Icons in the Fire: Reviewing British Cinema in the 1980s and 1990s

Icons in the Fire: The Decline and Fall of Almost Everybody in the British Film Industry, 1984-2000 is the third and final book in Alexander Walker's trilogy exploring British cinema from the beginning of the 1960s to the end of the 1990s. 

The first of the three, Hollywood England, covered the period from the early 1960s to the beginning of the 1970s and the second, National Heroes, from the 1970s to the early 1980s. Icons in the Fire picks up the story from the mid-1980s and covers the period until 1999.

While Hollywood England covered a clear and distinct era, taking in the boom years of the 1960s, the same can't be said for either National Heroes or Icons in the Fire. Like National Heroes, Icons in the Fire covers a couple of distinct periods, in this case the end of the 1980s and the whole of the 1990s.

As with National Heroes, Icons in the Fire is more of an industrial history than a creative one, but the films themselves generally get even less coverage individually than in Walker's previous two books, although a few do get explored in a little more detail. 

These include My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) directed by Stephen Frears from Hanif Kureishi's script, Kenneth Branagh's Henry V (1989), the Profumo drama Scandal (1989), directed by Michael Caton-Jones, Neil Jordan's The Crying Game (1992) and the game-changing romcom Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), written by Richard Curtis and directed by Mike Newell.

As with the other two books, Walker is especially interested in the structure of the industry, in tax incentives, the role of public funding and in the control of distribution and exhibition, as this is where most of the money is usually made in the film business. A substantial amount - even a majority - of Icons in the Fire is concerned with these issues. 

In the 1980s that means in particular the withdrawal of Thorn EMI Screen Entertainment from film production and the sale of its assets, including its cinema chain and Elstree Studios. Walker devotes much time to the debates over this, including his own role in attempting to thwart the takeover of the cinemas by Cannon. Cannon, run by the upstart Israeli moguls Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus (the famed "Go-Go boys") eventually bought the cinemas and film library and promised to invest in British films, but soon found it had over-extended itself. 

Retrenchment in the industry at the turn of the 1990s - by which time the British film industry consisted almost entirely of Richard Attenborough, Merchant-Ivory, Kenneth Branagh and TV station Channel 4 - was followed by a revival in film production in the middle of the decade, assisted by tax breaks and substantial amounts of money flowing in from the new National Lottery.

In the early 1990s the debates in the industry centred on the desire for more tax incentives for investment, something that pitted industry bodies against the reluctant Treasury. The arrival of the National Lottery in the mid-nineties meant that there was going to be a huge windfall for the arts, so the debate then became about how to spend money rather than how to raise it. Alexander Walker was an exasperated observer to the unfolding drama, as successive governments attempted to work out the best way to distribute this largesse. 

Even before the advent of the National Lottery, Michael Deeley, producer of The Italian Job, The Deer Hunter and Blade Runner, had suggested that the government should fund a British film commission which would operate similarly to the public body British Screen, but on a more commercial basis and with a larger budget. The aim would be for it to become self-financing over time and that it would retain copyright of the films produced, enabling it to develop a valuable film library. 

This was not a bad idea, but when Lottery money did become available the role of funding films was foolishly given to the Arts Council, an avowedly highbrow organisation with no knowledge, history or understanding of film production. This was particularly strange, given that British Screen already existed and had a decent track record in this area with more limited resources. The Arts Council concentrated only on the production side, which led to a glut of unreleased films. Those that did find a release were of varying quality, although there were successes as well as many misses. 

The government then came up with a complicated plan to fund "franchises", consortiums of production companies that could bid for public money to make films. This was not a success and the Film Council (later the UK Film Council) took over at the turn of the millennium under the leadership of the director Alan Parker.

Alexander Walker covers all of this reasonably fairly, albeit with a jaundiced eye. He also covers the rise and fall of some significant players in the film industry in this period, including Goldcrest Films, Polygram Filmed Entertainment and Palace Pictures, the temporary departure to Hollywood of David Puttnam and the end of the last integrated British film conglomerate Thorn EMI Screen Entertainment (the successor to EMI Films, itself the successor to the Associated British Picture Corporation). 

Under Jake Eberts, Goldcrest had been involved in some of the most prestigious British films of the early 1980s, including the Best Picture Oscar winners Chariots of Fire and Gandhi. With Eberts' departure, the company came unstuck and floundered on a trio of budget-busting flops; historical drama The Mission, the critically mauled musical Absolute Beginners and the disastrous (in every way) American Revolution epic Revolution

Palace was a more agile company, one that enjoyed its first hit with Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves (1984) and also enjoyed success with his follow-up Mona Lisa (1986) and with the drama Scandal (1989), among others. Walker notes the skill of Palace's marketing and sales operations, but Palace also ran into trouble in the early 1990s. 

