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The notion of “Britishness” is, for all the feverous endorsements it receives from the UK’s buoyant far-right, difficult to define. The causes are manifold. The United Kingdom has long sought to expand its political control – often perfidiously, rarely successfully. It has no formal political constitution. It comprises four constituent nations – one of which isn’t even in Great Britain and boasts its own endlessly complex identity issues. Furthermore, it has historically been home to a vast array of immigrant settlers. The British ethnic identity was already nebulous before the 20th century welcomed the greatest diversification of British culture in recorded history. So it is no wonder that “Britishness” is an especially difficult notion to pin down, just as it is no wonder that British cinema struggles with establishing an identity of its own. One person’s Britain may be dramatically distinct from another’s, and while the same is true for a great many nations, their citizens often share a common view of what their country should be or, in some kind of abstract, actually is. Within British cinema, expressing national identity in such broad, even universal terms, distilling it down to a clear, standardized series of cultural signifiers is, well, just abstract.
If the country is a grand collage of cultural expressions authentic and inauthentic, old and new, black, brown and white, English, Scottish, Northern Irish, and Welsh, each piece of said collage offers us pockets of genuine expression that represent somebody’s perception of “Britishness.” Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City (2008) is as profound a reflection on the lived experience of a British citizen and their connection to their hometown as you’ll see. Davies’ film is both biography of Liverpool and autobiography, both his opinions on a city he has loved and hated and a poignant, provocative exploration of how that city has informed the man he is. Sally El Hosaini’s My Brother the Devil (2013) illuminates a critical facet of modern British life in its incisive, conversant story of second-generation Egyptian immigrants in East London. El Hosaini’s compassionate understanding of her material makes for a palpably authentic film with an audacious empathy for all its major characters.
As for what might come closest to constituting a single definition of British cinema, look to the films of Andrew Kötting. Forget the umlaut – his work is as British as they come. That apparent “Britishness” in Kötting’s work may have more to do with perceptions on Britishness than informed testimony or day-to-day realities, but then what else is such a notion as Britishness if not a perception? Born in Bromley and a lifelong resident of South-East England, Kötting’s takes on the culture and character of his nation are too idiosyncratic to speak for anyone but himself; yet, it’s that very idiosyncrasy and its acute import in his work that engenders its remarkable accessibility.
The personal expression exhibited in the melancholy Gallivant (1996), the mischievous Swandown (2012) or the brazenly alienating Edith Walks (2017) is as foreign to a fellow Brit as to a fellow human from anywhere on Earth. Kötting’s films often concern pilgrimages or other journeys – returning artefacts to their place of origin, tracing the footsteps of others, or simply placing footsteps of one’s own in exploratory journeys across lesser spotted Britain. Gallivant was a coastal tour of Britain featuring Kötting’s grandmother and daughter; Swandown followed Kötting and fellow artist Iain Sinclair on a brief nautical voyage aboard a swan-shaped pedalo; Edith Walks charts an imagined journey by foot by the lesser-known English historical figure Edith the Fair. Family is a fragile, precious entity – sweetly so in Gallivant, dangerously so in Ivul (2009) – objects have historical identities and even spiritual qualities – as in The Whalebone Box (2019) – and place, above all, is sacred. His is the gloriously odd, rough underside to the crass, glossy Brexit Britain of England’s rural and small-town south-east; a similar spirit can be found in Mark Jenkin, whose portraits of his native Cornwall achieve something in the same vein for England’s wilder south-west. Yet it’s notable that, Kötting, a most pointedly, identifiably “British” auteur, hails from Kent, or about as geographically close as mainland Britain comes to continental Europe.
For all its worth as a sincere, meaningful chronicle of Britain through the eyes of one of its own, the Kötting canon is not merely a limited purview on British identity but an increasingly irrelevant one in a progressively more multicultural country. Shola Amoo’s The Last Tree (2019), Sarah Gavron’s Rocks (2019) and Steve McQueen’s BBC series Small Axe (2020) are all recent cases of the Black British identity finding space within the common cultural impression of the UK, though even here there are shortcomings. Most such movies are situated in London, many do not come from black filmmakers, and a substantial number are but the first and, sadly, final film in the initially promising careers of directors then shuffled into for-hire work on TV to earn a living, directors such as pioneering black queer filmmaker Campbell X, and Destiny Ekaragha, whose sole feature to date, Gone Too Far (2013) suggested the arrival of an exciting new voice in British cinema.
Small Axe is striking in that it achieves within the UK something which McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013) achieved within the US – a straightforward, uncompromising acknowledgement of the country’s historical, racial wounds. But British cinema remains reluctant to examine this ugliness inherent in the British identity; indeed, in the predominantly white, historical narratives it prefers to tell, it’s a pervasive ugliness that’s almost wholly erased. Even Kötting, for all that his distinctive qualities may set him decidedly apart from British cinema’s upper echelons, is innately ill-suited to address this issue, being a 61-year-old, heterosexual, white, native English, cisgender man. The older, wealthier, more conservative influences within the British film industry who once felt no need to pay calls for more diverse on-screen representation any heed still feel no need to do so. And yes, they’re still in charge – the aging beneficiaries of ever-better living standards, emboldened by a certain generational arrogance, hogging positions they once promised to youths who have since been booted out of the employment landscape by one recession after another.
Under their tenure atop the British industry, production companies like Blueprint Pictures, Archer Street Films, Ecosse Films and Neal Street Productions (whose co-founder, Pippa Harris, is also the current BAFTA chair) continue to churn out the same old costume dramas and light comedies, the same material they’ve been studiously replicating for decades. These aren’t films designed to reflect any particular aspect of British culture, to form a national cinema out of the actual substance of our culture – they’re films designed to satisfy the tepid desires of a wealthy base of ticket buyers, actively diluting the substance of British culture and reducing it to a meek, insipid simulacrum of what the genteel classes suppose it ought to be. Kötting, McQueen, Ekaragha and their ilk have no place in this bland, milksop version of a British national cinema. Yet if that cinema is to exist at all, the only way it can separate itself from the clammy clutch of Downton Abbeys and Potato Peel Pie Societies is by enabling those very directors it so unceremoniously disenfranchises and sends off to work in TV or in the States to develop an unambiguous, consistent, multi-faceted identity within it. A notion of “Britishness,” if you will.