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September 06, 2008

Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh (1943 - )

(For regular visitors this a relaunched page as my titling errors had made the original one invisible to search engines which were reading something else. There are a couple of additions on this page such as trailers from YouTube)

Mike Leigh 2

Mike Leigh


Mike Leigh is one of the UK's most important contemporary directors. Despite his record of success in making lower budget films his working methods preclude him from accessing the higher budgets required to  work on a larger canvas as he phrased it recently in a Sight and Sound interview. His first film, Bleak Moments was financed by Albert Finney who also came from Salford . Many of his films such as Meantime (1983) have been made with the backing of TV companies such as Channel Four and the BBC. They can commission work because they know that a Mike Leigh TV film premier will give the required audience however Leigh along with most other British directors lives in the shadow of the Hollywood film marketing and Multiplex exhibition system which is itself in thrall to the marketing power of Hollywood. Below I have included a brief bibliographical sketch of Mike Leigh and highlighted some of his working methods which come to charactersie his films. His films have an authorial content and approach which significantly distinguishes them from other British films.

Biographical Notes

Leigh was born in Salford in 1943 into a medical family - his father was a doctor, his mother a nurse. His grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He first realised he wanted to make films while analysing the cinematic potential of his grandfather's funeral one snowy morning at the age of 12. In his teens he devised comic sketches whilst a member of the Jewish secular socialist-Zionist movement Habonim, In 1960 he left home for London and Rada (which he found "repressive and uncreative"). He followed this by studying at the Camberwell School of Art, and then enrolled at the London Film School. Leigh has since returned to be the Chairman of the Governors at the London Film School since 2000.

Whilst still a student Leigh began to write plays which were largely improvised. This activity eventually spawned Bleak Moments. (1971) and then Hard Labour in 1973 and Permissive Society 1975. Much of the next two decades was spent working mainly in TV. Leigh became recognised for writing powerful TV films such as Nuts in May (1976), and Abigail’s Party (1977). Meantime (1983) was a powerful film about a dysfunctional family and disaffected youth under the growing Thatcher regime at the time of the Falklands crisis which had a limited release in cinemas. It was five years before his next cinematic release High Hopes (1988). It was a film that combined realism with satire of a Swiftian nature. 1990 saw Life is Sweet the dark Naked (1993), Secrets and Lies (1996) which gained both British and American Academy ward nominations and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes). Career Girls (1997) is a form of chamber work. In 2002 the release of the biopic of Gilbert and Sullivan Topsy Turvey (2001) was a very different style to his previous work. 2004 saw the release of Vera Drake (2004) a realist representation of post-war Britain which highlighted the hypocrisy of the society in relation to the position of women of all classes. It became a prize-winner in Venice.  In the recent book Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh he cites as his inspirations the British social realists Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson as well as American director John Cassavetes. He also says that directors and playwrights such as Renoir, Pinter and Beckett have influenced him.

Leigh’s Directing Methods

Mike Leigh 4

Critics often mystify Leigh’s working methods which are broadly improvisational but often carried out with known actors and crew. This is in essence an auteurial and dynamic approach which many directors from Godard to Loach to Fassbinder have used with variations. Of course it is the stuff of jazz performance: A haze of rumour and mystique has long surrounded Leigh's unique working methods”, which he has developed over five decades in theatre, television and film. It's generally realised, however, that the process involves intense improvisation, research and close collaboration with his actors.

Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh tends to demystify the Leigh methodology. Leigh has established clear codes of practice such as never letting actors discuss their characters in anything but the third person. Any talk about players getting too close to their parts is firmly discounted. "The whole thing about people becoming the characters doesn't happen, and is not on," Leigh told Jonathan Romney in interview. However any great artist creates a certain indefinable charisma around themselves which is in practice inseparable to their working methods it is what makes Leigh Leigh not a metteur en scene. Leigh points out that:” there's stuff that goes on that can only be understood by people taking part in it."

What emerges from the interviews is that each piece derives directly from, and only from, the collaborative work that produces it, work which begins with the casting. "I cast intuitively," Leigh tells Romney. "I get people and I don't know what I'm going to do with them."

Leigh’s working method like Ken Loach involves a ‘need-to-know’ basis. As a result actors know only what their characters do. Famously during the preparations for Vera Drake, the scene culminating in Vera's arrest emerged from a 10-hour improvising session. At the end of this scene the actors playing the Drake family were entirely surprised by the arrival of actors playing police who had come to arrest Vera.

Sheila Johnston on Leigh’s Methods from the Telegraph

  • Leigh meets each actor individually, and he or she talks about dozens of people he has known, intimately or fleetingly. Eventually, one is selected as the starting point for the character: it could just be a bloke glimpsed in the pub one night.

  • Over the next months, the actor, along with Leigh, builds up an elaborate alter ego, mapping out his life in enormous detail, down to how his parents met, and exploring every cranny of his psyche.

  • Once the individual characters are formed, Leigh gradually brings the actors together for a series of loose improvisations to build up their collective world. None of them knows anything about the film other than their own place in it

  • After a while, they go out on the streets to interact with other characters and the unsuspecting public, while Leigh looks on from a distance. The late Katrin Cartlidge, who appeared in Naked and Career Girls, once described him to me as "like David Attenborough and his gorillas".

  • Leigh writes an outline of scenes for the final film. The actors improvise specifically around these, while an assistant takes notes. The best lines and moments are distilled and scripted, and shooting can at last begin. This whole process takes about six months.

Actors Often USed by Mike Leigh

Alison Steadman

Alison Steadman 2

Alison Steadman played  the title role in Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party on both stage and screen.  She also appeared in Leigh's films  Life is Sweet and Secrets and Lies. She was married to Mike Leigh for 20 years.

Timothy Spall

Timothy Spall 1

Timothy Spall. In 1982 his acting relationship with Mike Leigh started in 1982 in Leigh’s TV movie Home Sweet Home. The collaboration has lasted over 20 years.

Brenda Blethyn

Brneda Blethyn Secrets and Lies

Brenda Blethyn in Secrets and Lies . She has worked with Mike Leigh in both TV and Films perhaps most famously in Leigh's Secrets & Lies

Jim Broadbent

Jim Broadbent

Jim Broadbent

Liz Smith

Liz Smith 1

Liz Smith made her screen debut in Mike Leigh's first feature film Bleak Moments. She was also in Leigh's TV play Hard Moments.

David Thewlis

David Thewlis in Naked

David Thewlis worked with Mike Leigh in Life is Sweet and Naked.

Sally Hawkins

Sally Hawkins

Sally Hawkins has worked with Mike Leigh in All or Nothing, Vera Drake and most recently Happy-Go-Lucky


Happy-Go-Lucky 2008

Vera Drake 2004

All or Nothing 2002

Topsy Turvy 1999

Career Girls1998 (Requires access to JSTOR) 

Secrets and Lies1996

Naked 1993

Life is Sweet 1990

High Hopes1988

Meantime 1983 

Bleak Moments 1971

Trailers From Mike Leigh Films

Secrets & Lies 

Taken from YouTube this an extremely powerful extract of Mike Leigh getting the best out of his actors. Make sure you see this film .


See Entry on Happy-Go-Lucky

Thin Man Films Production company: Mike Leigh & Simon Channing Williams

Mike Leigh and Simon Channing Williams met in 1980. Simon was First Assistant Director on Mike’s BBC film Grown-Ups, starring Brenda Blethyn. They teamed up again when Simon co-produced The Short and Curlies (1987) and High Hopes (1988), both for Portman Productions.

By this time a good worlking relationship was established  a close personal and working relationship so they formed Thin Man Films. Since then Thin Man has made eight successful feature films, Life is Sweet (1990), Naked (1993), Secrets & Lies (1996), Career Girls (1997), Topsy-Turvy (1999), All Or Nothing (2002), Vera Drake (2004) and Happy-Go-Lucky (2008).

Awards to Mike Leigh Films

Secrets & Lies and Topsy-Turvy had nine Oscar nominations between them, Topsy-Turvy winning two.

1996  Secrets & Lies won the Palme d’Or and Best Actress at Cannes. It also won The Golden Lion and the Best Actress at Venice in 2004, as well as six BIFA’s, 3 BAFTA’s including Best Director, and three Oscar nominations

In 1994, Naked won Best Director and Best Actor at Cannes . 

Awards Won by Mike Leigh

  • Fiaf Awards 2005: Premio Fiaf – Mike Leigh
  • Gotham Awards 2004: Lifetime Achievement Award – Mike Leigh
  • Taormina International Film Festival 2002: Taormina Arte Award – Mike Leigh
  • London Critics Circle Film Awards 2000: Dilys Powell Award – Mike Leigh
  • Camerimage 1999: Special Award Best Duo: Director – Cinematographer Mike Leigh / Dick Pope
  • BAFTA 1996: Michael Balcon Award – Mike Leigh
  • Empire Awards 1996: Lifetime Achievement Award – Mike Leigh

The Box Office Gross Takings of Mike Leigh Films to Date. Figures from  Sight & Sound July 2008
Box Office Gross
Opening Screens
Debut Weekend Gross
Vera  Drake 2005
Secrets and Lies


All or Nothing
Life is Sweet

Career Girls


High Hopes

*Still on release

Gross until May 26 2008


Thin Man Films (Mike Leigh's Official Site)

Screenonline biographical notes on Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh interview with Salon

BBC4 Interview with Mike Leigh interviewed by Isobel Hilton (There are several short downloadable audio interviews available here) 

Mike Leigh at the NFT

Leigh hits out at UK film industry

Mike Leigh live on Film Unlimited

BBC interview with Leigh on All or Nothing

Guardian interview with Mike Leigh on winning the Palme d'or with Secrets and Lies (1996)

Mike Leigh could be only holder of awards at Venice, Berlin and Cannes. Guardian  Feb 2008

New Statesman on Leigh's Happy-go-Lucky

Guardian Review of Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh: Britain's Bergman

Mike Leigh on Humphrey Jennings

Telegraph on Mike  Leigh's Happy-go-Lucky

Independent: How Meeting Mike Leigh Raised Sally Hawkins' Game

Euroscreenwriters Interview with Mike Leigh

Screenonline: Mike Leigh on TV

Screening the Past : Review of The Films of Mike Leigh: embracing the World

Mike Leigh awarded a Doctorate by Essex University. (Full list of awards available here)

Johnathan Romney Independent 2008: Leigh Interview


Clements, Paul. 1983. The Improvised Play. London: Methuen

Coveney, Michael.1996. The World According to Mike Leigh. London: HarperCollins

Movshovitz, Howie (ed.)2000.  Mike Leigh Interviews. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi,

Quant & Carney. 2000. The Films of Mike Leigh. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

Raphael, Amy.ed. 2008. Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh. London: Faber and Faber

Watson Gary: The Cinema of Mike Leigh: A Sense of the Real


Ken Loach

Ken Loach (1936-  )

(Please note this is a relaunch of an old page although there are some additions. The relaunch was due to an inadvertant mistake in constructing the original page that I couldn't get out of the code. This meant search engines were not searching for the term Ken Loach, which wasn't very useful. You live and learn:-( )


Films of Ken Loach Cover


Along with many other British director entries this entry is 'work in progress' nevertheless it will provide a basic signposting to other available resources on the web in the first instance until I'm able to make a fuller evaluation and provide fuller articles on the separate films.

