British Film Forever?

This has been the Summer of British Film, a concoction dreamed up by the BBC and the UK Film Council, comprising three linked ‘strands’ — newly minted digital copies of well-known British films in cinemas on Tuesday evenings, a series of ‘themed’ documentaries on Saturday night on BBC2 and a linked series of screenings of British films scattered around the BBC2 schedules.

It isn’t absolutely clear what the purpose of the whole enterprise might have been. The cinema screenings have been for very well-known films that only the youngest audiences wouldn’t know from TV screenings. It’s nice to see these films get a cinema outing, but it’s difficult for me to get excited by them. However, if it gets any new audiences into cinemas, fine.

More problematic is the BBC2 contribution. On the whole this has been an excellent opportunity badly wasted in my view. The expectation, on BBC2, is for a reasonably sensible documentary with an educational or artistic purpose as well as being entertaining. This hasn’t been in evidence. Talking heads such as Phil Jupitus, Billy Bragg and Ewan McGregor share screentime with noted film academics such as Ian Christie. There is a woeful voiceover delivered by Jessica Stevenson, presumably to attract younger audiences and the script is all over the place (Matthew Sweet is mentioned, but I’m sure he isn’t totally responsible). The programmes are themed by genre, but little thought seems to have gone into what a genre might be or how to explain it. The clips are chopped up and usually presented in the wrong ratio (i.e. Academy becomes 16:9 and so does ‘Scope). I watched the first in the series and decided not to bother with the rest. I then relented and thought I’d give it a second chance, but Saturday’s programme roughly themed around ‘war’ was just as bad. I wept for Jack Cardiff and Thelma Schoonmaker, interviewed between clips of Powell & Pressburger films cropped to fit into 16:9 frames, destroying careful compositions willy-nilly (and nearly cutting Pressburger’s name off a title card). These programmes, if they are meant to attract a new audience for older British films, should be on BBC1 (or BBC3?).

The film screenings have included some interesting titles, but also several have been ruined by ‘pan and scan’. Poor Sidney Furie — three of his early 1960s films have been on in the last few weeks (The Ipcress File, The Boys and The Leather Boys), all panned and scanned.

Something very strange is going on at the BBC. Perhaps producers and schedulers no longer talk to each other? On Sunday night, a second documentary, this time under the Arena label, was shown on BBC2 with the title ‘Flames of Passion’. Bizarrely, it used some of the same clips from the British Film Forever doc of the night before — but this time they were presented properly in the correct ratio and from excellent prints that positively glowed in terms of expressionist lighting for the late 1940s pictures. No talking heads and a voiceover by the mellifluous Miriam Margolyes, more time on each film and a structure (with chapter heads) that at least made sense and the inclusion of some much less well-known material — by comparison with the night before this was a gem of a programme. I guessed that Bob Murphy must have been involved somewhere and he was listed as Research Consultant. Cheers Bob! I remember the course you put on at the BFI on the sensationalist melos of the late 1940s with much joy.

I imagine a lot of teachers will think about using the British Film Forever docs for background. I urge them not to — or at least to contextualise them very carefully. But ‘Flames of Passion’ is a must (fans will recognise the title as being the film trailed when Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard make their trip to the cinema in Brief Encounter).

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