BY BRETT GREGORY
John White’s book on twenty-first century film is a window on Britain’s history as a nation based on exploitation and oppression, finds Brett Gregory
One of the joys of this academic monograph is that it reminds us that the field of cinema studies, through the macro lens of research, theory and perspective, can introduce us to narratives of knowledge, understanding and experience which stretch far beyond the edges of the screen.
Here John White unfurls an ambitious tapestry of five hundred years of history, politics, economics and culture as related to us by a selection of twenty-first-century British feature films. Moreover, interweaving itself through their tall and terrible tales of wealth, poverty, love and war is a myth which millions of us still believe in today; ‘the United Kingdom’ is a quaint oxymoron for which tens of thousands are still prepared to die.
The United Kingdom is in fact ‘two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy’ wrote Disraeli about the ruling class and the working class in his novel Sybil in 1845.
One hundred years later, between 1945 and the late 1970s, Professor Pat Thane argues that, following three successful decades of the Welfare State and its free provision of healthcare, education, housing, living allowances and state pensions, the chasm of quality and quantity of life between the rich and poor actually began to narrow.
This relatively egalitarian post-war relationship between the nation and its citizens – a social contract intrinsically binding one another to a shared sense of security, belonging and liberty – turned out to be, tragically, just a fleeting dalliance, however, when in 1979 Margaret Thatcher came to power, a copy of Friedrich Hayek’s, The Constitution of Liberty, tucked away in her handbag.
Most memorably, under the direction of her Conservative government, the British state –the police, the judiciary and the right-wing press – launched a vicious, vindictive and ultimately victorious assault upon what they perceived to be their biggest obstacle to socio-economic progress: the National Union of Mineworkers during the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5. In turn, by way of the newly formulated Trade Union Act in 1984, every member of every other trade union up and down the country shuddered.
The gig economy
This once-in-a-lifetime lightning war left mining communities decimated across the North of England in particular. Furthermore, the fuse of ‘fast-burn capitalism’ had been lit and an unceasing bonfire of workers’ rights and protections began to rage. As cherished public services such as British Gas and British Telecom were packaged and privatised throughout the 1980s, the neoliberalist deforestation of the British way of life commenced.
Now in the first quarter of the twenty-first century the UK workforce, unable to hear itself speak above the incessant beat of global competitiveness, productivity, efficiency and convenience, has been gifted one of the postmodern wonders of the world: the gig economy.
As White explores in Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You from 2019, Orwellian cyber-squealers would have us believe that this new-fangled way of working is going to make entrepreneurs of us all, liberating us from silly distractions such as timekeeping, lunch breaks and rest, as well as stupid administrative chores like sick pay, holiday pay, redundancy pay and a pension. Moreover, we are reassured that it isn’t just delivery drivers, warehouse operatives and online strippers who can benefit from this cornucopia of late-stage capitalism: lecturers, journalists and registered nurses, to name but a few, are all invited to the party as well.
These days many Britons, particularly the young adults I used to teach, reluctantly accept that we no longer live in a society at all but instead precariously function, hand-to-mouth, on the outskirts of a network of simulated marketplaces where absolutely everything is a commodity to buy or sell, manage or service: our labour, our time, our bodies, our dreams. According to the Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, what we are experiencing here is called ‘the direct commodification of experience itself’.
While the mainstream British media continues to gawk at the peacocking of North American bazillionaires such as Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, as if their vanity, gluttony and hubris are something to aspire to, White cites Shoshana Zuboff’s solemn observation that around the world there are ‘concentrations of wealth, knowledge, and power unprecedented in human history’.
Indeed, according to the International Monetary Fund, the United Kingdom is the fifth richest nation in the world with a $2.6 trillion GDP, but if this ranking is accurate then why in 2014 did Oxfam declare the five richest families in the country to be wealthier than the bottom 20% of the entire population, i.e. 12.6 million people? Furthermore, why in 2020 was it reported by Health Equity in England that in some regions more than one child in two is growing up in poverty? Crucially, the academic broadcasters Lansley and Mack ask: why is Great Britain ‘one of the most unequal and socially fragile countries in the world today?’
Believe it or not, the official rationale behind these stark socio-economic inequalities was actually submitted to the British public on May 6 2023 in the form of a £100 million multi-venue theatre production called ‘The Coronation of King Charles III’. The mise-en-scène for this historic live performance featured the full artillery of ancient and modern regalia, including the Diamond Jubilee State Coach at £3.2 million, St. Edward’s Crown at £45 million and, famously, the Sword of State at £500,000. In turn, an original signature soundtrack was composed by Lord Lloyd-Webber, a commemorative poem was scripted by the Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage CBE, and coronation costumes were designed by Bruce Oldfield OBE. Moreover, as good fortune would have it, the entire British Establishment was able to make itself available to serve as the supporting cast: prince and princesses, lords and ladies, political leaders, military leaders, religious leaders, all proudly draped in the nation’s traditional liveries of hereditary, exceptionalism and pomposity.
