For a country blessed with such abundant talent, you’d think the British film industry would be capable of an output more varied than what so often feels like a never-ending stream of quaint rom-coms and gritty gangster flicks. Of a culture painted in black and white terms: the middle class gallivanting through a series of polite misunderstandings around leafy London suburbs or indulging in country getaways in which an uptight PR woman ends up head first in a pig sty. Or, on the other side of the wall, council estates as painted by privileged film school graduates: pale clones of Tony Richardson’s vitriolic working class, whose lives consist only of substance abuse, smashing up cars, and living for the next home game.
That’s not to ignore the stunning work of those that lead the field, of the level populated by the likes of Andrea Arnold, Richard Ayoade or Jonathan Glazer. But we’ve got to admit that even the greats occasionally fall prey to the most pervasive of clichés, and with a parodic movie like this week’s The Hooligan Factory hoping to establish itself as some kind of British Social Realism equivalent of Scary Movie, it might just be about time the industry as a whole took a long, hard look at itself.
1. Shaky cam screaming matches.
The shaky cam screaming match is pretty much the cinematic equivalent of starting your best man speech with the words “Webster’s Dictionary defines love as...”. It’s the most literal translation of the core concepts of British Social Realism: the need to penetrate myth and capture the reality of working class life at its most raw and unhinged. By apparently getting in real close to their faces while they’re screaming so hard that spit’s flying out like a broken sprinkler. It’s a touch insulting to audiences if you think about it – the assumption that we require a documentary style to feel any connection with these characters. Not to mention the harmful implication of stereotyping working class people as incapable of sorting out their issues over a nice cup of hot tea, while they’re middle class counterparts are at least allowed to exchange some witty barbs as if they’re trapped in a Jane Austen novel.
And, yes, it’s clearly an idea that’s enraptured even the most innovative of our filmmakers – Ben Wheatley can manage to come up with the idea for a hallucinogenic Civil War movie like A Field in England yet still rely so heavily on the technique in his (still excellent) Down Terrace. So, budding filmmakers, in the future maybe just put the camera down for a second and use your internal voice. We've had enough.
Classic example: Down Terrace (Ben Wheatley, 2009)
2. Wedding scenes in rom-coms.
I guess there’s not really much to complain about in British rom-coms, considering it’s a genre which pretty much exists as a shorthand for mediocrity. That said, it is just me or does every British rom-com seem to involve some kind of wedding scene? I guess it makes sense, considering weddings are both the most heart-warming and socially awkward events of a person’s lifetime – two things which just happen to be the sole constituents of a British romantic comedy. Aw, look at that beautiful young couple declaring their love for each other, isn’t that just the perfect amount of romance to inspire long-suppressed feelings between a constantly bickering Emma Thompson and Colin Firth? But watch out! Because Emma Thompson’s socially-impaired and totally wacky brother Rhys Ifans is about to make an entirely impromptu speech! Is he about to blow Colin Firth’s big secret about that weekend in Rome? Well, you can find out yourself by putting all of your money into an envelope and sending it straight to Richard Curtis.
Classic example: Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell, 1994)
3. It's grim up North.
Otherwise referred to as the cardinal rule that the further up the M1 you go, the more miserable your characters must be. Because no one ever had fun in Yorkshire. Ever. At least London is granted the seedy glamour of haute-gangster life among the capital’s soaring skyscrapers, all penthouse flats and stolen Lamborghinis. Start on a journey north, however, and your cinematic denizens will soon find themselves with little more than a quick trip to the pub for entertainment, or maybe, if they’re lucky, a punch-up outside the local stadium. In fact, it seemed quite telling in the fuss raised around the release of 2013’s Not Another Happy Ending, which was granted the honour of Edinburgh Film Festival’s Closing Night Gala even though it ranked as little more than just another mediocre rom-com. All because, for once, it presented a vision of Glasgow that wasn’t directly indebted to the legacy of Trainspotting but recognised its modern, cosmopolitan vibrancy. And it apparently took Karen Gillan to make the world realise that. Jesus Christ.
Classic example: Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996)
4. Gold Hoop Earrings
Thanks to the conventions of today’s brand of British Social Realism, you can now spot your movie’s struggling single mother/drug-addled prostitute before she even opens her mouth, all from the glint emanating from her giant, gold hoop earrings. Just take Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. There’s barely a scene in which Mia Williams (Katie Jarvis) doesn’t wear her most trusted accessory. Do you know how heavy those things are though? Wear them 24/7 and your earlobes are in serious danger of falling right off.