From the perspective of examining and analysing the trials and tribulations, successes and failures, weakness and strengths of contemporary British cinema the films of Ken Loach are important ones to think about.

Ken Loach has been a major force in British filmmaking since the 1960s. Loach comes out of a strong tradition of British social realism which almost inevitably is a broadly left-wing cinema which also has crossovers with classic TV dramas. Kathy Come Home was a groundbreaking TV drama which helped to establish the charity Shelter and exposed the failures of the welfare state in providing good housing for all at the time. Loach also made early episodes of 'Z' Cars for TV and Up the Junction, in 1965. A powerful TV play. Much of this work depicted another side to Britain in the 1960s which is now remembered more nostaligically as the "Swinging Sixties". In fact there was considerable poverty and exploitation of working class tenants at the time. Work by people like Loach at the time applied pressure upon the Labour governemnt under Harold Wilson to invest more money in social policy initiatives such as housing and at the same time contributed to an increasing discourse of meritocracy within the country.    

All this work led to Loach being able to make feature films of which Kes about a working class boy in the North of England is probably his best known early work and has been ranked as the seventh most popular British film ever. The working class were rarely represented in a non patronising way within British cinema up until this time although the work of the British social realist movement had begun to change this.

Loach is still a powerful force in Brish and European cinema continuing to win prizes and gain recognition despite the fact that the content of his films is challenging and critical of many different aspects of contemporary society or challenging recieved version of historical events such as The Spanish Civil War and Britain's role in Ireland after the First World War.

Class and Representation in Contemporary Britain

At a time when class politics has been largely relegated to the margins Loach manages to interweave class issues with history, globalisation and its effects on locality by representing the everyday. The strengths of Loach's cinematic approach can be seen in his concerns to represent aspects of Britain which are often underrepresented. Although his film The Navigators  made for Channel Four focused upon the plight of a largely white British working class which was under attack from the Thatcher government that was restructuring the Railways Loach has begun to deal with complex issues of fragmented identities which have regional, gender and ethnic concerns dynamically interwoven in hybridsing patterns. 

Loach has always had a central concern in his film-making agenda which an exposure of the poor and exploited of the world in both contemporary and historical settings. Following on from the British social realist tradition of representing regionalism as well as class, films such as Ae Fond Kiss and Sweet Sixteen have taken on board the complex issues of identity in the contemporary world from a grassroots perspective. See Representing Changing Britain: Ethnicity and Hybridity.

Loach has also successfully taken on board important historical themes which often get ignored by the mainstream which tends to celebrate great historically periods such as Elizabethan times in Britain. Loach's prizewinning Land and Freedom represented some of the realities behind the Spanish Civil War which was an important prelude to the opening of the Second World War itself. more recently Loach made the prizewinning The Wind That Shakes the Barley which dealt with the  notoriously cruel  period of British and Irish history which saw  the inception of the Black and Tans  terrorising the  Irish population in a battle of independence. Atall times Loach takes a different perspective on aspects of life and history which often go unnoticed and unrepresented in mainstream media. Loach's critical perspective often makes it difficult to see his films in the multiplexes in Britain and in terms of box office takings his films often do better in continental Europe than in cinemas here. TV and DVD sales and a loyal continental following help ensure that Loach is able to the raise the money for new critical projects. Inevitably they are low budget and have little money for marketing campaigns. As such they represent the ongoing struggle if British and other national cinemas who are always under threat from the Hollywood industrial machine.

Ae Fond Kiss deals with changing concepts of ethnicity and celebrates the dynamism and natural hybridity of many people who dare to cross social and cultural boundaries in pursuit of their own happiness. Loach does an important job here for it is these people who are building the Britain of the future. This makes it a useful film to study as well.

It is difficult to classify Loach's films precisely becuase he seeks to look at the world through a different mental lens. One can look at Ae Fond Kiss and classify it as within the 'romantic' genre for example but it is rather more than that and would disappoint those who went along thinking they were going to see a standardised romance as structured within the genre conventions.

To look at the content of Loach's films, think about the way they are made - often reliant upon non-professional actors, and with an improvisatory method of engaging with the actors, and to relate their relationship to the systems of distribution and exhibition allows - indeed forces one take a critical perspective upon many different aspects of life. They are low budget films and indeed Loach prefers it like this. He and his teams have a far greater control over the content and the way they develop their own personal vision but they are not 'Art' films with a capital A because their aesthetic is easy to recognise amongst the desired working class audience. It is a pity that Loach has difficulty in reaching this audience through the cinema.  

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006)

(Trailer available here)

Although Ken Loach is one of Britain's most respected film makers getting to see his films in a cinema in the UK is a difficult affair even when they gain critical accolades as did The Wind that Shakes the Barley which won the Palme d'Or the top prize at Cannes 2006 which is the most prestigious film festival in the world (Oscars have more glam,cash and celebrity but Cannes is for good, challenging and interesting films).

When an acclaimed, leftist English director makes a film about nationalist Irish struggles – and wins the top prize at the Cannes festival – controversy is inevitable. The historian Stephen Howe looks behind the shouting to ask: is the film truthful? (Stephen Howe Open Democracy article.)

We know there is something deeply wrong with the British film industry as a whole when this sort of situation is happening. Here we need to consider and come up with different models of distribution and exhibition as an urgent matter of cultural policy to deal with the creatively choking (and polluting) control of the multiplexes

In this film Loach examines a broader historical theme which is something he has done previously in Land and Freedom about the Spanish Civil War. Loach has the ability to move from the micro of the quotidian looking at the trials, tribulations and frustrations of the everyday for working class people to important periods of history which are often obscured by various ideological and political issues of the present. There are few British films which take a critical look at the role of Britain in Irish history for example. 

This film is a useful one to study as a part of issues and debates in contemporary British cinema both from the perspective of its content and also the highly contradictory situation of the film not being widely celebrated within the cinema system itself.  

It's a Free World (2007)

For a more in depth article please see It's a Free World on this blog. For a discussion about the underlying socio-economic processes that Loach is representing see also entry on Globalisation on this blog.

Again this is a prize winning film gaining an important award at the prestigious Venice Film Festival of Best Screenplay, Venice Film Festival 2007 as well as Best Film, Seville Film Festival 2007

"Osella" for Paul Laverty at Venice Film Festival:
"It's a Free World" wins "Best Screenplay"

(Sept. 9th 2007) Paul Laverty won the "Osella" for the Best Screenplay for "It's a Free World" (directed by Ken Loach) at this year's Venice Film Festival. Besides the drama was awarded with a EIUC Human Rights Film Award and got a special mention a the Signis Awards.

It's A Free World Trailer

Below interview with Ken Loach conducted in Italian. (Loach's comments are being translated)

Review from Amanda Palmer of It's a Free World as part of a film review programme from Al Jazeera


Its a Free World 2007

The Wind That Shakes The Barley 2006

Tickets (with Abbas Kiarostami, Ermanno Olmi) 2005

Ae Fond Kiss 2003 

Sweet Sixteen; 11'09'01 - September 11 (segment) 2002

The Navigators 2001

Bread and Roses 2000

My Name is Joe 1998

Carla's Song 1996

Land and Freedom 1995

Ladybird, Ladybird 1994

Raining Stones 1993

Riff Raff 1991

Hidden Agenda 1990

Fatherland 1986

Looks and Smiles 1982

Black Jack 1979

Family Life 1971

Kes 1969

Poor Cow 1967


Screenonline biographical notes on Ken Loach (There are many associated links to films on this page)

Sweet Sixteen Films (Home page of Ken Loach and Rebecca O'Brien Production Company)

Observer report on It's a Free World

Socialist worker interview with Ken Loach about Its a Free World

European Films.Net Review of It's a Free World

Reuters Report on It's a Free World 

A different Reuters Report on It's a Free World

Guardian interview with Loach and Laverty at the Southbank

Independent Review of It's a Free World

Fujifilm PDF on Its a Free World. (Excellent images on this)

Loach makes union workers aware of wider issues attending screening for Unison branch 

BBC Story: Loach slams "Hollywood bias"

BBC on Cannes success of Sweet Sixteen

BBC Loach Criticises British Film Makers for Hollywood Dreams

MEDIA support in Production (Industrial context)

Timesonline: Eric Cantona and Ken Loach team up for football film

Films of Loach and Garnett, fudge e.Jumpcut

Euroscreenwriter interview with Ken Loach

Senses of Cinema Ken Loach

Observer Arts column on Cannes and Loach April 2008

Guardian:  'Come out Fighting'. 2006 on Wind That Shakes the Barley

Cineaste: The Revolution Betrayed. Interview with Loach

An Phoblacht on Wind That Shakes the Barley


Leigh, Jacob.(2002). The Cinema of Ken Loach: Art in the Service of the People. Wallflower Press

Ken Loach: Which Side Are You On? Ken Loach and His Films By Anthony Hayward ISBN: 9780747574125

Film Availability : The following Ken Loach films are currently available

ae_fond_kiss_cover.jpg Family Life DVD cover Hidden Agenda DVD cover its_a_free_world_dvd_cover.jpg Ken Loach Collection Vol 1 Ken Loach Collection Vol 2Kes DVD Cover Poor Cow DVD Cover Sweet Sixteen DVD cover The Navigators DVD Cover wind_that_shakes_the_barley_dvd_cover.jpg Land and Freedom DVD Cover



August 31, 2008

Happy–Go–Lucky(2008): Mike Leigh

Happy-Go-Lucky(2008): Mike Leigh

Return to Mike Leigh Page

Return to Contemporary British Cinema Hub

Trailer for Happy-Go-Lucky from YouTube 


I have just got the DVD of this film and sadly I wasn't too impressed despite generally liking the films of Mike Leigh. I have included a short synopsis of the reviews of other critics reactions to the film's theatrical release and have saved my own brief review until the end.

