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British Film Forever is the BBC's flagship series on British cinema as
part of its "Summer of British Film" season. While the season is a good
excuse to show some lesser known films, this accompanying series is a
bit of a disappointment.
For a series of seven episodes averaging around 90 minutes each, there's not all that much information being imparted. The selection of interviewees (mostly actors, including Michael Caine, Helen Mirren and Bob Hoskins) puts this above the average clip show, but they all cover well trodden ground and audiences are unlikely to learn much unless they are completely new to the subject. By later episodes, not very recognisable actors and comedians start to creep in as well. Interviewees tend to say things like "it was totally new" "it was a breath of fresh air" etc, but isn't all that illuminating for the audience without understanding the context of what/how/why something was new or how it compared to its contemporaries.
The series also has an irritating habit of starting with more recent films and working its way back. This may be an attempt to make it more appealing to viewers, but it hampers any attempt to place the films in context, or to show how a genre developed. The episode on thrillers, for example, starts with The Long Good Friday in 1980 - more than 70 years after the first British film thriller, while the period drama episode also starts in the 1980s, at least 50 years after British cinema became strongly associated with the genre. It does eventually get around to the earlier films, and sometimes, in the case of Bond or Get Carter, places them into a sociological context. But the films are often not placed into a cinematic context, and are rarely compared to American or European cinema This is difficult anyway when the programme tends to just flit from one film to another in no particular order.
There's also something wrong with the voice-over by Jessica Stevenson - she has a pleasant enough voice but its not authoritative and she tends to sound like a big sister telling you about her favourite films. She isn't helped much by Matthew Sweet's script, which takes a semi-jokey approach, occasionally bordering on the obtuse. Sometimes its amusing, sometimes its just irritating.
This series is also a bit of a spoiler-fest, especially the thrillers episode. The narrator explains the plot of the films in detail, almost always giving away the ending in the process, explaining who gets killed, by whom and why. The irony is that anyone who has seen these films probably won't learn much from the interviewees, while the narrator is happy to spoil them for anyone who hasn't.
Perhaps I shouldn't be too harsh. This show is a fairly harmless time-passer, but its hard to know exactly who its aimed at. I would assume that any viewers devoting more than ten hours to watching this would have a reasonably serious interest in the subject. And with seven feature length episodes and a raft of distinguished interviewees, this could have been an authoritative look at British cinema history, something enlightening for fans and scholars. But the treatment the subject gets here is largely superficial, and its hard not to see this series as something of a missed opportunity.
This series is a huge disappointment, and it seems to suffer from a
lack of identity: the show seems unable to decide whether it is
targeted at an audience that is seriously interested in British film,
or whether it is targeted at the audience for the BBC's other 'talking
heads'/clip show programmes, who may have only a marginal interest in
The series has many problems: the episodes are poorly-structured, and would really benefit from the application of a more chronological structure. Although there are some good interviews with the likes of Michael Caine and Richard Attenborough, each show seems padded out with irrelevant comments from television 'personalities' and comedians such as Richard Bacon and Al Murray. Mostly, these seem to have been presented in a similar way to the aforementioned clip shows, in which it seems the producers sit these 'celebrities' in front of a few clips and then ask them to comment on what they have seen on screen. Mostly, this results in comments which are, at best, trite; and generally, the comments simply describe what is already apparent to the viewers who have just watched the same clip/s. This level of discussion is also brought out in the poorly-scripted 'jokey' narration by Jessica Hynes.
The show could really benefit from dispensing with the interviews with these 'celebrities', and it would also benefit strongly from an on screen narrator who has some authority within the subject--somebody like Chris Frayling, for example. Whilst there are some academic commentators, their comments are few and far between.
I can imagine that the show has pleased neither those who have a serious interest in British cinema, nor those whose interest in the topic is only passing: it's too jokey and not critical enough for those who have a serious interest in the topic, and I would imagine that the show loses most of its casual viewers whenever it tries to get a little more serious, dealing with, say, the films of Powell and Pressburger.
All in all, this series was a great opportunity to celebrate the diversity and development of British film culture, but thanks to the decisions made by the production team the series seems like a 'dumbed down' guide to British film (a 'Dummy's Guide to British Cinema'). It's a huge disappointment.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
To celebrate 100 years of film making from Britain, BBC2 started the Summer of British Film, and this seven part weekly series was the most essential viewing for me, besides the films of course. In this series, narrated by Jessica Stevenson, it looked back on all the great (and some not so great) British films according to the specific genres. Guns, Gangsters & Getaways - The Story of the British Thriller included: The 39 Steps, Brighton Rock, Casino Royale, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, The Ipcress File, The Krays, The Lady Vanishes, The Long Good Friday, The Lodger; Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Shallow Grave. Longing, Loving & Leg-overs - The Story of the British Romance included: Alfie, Black Narcissus, Bridget Jones's Diary, Brief Encounter, Darling, Educating Rita, Four Weddings and a Funeral; Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Gregory's Girl, Love Actually, Notting Hill, The Red Shoes, The Seventh Veil, Shirley Valentine, The Stud, Whistle Down The Wind and Women in Love. Hard Luck, Humour & Working Class Heroes - The Story of Social Realism included: All Or Nothing, Billy Elliot, Billy Liar, A Clockwork Orange, Kes, Nil by Mouth, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Secrets & Lies, Sweet Sixteen, This Sporting Life, Trainspotting and Twenty Four Seven. Corsets, Cleavage & Country Houses - The Story of Costume Drama included: Carry On Henry, Chariots of Fire, A Cock And Bull Story, Gandhi, Great Expectations, Henry V (1944), Henry V (1988), Jude, Lawrence of Arabia, Much Ado About Nothing, Mrs. Brown, A Night To Remember, The Railway Children, A Room with a View, Shakespeare in Love, Tom Jones and Topsy-Turvy. Magic, Murder & Monsters - The Story of Horror & Fantasy included: 28 Days Later, Brazil, Doctor Who and the Daleks, The Elephant Man, many Hammer Horror films, Harry Potter, The Quatermass Xperiment, Shaun of the Dead, The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General. Bullets, Bombs & Bridges - The Story of the War Film included: The Bridge on the River Kwai, A Bridge Too Far, The Colditz Story, The Dam Busters, Dr. Strangelove, Enigma, In Which We Serve, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, United 93, The Wooden Horse and Zulu. Sauce, Satire & Silliness - The Story of the Comedy Film included: Bend It Like Beckham, many Carry On films, Chicken Run, many Ealing Studios comedies, A Fish Called Wanda, The Full Monty, Wallace and Gromit and Withnail & I. With contributions from Lord Sir Richard Attenborough, Danny Baker, Mischa Barton, Jamie Bell, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Danny Boyle, Sir Michael Caine, Simon Callow, Andrew Collins, Pauline Collins, Martin Compston, Steve Coogan, Brian Cox, Daniel Craig, Richard Curtis, Jim Dale, Phil Daniels, Amanda Donohoe, Fenella Fielding, Martin Freeman, Mark Gatiss, Lewis Gilbert, Terry Gilliam, Richard E. Grant, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Bob Hoskins, John Hurt, Phill Jupitus, Martin Kemp, Karen Krizanovich, John Landis, Mike Leigh, Malcolm McDowell, Ewan McGregor, Al Murray, Paul O'Grady, Nick Park, Simon Pegg, Leslie Phillips, Guy Richie, Rufus Sewell, John Sergeant, Timothy Spall, Johnny Vegas, Kate Winslet, Sir Norman Wisdom. A brilliant documentary series with fantastic celebrity interviews and clips of some great British films, I loved it! Outstanding!
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