From the TV Shows About Movies That Make You Wonder If You Should Just Be Watching Movies Dept. comes Britbox limited series Reel Britannia, a four-parter walking us through the history of modern British cinema. Cinephiles who yearn in their hearts and loins to see behind-the-camera beefcake hunks like Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh contribute talking-head commentary to such a retrospective will lose their minds over this series, produced in conjunction with those youthful hipsters at the British Film Institute. It sure seems guaranteed to be a dryyyyyyyyyy documentary, but will Edgar Wright’s participation and cheeky references to Marvel draw in the youngsters? We’ll see.
Opening Shot: Fade in on that iconic image of British film: the Hollywood sign, of course.
The Gist: Narrator Nick Helm kicks off the series with the assertion that everyone – everyone – thinks the world’s movie epicenter is Hollywood. And you’d probably be right. I mean, look at the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame this series chooses to show us: Lassie! Tim Allen! Jerry Bruckheimer! (If I’m not mistaken, they’re taking the piss out of us Yanks here, and don’t think we’re too thick to notice, thank you.) And who did Britain contribute to American cinema? Let’s see – Chaplin, Boris Karloff, Stan Laurel, Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, Cary Grant, Daniel Day-Lewis, Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, some Star Wars stars, two Spideys, two Batmen and the guy who played both Gandhi and an Iron Man bad guy. Sure, but it’s the 21st century and you guys still have a stupid-ass queen, so ha, I say, ha.
Oh, and you didn’t even mention Alfred Hitchcock. Curious.
This first episode focuses on U.K. cinema in the 1960s, so it makes sense to start with clips from Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, but not his ode to the era, Last Night in Soho; yeah, it takes a sec for this thing to settle down and find focus. A handful of filmmakers struggle to describe exactly what a “British film” is, since some British directors made great films in America, and some films shot and set in Britain were funded with Hollywood money. It’s messy. I’m not sure they ever really settle on a definition, but plow ahead we must, into the postwar history of British movies: London’s National Film Theatre, the Free Cinema movement spawning the British New Wave and the embracing of realism, taboos and social issues in “kitchen sink dramas” directed by working-class filmmakers dubbed “angry young men.”
So we get a string of names and titles of touchstone figures and films: Behind the camera, Ken Loach, Richard Attenborough. In front of it, Julie Christie, Albert Finney, Michael Caine, Lynn Redgrave. They produced creative leading-edge films such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey, Victim and Billy Liar. The decade also contributed popular successes like the James Bond franchise, the Beatles films (Hard Day’s Night established the style and method of music videos), creepy sci-fi tale Village of the Damned and, uh, Gorgo. Later in the decade, we got true envelope-pushers like If…. and Performance. Then it teases the ’70s so maybe we’ll let it play through to the next episode.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Historian Mark Cousins walks you through 15 episodes of this type of documentary fodder in 2011’s The Story of Film: An Odyssey.
Our Take: Episode one of Reel Britannia is a perfectly serviceable review of key points in Brit cinema, and if it’s not a particularly thrilling watch, it may be an educational one, especially if you’re one of those youngish (read: post-Boomer) film wankers who wants to hear Edgar Wright entice you to watch Billy Liar. And he sells it quite well: He only saw it once many years ago, but he never forgot it, and believes it subconsciously affects his filmmaking. And hey, guess what, I looked it up, and it’s on Amazon Prime.
And that’s precisely the function the series serves – giving even the casually scholarly film buffs a list of titles that open a rabbit hole to the kitchen-sink titles. Have at it, dweebs! It may strike some obvious notes for audiences under the Queen’s rule, but the rest of us may appreciate the information, presented here in a straightforward manner with some cheeky humor and caricature graphics to enliven it a little. I’m not sure it’s worth a full year of Britbox – are any key “kitchen sink” films mentioned in this series available on this service? Nope; I checked – but it may be worth burning a free trial.
Sex and Skin: Very brief toplessness from a Carry On movie clip.
Parting Shot: A montage of film clips summing up the decade as having moved the art form from “somewhere else” to “somewhere better.”
Sleeper Star: Wright is the MVP of the first episode, thanks to his point-of-view as both film fan and filmmaker.
Most Pilot-y Line: With the series’ opening line, Helm sets it up to knock it down: “When you hear the word ‘film,’ it’s hard not to think ‘Hollywood.’”
Our Call: STREAM IT. Reel Britannia isn’t deep in its insight or wildly entertaining, but it’s viable fodder for cinephiles looking to broaden their knowledge.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.