Synopis and Comment

Mike Leigh's latest film Happy-Go-Lucky is now on general release. It has proved successful in the recent Berlin film festival with Sally Hawkins who plays the lead role of Poppy picking up a Silver Bear. The film is promoted as a comedy drama which focuses upon the character of Poppy a London based 30 year old single primary school teacher. Poppy is a a cosmopolitan urbanite who takes life lightly but seriously. In fact she is "absurdly cheery" (McNab) in the face of life's minor set-backs such as getting her bicycle stolen. (Surely not a reference to Bicycle Thieves.)

Despite this 'comic' (idiotic?) side to her and the ability to be comic in the face of adversity is balanced with her commitment to good teaching and a stated concern about issues such as children 'playing too much on video-games' (Hopefully Leigh isn't contributing to moral panics about children's media consumption here). 

Happ go Lucky 1

Dave Calhoun in a Sight and Sound feature (May 08) has commented that Poppy, the central character of the film, needs to be analysed in relation to the Zeitgeist when as viewers we consider her actions and behaviour. He quotes an interview with Mike Leigh:

I don't think Happy-Go-Lucky is any less political than my other films... its as much about dealing with life and coping with issues as anything I've made.

If it is a Zeitgeist film Leigh would argue it represents a humanistic solidarity with fellow beings at a time when in a post-political (in a party sense) world there is little else one can do. After all it's hard to rise above the cynicism and disappointment displayed by an older man of late sixties in the bank in front of me expressing his horror at how the banks had been bailed out by a Labour government of all things. Well Poppy is clearly a survivor in a topsy turvy world. Calhoun describes Poppy as:

...a modern, urban woman, as comfortable with her friends as with her family, able to balance pleasure with work, and confidant in being single while retaining romantic ideals. 

Importantly Calhoun is pointing out that underneath Poppy's extremely lively 'in yer face' character there is an issue of whether she is repressing something or trying to compensate for a fundamental insecurity.  Many critics have described this as a comedy and then argued that this is a change of heart from Leigh who is often held up as a "miserablist".

Leigh comments that the structure is different to his other films in that there is really no parallel narrative unfolding:

The only thing that makes this film unique apart from two tiny scenes, there's no parallel action. The entire action focuses on what's happening to Poppy, whereas even in Naked there's a lot going on with other characters.

This change in narrative structuring is a significant break from Leigh's normal working practices where he tends to work in a semi-improvised way with the actors who are often only introduced to the turns in events in the story as they would happen to the character in real life.  It is an important break for as Leigh points out:

Rather than a causal narrative, here I'm more concerned with a cumulative narrative that evokes an atmosphere and evokes Poppy's spirit. 

The review in Sight and Sound by Geoffrey McNab makes the important comparison between the picture postcard London promoted by Working Title produced films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral or Notting Hill. Unlike these films Leigh notes the racism and also the racial and ethnic complexity of London. This makes a film which is giving a more honest representation of Britain rather than being a film which is a cultured British pearl for the American market, this is 'True Grit' one might say.

McNab makes a comparison between the permanently ebullient Poppy and Vera Drake in Leigh's film Vera Drake. For him there is a certain näivety yet ability to empathise with people common to both characters. At the same time Poppy appears to want to avoid responsibility. This is sharply pointed up when her pregnant sister Helen who is less than satisfied with her lot pressurises Poppy about marriage and a family: Poppy though, is having none of it. This would appear to be the Zeitgeist, if you can't change much better to think about the present than the future. Is this a Leigh critique of the postmodern condition?

Happy go lucky 4

Not everybody agrees with David Calhoun's interpretations of Mike Leigh and his approaches to this film and others in his oeuvre. The 'Letter of the Month' in the July issue of Sight and Sound is scathingly critical of Leigh:

Happy Go Lucky is about as accurate a study of British society as Four Weddings and a Funeral (David Secombe Sight & Sound July 2008 p 96)

Secombe continues arguing that Leigh is a middle class film maker making films for the middle classes. He bases the argument on the notions that Poppy is nothing like any primary school teacher despite the fact that:

...her overall presentation is intrinsically immature and occasionally suggests that she may be in need of remedial attention herself.

After spending some time commenting on what a change this makes for Mike Leigh the "miserabilist" the Channel Four reviewer sees the film in a rather less misanthropic light:

Poppy is the perfect primary school teacher. Her character's realism is found in memories of that supply teacher everyone once had, when their regular and boring teacher got pregnant or went to Pompeii, the one who let you do projects on space aliens and collect woodlice. Yet somehow you remember every word she said while the rest of those years are a Tudors-and-fractions blur.

The Telegraph reviewer argues that:

Leigh [admits that he] set himself a challenge: to make Poppy initially irritating, and then to allow her goodness to win audiences round. He embarks on this task subtly.

The divergence of opinions can perhaps be put down to everybody's memories of primary school teachers.  Remember to bring yur memories with you when you get to the the film. I can't say I've really considere Leigh as a miserabilist anyway rather more an astutue observer who works in a sort of 'tragicomedy of the quotidian'.


When it come to thinking about the state of British cinema in general the interview with Calhoun ends with some thoughts about what Leigh would like to make in the future. He expresses frustration with the fact that he can only access budgets of 5-6 million. Talking about a desire to use a larger canvas his metaphor becomes very obvious when he talks about wishing to make a film about Turner, nobody, he says is interested.  He admits that his ways of working haven't proved attractive to financiers and here one is remonded of Godard's Le Mepris with its ironic critique of an American producer trying to work in sex at the right point to make the film sell. Godard's film of course ended up a long way from what was being expected by his producers. 

Strange that in these days when appaerently the notion of 'cultural industries' is accompanied by notions of getting British identity up and running again that it appears to be impossible for a well respected film maker to be able to make a film about an iconic and extremly important painter. Turner certainly preceded the French Impressionists when is came to being modern as he applied some of Goethe's theories of colour into his work amongst other things but then of course the Olympics in already into its expected tripled cost overrun, which will doubtless keep the consultants happy if not the taxpayer. As for Mike Leigh making a film on Turner.....  

Special Preview Performance Q & A with Mike Leigh on Happy-go-Lucky

DVD Review

Having summarised some of the issues around Happy-go-Lucky identified by other reviewers when the film had a thaetrical release I have now had a chance to view the recently released DVD. I must say I found the film extremely disappointing. Admittedly I have high expectations for mike Leigh films and Abigail's Party (TV Play), Meantime, Secrets and Lies & Vera Drake are outstanding examples of his oeuvre over the years. This film bored and irritated me in roughly equal amounts.

There were some splendid examples of Leigh at his best when he brings a sense of shock to the actors which tranmits itself onto the screen because of the way he works. The Flamenco teacher was splendid, the scene at the house of Poppy's sister Helen worked brilliantly and the Eddie Marsden driving instructor was generally excellent.

By comparison the character of Poppy quite simply didn't add up. There is a difference between being 'happy-go-lucky' and a complete airhead. For most of the film Poppy was a complete immature airhead. There was a clear disjunction between Poppy as represented in her professional life as a primary school teacher and her life outside. There has been much made of Poppy's warmth, empathy etc by Leigh & Hawkins in interviews on the DVD as well as by some of the reviewers above. I totally don't buy into this idea at all.

Poppy is intensely irritating, unserious in terms of her own future and unserious when she takes the role of a student. She is a total clown in both the Flamenco class and in the driving lessons. Far from being warm and empathetic she is totally self-obsessed and I find it hard to disagree with the comments from the letter of the month in Sight and Sound

...her overall presentation is intrinsically immature and occasionally suggests that she may be in need of remedial attention herself.

Whilst Leigh makes a virtue of there being non-parallel actions within the narrative and a lack of causality this would be fine if the scenes such as the one with the tramp actually advanced some depth of character. The scene with the tramp is totally artificial. Poppy is going down a rough looking street at night and then hears some drunken singing offscreen. she follows this sound into a derelict factory which is apparently open to all the world and finds a tramp behind a pillar. no-one in thier right mind would have domne this in the first place as it wouldn't have been possible to see properly. Later in the scene after the tramp has changed positions there appear to security lights blasting out in the same derelict factory. OK so McNab's point that this isn't the tourist gaze of London is correct but this representation of the seamy side doesn't really come across well.

From the outset Poppy is the sort of person you want to shake some sense into. Her visit to the bookshop in the opening scenes represents her as a complete idiot. She displayed no interest in any books whatsoever and seemed intent on trying out some light flirting with the bloke running the shop who was entirely bored by her. Poppy's playing with chicken fillets as breast enhancers with her mates after the night club when they carried on drinking to the point of stupefaction is clearly what we expect from 30 year old professionals. What was more astounding if not surrealistic was the ability of her and her friends to make miraculous recoveries after a heavy night.  Poppy was a complete idiot when she got into the car for the first time with the driving instructor and carried on being an idiot. Poppy was also a complete clown when she turned up at the Flamenco sessions. This kind of a approach is unlikely to say the least from someone who is a practitioner in the educational system. She was behaving throughout like an immature office worker with no education at all and flirting with all and sundry. Had she not been a primary school teacher then the character added up, but Leigh by wanting to have it both ways and giving Poppy hidden depths in her professional life ends with a character that makes it impossible to suspend disbelief. Meet her in a pub and you'd probably be bored out of your head in two minutes. No she wasn't a malicious character but so what?

Even when there is a danger of Poppy entering serious discussions, such as when discussing the issue of children and video games or issues of parental responsibility for their children after a hard day at work, she skims the surface. The scene in Helen's house was sterotypical in terms of its content, with the sort of sharp binary positions being displayed which might have shocked in a 1960s play but just seem old hat nowadays. Poppy defends her freedoms from being tied down with a house and children against her sister who seems to be stuck out in an amorphous suburbia and is nearly 9 months pregnant. Helen is even made to act like a 70 something year old as is made up and dressed in an appropriate manner which again just didn't gel. Poppy even scorns a pension, except that as a teacher she would get a pension deducted from her salary anyway. Inexact detail lke this irritated.

