British Film Forever, BBC2

by | Jul 28, 2007 | All, Reviews

Did we like it?

Such an exhaustive probe into the seedy underworld of the British thriller that our lungs feel like an Amazonian tributary razed to the ground to clear land for logging companies.

What was good about it?

• The plunging back to the very origins of British thrillers with the quaint but oddly prophetic Rescued By Rover from 1905 in which a forbear of Lassie saves a kidnapped baby from the stereotypically soiled hands of a drunken gypsy woman; a simple plot that wound its way along to one of Alfred Hitchcock’s first notable films Blackmail.

• The clever trick here was to illustrate how such themes endure in filmmaking no matter to what era they belong. Yet Hitchcock’s films would also be shocking in any era as shown in Sabotage when a young boy unwittingly carries a ticking time bomb to a destination but his bus gets caught up in traffic. The boy, along with the cute dog in the next seat and everyone else on the bus, gets blown up. Hitchcock stated that he was wrong to blow the bus up as “it’s what the audience expected”; yet a modern audience, mentally dissolving in a gluepot of sentimentality and loathsome 12A certificates would expect quite the opposite to occur – the dog to be imbued with the spirit of a demolitions expert who could defuse the bomb.

• The still disturbing performance of Richard Attenborough as Pinkie Brown in the adaptation of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. The callous grimace of unrelenting malice Attenborough wears for the whole of this classic was such that even though here the film was broken into flotsam and jetsam the ending was still utterly absorbing as you willed the heroine, Brown’s wife, to resist his demand that she commit suicide.

• Attenborough played a similarly psychotic role as John Reginald Christie, a real life killer who fitted up his lodger Timothy Evans (John Hurt) for the murder of his wife. Evans was hanged for the crime, a fate Christie also suffered when the right man was caught.

• The behind the scenes anecdotes from the set of The Third Man, during the filming of which star Orson Welles had a proclivity to disappear forcing the director to concoct ever more ingenious ways of masking his absence. One of Welles’ pirouettes of pomposity saw him refuse to film the climactic chase in Vienna’s sewer system, meaning a whole new set had to be built at Shepperton.

• Michael Caine’s dour Harry Palmer who offered a dreary domestic inversion of the burnished faux glamour of Bond with his trips to the supermarket, his worries over pay and dab handedness in the kitchen, of which Caine reminisced: “Note from executives – ‘We can’t do cooking, it’s homosexual.’”

• Bob Hoskins: “Before Michael Caine you had to have been in the RAF to be an actor.”

• The theme of featuring lesser known films continued into the modern era with a profile of London To Brighton that was rightly identified as exemplifying the distinctive British thriller in the new millennium.

What was bad about it?

• Yes, James Bond is an integral part of British cinema but has been covered over and over again to the point where we know about Sean Connery’s former life as Mr Scotland and how Roger Moore played the role as a sardonic spoof of Connery’s officious thug. Stepping from the fascinating arena of 50s thrillers into Bond was like emerging from the awe inspiring bowels of an Aztec pyramid blinking in disbelief as you troop into the outskirts of Disneyworld; it would have been far better to focus on other British obscurities that are now regarded as definitive celluloid visions such as Peeping Tom.

• The chummy narration by Jessica Hynes (nee Stevenson) was mostly economic, unobtrusive and content to let the marvellous films do much of the talking, with a few exceptions. The Italian Job was termed “This is the ultimate in Cool Britannia-dom”. ‘Cool Britannia’ is Britain’s very own ‘manifest destiny’ now a shaming phrase sullied by the despair of how the brave new world of New Labour genuflected before artifice, tyranny and corruption while all those celebrities who exploited the phrase for their own ends are have dissolved into an oily choking morass of desperate iniquity skulking in the water supply in a vain effort to enter the throats of their once adoring public to get close to the hearts they once filled. The Italian Job is quite a good film; it does not embody the sneering coquettish grin of our glorious ex-premier.

• Of The Krays film made in 1990 it was claimed that stars Martin and Gary Kemp “were rock royalty as members of Spandau Ballet”. Spandau Ballet, like most of the New Romantics, had long fallen by the wayside and they were no more “rock royalty” in 1990 as Michael Barrymore is ‘entertainment elite’ today.

• The baffling reverence of East End gangsters as heard when the Kemp brothers “were granted an audience with Ronnie Kray” as if were the Pope. Although, that said, Kray probably was in possession of far more altruism than the Catholic Church so perhaps he is more worthy of the description.

• “Get Carter suited the nihilistic 70s”, Punk aside this is just one more instance in which documentaries rewrite history to adhere to their inflexible narrative. Rainbow was broadcast in the 70s, there has not been anything in the history of humanity that is less nihilistic than Rainbow (if you take out Zippy).

Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels may have been a British institution a decade ago, but such is Guy Ritchie’s Lucifer-esuqe fall into celluloid damnation that all the clips resemble the very worst grotesque excesses of his recent films, littered with indulgent stunt casting.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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