Ironically, as is often the case with British film companies, it was making and investing in American films that brought problems, including the 1991 crime film A Rage in Harlem. Equally ironically, Palace collapsed just as it found its biggest hit, Neil Jordan's low budget thriller The Crying Game

Perhaps most serious was the loss of Polygram Filmed Entertainment. Polygram was backed by the electronics giant Phillips and developed by Michael Kuhn to the point where it was a genuine challenger to the established Hollywood studios by the late 1990s - only for it to be sold off, thanks to the financial troubles of Polygram's music division. 

Polygram was an early backer of a more enduring entity, Working Title, a 1980s founding, but one that had its first great hits in the 1990s. At this time the company became associated with comedies - including Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Bean (1997) and Notting Hill (1999) - although the historical drama Elizabeth (1998) was a sign of the more ambitious films to come, including Pride and Prejudice (2005), United 93 (2006), Atonement (2007), Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) and Les Miserables (2012). 

The 1980s also saw the creation of the television network Channel 4 and its development as a financier and producer of feature films. Originally with a focus on small scale contemporary dramas, its output became more ambitious in the 1990s. Other British TV companies made tentative efforts to enter into film production, including Granada, Zenith and the BBC - the latter to become a much more significant player in the 2000s. 

Icons in the Fire does suffer from some significant flaws, some of them unavoidable. The first is that the book was published posthumously. Alexander Walker died unexpectedly in 2003 and the manuscript was recovered by his literary executor, put into order and published. 

Walker, though, would probably not have been satisfied with the book being published in this form. There are quite a few obvious errors that he would, presumably, have picked up on before it went to his publisher, but that his editors haven't.

These include examples of the wrong names and wrong dates being used. The latter is particularly obvious in the David Puttnam chapter, where years in the 1980s are given as being from the 1990s. Christopher Hampton is described as the director of Mary Reilly (it was Stephen Frears), Robert Carlyle as the star of My Name is Joe (instead of Peter Mullan), Mike Leigh as the director of Looks and Smiles (it was Ken Loach), Jeremy Bolt is repeatedly called Jeremy Bolton, while Danny Boyle is twice referred to as Scottish instead of English. 

There is some repetition and no references given for the sources of the numerous quotations and other information, beyond a general note at the end of some of the trade journals that have been consulted. There are also some stylistic issues, over-repetition of certain words and some very long and awkwardly structured sentences in the early part of the book. Sometimes, sentences are so long that the front and back halves don't seem to quite belong together, the point having been lost somewhere along the way. These would probably have been ironed out by Walker if he had been alive to oversee the book. 

Walker has also chosen to use a rather half-hearted "butterfly effect" metaphor at times, suggesting that the history of British cinema in this period was driven by such an occurrence; a sequence of momentous events triggered by one minor one.

This, though, isn't really true. If David Puttnam had sneezed in 1984 and that had caused a sequence of events that led to the film industry aligning in a particular way by 1998, then that would be an example of the butterfly effect. Needless to say, that isn't what happened. There is no one specific incident that led to the way the British film industry developed in this era. Which may be why Walker abandons this metaphor half-way through the book. 

The author often gets bogged down in background detail and this is too often allowed to become foreground. There is too much detail on the rise and fall of Cannon, which is only tangential to this story. There is also a whole chapter on David Puttnam's tenure at Columbia Pictures in Hollywood, which is interesting enough, but has little to do with the subject of the book. 

The author is also too close to the events being described. Walker was a member of the British Screen Advisory Council and was involved in many of the debates about the film industry, including the fate of its studios and cinema chains and the disbursement of National Lottery money. He wrote articles on these issues and personally lobbied politicians in this era. So he is a long way from being an impartial observer. Not only does he have his own positions to defend, but he gets bogged down too much in these debates, in the dealings of Cannon and Thorn EMI, in the comings and goings of politicians, in meetings of the BSAC and other bits of trivia. 

There are other issues too. Walker's language is occasionally amusingly archaic - Julian Temple is described as "a young director of Pop-disc promotional films" (capitalising the word "Pop" is one of Walker's idiosyncrasies), but that's almost cherishable. 