In the past Leigh has been a master at creating quirky characters but believable ones not -as a correspondent in the September letters column of Sight and Sound suggests - surreal characters. People do not behave like automatons and Leigh has brought out this aspect of life significantly in the past. Leigh is associated with realism rather than naturalism but it has been a realism at the micro level which has focused upon the the dynamics of relationships between people and their individual choices rather than a realism such as Loach's which is always trying to strip bare the surface of the social world and identify and challenge what the structuring agencies within society are.

For me Poppy just didn't add up as a character. Her liberal ideas seemed to be without foundation and it is hard to believe that a person who had worked her way around the World as a teacher with sessions in Vietnam and sometimes classes of 60 wouldn't by the age of 30 have some deeper things to say. At times too there was a sort of faux-naivety in her dealings with other people. Far form being warm and empathetic she totally fails to understand the driving instructor, and the scene with the physiotherapist was ridiculous. Her flirty innuendos are fine coming from an 18 year old but they just made Poppy look stupid.  Does the argument that Leigh is a surrealist save this film by giving it a different reading? I don't think so. Certainly Leigh is able to appreciate the surreality of the quotidian but the defense that Leigh and Hawkins put up in defence of Poppy's character scupper this idea from the outset.

In the end this film was disappointing and frequently bordered on the vacuous despite being interspersed with some good sections. The films of Leigh's that I'm familair with and mentioned above are far more worthwhile and it is worth adding High Hopes to the list as well. I'm a little surprised that the reviewers have been as soft on the film as they have. Maybe I'm turning into a complete misanthrope but I can't remember anything in it which struck me as funny. This isn't to say that there wasn't an enormous amount of skill and effort involved. Hawkins was great at making you sqirm, its just that the character as originally conceived didn't gel leaving an impossible task for the actor. There is nothing very satisfactory in this film in terms of the relationships. The central interaction between Poppy and the driving instructor was also difficult to buy into, if you have ever actually taught anybody to drive. The best one can say of this was that it was a representation of post-modern pap skimming the surface and skittering onto the next thing, certainly it lacked depth despite sympathetic reviewers trying to root it out.  There are quite literally hundreds of good films to see and spend time and money on, sadly this wasn't one of them.


Independent review Johnathan Romney

Independent Sarah Sands on Happy-Go-Lucky

Sally Hawkins on meeting with Mike Leigh  

BBC on Happy-Go-Lucky with video interview available.  

Return to Mike Leigh Page

August 26, 2008

Channel 4 Films / Film Four

Channel 4 Films

(For other case study work please go to Working Title)

Return to British Cinema Hub


When Channel Four became the fourth terrestrial channel in 1982 (the only channels you could get then were BB1, BBC 2 & ITV) it had a brief for commissioning and showing a range of cutting edge materials which were very different to what was being shown on other channels. British film became a huge beneficiary of this policy and many films were made which appealed to quite different audiences. Many of these films became some of the best known and most financially successful films in British cinema since 1982.  This shows what a powerful influence C4 has had over the long term as it has now been operating for over 25 years. By 1984 C4 had co-produced over 20 feature films for the special slot Film on Four.

Because there was a guaranteed TV premiere for these films they could afford to take more risks in terms of both their content and their treatment of this than mainstream films. Nevertheless few of the films were about contemporary Britain. Alexander Walker (2004) correctly identifies The Ploughman's Lunch (1983) as a film which was more critical of the trends within the Thatcher government of the time to which could be added Mike Leigh's Meantime (1983) which deals with a dysfunctional London based family with everybody in it on the Dole (Income support rather than gainfully employed). this had great resonance at the time given that unemployment in the UK was approaching the 3 million mark under the Thatcher government.

Channel Four Films and the Industrial Context

In terms of costs C4 films were typically £500k-£600k at the top end, this compared with conventionally funded feature films of the time which typically cost around £3-4 million. (Walker 2004). C4 films proved attractive to filmmakers and producers because until 1985 there was a generoius system of tax write offs against production costs in which costs could be written off against profits straight away whilst films not initially targetted at TV had their cost written off over several years. This meant that in terms of risks and returns for investors funding C4 films was much lower risk in a high risk business. The Nigel Lawson budget of 1985 was to reduce this tax shelter as the government sought to ensure it got its share form the film-making business.

Whilst film-makers enjoyed the tax write offs they wanted to have their cake and eat it by having the films given a theatrical release in the cinemas first of all. Many wanted an 18 month to two year window for cinema release however David Rose the commissioning editor for fiction at Channel 4 correctly felt that this wouldn't allow C4 to build up its audiences. The reality was that these films even when they did get theatrical release didn't enter into the mainstream anyway usually being released in a small number of cinemas which were identified with the Art House circuit. From the perspective of many in the audience this acted as an artificial ckoke on the market and represented greed from the investors by tryng to squeeze every last penny out of audiences. The problem for C4 was also that the freshness and sense of the contemporary would inevitably be watered down if audiences had to wait. They might even lose interest in the film.  As a result few films had theatrical release and those that did had very limited ones. At this time there was still considerable friction between the film and TV industries. Cinema was very defensive about its major circuits of distribution and exhibition which is where the real money has been made in cinema. The distributors wanted to keeep films off TV for three years and only in the case of commercial flops were they prepared to allow them onto TV inunder three years.

Channel four was badly effected by this industry restriction on trade practices. An example cited by Walker (2004) concerns She'll be Wearing Pink Pajamas (1984) starring Julie Walters. Walters had starred in the very successful film Educating Rita (1983) only the previous year a film which she is still rembered for and consequently her fees had gone up considerably.   C4 had put up all the funding for this film coming to £950k, whilst they had planned an initial theatrical release they had intended to release it on TV as soon as possible in order to recoup their very high overheads against tax. Sadly they were unable to follow this release strategy and the film didn't justify its costs.  This is a good example of the British film industry cutting its own throat when it comes to investment in genuinely British films rather than what are effectively Hollywood ones.

During the mid 1980s the costs of video recorders was coming down considerably as was the cost of films on video and by 1990 most homes had a video-recorder. The rise of video rental shops was an important phenomena and this began to undermine the distribution industries stranglehold on film release. Piracy and fear of piracy within the industry meant films became generally available to audiences much more quickly at at more reasonable prices than before. When videos were first made of Hollywood films they cost around £50-00 each at 1980 prices.

Channel Four had been established with the aim of getting many programmes either by commisioning or buying in programmes from other companies rather than producing its programmes in house which was what both ITV and the BBC did. By 1987 24% of C4 programming was externally produced and films were a large part of this 24%. C4 had an ambitious target of co-producing 20 films per year which was beyond the resources of any other film making companies in the UK. According to Walker (2004) it had a budget of £6 million to spend on fully or part financing films. It typically invested between £250k - £300k per film buyijng in the TV rights. C4 also invested £750k per year in British Screen Finance  and another £500k per year in the BFI Production Board.  One of C4 first films The Draughtsman's  Contract (1982) was a co-production with the BFI Production Board . In the case of the last two investments funds were matched by the government which provided extra stimulaus to the industry.

By the end of 1987 C4 was producing 17/28 films per year on a £9.5 million budget. Very few of the films directly recovered their costs and to all intents and ourposes C4 remained an 'art-house' producer as the films weren't reaching mass popular audiences they had on the other hand established a good rapport with more specific audiences and can be used as an example of how audiences were beginning to fragment as more media products became available. The breakthrough films for C4 were My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), Letter to Brehznev (1985) Mona Lisa (1986). A useful boost was that these films also found an alternative audience in the United States.

By 1989 the bonanza for the film industry through TV funded film was beginning to dry up. Channel reduced its financial committment to film making reducing its annual production target down to 16 films and capping its financial committment to any one film to one third of the overall costs. The head of film at Channel Four David Rose was about to retire. He had had a considerable influence on the success of C4 Film with about £50 million spent on around 160 films up until this point. Many in the British film industry were critical of the C4 approach arguing that the small scale cutting edge film that C4 had built its reputation around was dead. They further argued that C4 had not acted as the launchpad for British cinema which they had expected instead film makers still had to find a considerable amount of finance for themselves. In all honesty this sounded like the carping on of filmmakers eager to break into the Hollywood market and get themselves fame and fortune. Pure greed and overblown egos and the hubris which has seemingly beeen present in the British film industry for decades. In the first instance if the ideas for British films were so good why shouldn't they go out and sell it to find the financial backing? People in other types of business do this all the time. Rather than looking to the amazing effect that C4 had in stimulating a distincly British type of film which was representing aspects of British society greed was the driver of these criticisms.

Walker (2004) suggests that many in the British film industry including the likes of David Puttnam and Working Title (the production company which had grown dramatically on the back of Film Four) were impatient for the bigger budget more ambitious films. TV financed films were too small in their cope and their appeal so the argument went.

Despite this criticism one Film Four success of the time was Riff-Raff (1991). There was a huge debate about whether this film should receive a theatrical release at the time. Eventually the BFI arranged some limited screenings and then Palace Pictures screened it in a range of university / art house cinemas around the country. It reached around 200 screens out of the 3,000 available in the country at the time. Walker is keen to point out the problems that independent British films had in Britian compared to releases in continental Europe:

In Europe where a culture of exhibition existed and was valued, Loach's film was a popular success, ahcieved full-scale releases in several countries and won the new European Film Award in 1992 (Walker, 2004 p 122)

In 1991  C4 decided to back the Crying Game (1992) as a co-production with Palace Pictures (Stephen Woolley) along with Miramax run by the Weinstein's. it was also backed by British screen. Overall it had what Walker described as 'an anorexic budget of £2.3 million' (Walker, 2004 p 149).

Successes of the Early Years of C4 Films: Developing New Audiences

Films that were especially successful in the early years of C4 were Letter to Brehznev (1985) and My Beautiful Laundrette (1985). My Beautiful Laundrette was a seminal film of the mid 1980s for it brought the mischievous and iconoclastic scriptwriting of Hanif Kureishi into the public eye as well as proving successful for director Stephen Frears and actor Daniel Day Lewis.

These were films that touched contemporary critical audiences in the 20 something to 30 something age ranges especially. Kureishi had been brought up on the back of sixties hippiedom then the punk rebellion and then Ken Livingstone's first GLC which had promoted festivals, events and activities by the ANL, Rock Against Racism, feminist organisations and Gay Pride. The concept of cultural industries was also developed. London and young audiences especially in larger cities around the country were keen on seeing the representations and contradictions concerning hybridity and identity which people of a critical nature were keen on debating, discussing and acting out at the time. My Beautiful Laundrette was followed up by C4 and Kureishi a couple of years later with Sammie & Rosie Get Laid (1987). Again directed by Frears and scripted by Kureishi it failed to touch the cultural moment in the way that My Beautiful Laundrette had done but at least Asian identity was now recognised in British cinema. Before My Beautiful Laundrette a large percentage of the British population  went largely unrepresented in the media. There can be little doubt that C4 Film made a significant contribution in this respect.

