Hero (1983), The Killing Fields (1984) and The Mission (1986) and won the Academy Award for Best Picture for Chariots of Fire - the most emblematic of British film successes of the early years of the decade.
Walker also looks at the more specialised work of Derek Jarman, hired by Ken Russell to design The Devils and later maker of his own films, including the gay-themed Roman drama Sebastiane (1976), an idiosyncratic version of The Tempest (1980) and the aforementioned Jubilee.
The book's personality portraits, including those of David Puttnam and Derek Jarman, are more convincing than those in Hollywood England and are once again augmented with interviews with the people themselves. There is less discussion of individual films, though, than in Hollywood England, and those that are featured in National Heroes are reduced to only a couple of paragraphs each.
Even so, there are many more that are missing altogether. The book skips many significant British films from this period, including Sleuth (1972), the long-awaited return of Hitchcock to London for Frenzy (1972), Richard Attenborough's epics Young Winston (1972), A Bridge Too Far (1977) and Gandhi (1982), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Barry Lyndon (1975), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) (except in passing), The Killing Fields (1984), The Hit (1984), David Lean's final film A Passage to India (1984) and anything from Merchant-Ivory. Given that there is some overlap between this book and Hollywood England, some significant films from 1970-71 also seem to have fallen through the gap between books.
James Bond gets a couple of photos (from the rival 1983 Bonds Octopussy and Never Say Never Again) and a passing mention (as in yes, they're still going), while British cinema's lowerbrow delights of Hammer horror, Carry On films and the sex comedies of the 1970s are all absent - although some may be grateful for that.
Given their almost complete absence from Hollywood England, the lack of horror films isn't surprising, although it's still a little disappointing. Even The Wicker Man is mentioned only in passing in discussion of British Lion's production programme, together with the obscure thrillers Who? (1974) and The Internecine Project (1974). On the other hand, there is space for the much less well known Don Boyd productions Sweet William (1980) and his critically-mauled directorial debut East of Elephant Rock (1976).
If Hollywood England sometimes focused more on the industry background than on the films themselves, then that is even more true of National Heroes. The book fills the reader in on some of the significant producers and industry moguls of the era, but there's comparatively little on the individual films compared to the information on business dealings, property speculations, loan arrangements and share buybacks. Hollywood England also discussed the structure of the film industry, but in National Heroes the story is noticeably unbalanced.
Alexander Walker wrote one final book in this series, Icons in the Fire, which took the story up to 2000 and was published after his death in 2004.