Film, Television and Brexit: What happens now?

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Now that Article 50 has been triggered, and the clock is ticking down on the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, what are the implications for Film and Television in Britain? This was the question informing FILM AND TELEVISION STUDIES AFTER BREXIT, a one-day workshop conducted at the Claus Moser Research Centre on April 4th. Convened by Neil Archer, Lecturer in Film Studies at Keele, the workshop drew on the expertise of a range of guest speakers, as well as the input of participants from both Keele and elsewhere. Building on the conversations and conclusions emerging from the workshop, and on the work concurrently undertaken by colleagues across the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, the event forms part of a continuing and evolving discussion of Brexit and its implications for British life, culture and global standing.

Beth Johnson, former programme director of Film Studies at Keele, now Associate Professor of Film and Media at the University of Leeds, started the proceedings with a riveting and important look at the way recent reality television – ranging from shows like Kirstie’s Handmade Britain to Benefits Street – has played an active and often problematic role in the construction of a popular British imaginary during an era of austerity, and in the run-up to the EU referendum. Dr Johnson’s analysis of Channel 4’s controversial Benefits Street focused on the way the programme, taking up the viewpoint of its more long-term, natively British inhabitants, sets up an overarching point of view into which the street’s European immigrants – predominantly, an extended Romanian family not claiming benefits, but running an improvised scrap metal business – are both ostracised and rejected. As the paper concluded, given the power of such television to shape as much as represent reality, we need to be particularly attentive to the way such programmes can inform – or indeed exploit – public opinion.

In a companion piece, James Leggott, Senior Lecturer in Film and Television at Northumbria University, offered a detailed overview of some of the films made in the run-up to the EU referendum, asking whether or not a sense of Brexit can be detected in their narratives and representations. Dr Leggott identified the way that the figure of the European immigrant emerges more prominently in recent cinema, in films as wide-ranging as The Goob, London Road and (in a more dubious form) horror films like Mum and Dad. While acknowledging that it is difficult and perhaps problematic to ask if the ‘signs’ of Brexit were visible in these films, the paper raised a series of other, and in the interests of a post-Brexit British cinema, more pressing questions: Who are these films for, and who is seeing them? What sense do we make of the older concept of ‘social realist’ cinema, when such films – Dr Leggott’s main example being Ken Loach’s award-winning I, Daniel Blake – are only seen by middle-class audiences in art cinemas? Amongst the many questions generated by this paper, then, the question of how British cinema, especially at the lower end of the budgeting scale, needs to respond to the contexts of Brexit, but also how and by whom it will be seen, emerges as the most important one.

This was followed by two papers offering reflections, respectively, on the significance of Brexit for our conceptions of ‘English’ and ‘Scottish’ cinema. Julian Petley, Professor of Screen Media at Brunel University, sees Brexit as a significant moment in the emergence of Englishness as a mode of identification, over and above other associations of ‘Britishness’. Professor Petley’s rigorous overview of film scholarship in the UK showed how, all too frequently (as in Raymond Durgnat’s famous book, below), ideas around England and Englishness have been collapsed into Britishness in problematic ways, usually to the exclusion of the Kingdom’s other distinct countries and identities.

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The paper also identified the ways in which an image of England has been specifically mobilised in recent years – and in particular, though under the misrepresentative guise of ‘the UK’, in the run-up to Brexit – as one that is victimised and put upon by the rest of the world (what Professor Petley describes as the ‘self-pitying mythology of Englishness’), despite the UK’s standing as one the world’s most powerful economies. While identifying some of the problematic notions of using Englishness as a defining concept, and some of the limiting ways ‘culturally English’ filmmaking has been defined (exclusively, for instance, around notions of ‘English heritage’ and literary adaptations), the paper astutely invited us to rethink ideas around ‘English cinema’ that emphasise diversity and inclusivity. As Professor Petley’s conclusion noted, multiculturalism and plurality are commonly associated with a Britain and a Britishness that may never have really existed, and if at all, may not for much longer; and that, consequently, if we are to challenge the most reductive assertions of the leave campaign, we should learn to talk in positive terms about an English cinema that encompasses these same ideas.

The follow-up paper by Jonny Murray, Senior Lecturer in Film and Visual Culture at Edinburgh College of Art, was a fascinating and thought-provoking look at the perspectives of Scottish film production on the Brexit vote. Dr Murray provided a detailed view of the way recent Scottish films have forged previously unfamiliar links with filmmaking tendencies and film practitioners – producers, directors, actors – from mainland Europe, and especially Scandinavia, in films as diverse as Aberdeen, The Last Great Wilderness and Red Road.