As stated in the title of John White’s rigorous and thought-provoking book, it is deep-seated divisions reinforced by institutions like the Royal Family which have defined the United Kingdom’s psyche, character, outlook and actions throughout the ages. Whether it is in terms of wealth, power or nationalism, social class, regionalism or education, gender, ethnicity or sexuality, there has always been an obsessive and oppressive belief in binary oppositions: ‘Here and There’, ‘Then and Now’, ‘Us and Them’, ‘Self and Other’.
Peterloo to the present
Mike Leigh’s Peterloo from 2018 dramatises one of the most despicable events in the country’s political history. In 1819 over 60,000 working men, women and children gathered in Manchester at midday to demand parliamentary reform and an extension of voting rights. By 2pm however they had been ruthlessly cut down by the sabres of the mounted 15th Hussars at the behest of wealthy landowner, factory owner and magistrate, William Hulton. Eighteen protestors were slain and 700 were maimed.
In the immediate aftermath of this massacre the British government, haunted by the ideological alternatives thrown up by the French Revolution 25 years earlier, was quick to enforce its sovereignty and suppress any further political dissent from the public. Draconian Acts of Parliament were hurried through in a manner which would cause our current Home Secretary and Tory ultra, Suella Braverman, to positively swoon. Attendance numbers at parish political meetings, for instance, were restricted; the judicial powers of magistrates trying the cases of reformers were expanded; and the taxes imposed on newspapers were increased so they became too expensive for ordinary people to buy.
Significantly however, strategies for surveillance and espionage were also endorsed by the authorities and pursued by a network of spies, informants and agent provocateurs in an effort to deny, or at least to undermine, the ability of the country’s citizenry to express, discuss or even understand their freedom to protest.
This may seem like some dusty cloak-and-dagger yarn from the distant past but, in order to illustrate how little the British State has evolved as a democratic entity over the last 200 years, White draws our attention to the ongoing Undercover Policing Inquiry which began in 2015. That is, quite incredibly, it has been revealed that serving Metropolitan police officers such as Mark Kennedy (also known as Mark Stone and/or Mark Flash) were instructed, over decades, by their superiors to pose as political activists in order to infiltrate and surveil environmental campaign networks such as Climate Camp. In turn, with their superiors’ knowledge, a number of these police officers entered sexual relationships with female activists as a part of their undercover duties, even fathering children with them, before suddenly skulking back into the shadowy system from whence they came.
As Mike Leigh himself writes in the foreword to Peterloo: The Story of the Manchester Massacre in 2018: ‘Despite the spread of universal suffrage across larger parts of the globe poverty, inequality, suppression of press freedom, indiscriminate surveillance and attacks on legitimate protest by brutal regimes are all on the rise.’
The scope of John White’s meticulous research and diligent critical application can only be lightly brushed by the fingertips of this overeager review.
For example, in the sixteenth century we are led along the schism between women and men under patriarchy and Protestantism in Mary Queen of Scots (Rourke, 2018). In the twentieth century, we revisit the genocide which defined the partitioning of India and Pakistan under Mountbatten’s rule in 1947 in Viceroy’s House (Chadha, 2017). And, in the twenty-first century, we are urged to heed the ‘dark, satanic mills’ of globalised industrial farming that churn up our country’s ‘green and pleasant land’ in The Levelling (Leach, 2017) and Dark River (Barnard, 2017).
In conclusion, the United Kingdom can be seen to be a nation which stands divided upon an historical legacy of conflict, violence and oppression, fuelled by a fear of the masses, of the ‘Other’, of what they might think and of what they could do.
Following thirteen years of Tory-led austerity, the Tories’ vicious racism on migrants and refugees, the crimes committed in the name of Covid-19 and the current crippling cost-of-living crisis, thoughts about political reform and even revolt have begun to creep into the minds of ordinary, exhausted citizens, especially those who work in the public sector. It is hoped, at the very least, and in this particular context, that the commercialised conservatism which generally characterises the British film industry can be circumvented so more original feature films are able to harness and frame the real-world hopes and fears of the country.
John White’s British Cinema and a Divided Nation makes you feel strangely patriotic, that through passion, persistence and protest there is still something worth fighting for. As a result, it is highly recommended.
Brett Gregory is an independent screenwriter, director and producer based in Manchester (UK). His critically acclaimed debut feature film, ‘Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist’ is currently available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV and Tubi US.
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