The 1990s under David Aukin

By 1992 the succession from David rose to David Aukin had been completed. Channel 4 had increased its average contribution to the financing of films to over 40% "but only because costs had risen, not due to optimism" asserted Alexander Walker (2004 p 154). The cost of a typical Channel Four film had risen from £400k in 1982 to £1.8 million. So much for Thatcher's stance against inflation or was it the greed of filmmakers and others in the industry which caused this 4.5 fold increase over a ten year period? Walker's explanation doesn't really add up here. However by this date C4 had part-funded nearly 250 films which is an excellent record.

It was still associated with more radical and alternative film-making for it co-produced Derek Jarman's Wittgenstein with the BFI Production Board. The film was produced by Tariq Ali and the script was written by Terry Eagleton. In 1994 C4 backed Shopping which was pitched to them as a film made with the stylishness of Luc Besson. 1994 also saw C4 become involved in part backing The Madness of King George. It starred Nigel Hawthorn and Helen Mirren and was an excellent history film which also benefitted from crossing over with costume drama thus fitting the heritage genre. However the film was dealing with an unusual and turbulent period of British history and didn't simply celebrate the successes of Britain in the past. It was a much more expensive film than was usual with its budget running in the region of £13 million. It gained good distribution in the USA and turned out to be a profitable film.

The sort of films that C4 was involved with through commissioning and / or co-production deals include
Trainspotting and Four Weddings and a Funeral. Both of these films were hugely successful although appealing to very different audiences. Trainspotting was a low budget film based upon the book of the same name which had carved itself a good niche audience. It was co-produced with Working Title and backed by the powerful Polygram filmed entertainment department. Polygram put some canny marketing into the film. Knowing it would appeal to ravers and clubbers they focused their marketing on this large niche audience which proved highly successful. As a result the film gained distribution in the USA as well although it did need sub-titles there. Four Weddings and a Funeral was a clever production which played upon aspects of national identity successfully including Scotland, however moving renderings of a W. H. Auden poem provided a double theme of national and gay identity, and the film played upon the 'naice' elements of Britishness rather than focusing upon the sort of aspects of British society apparent in Shopping and Trainspotting (ram-raiding and heroin addiction respectively). With a continuing well handled light-hearted romantic comedy audiences were won over on both sides of the Atlantic by its feel-good factor making all concerned large amounts of money and providing the breakthrough film for Hugh Grant as the quintessential 'English Gentleman'.

Channel Four Films and the Representation of Cultural Hybridity

Channel Four has had a very progressive policy when it comes to helping to fund films - and guaranteeing a scrrening of these films -  representing relatively recently ethnic groupings in the UK. These films have been far more than just about separate communities which early multicultural ideas were concerned with. The films commisioned explored and developed ideas of cultural hybridity in which there was mixing and exchange of ideas and attitudes in a complex way. My Beautiful Laundrette launched this approach which was followed by Bahji on the Beach, The Wild West and perhaps most successfully East is East which was the first British film representing hybrid and ever changing cultural and social mix in Britain to make it into mainstream multiplex cinemas. Recently Film four produced the BAFTA prizewinning film Brick Lane (2007) directed by Sarah Gavron. In this respect Channel Four has played a groundbreaking role taking a lead in developing this theme for over twenty years. It also screened the film Yasmin when it failed to gain a cinema distribution deal in 2004. As well as extending the ways in which British society is represented Channel four has thus sought to develop and win over entirely new audiences who are foar mor hybrid and cosmopolitan in their world view. It is not unreasonable to suggests that out of all the  film making institutions  operating in Britain since 1982 -when the Channel Four film arm was initiated- Channel Four has been by far and away the best in this respect. In that sense its committment to the public service broadcasting ethos perhaps means that it has earned the right to gain some of TV licence fee payers money.

1999 Film Four Dominates at Cannes

The late 1990s saw many changes in the structure of the film section of Channel Four.  FilmFour separated from Channel 4 to become a stand-alone company in 1998 (Guardian July 2002). By 1999 Film Four was at the top of its game with nine films were officially selected for the Cannes Film Festival that year although some of these were American. By the late 1990s Film Four was building on its successes but also responding to changes in the structure of TV in the UK which had seen the launch of Channel Five a few years previously and increasing numbers of digital satellite channels becoming available via Sky.  This led on to more changes  in 2001 & 2003:

In 1998 FilmFour, a specialist subscription film channel, was launched.... and in April 2001... FilmFour World and FilmFour Extreme, two further film channels, available to subscribers to FilmFour. These channels were available on ITV Digital but are not carried by Freeview, a wholly free-to-air proposition. In 2003 Film Four World and Extreme were replaced by Film Four Weekly... In May 2001 Channel 4 formally launched a new incorporated company, 4 Ventures Ltd, to manage all its film, learning and other new business activities. (ITC [now Ofcom] on C4 history)

Problems at Film Four

One of FilmFour's biggest problems has been competing for cinema space with multinational film companies, whose films account for more than two thirds of UK box office takings. FilmFour blames the poor box office results on its lack of clout in the distribution market rather than the quality of its films. (BBC on Film Four Partner Search)

2001 turned out to be rather a problematic year for Film Four. Charlotte Gray contributed to a £5.7 million loss as it was one of the most expensive films thay had made and it was a box office flop. Ever since it has become remembered for causing major financial problems at Film four however the problems were more deepseated than that.

In 2001, Film Four put out 14 films, but its releases accounted for just 0.7% of the UK box office market. (ibid)

By 2006 Film four was struggling. Its business model of pay TV on a subscription basis wasn't working, Andy Duncan C4's chief Executive announced:

The people who make money in terms of pay channels tend to be the platform owners or big rights holders. The subscriber levels that we have been getting [for FilmFour] have been very low. We believe we can make money from advertising," (Guardian report)

The actual relaunch came in July as the BBC reports:

In the process it will become the UK's largest free film channel, available to 18m homes, the broadcaster says.

Around one-quarter of the films shown on the channel will come from the UK, but they will be broken up with advertisements for the first time.

Film 4 currently appears to b doing well now it has migrated to Freeview and has taken to an advrtising model to pay for it.

Timeline of Channel Four / Film Four: Films & Events

Year Event Director of Film Arm Films Produced Director

Launch of Channel Four. A separate film arm Film on Four was established. 

David Rose

The Draughtsman's Contract

Angel (Danny Boy US title)

Peter Greenaway

Neil Jordan



The Ploughman's Lunch

Mike Leigh

Richard Eyre


1985 The Nigel Lawson buget removed the tax shelter for C4 Films.

Letter to Brezhnev

My Beautiful Laundrette

Chris Bernard

Stephen Frears


Mona Lisa


Neil Jordan

Derek Jarman


1988 Lawson economic boom underway

1989 Beginning of downturn in TV financed film


Life is Sweet
Mike Leigh
1991 Recession in UK

Riff Raff
Ken Loach
1992 Britain forced out of the ERM
David Aukin now head of Drama at C4

Bahji on the Beach

The Crying Game

Gurindar Chadha

Neil Jordan



Raining Stones

Derek Jarman

Ken Loach


Four Weddings and a Funeral

Madness of King George


Mike Newell

Nicholas Hytner

Paul Anderson


Shallow Grave
Danny Boyle

Secrets & Lies


Brassed Off

Mike Leigh

Danny Boyle


David Aukin left C4 and went to Miramax Welcome to Sarajevo
Michael Winterbottom
1998 FilmFour separated from Channel 4 to become a stand-alone company in 1998 Paul Webster an ex-vice-president of Miramax was appointed in Aukin's palce in February

Film 4 "dominates Cannes" (Walker 2004 p300)
East is East Damien O'Donnell

Sexy Beast Johnathan Glazer
2001 FilmFour makes loss of £5.4 million

Charlotte Gray

Lucky Break

Gillian Armstrong

Peter Catteano

2002 UK distribution and international sales departments folded.  Film production budget was slashed by two thirds to £10m.  50 staff  axed Paul Webster Chief Exec loses job Once Upon a Time in the Midlands
Shane Meadows

Touching The Void

Bright Young Things

Kevin MacDonald

Stephen Fry



February 8th Film Four leaves pay TV and goes onto Freeview






Film 4 Productions: About

Film 4 Recent Productions

Channel 4 British Documentary Film Foundation

Screenonline Channel Four Films / Film on  Four / Film Four

BritFilm.Org on Channel 4 & Film

BBC 2002 on lossmaking of Film Four

BBC: How Film Four lost the plot (Useful audio clips available here)

BBC 2002 News Story on need for C4 to make cuts and dangers to Film Four

Guardian Story 10th July 2002: Executive goes as Channel 4 pulls plug on ailing FilmFour production arm

Film Four guarantee money back to audiences over Dancer in the Dark if not satisfied after half an hour

Film File Europe: Film Four Production Profile  

BBC Film Collective: The Demise of Film Four

Cast & Crew of My Beautiful Laundrette

Return to British Cinema Hub

(For other case study work please go to Working Title)

August 25, 2008

Somers Town, 2008: Dir: Shane Meadows

Somers Town, 2008: Dir: Shane Meadows

Somers Town 2 Poster

Good to see that Shane Meadows has released another film Somers Town after his success with This is England which successfully represented the feel of the Northern (post)-industrial working class youth in Britain at the time of the Falklands war and its problems of dcoming to terms with identity in this rapidly changing society. Somers Town again  stars Thomas Turgoose who played the pre-teen skinhead in This is England.  I haven't had a chance to see it yet but this time the setting is  London in the Somers Town area which you are unlikely to find on a map of London however it is situated in the St. Pancras / Kings Cross part of London. The film is sponsored by Eurostar and started life as a short which mutated into a full-length feature film.

