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Empire in Decline: The Paddingtonisation of British Cinema 2012-2020
January 2021. Not the easiest time to continue one’s love affair with the city of London. As the city remains the national epicentre of the Covid pandemic, it exists in a limbo state. Mostly closed, there are enough chain supermarkets and takeaway restaurants to attract movement across the streets. Trains and busses still operate, because things are still to be done. There are still things to see. From my vantage point in South London, I can visit scenes from Blowup, Babylon, and Legally Blonde within a half hour walk. The novelty doesn’t get old. But then, novelty is what the city is all about. From the popularity of cartoonishly designed cans of beer to the mayor who promised a garden bridge (whatever happened to him?) the vastness of London is offset by both consumer and company with the aid of modern trends to smooth our sad existences, and our brains.
In Paddington 2, the Peruvian immigrant bear celebrates the city by purchasing a book of London’s landmarks, a gift to convince his aunt to come and visit. Watch the film though, and you won’t feel a city so much as a softened collection of streets and signifiers like bearskin hats. Paddington is a kids film; you might expect the edges to be rounded. But it almost meets London in the middle. British culture has been on a trajectory of corporate blandness for over a decade. The decline of the British high street has the masses excited at the prospect of a Wagamama’s opening next door. As with everything in the UK, the centre of this is London, a gentrification project epitomised by the London 2012 Olympics. In an effort to regenerate the industrial wastelands of London’s East End, and to present the nation as welcoming following a history of murderous colonialism (particularly fresh at the time was the war in Iraq), somewhere in the region of £93 billion was spent on a two week sporting event that celebrated our cuddliness. Did this figure include the eviction of Occupy London from various Paddington-visited landmarks, just months before the games began? This is a period remembered fondly as the peak of British multiculturalism, but from my vantage point in an Essex town on just the wrong side of the M25, the common refrain was “keep out of London for a month; you don’t want to get blown up.”
The Games were a huge success, and popular culture followed its smiling blandness. In a search for ad revenue, so-called bastions of taste like The Guardian and NME full-throatedly embraced ‘poptimism’ as an ethos, opening the doors for the likes of Ed Sheeran to be seen as a legitimate rock star by the British public (eventually crowned our King of Pop with a Glastonbury headline slot). This era presented a switch where not only were PR and Marketing terms the driver of cultural narratives and writers of headlines, but dissent was quashed. You must like Adele, you must watch Bake Off, you must read One Day (this era seeing the effective death of the novel as a cultural force while book Instagrams blew up and Waterstones finally turned a profit are no coincidence).
Nothing hailed niceness like The London 2012 Opening Ceremony. Possibly the most viewed British film of all time, this live event directed by then recent Oscar-winner Danny Boyle, cost £27 million, about twice the budget of his triumphant Slumdog Millionaire. Performed from the Olympic Park stadium in Stratford, it presents a potted history of Great Britain and Northern Ireland filtered through Boyle and the Olympic Committee’s kaleidoscopic, box-ticking style. Kenneth Branagh commands as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who announces the arrival of the Industrial Revolution by reciting The Tempest while frightened feudal country folk look on. Hundreds of extras dance their way through the moving of sets to show the passage of time, while Boyle raids the BBC archive for the most impressive moments of British sporting achievement. In one moment of mournful pause, Boyle closes up on the faces of Suffragettes and First World War soldiers (complete with a blurry poppy in the foreground), before chimneys grow higher and higher. The march of progress is completed by a hundred white extras in Sgt Peppers outfits and a hundred black extras in Sunday Best, carrying suitcases to represent the Windrush generation. In a musical montage that includes J.K. Rowling reading from Peter Pan and a giant baby made out of hospitalised children’s beds, British compassion is streamlined into its value for achievement; the NHS reduced to a logo that equals goodness in a chilling foreshadowing of the Clap for Carers initiative.
The film climaxes with its most telling sequence: where those chimneys once raised, now an ugly new build house sits. The multi-racial, multi-generational family commune with technology through their phones, the TV and a Nintendo DS, to access a dance party that interpolates 30 years of youth culture into a few signifiers of colour and light. Papier mache punks leap on pogo sticks and lycra-suited dancers lindy hop to Tinie Tempah’s ‘Pass Out’. Here Boyle’s frantic style is most clearly felt. Social media messages jump up on screen, the live footage is intercut with pre-recorded scenes and clips from Classic British TV Comedies. Finally, the house itself lifts from the ground to reveal Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of The Internet, inside, waving, and happily hacking into the mainframe. British ideology is revealed as a globalising promise of innovation, linking to everyone, wherever they are, sublimating their culture and motives as information and data that can be used to sell Britishness. Boyle here perfects the British filmmaking metier: perfect advertising that performs an individualist freedom while bowing to the authority that is national myth.
