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Did Thatcher Inspire Great Political Cinema?

Posted: 16/04/2013 19:27

In the 1980s, while Hollywood was regaling us with ultra violent, apolitical action movies, Britain was going to war with itself over the polarising policies of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

But, while you would assume that such a contentious period would result in a new generation of politically motivated filmmakers, that cultural movement, at least cinematically, simply did not happen.

However, British cinema as a whole, in the 1980s, actually experienced something of a renaissance, with a number of production companies such as George Harrison's Handmade Films, Goldcrest, Palace Pictures and Merchant Ivory producing some genuine classics.

Excellent art house filmmakers such as Terrence Davies, Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarmon, emerged with some truly influential and original work.

But, while Chariots of Fire (1981) and Gandhi (1982) were the commercial flag-bearers for the industry at the time, there was still a distinct lack of politically charged films.

Luckily, television proved a much more viable outlet for the visceral angst of the downtrodden working class.

One director who was inspired by the social degradation of the1980s was Alan Clarke. After bursting onto the scene with the brutal borstal drama Scum (1979), the director transported the subject of disaffected youth onto the streets of Thatcherite England. The result was TV feature Made In Britain (1982) starring newcomer Tim Roth as a glue sniffing unemployable skin head.

Another Clarke work that was applicable to the changing social climate was television drama The Firm (1989) starring Gary Oldman. Not only did the story touch upon the South East's upwardly mobile working class, but it also centred upon the moronic antics of hooligans amidst the ban on European football following the Heysel disaster.

Social commentators often suggest that right wing governments, and more specifically their tough austerity measures, actually help inspire great artists. This of course is flatly refuted by liberal musicians and filmmakers who see it as an excuse to starve the arts of funding.

However, in the case of writer Alan Bleasdale, Thatcher's Britain did inspire him to create some of the greatest television programmes that this country has ever produced.

Bleasdale's Boys from the Blackstuff (1982) touched a nerve with audiences, in particular the character of unemployed tarmac layer Yosser Hughes, whose catchphrase "Gizza job!" quickly entered into the public consciousness.

The Liverpudlian writer's other seminal TV drama was GBH (1991). Loosely based upon Liverpool City Council and its former deputy leader Derek Hatton, GBH was a darkly comic exploration into the floundering socialist opposition to the Conservative government.

When discussing influential political television, it would be wrong not to mention Yes Minister/ Yes, Prime Minister (1980-84, 86-88). The BBC sitcom, created by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, may not have contained the social savagery of Clarke or Bleasdale, however, it still deftly satirised the bureaucracy and contrived nature of front line politics.

Back in the land of cinema, some directors were evidently convinced that political commentary belonged on the small screen, although there were some exceptions to the rule.

When the term 'leftist filmmaker' is uttered the first name which is conjured is invariably Ken Loach. However, the director's output was stunted in this period due primarily to lack of funding. His only relevant contribution, Looks and Smiles (1981), centred upon three young people who are left disenchanted by the lack of opportunities in their native Sheffield.

Arguably the finest example of Thatcher's Britain captured on film is Stephen Frears's My Beautiful Laundrette (1985). The director, along with screenwriter Hanif Kureishi, managed to encapsulate pertinent social and economic issues in a truly unconventional romantic comedy. The film helped launch the careers of Frears and star Daniel Day Lewis, both of whom would find huge success in Hollywood.

There is no doubting that the new era of escapist big budget cinema, cultivated in America, will have also contributed and influenced the type of projects that received funding in the UK. This would also explain why prominent political and social filmmakers, such as Mike Leigh and Loach, found themselves residing mostly in television during Thatcher's rein.

But, while the Iron Lady may have escaped the wrath of burgeoning filmmakers, she was certainly criticised, satirised and lampooned extensively by a particularly robust television industry at the time.



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