Other arguments are just odd. When a list of 21 notable British films from the late 1970s up to 1985 is produced for British Film Year, labelled "The Revival Years", Walker laments the lack of films by particular directors. Which is an easy game we can all play. But when he bemoans the lack of titles from Mike Leigh and Terence Davies, you have to wonder if he has done his homework. Mike Leigh had barely worked in feature films by 1985 - in fact he had only made one film and that was in 1971, so ineligible for the list - while Terence Davies had yet to make his feature debut.

Walker made a similar complaint about the same list in National Heroes, when he asked why it didn't include Babylon (1980), The Ploughman's Lunch (1983) or The Gold Diggers (1983). The obvious answer is that the list-makers were choosing famous, critically acclaimed films that the public would recognise, not flops and obscurities.

Walker generally has a better grip on the 1990s than he does on the 1980s. As a survey of late 1980s British cinema, the book is a little lacking, as the author gets distracted so much by the Thorn EMI saga and the Cannon and David Puttnam stories. 

In fact, given Walker's predilection to accentuate the negative, it's surprising that he barely even mentions two of British cinema's biggest disasters in this era; Handmade Films' chaotic Shanghai Surprise and Goldcrest's flop Revolution, both from 1986. Although he does talk about the same year's other flop, Absolute Beginners

Walker is also dismissive of Timothy Dalton's portrayal of James Bond in the late 1980s, suggesting that he looked bored in the role. A common enough opinion at the time this book was written, although still wrong. Then again, Pierce Brosnan's Bond is barely mentioned at all, which is probably even more damning.

We can also play Walker's game and note some of the significant titles missing from the book, or given only the most cursory nod: e.g. A Room with a ViewBrazilThe Emerald ForestComradesWhite MischiefThe Lonely Passion of Judith HearneHope and Glory, A Handful of DustShirley Valentine, Hear My SongShadowlands and others. 

Icons in the Fire often concentrates too much on the wrong subjects in the late 1980s, but it's stronger on the 1990s, where it's much more comprehensive. There are few significant films missing from this decade, although only a very small number are explored in any detail, and the book only really scrapes into 1999 and doesn't extend to 2000. It's also good on the lottery shenanigans of the 1990s and on the rise and fall of various film companies in this era. 

It's difficult, though, to reconcile the book's title and subtitle with the actual content. "The Decline and Fall of Almost Everybody in the British Film Industry" makes it clear that this will be a tale of woe, of the collapse of the British film industry and the careers of all those involved. 

In fact, that's very far from the case. If Walker's survey ended in 1990 or 1991, then maybe. But the mid-to-late 1990s was an era of renewal, with new talents appearing on the scene, new directors, new writers, new producers, new stars, even the exploration of new or less familiar genres. 

Regardless of the fates of particular film companies and the early mishandling of lottery largesse, British cinema was certainly in far better shape in 2000 than it was in 1990. We have to wonder if Walker would have been satisfied with this title and subtitle, or if he would have had second thoughts. 

Given the way that it came to be published, perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that the opening pages actually manage to give it a different subtitle - "The Rise and Fall of Practically Everyone in the British Film Industry 1984-2000", although this appears to be an error and doesn't make any more sense than the other title. 

Walker's first book in this trilogy, Hollywood England, ended at the turn of the seventies, with the withdrawal of most US finance from the British film industry and the end of the boom years of the 1960s. But there is no comparable obvious end point for Icons in the Fire and the book just stops at the end of the 1990s, with no particular conclusions drawn. Walker does suggest that nothing much has changed since 1984, but that's obviously not the case and he seems to be straining to reach some sort of conclusion. 

Like National HeroesIcons in the Fire is a more specialised book than Hollywood England. The latter has broader appeal as a survey of British cinema in the sixties and its relationship with contemporary society and culture. National Heroes and Icons in the Fire, with their concentration on the industry's structure and financial issues, are aimed less at the general reader. Despite their flaws, though, as a set the three books do make for a decent overview of the British film industry in this period and are pretty much essential reading for anyone with a serious interest in the subject.

See also:

Hollywood England: The British Film Industry in the Sixties
National Heroes: British Cinema in the Seventies and Eighties


  1. This sounds like a thorough -- if flawed -- publication. I can't say I'll be putting it on my must-read list, but your interesting post made me want to dust off a few movies from this era and give them a rewatch, including Scandal and Four Weddings and a Funeral!

    1. I would like to see Scandal again, as I was very young when I saw it and not that familiar with the Profumo affair. I did watch The Crying Game this week. I would love to have seen how that played in the cinema with that twist, there must have been a collective gasp. (Jay)


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