The film was entirely shot on digital video and is mostly in black and white. It won the Michael Powell award for best new British feature film. Generically it is something of a 'coming of age film' in which Tommo (Thomas Turgoose) is a young runaway from Nottingham.  After some trouble on arrival in London Tommo meets Marek the  son of a Polish construction worker on the rebuild of King's Cross as it turns into the hub for the Eurostar train. It is a story of scams and adventures and there is a love interest over the French waitress Maria in cosmopolitan London. The film is in a much lighter vein than This is England.  The Sight and Sound review  spends a lot of time  drawing comparisons  with  the British film culture of the 'Swinging Sixties' which turned from social realism / kitchen sink drama into a lighter vein via Billy Liar. A slight puzzle in this review is the notion that Thomas Turgoose is:

...a Rita Tushingham for our more tangled times...

I would have thought a Julie Christie might have been a better analogy. In Billy Liar she does make the break to London whilst Billy Liar signally doesn't. Christie's character then tranmutes into the 'Darling' girl in Schlesinger's next film called Darling with Christie's switch to swinging London. Tushingham goes from holding the social realist baby in Tony Richardson's  Taste of Honey to Richard Lester's The Knack which was her switch to the swinging sixties. In terms of directorial interest perhaps  this signals a shift in  Meadows'  approach, for  most of the  social realists of the late fifties early 1960s produced films in a lighter vein later on  but  with  a strong political satirical edge.  Richardson's Tom Jones, and then Charge of the Light Brigade, and Karel Reisz's Morgan a Suitable Case for Treatment and of course Lindsay Anderson's 'If' all moved from the somewhat dour British social realist paradigm for film making to  political satires. By comparison Lester as an American initially linked with the Beatles films came from a rather different background. Here the satire was absent and the films were far more straightforwardly celebratory reflecting a surface mood. Realism of course does try to look under the surface to expose and critique the underlying processes of society.

Certainly the reviews linked to below have quite different takes upon the film. The Independent review is perhaps the most insightful one and isn't afraid to cut through the nostalgia and whimsey which by the sounds of it suffuse the film. If it is more like The Knack than the work of the post-social realist British directors of the 1960s then as the Independent puts it the lack of dramatisation:

...should bother anyone who claims Meadows as one of the great hopes of British film-making.

At this point I'm unable to comment on whether Meadows has managed to bring in some useful insights to bear into the globalised economy which has led to diasporas in the labour markets in a way that Ken Loach did in It's a Free World for example. However these are important issues to bear in mind when viewing Somers Town. Currently analogies to the Knack seem to indicate that Meadows has missed an opportunity here. I shall develop this debate further once I've seen the film. In the meantime hopefully the links will be of use to readers and provoke some general thoughts about issues of representation of the global working class and the role of British cinema within this.

Official Trailer of Somers Town


Sight & Sound review of Somers Town

Shane Meadows' Somers Town takes top Edinburgh award: Guardian June 30th 2008

Guardian Video Review of Somers Town

Independent review of Somers Town. Downloadable trailer available.

Timesonline on Somers Town

Nottingham Evening Post on Somers Town

Financial Times Somers Town Review

July 18, 2008

Keira Knightley

Keira Knightley

Return to British Women Actors

See Also Stars & Star Theory


Star fever is clearly rampant in the case of Keira Knightley. Despite the fact that in Atonement many of the serious critics rather thought she was put in the shade by James McAvoy something I'm in agreement with. Her global reception is quite extraordinary with over 9.2 million Google hits on an initial search (21 / 07/ 08). This means that researching this there is a lot of drivel to search through however this does make me think that things haven't moved on from Adorno's day in the Culture Industry when it comes to film stars.  But Walsh in the Independent thinks that this is perhaps her best performance yet:

Knightley gives Vera an independence and complexity that's aeons ahead of the spunky pirate babe Elizabeth Swann or the crosspatch aristocrat Cecilia Tallis in Atonement. (Walsh, Independent, 19 / 06 / 08)

The Times online carries a story about how Knightley's mother is rejecting rumours being spread about whether Keira has anorexia or not. Nowadays star status means instant commentary whizzing around the internet. For a woman actor is appears as though their body is their primary asset. Take Walsh's comments from the Independent which create a discourse of 'sexiness' around a star:

Keira Knightley's astounding physiognomy.....Within 20 seconds, every male heart on the platform (and in the cinema) becomes her devoted slave, as her eyes and lips and hair and skin and voice construct a sensory web of enchantment. (Ibid)

The way the comment is phrased is a fine example of what Laura Mulvey has described as the 'male gaze' which, if we extend the concept beyond the confines of the cinema itself to the critical and fan community,  shows us how a discourse of a star can be maintained. whether or not she can act seems besides the point.

Bend it like Beckham

Knightley Bend it Like Beckham

Parminder Nagra & Keira Knightley in Bend it Like Beckham (2002). Gurinder Chadha

Pirates of the Caribbean

Knighley and Bloom Pirates

Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom in The Pirates of the Caribbean series

Knightley and Depp Pirates

Kiera Knightley & Johnny Depp in The Pirates of the Caribbean series

Pride & Prejudice

Knightley Pride and Prejudice

Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice (2005). Dir:  Joe Wright

Pride and Prejudice 2

Keira Knightley & Matthew MacFadyen as Mr Darcy in Pride & Prejudice. 2005  Dir:  Joe Wright


Knightley Atonement 1

Keira Knightley in Atonement (2007). Dir: Joe Wright

Knightley and McEvoy Atonement

Keira Knightley and James McAvoy in Atonement (2007). Dir: Joe Wright

The Edge of Love

Knightley and Miller Edge 1

Knightley and Miller Edge 2

Kiera Knightley & Sienna Miller in The Edge of Love (2008) Dir: John Maybury

The Duchess 2008

Shooting The Duchess

Shooting The Duchess 2008

...but the film is let down by a central performance from Knightley which overly emphasises her increasingly-annoying tendency to let her lips do the acting - tightly pursed equals unhappy or determined, open means `look at me, aren't I vivacious'.(Manchester Evening News Review of The Duchess)

Facing Fiennes, the junior cast, like lambs to the slaughter, go to pieces. Knightley gives great profile (just as she gave great close-up in Edge of Love); Dominic Cooper plays her lover, Charles Grey, as a one-note automaton; while Haley Atwell’s strumpet Bess is wonderful at saucy stares but struggles with the spoken word. In short, Fiennes: 4, Kids: Nil. (Timesonline Review of Duchess)

Filmography (British films)

Film Title

Year of Production

Production Company
Country of Production

Bend it Like Beckham
Gurinder Chadha

Pride and Prejudice
Joe Wright
Working Title
Joe Wright Working Title
Edge of Love
2008 John Maybury
BBC Films
The Duchess
Saul Dibb


Channel Four viewable interview for 6 minutes on the Duchess

Independent review with Keira Knightley on her role in The Edge of Love

Independent. Knightley and Pirates of the Caribbean 2006

Keira Knightley's mother Sharman MacDonald on being the scriptwriter of  The Edge of Love

Polly Vernon Observer 2002 interview with Keira Knightley on Bend it Like Beckham

Guardian Knightley for Oscar in The Duchess?

This is Nottingham: Knightley The Duchess of Devonshire @ Chatsworth House

Guardian: Knightley to play scandalous role

Guardian: Wollaston interview with Knightley (Aug 2008): Not especially deep and meaningful. Clearly part of the film's pre-release marketing strategy.

BBC Knightley Interview Pirates of the Caribbean

BBC Pride & Predjudice Interview

Telegraph: The Duchess and Diana: Kindred Spirits?

Telegraph on Knightley's anger at role being compared to Diana in The Duchess

Time Out interview with Saul Dibb on The Duchess

Telegraph article on Knightley's agreement to play in intimate scenes in The Duchess and her attitude to nude acting in general.

BBC Woman's Hour Knightley Interview (Currently available on Listen Again)

BBC August 2007 on Knightley in Atonement

Daily Mail interview with Knightley. Discusses her dyslexia and lack of education as she dropped out of colege before taking A levels.

Hadley Freeman (Guardian) on Knightly and Photo-posingitus. Witty.

Timesonline. Knightley interview. Says wants to drop acting as pressure too great. (2007)

Timesonline. Review of The Duchess (2008)

Guardian Podcast of Maybury interview

BBC: Knightley Stars at Duchess Launch

The Duchess Official Website

Return to British Women Actors

See Also Stars & Star Theory

July 12, 2008

Handmade Films: British Film Production Company

Handmade Films

Handmade Films Logo


Handmade Films emerged in the late 1970s the brainchild of former Beatle George Harrison and also run by Denis O'Brien whom Walker (2003) has described as an American hyphenate  lawyer-accountant-producer.  The initial impetus for the company was  to rescue the Monty Python film  Life of Brian. Originally it was being financed by the conglomerate Thorn-EMI however Lord Delfont who ran the company wanted to dispose of the film as he thought there was a risk of running foul of the blasphemy laws. Eric Idle of the Monty Python team knew Harrison who read the script and decided to go for it.  Life of Brian was subsequently bought by Handmade films for $2 million (Walker, 2003 ). It was sold on a country by country basis and was to become immensly profitable.

Handmade also brought what has turned out to be one of the best British gangster-thriller films ever made The Long Good Friday at around this time. Black Lion Films run by Lew Grade who was Delfont's brother had wanted to significantly tone down the violent scenes which would have seriously reduced the impact of the film. The film also dealt with IRA issues as well as corruption and Grade decided to sell it on.

Handmade films was capitalised in Luxembourg presumably for tax reasons and it was presumably bankrolled from Harison's resources. According to Walker (2003) they claimed they could make films for 60%-70% more cheaply than the major studios. It made Time-Bandits for £2.2 million and grossed £6.7 million in the US alone.

Many of its products were quirky and displayed an excellent feel for a British sense of humour which had revelled in The Goons, Monty Python and similar output. Films such as Withnail & I and Time-Bandits were of this ilk.

HandMade Films was eventually sold in 1994 due to  falling profitability, making losses on American co-productions. There were also allegations of O'Brien embezzing the company leading to a split between Harrison and O'Brien. It was bought by Canada's Paragon Entertainment Corporation for $8.4 million. (Walker, 2003). It went on to make two films in 1995. Over the period of its existence under Harrison & OBrien it produced 23 films in all (Screenonline Handmade Films estimate) which was roughly 2 per year over the course of its existence. The comedy Nuns on the Run (1990) was effectively its last production.

