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December 21, 2006
The British Heritage Film: Part 1
It is argued by several leading critics that the idea of the ‘heritage film’ has been identified by critics themselves and that the tendency to create and market these films targets and reinforces a from of right-wing nostalgia. It does this by creating a mythical past using very select and romanticised mise en scene of costume, architecture and transport for example. Thus these films function as an escape from the political and social issues of the present
What is meant by ‘Heritage Film and Heritage?
The 1980s saw the growth of a cultural phenomenon which has often been described as the heritage industry. The description can be applied to a range of creative and cultural industries which provide a powerful link between tourism, the past and the film and television industries. Here Andrew Higson who did much to develop this as a critical category in relation to British cinema explains how he and others identified this shift in cultural consciousness as they saw it.
The past is differentiated from history which as a discipline has a range of methods attached to an academic discipline based upon the priciple of gathering evidence of events, opinions etc from a previous period. The past is understood as a more mythological construction which is much more culturally subjective.
The English costume dramas of the last two decades seem from one point of view a vital part of this industry. For this reason, I and others have labelled them heritage films, though that is not a term that their producers or indeed many of their audiences would be familiar with or even approve of… (Higson, 2003 : p1).
As will be seen below the genre of the ‘heritage film’ has provided Britain with some of its greatest commercial successes of the 1990s as well as the 1980s. This is now being repeated in the new millennium. Some have dismissed these films as very conservative. They can certainly be viewed as extremely nostalgic and very selective in their presentation of the past. But they could be viewed in a more complex way.
It is argued by some critics that the cinematic treatment which was given to the books they are named after was far less critical of the status quo than the original books were. Here it is possible to point to the novels of E. M. Forster which were far more attuned to the social tensions that were arising in Edwardian Britain than the filmic treatment.
Certainly Edwardian Britain wasn’t as rosy as some would like to paint it. Britain’s place in the world was being challenged industrially by both Germany and the USA. In terms of foreign policy even during the Boer war taking place at the beginning of the century Germany had been supportive of the Boer rebels. Tensions continued to build up with the ‘Anglo-German Naval race’ which started in earnest after 1907.
On the home front the Liberal government was faced with a serious constitutional crisis over the passing of Lloyd George’s famous budget. The rise of suffragism part of far greater social movement for votes for women and an ever increasing polarisation in Ireland between nationalists and unionists were all significant political and social features of the period which is better seen as one of transition with all the uncertainties which that term implies. Certainly it was not all halcyon days.
Alternative takes on Heritage
Stuart Hall has made a useful analysis of the notion of ‘heritage’ arguing that it functions to exclude social and cultural issues of the present by creating mythical visions of the past.
As a country, since World War Two Britain has undergone a significant re-composition of its population. Huge demographic changes were brought about by the massive growth of immigration fuelled by the long post-war industrial boom which saw Britain create a period of full employment and better working and social conditions under a welfare state.
Hall agrees that the Heritage film is a form of construction by the critical community which has spread much further than the corridors of the academic world.
It has come to signal not just a particular group, or cluster of interrelated groups, of films, but a particular attitude to those films, and indeed to the audiences presumed to frequent them. Heritage cinema is very largely a critical construct but its currency in academic debates …has subsequently been extended into journalistic and even popular usage. (My emphasis: Hall, Sheldon. 2001: p 191)
Howard’s End: The first of the 1990s heritage films
Some of the critiques depend upon whether a narrow or a wide definition of heritage is used. Merchant-Ivory produced and directed Howard’s End (1991) was the first ‘heritage film’ of the decade. The treatment of Forster’s original text relies on a country house aesthetic with the camera feasting upon the haute bourgeois interiors. This palpable pleasure in parading the visual splendour of the past undermines the social criticism of Forster’s novel. argues Gibson (2000: 116). Looking at some of the romanticised images Gibson certainly has a point.
Higson (2003) in his case study on Howard’s End also expresses a concern that this film is a particularly good example of films which choose a deliberately liberal canonical text upholding in a reasonable ‘authentic’ way the liberal notions expressed within the book. Nevertheless director and producer undermine that liberalism by constructing a stylistic mode which, by focusing on the mise en scene, allows a conservative sensibility to become prioritised.
It is important to bear in mind Stuart Hall’s comments cited above. Although the texts can be read by critics as a reactionary construction of British heritage in fact the arguments are not based upon actual audience research. It is not unreasonable to assume in the tradition of deconstruction which argues that meaning of a text is not fixed that the American audiences for Howard’s End made very different readings of the film. It should not be forgotten that many of the English viewers of the film were far more likely than American audiences to have some familiarity with the British history of the period. Much deeper social and political readings of the off-screen concerns of the film by members of the audience were very likely.
Criticism without audience analysis: How useful is it?
The above points highlight the weakness of constructing criticism of texts with having a research relationship. Higson and other critics were making a critical ‘leap of faith’ by creating their perfectly reasonable interpretations based upon the prevalence of the right-wing mood of the nation at the time. The film of Howard’s End was made at the end of the Thatcher period. However there is no clear evidence how British audiences understood and experienced this film; what Hall described as attitude towards these films.
Hall however does make an important point about the lack of representation of many features of contemporary British society which is a part of the country’s heritage in the fullest sense of the term. Hall here was discussing the lack of representation of Afro-Caribbeans and the contribution of the Slave trade in all manner of ways to Britain today. This is a part of British ‘heritage’ which demands ‘recognition’. In this sense much of the heritage industry is very isolated from social and cultural reality.
The doyen of English Heritage was enaged enough to represent an evil episode in British history. Follow this link for Simon Schama on the historical episode being represented. When will British cinema can stop making romanticist cinema for an American market which appears to view Britain as quaint and face up to the bad bits of history as well as the proud bits. Turner was more honest about 150 years ago it seems. Art isn’t just ‘beautiful’!
Link to official site with a trailer available
Link here for the Guardian review by Derek Malcolm