His niceness is everywhere. See him in Jonathan Glazer, another amusing example of the ad-man-cum-artist. His 1999 advert for Guinness is one of the most poetic evocations of alcohol ever captured in moving images. His three feature films, the beer ad Sexy Beast, the perfume ad Birth, and Under the Skin, an ad for an app, are entertaining films all. They have no real daring or point of view, but still, he has been crowned this nation’s Kubrick. Boyle’s most subversive act was rejecting a knighthood, saying it would be unfair to all of the people who worked on the opening ceremony to take full authorship of the event. Branagh accepted his honour that year, and since has churned out content as hired hand for the Disney mill. Now even Boyle’s style is too much for the kino. The sequel to his Trainspotting (Empire magazine’s film of 1996) was met with a shrug by audiences and critics despite sending up notions of nostalgia and sequelitis in reasonably successful ways. He was fired from No Time to Die for wanting to kill James Bond. His most recent film, Yesterday, a Richard Curtis-penned rom-com without discernible features but with an Ed Sheeran cameo, felt like an endpoint for the Boyle aesthetic. Chewed and regurgitated, it could have been a Glazer joint.
At the same time, a different figure of British Literature has become emblematic of this time: Paddington bear. Paddington and its sequel Paddington 2 are huge global hits. Ebert heir apparent David Ehrlich has used the film’s cuddly aesthetic as a signal of his own ‘niceness’. Paddington’s refrain, ‘If we are kind and polite, the world will be right,’ has the same energy as Keir Starmer’s abstention on the Spycops bill. Paddington director Paul King, like Boyle before him, started out as an arbiter of (00s) cool by directing The Mighty Boosh, a surreal 3-season sitcom that captured the energy of Camden in those days when you could famously spot Amy Winehouse having a pint. His reward for making Boosh a phenomenon was Bunny and the Bull, a practically unwatchable blank cheque movie, The Holy Mountain for BTEC students (or for Brits in general – Jodorowsky’s film has rarely been available on UK home video). Disgraceful, hellish garbage it might be, but they don’t make ‘em like Bunny and the Bull anymore. They don’t make films at all.
Instead, we make nice. The Chancellor, ‘Dishi’ Rishi Sunak, has been angled to seem cute (BBC drawing of him as Superman/The Times literally photoshopping a Halo into a picture) and kind (Eat Out to Help Out) – his complicity in the recession of ‘08 a mere sequence of the happy bear failing to stop exploding bathroom pipes in the Paddington story for the richest man in parliament. King’s penance for Bunny and the Bull was to direct the BBC series Come Fly With Me, which readers may remember as the 2011 black/brown/yellowface equal opportunity offender mockumentary featuring characters like Taaj, a Pakistani man played by Matt Lucas with the indelible catchphrase “if you don’t like Avatar, you gay.” When the Black Lives Matter protests happened in June 2020, the Right responded to the felling and plunging of Bristol’s Colston monument to slavery by turning the conversation into an identity politics debate about whether it was right to censor old BBC sitcoms. They had treasured memories of Come Fly With Me. And so they should. Just 12 months later, BBC viewers would tune in to watch Mr Bean play Vangelis on keys at the Olympic Opening Ceremony and ascend like Ray Winstone and Amanda Redman in Sexy Beast.
King won’t ever be seen as an auteur like Boyle or Glazer. He can’t sell himself, only others. Instead, the new filmmaker foisted upon us by the British Cinema Class is Rose Glass. She appeared on the cover of Sight & Sound’s Halloween edition, with a profile appropriately written by Kim Newman. This was notable because it is so rare for a British filmmaker to grace the cover, unless they have the name recognition of a Danny Boyle or a Steve McQueen. So why is Glass being sold to us? Her film Saint Maud is a tepid, timid religious provocation disguised as a Horror film, for all Horror films must now come cloaked as awards-worthy for mass appeal. There are numerous reasons why she and not Carol Morley or Debbie Tucker Green would have made the cover instead. For one, their films have an identity. Who is Glass, other than a plant to soak up BIFA nominations and eventually make an American Southern Gothic film or streaming series? Boyle covered the whole of enlightened British history with his Olympic Games film, and even he has fallen. The British identity no longer exists at all. A smiling, waving Mr Man is the best we can hope for. If Mr Sunak is the happy bear for our times, then I’ll sit back and let the spirit of 2012 wash through me.