The films produced were wide-ranging in terms of genres and many are recognised as some of the best British films made during the 1980s. Many were 'quirky', as Walker has noted for along with other emerging production companies:

The films they backed were irreverent, transgressive, contemporary (if not in period then in feel. Their marketing departments...aimed the product squarely , but with subtlety and wit , at intelligent if as yet undiscriminating young people in the fifteen - thirty age bracket weaned on the TV satire shows  of earlier decades and nourished afressh by the present day Pythons. (Walker 2003, p 12)


Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979): Directed by Terry Jones

The Long Good Friday (1979). Directed John Mackenzie

Time-Bandits (1981): Directed by Terry Gilliam

The Missionary (1981): Directed by Michael Palin

Scrubbers (1982): Directed by Mai Zetterling

A Private Function (1984): Directed by Malcolm Mowbray

Withnail & I (1986): Directed by Bruce Robinson

Mona Lisa (1986): Directed Neill Jordan

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1987): Directed by Jack Clayton

Track 29 (1988): Directed by Nicholas Roeg

Nuns on the Run (1990)  Johnathan Lynn


Screenonline: Handmade Films

Withnail & I  website


Walker Alexander. 2003. Icons in the Fire. London: Orion

April 23, 2008

John Grierson

John Grierson (1898-1972)

John Grierson

John Grierson from the Grierson Trust site

Return to the British Documentary Film-makers Hub 

Under Construction

John Grierson was the founder of the British documentary movement. He was born in Stirling Scotland 1998. He was going to go to Glasgow University on leaving school but with the outbreak of World War I he joined the Royal Navy serving on a minesweeper.

After the war he went to Glasgow University ending up with a Masters Degree in philosophy and literature. He took up a temporary appointment at Durham University. He didn't complete the research fellowship he was awarded. Instead he moved to the United States to examine immigration problems there in 1924. Grierson returned to Britain in 1927 in January. 

Whilst in the USA Grierson had become interested in issues of communications. Grierson developed a position that democracy and mass communications were highly compatible with democratic structures being able to work effectively providing there wre good public information systems.  This was when Grierson developed the idea that film was able to communicate a system of public education that was able to develop democratic structures themselves. This became the underlying theory of the documentary film movement.

In 1927 Grierson contacted the Empire Marketing Board (EMB) which was a large British government publicity organisation.  He was appointed to the post of Assistant Films Officer. After developing a production plan over the next couple of years Grierson emerged with his first film project Drifters (1929). This led to the establishing of the EMB film unit in 1930. 

The EMB Film Unit

Grierson soon started hiring apprentice film-makers after 1930.  His initial choices wer Basil Wright and John Taylor. A little later several other people were chosen including J. D. Davidson, Arthur Elton, Edgar Anstey, Paul Rotha, Marion Grierson John Grierson's younger sister, Margaret Taylor (John Taylor's sister), Evlyn Spice, Stuart Legg and Harry Watt. Aitken comments that very few of these people were old enough to have been directly affected by the significant events taking place in the first quarter of the century. Although Grierson grew up near a hard pressed area in Scotland he was relatively distanced from this, and even his service in the first World War was well away from the trenches. Aitken notes that there are few references in his writings to the General Strike even though he was 28 at the time and it was clearly a highly significant event within British politics and society at the time. 

There were quite significant differences in the approaches to life and culture amongst the membership of the EMB film unit. Grierson was on the whole anti-scholasticism at some point notes Aitken being scathing about 'bespectacled professors'. Grierson was also distinctly anti-gay whilst Wright and Cavalcanti and several others were gay. Grierson was also very masculinist despite the fact that he was prepared to employ women as directors. However none becoame significant figures within the documentary movement and few were employed after 1940.

The EMB was to prove an unstable organisation from which to build a documentary movement base.  After the introduction of major tariff legislation in 1932/33 its reason for existence disappeared and it was abolosihed in 1933. Fortunately Stephen Tallants the sectretary of the EMB who had originally taken on Grierson scured a post at the General Post Office (GPO). One of the conditions of his accepting the post was that the EMB film unit should be transferred to the GPO. 

Drifters (1929)

Drifters 1

Drifters (1929)

Drifters notes Aitken (1998, p 11)

"...remains one of the most important films in British cinema". 

The Empire Marketing Board wanted to produce a film on herring fishing however Drifters was very different from what was expected:

It was a poetic montage documentary , which drew heavily on the film-making styles of  Sergei Eisenstein and Robert Flaherty and on Grierson's understanding of avant-garde aesthetics. (Aitken, 1998 p 10)

The EMB film committee wanted some of the spectacular film montage sequences removed however Grierson sneaked them back in again. The film received its premier on Sunday 10th  November 1929 sharing the bill with no less a film than Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin at the London Film Society meeting and received favourable comparisons. 

Drifters is an impressionistic account and is rather more an evocative representation than one based upon descriptive detail examining the relationship between the herring fishers and nature. Nevertheless there is still a lot of information within the film on the working practices of the Fishermen. It tends to prioritise the working activity in its represntation rather than the institutions involved which depend upon that activity. The film focuses primarily upon working class activity which makes it an unusual one. The film:

...comments on the way that labour is commodified and degraded by market forces. (Aitken, 1998 p 14)

Drifters 2

Drifters (1929)

Drifters became the only film specifically credited to Grierson although his influence upon large numbers of films that followed was highly significant in contributing towards their final look and feel. Although the film wasn't in the slightest way Marxist it did mark a radical shift in the fact that the working class were represented at all. Aitken cites Montagu Slater writing in Left Review 1935 who argued that this was a revolutionary act in itself. (Aitken, 1998 p 34). 

This early documentary model was only used by Grierson in the EMB period and was gradualy superceded. Aitken puts this tendency down largely to the development of sound which reached the documentary movement in 1934. 

The GPO Film Unit  

Shortly after coming under the aegis of the GPO the unit gained larger premises and sound facilities. Quality was therefore improved and of course sound films were now produced. However Aitken (1998) comment that the overall quality of resources and quality of output remained relatively low over the 1930s. In 1935 Stephen Tallents left to take up an appointment with the BBC. Several other filmmakers shortly followed. Grierson himself followed in 1937 to establish Film Centre which was an organisation which had the objective of co-ordinating documentary.

Cavalcanti, Watt and Jennings remained with the GPO unit giving a more artistically based inflection to the work produced. Aitken comments that:

Cavalcanti had always disagreed with Grierson's conception of documentary, and had argued instead for a broader definition of realist cinema which could accommodate a variety of film-making styles. (Aitken, 1998 pp 21-22)

Grierson and the National Film Board of Canada

In 1939 Grierson took up the position of Film Commissioner at the National Film Board of Canada which he held until 1945. grierson had initially been approached by the Canadian High Commission in London with a request to create a report on developing government film-making in Canada. The report was submitted in June 1938 and became the basis of what was to become the National Film Board of Canada. Subsequently Grierson was offered the post of film commissioner at the new institution. Although it only started out with a personnel of 5 it expanded thoughout the war and by 1945 there were nearly 800 people employed there. It was the largest organisation Grierson had worked in and he also had far more autonomy than when he worked in Britain. He had deliberately ensured that the NFB wasn't subordinated to the Canadian Civil Service to avoid the constraints which had been faced at both the EMB and the GPO.

Sadly Grierson established a very instrumental regime himself which didn'y encourage creativity and imagination amongst his film-makers:

...on the contrary, to impose a tightly regulated regime based upon the mass production of  standardised, formulaic propaganda films. (Aitken, 1998 p 27)

In Canada Grierson created a model of film making which was drawn from the compilation film which had first been used in 1930 in the documentary movement in the film Conquest. The principle was that footage would be used that had been shot inside the organisation where possible. Grierson adopted this model in Canada to allow more control over the propaganda messages. furthermore this type of film could be made quickly and inexpensively. Grierson combined this approach with a "threshold specialisation" model of labour in which people learned about one area and then moveed onto another one rather than become highly specialised. This was a more collaborative model of film-making. As well as thecontent and the labour system involved Grierson was also influential in the exhibition model. Here he strongly encouraged non-theatrical distribution. The rural circuit scheme was very successful with screening in schools, halls and other public sites across the country. There were over 170 projectionists employed screening to over 250,000 per month by the end of 1941.

Aitken points out that that there was considerable resistance to Grierson's intrumentalist approach from both inside and outside the documentary movement. In 1941 Cavalcanti made Film and Reality which is an aesthetic study of the documentary film as a critique of this method. Also Jack Beddington who had become head of film propaganda at the Ministry of Information (UK) thought that they were ver propagandistic whilst some in Canada thought the approach too authoritative. 

Grierson from Central Office of Information (CoI) to Group 3

Early in 1948 Grierson returned to Britain to take up the position of Controller of Film at the Central Office of Information (CoI) which had replaced the Ministry of Information (MoI). In 1950 Grierson resigned and in 1951 he established Group 3. 

Group 3 was the production arm of the National Film Finance Corporation with a brief of producing good quality 'socially purposive films'. The purpose of the whole NFFC was to develop the British film industry as a whole and the mandate of Group 3 was to produce a number of high quality low budget films. Grierson was placed in charge of production but as there were concerns about his administrative capabilities John Baxter (Director of Love on the Dole, 1941) was placed in charge of administration. Out of 22 films produced only one was considered a success (The Brave Don't Cry,1952). The overall project lost about half a million pounds in 4 years.

Whilst Grierson can be held as partially responsible particularly because he was a hard person to get on with - he fell out with firstly Baxter and then Michael Balcon who was the Chief Executive of the project - he was also inexperienced in developing full length feature films. 

Aitken is also concerned to apportion a considerable amount of responsibility onto the commercial film industry blaming the lack of support in distribution and exhibition as the core reasons for the project being killed off. They disliked social-realist film-making because it lay outside of their control and also it was outside of their own commercial concerns:

The failure of Group 3 illustrates a continuing problem within the British cinema of finding adequate funding, distribution and exhibition for independent , innovative or experimental films. (Aitken, 1998 p 58)

By 1955 Group 3 had stopped production. Grierson left a little later in 1955.  

Grierson and the World Union of Documentary

Increasingly there was a crisis developing in the British documentary movement towards the end of the 1940s. Grierson was central to the failures to respond to change in two areas.

Firstly there was Grierson's branding of the World Documentary Movement as a Communist front which caused most British documentarists to leave. This hostility stems in part from Grierson being accussed of having Communist associations and being refused a US visa. The large numbers of Eastern european countries having members in the World Documentary Union furnished Grierson with a reason to attack it and to ensure it was noted he was suitably anti-communist. 