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Chiming with Professor Petley’s comments, the discourses around the endurance of British film post-Brexit may emerge mostly from an English perspective that takes the largest country in the UK as synonymous for the UK as a whole – and thereby crowding out the specific interests of a Scotland that, unlike its southern neighbour, voted significantly against Brexit in the 2016 referendum. As Dr Murray argued, then, while a particularly European and trans-national type of filmmaking has emerged in Scotland over recent years, this is jeopardized by Brexit, if it means that vital sources of European co-production finances are cut off. If this is the case, as Dr Murray concluded, and if Scotland perhaps inevitably devolves from the UK, then the new game may be one of pursuing ‘inward investment’ – Hollywood money, invested in foreign countries to produce film and television there – in aggressive competition with its nearest neighbours.

This final thought was an arresting one ahead of the fifth paper, which focused largely on the significance of inward investment for the (so-called) UK film industry, but also how this partly England-centric conception may one day face competition from within the British Isles. Discussing the links between British cinema culture and Britain’s uses of ‘soft power’, Neil Archer looked at the way certain tendencies in film production – the James Bond series, Working Title rom-coms or the Mr Bean films, the Harry Potter franchise – have been mobilised as indicators of the country’s global standing. Identifying the links between such films’ references at the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, and the strategic promotional aims of government and initiatives like the GREAT Britain campaign, Dr Archer argued that a particular image of ‘Britishness’ has successfully established the UK’s global cultural influence; though at the expense of a more nuanced view of modern Britain and the everyday realities of lower-scale British film production.

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Adding that the post-Brexit mood for the UK film industry appears reliant on a boom in inward investment, Dr Archer raised the question whether the representations of Britishness around the 2012 ceremony were themselves symptomatic of a tension already existing between Britain’s international self-image, and a resistance to this image at a popular level, ignored in this case by dominant cultural taste-makers. At the same time, the paper concluded that in a post-Brexit climate and economy, commercial and transnational film production like Working Title films, or – in the preferred example – films like Paddington, produced by the French-owned UK company Studio Canal, could play an increasingly important role in the cultural representation of Britain abroad; evidence suggesting that it is British-based family films like Paddington or the Harry Potter series that have a more meaningful impact on the perception of the UK overseas, conveying as they do messages frequently out of sync with official government policy.

This idea that cinema could take on an increasingly ambassadorial role for Britain in light of Brexit was picked up in the final paper. Entitled ‘Who Will Listen to Britain Now?’, Owen Evans, Professor of Film at Edge Hill University, offered an engaging account of the Brexit contexts from his own position as a Germanist working intellectually and geographically between the UK and mainland Europe. Professor Evans’ talk highlighted the dispiriting sense of disillusion felt by the many Germans based in the UK and working in the creative industries (such as illustrator Axel Schaefer, whose take on the Brexit rhetoric can be seen below); as well as noting the extent to which so-called ‘British’ films, drawing on European funding and exhibition initiatives, are often more broadly European in their reception and profile: a key instance being (again) the films of Ken Loach, whose audience (and a point echoing James Leggott’s earlier observations around I, Daniel Blake) is mostly on the continental mainland, not in the UK. There was an optimistic note in Professor Evans’ talk, though, both in its suggestion that Britain could take a leaf from Germany’s regional filmmaking policies, but also in its insistence that at the cultural level – and as indicated by the prevalence of artists and creative leaders working between London and Berlin – the UK is far from closed for business to European partners. Highlighting, then, that the channels of cultural communication are not so easily limited by government policies, Professor Evans stressed that Britain’s leaving the European Union was not necessarily a departure from Europe; and that the affinities linking a devolving UK and a previously divided Germany could form the basis for what he called a Kultur Europa uniting the two countries. A similar suggestion, in fact, to that made by the Guardian’s associate editor a full three days after the event!

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It is hoped that this is only the start of a much broader national – and European – discussion, with Keele University as one of its key centres. While the full impact of Brexit remains unknown at present, film and television studies have an important part to play in investigating and commenting on the potential implications and possibilities; as well as identifying some of the ways film and television production has both informed the contexts of Brexit, but also might potentially mitigate its most corrosive effects. FILM KEELE would like to thank all the contributors who offered the foundation for discussion, as well as the various participants who provided the key questions and diverse responses throughout the day: in particular, David Forrest from the University of Sheffield, and Clive Nwonka, from Greenwich University; in addition to the various colleagues and students from Keele – Joe Andrew, Nick Bentley, David McWilliam, Helen Parr, Nick Seager, Wallis Seaton, Laura Minor, and Daniel Skentelbery.

To be continued…