Even though I’d question as to whether gold hoops are really still that popular now that everyone’s stopped listening to Nelly Furtado, it almost doesn’t matter how widespread the trend is because it’s become pretty clear how much of a cultural shorthand it’s become of council estate life, with all the loaded stereotypes that come with it. And as much as these films may attempt to undermine assumptions – which can sometimes seem an increasingly flimsy claim – preconceptions that are so deeply held that they can be triggered by a piece of jewellery are a pretty hard thing to shake off. Do filmmakers really want to take that risk?
Classic example: Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)
5. The orange/teal aesthetic, with emphasis on the teal.
While the moving eyesore that is the orange/teal aesthetic seems to have found its place in the toolkit of Hollywood action directors desperate to add some depth to their big-budget blow-outs, British directors as a whole just seem sort of obsessed with it. It’s become pervasive in every level of drama, thriller, and crime cinema, except when a vintage setting connotes something pale and Instagram-y à la Wuthering Heights’ painterly cinematography. Obvious candidates are your standard British action fare along the lines of The Sweeney or Welcome to the Punch, but check out Route Irish as proof that even Ken Loach is doing it. For shame. Plus, it’s worth noting that British movies always seem to slide more towards the blue end of the scale, because, you know, everyone in them is so blue an’ all.
Classic example: Route Irish (Ken Loach, 2010)
6. Child protagonists.
With the onslaught of coming-of-age movies that constantly fill our cinema screens, you’d think we’d have just figured out how to come of age by now. While American indies seem obsessed with inspiring tales of first loves and divorces, it’s all a little too cheery for British cinema; how about a tale of lost innocence suffered by a child faced with the very decline of society itself? Yes, there’s no better dramatic cliché in existence than to frame a decaying community through the eyes of a child who should really be at home reading Beano instead of brandishing knives at grown men. Sure, tiny thugs are definitely more disturbing than grown-up thugs, but can we at least acknowledge that it’s basically emotional manipulation? Are we so devoid of empathy for grown adults just because we don’t have some innate desire to protect them from harm and dress them up in little sailor suits? Where are all those movies about the plight of puppies on council estates, then?
Classic example: This is England (Shane Meadows, 2006)
7. Gangsters always take business meetings in strip clubs.
Because, you know, boobs.
Classic example: Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (Guy Ritchie, 1998)
8. All Dutch angles everywhere all the time.
Because British cinema has a certain reputation to uphold, right? Even the lowest common denominator gangster movie still secretly seems to reserve a level of high pretension about itself, that somehow it constitutes “art” enough that it would have zero trouble fitting in on the Cannes line-up, all because it just chucked a bucket-load of Dutch angles into the mix. Dutch angles are super arty, right? Never mind that their overuse degenerates their original intention to pervade the viewer with a deep, surreal sense of unease as in the maddest moments of German expressionism or the cold alienation of film noir. Now we’re so used to Dutch angles that a British director like Kenneth Brannagh shoves them into almost every scene of Thor without batting an eyelid, because it no longer has any depth in its emotional effect on us. And don’t get me started on Les Misérables, a movie which is roughly 90 percent Dutch angles. I mean, what are you trying to say there, Tom Hooper? Is everyone in your movie going insane? Is the entire June Rebellion of 1832 actually a hallucination of Jean Valjean? Can someone construct this conspiracy ASAP?
Classic example: Les Misérables (Tom Hooper, 2012)
9. All shoot-outs take place in a warehouse.
Brilliantly parodied in SNL’s own take on British gangster clichés (among a few other things on this list), is the fact that almost every major and climactic shoot-out in a British action movie takes place in possibly the most boring location of all time: the abandoned warehouse. It’s worth noting that it’s also a widespread trope of Hong Kong action flicks, but I don’t think either industry should exactly be begging for credit on this snooze-fest cliché. I get it, warehouses are cheap to shoot in and don’t require a lot of set design. But can’t someone just occasionally shoot each other’s brains out in a sculpture park or a particularly upscale-looking Pizza Express for once? Warehouse sets are just so dull to look at during an action sequence that I can actually feel my eyes getting bored, which is a sensation I never thought was physically possible.
Classic example: Love, Honour, and Obey (Dominic Anciano & Ray Burdis, 2000)
10. Casting Danny Dyer in things.
Guys, it stopped being funny a long time ago. Around the time of Danny Dyer’s Deadliest Men, to be precise.
Classic example: Run For Your Wife (Ray Cooney & John Luton, 2011)
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