Grierson also failed to take on board the changing models of documentarism and realism particularly the Italian Neorealists. The neorealists had made a major impact upon the intellectual film cultures of Europe at the time - although it must be said that outside of Rome Open City most were box office failures in Italy. Grierson notes Aitken:

...rejected the model of independently produced realist films offered by neorealism, and insisted, instead, that documentary films must be made in close relationto the needs of governement departments, and to the imperatives of 'civic education'. (Aitken 1998, p 59)

Lindsay Anderson and the Free Cinema Movement which emerged during the 1950s were also very critical of Grierson. whilst they were keen on Humphrey Jennings the doumentarists in general were accused by Anderson of being largely protective of thier own position. For Anderson Grierson's post-war contribution was 'disastrous'. Certainly between the 1930s up until the 1950s Grierson was concerned to argue that documentaries should not be concerned with aesthetics. This led to the critical marginalisation of the Documentary Movement as the post-war cultural change followed the neorealists into post-neorealism in the work of Visconti, Rossellini and Fellini. 


Cavalcanti who had many differences with Grierson summarises his contribution like this:

Grierson's achievements can now only be analysed in perspective. He was basically a promoter. He had little impact as a director or producer, but his flair for finding collaborators, his ease in providing wonderful titles to our worst films, his capacity as a great publicist and above all, his curious background, half Presbyterian half Marxist made him one of the most influential personalities in the movement. (Cavalcanti 'The British Contribution' in Aitken 1998 p 205)

Getting the Work of the Documentarists

Many of these films will be readily available on the forthcoming BFI multiple DVD

Land of Promise available from 28 April 2008 

Land of Promise DVD


Aitken,  Ian. 1998. The Documentary Film Movement: an Anthology.Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press

Aitken, Ian. 1990. Film and Reform. London: Routledge

Hardy, H. Forsyth (ed.). 1979. John Grierson: A Documentary Biography. London: Faber and Faber

Ellis, Jack, C. 1986. .John Grierson. a guide to references and resources. Boston: G. K. Hall

Pronay, Nicholas (ed.) 1989 'John Grierson: A Critical Retrospective',  Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 9/3


A useful podcast can be downloaded from this site on Grierson and the documentary movement featuring an interview with Ian Aitken a leading researcher on Grierson and the documentary movement.

The Grierson Trust

April 17, 2008

Alberto Cavalcanti (b Rio de Janeiro, 1897 – Paris 1982)

Alberto Cavalcanti (b Rio de Janeiro, 1897 – Paris 1982)

Went the Day Well 1

The traitor is rumbled in Cavalcanti's Went the Day Well (1942)

Alberto Cavalcanti was a director and producer and enjoyed a distinguished career as an avant-garde film-maker in France. Rien que les heures (1926) shot on the streets of Paris. It was the first of the ‘City Symphony’ films made in Europe during the 1920s and preceded the better know Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) by Ruttman. It was very influential amongst the documentary movement at the time. He was making ‘quota quickie’ comedies for Paramount’s Paris studio in the early 1930s when he was invited in 1934 to come to England by John Grierson to join the GPO Film Unit. Cavalcanti was enormously influential in this British documentary movement encouraging realist film making to have a wider aesthetic dimension. He was very influential in the making of Night Mail (1936) and other of the best known works of the GPO Film Unit (See filmography below).

Exploring the possibilities of montage and sound he was foundational in developing the poetic style developed by his leading disciples Ken Lye and Humphrey Jennings. In 1940 when the GPO Film Unit became the Crown Film Unit and was intimately connected with making propaganda films it was more appropriate that as a Brazilian and therefore an ‘alien’ that he not be head of the Crown Film Unit. Cavalcanti therefore joined Ealing studios supervising both documentary and feature out at the studio and directing the influential propaganda film Went the Day Well? (1942). He made the musical Champagne Charlie (1944) making Ealing comedies more sophisticated. He made another three films with Ealing including the crime drama They Made Me a Fugitive (1947). From 1949 he divided his time between Europe and Brazil where he helped to establish its nascent film industry and founded the Brazilian Film Institute.

Michael Balcon credited Cavalcanti with having a special role within Ealing Studios because his most important job was training new directors who included Robert Hamer, Charles Frend and Charles Crichton all of whom went on to make important British films in the 1940s and 1950s. Balcon talking about Ealing has commented “The whole of the Ealing output has a certain stamp on it. Whether I would have done it on my own I don’t know. But most certainly I acknowledge… that of all the help I got his is the help that is most important”.

Filmography (Important British Films)

As director 

Pett & Pott (1934) 

Coal Face (1935)

Went the Day Well (1942)

Dead of Night 'Ventriloquist's Dummy' episode [Portmanteau film] (1945)

They Made Me a Fugitive (1947)

Producer & Sound Supervisor 

Four of the best known documentaries from the GPO film Unit

Song of Ceylon (1934)

Night Mail (1936)

North Sea (1938)

Spare Time (1939) Humphrey Jennings

Many of these films will be readily available on the forthcoming BFI multiple DVD

Land of Promise available from 28 April 2008 

Land of Promise DVD

For full filmography please go to IMDB


Screenonline Alberto Cavalcanti

Sexton, Jamie.  Scope May 2004. The Audio-Visual Rhythms of Modernity: Song Of Ceylon, Sound and Documentary Filmaking

Glossary of documentary terms  


Aitken, Ian (ed.) 1998. The Documentary Film Movement: An Anthology. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press (pp. 179-214)
Aitken, Ian, Alberto Cavalcanti: Realism, Surrealism and National Cinemas (Trowbridge: Flicks Books, 2000)

Caughie, John & Rockett Kevin. 1996. The Companion to British and Irish Cinema. London: Cassell
Cavalcanti, Alberto, Filme e realidade (Rio de Janeiro: Editora Artenova, 1977)
Hillier, Jim, Alan Lovell, and Sam Rohdie, 'Interview with Alberto Cavalcanti', Screen v.13, n. 2, 1972, pp. 36-53
Monegal, Emir Rodriguez, 'Alberto Cavalcanti', The Quarterly of Film, Radio and Television v. 9, n. 4, 1955, pp. 341-358

Russell, Patrick. 2007. 100 British Documentaries. London: BFI  

March 30, 2008

Anthony Asquith (1902–1968)

Anthony Asquith (1902-1968)

Return to British Directors (Non-Contemporary) Hub page

Anthony Asquith Helen Wilson
Anthony Asquith by Helen Wilson in the National Portrait Gallery


Anthony Asquith was born in 1902 whose father Herbert  Asquith became the Liberal Prime Minister of the UK from 1908-1916. He gained the nickname of 'Puffin' and was educated at Winchester and Oxford. Drazin notes Asquith's enthusiasm with film as an undergraduate when he sometimes saw up to three films a day.

Upon leaving university he went to Los Angeles for about six months where he came into contact with many of the leading figures in the film industry. On his return to the UK he was determined to enter the film business which wasn't then consider a 'respectable'career for somebody of his background as Drazin notes:

At the time it was an extraordinary aspiration for someone of his class to have, the cinema generally being frowned upon as a rather tawdry diversion for the masses... . (Drazin 2007 p 187)

Early Years in the Industry

He went to work with Bruce Woolfe for British Instructional Films which was a company formed in 1919 that specialised in documentary reconstructions of World War 1 as well as a series of natural history documentaries. In 1925 Asquith was so embedded in film culture he became a founding member of the London Film Society and was enthusiastic about all the latest films from Germany, Russia etc. In 1926 he joined Woolfe at the Stoll Film Company in Cricklewood as a general assistant.  Asquith was to direct 4 short films in the late 1920s. His first sound film was Tell England (1931). Asquith joined Gainsborugh Films in 1932 and worked on both screenwriting and directing. In 1935 he joined Korda's London Films directing Moscow Nights in 1935. In 1937 he became President of the recently formed Association of Cine Technicians. He held this position until 1968 when he died of cancer in February whilst working on a film.

The recently released Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) from BFI has been regarded by many as providing the evidence that at this stage in his career Asquith was at least as good as if not better than Hitchcock.



Asquith's breakthrough film was Pygmalion (1938) on which George Bernard Shaw himself worked on the script. It gained a nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and gained Oscars for adaptation and its screenpaly. It was Shaw who won the latter. Asquith's next film French Without Tears (1940) was the first of ten films which he directed in collaboration with Terence Rattigan the playwright.

Asquith During the War

Asquith's Wartime output was prolific it encompassed straightforward war stories such as We Dive at Dawn, Spy Thriller propaganda such as Cottage to Let (1941), comedy as in Quiet Wedding (1941)and also the well-known Gainsborough melodrama Fanny by Gaslight (1944).

Phyllis Calvert and Margretta Scott in Fanny by Gaslight

Phyllis Calvert and Margretta Scott in Fanny by Gaslight (1944)

Asquith's Postwar Output

After the war Asquith continued to make films on a regular basis of around one per year. He made several films which Terence Rattigan had scripted including Rattigan's most successful plays The Winslow Boy (1948) and The Browning Version (1951).

Browning Version 1

The Browning Version

Asquith also continued to make films from the British literary repertoire such as The Importance of Being Earnest (1952). Asquith worked in a number of genres and ended up working on large budget co-productions with US companies. Despite promising beginnings Asquith never became a director who own powerful vision came through as something of an auteur unlike his contemporary Alfred Hitchcock. Asquith has been considered as more of a metteur en scene.

Importance of Being Earnest

From Asquith 1952 version of The Importance of Being Earnest


External Links to many of these films can be found under Key films of The Second World War and British Cinema and Society Chronology 1939-1951

The Browning Version (1951)

The Winslow Boy (1948)

While the Sun Shines (1947)

The Way to the Stars (1945)

Fanny by Gaslight (1944)

Two Fathers (1944)

The Demi-Paradise (1943)

We Dive at Dawn (1943)

Uncensored (1942)

Cottage to Let (1941) Not yet open

Quiet Wedding (1941)

Freedom Radio (1941)

Rush Hour (1941)

French Without Tears (1940)

Channel Incident (1940)

Pygmalion (1938)

A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)


Screenonline biography of Anthony Asquith

Geoffrey McNab on Asquith: Guardian 2003

Screenonline: Asquith (1952) The Importance of Being Earnest

Select Bibliography 

Caughie, John with Rockett, Kevin. 1996. The Companion to British and Irish Cinema. London: Cassells

Drazin, Charles. 2007. The Finest Years: British Cinema of the 1940s. London: I. B. Tauris

Return to British Directors (Non-Contemporary) Hub page

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