Moviemaker Magazine
Spring 2005


Naughty and Nice in the UK
England's movie industry stretches far beyond slick spires and wheezing wizards. Oxford is a town that has it all

 

 

 

 


Oxford is a confectioner's dream set in stone: frills, turrets, domes and gargoyles gild this ancient college town. Five miles outside its Gothic glory, however, huddle drab concrete row houses, split by mean streets infamous for joy riding and drug deals. Here, in the late 1950s, a sewage farm began its transformation into Blackbird Leys, one of the largest council estates – aka projects –in Europe.

For every Nobel laureate, the city has dozens of teen moms and former factory workers on welfare. The spotlight rarely sweeps east, though. Those five miles might as well be five hundred.

More's the pity, because Oxford's true character is the sum of these “town” and “gown” parts. So too, the area's burgeoning movie industry suffers from a saccharine spin. Fey films like Neverland, King Arthur, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the Harry Potter franchise cavort like sugarplum fairies on center stage, as befits the region that inspired J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Dark Materials' Philip Pullman and Wind in the Willows' Kenneth Graham. But ask almost any Brit about the Home Counties' cinema contributions and they'll start sniggering.

“Oo-er, matron. Go on. You know you want to,” they chortle.

The lines, it emerges, are classics from the 31 puerile Carry On movies, made nearby at Pinewood Studios from 1958-1992. This series had the moral sophistication of Benny Hill: lots of leering, appalling puns, innuendoes, potty humor and pratfalls. Yet the cultural catharsis cut deep, as the Sunday Times pointed out: “[in these films] the art of the double entendre and the act of giggling became defining national attributes. The British, it seemed, saw the ape beneath the angel more clearly and more obsessively than anybody else.”

Unsurprisingly, such sublime slapstick doesn't cross cultural barriers well. And anyway, why bother with archival footage of Barbara Windsor's cleavage, when Desperate Housewives is on?

But we should pay attention. While we were stuffing the British into corsets, bowler hats and spy serials – not to mention saddling most of the Imperial Storm Troopers with the Queen's plummy accent – they were whipping up a revolution of their own. An understated, terribly polite one with tea doilies, but a revolution nonetheless.

London's “commuter country” now is producing movies both gritty and glorious: Stephen Daldry's Billy Elliot and The Hours, Nigel Cole's Calendar Girls, Gurinder Chadha's Bend it Like Beckham, Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead, Stephen Frear's Dirty Pretty Things and Fred Schepisi's tender salute to the autumn years, Last Orders, to name just a few.

The region's nannied blockbusters too: the Bridget Jones chick flicks, Robert Altman's Gosford Park, Lasse Hallström's Chocolat, Roger Michell's Notting Hill, Mike Newell's Four Weddings and a Funeral, Richard Curtis's Love Actually and Wolfgang Peterson's Troy, plus its floppy cousin, Oliver Stone's Alexander. Superman, Star Wars and all the wisecracking Bond boys also buffed up here.

Pinewood, even in its early days, fostered talent, letting Alfred Hitchcock cut his teeth on 1937's Young and Innocent (with the still-legendary tracking shot around a dance floor and into the villain's twitching eye). Michael Caine gained international attention with the 1965 spy thriller The Ipcress File, directed by Sidney J. Furie. From Ken Hughes' Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, the Buckinghamshire studio has blazed a path for eight decades.

Yet all eyes are on the future. Production hit an all-time high in 2003, according to the UK Film Council. The £1.17 billion tab – double the previous year's – funded 177 features (45 local, 30 inward investment films and 102 co-productions). In other words, the industry grew 113% in twelve months.

Last year saw a backslide with £807 million spent. Smaller productions suffered a decline: only 27 British efforts, like the Oscar-nominated Vera Drake, saw the light of day. Insiders blamed higher costs, a tax-break crackdown and a drop in traditional funding sources, like the National Lottery.

British Film Commissioner Steve Norris, Head of the UK Film Council's International Department, commented: “While lower than the record film production spending of 2003, these figures show that the wealth of talent in the UK film industry, together with our outstanding studios and facilities and our fiscal incentives, continued to attract a huge amount of international production in 2004. The UK continues to be recognized by international filmmakers as one of the best places in the world to make a film.”

Much of the activity centers on sister studios – Pinewood and Shepperton – just outside London. These seventeeth-century manors, known respectively as Heatherden Hall and Littleton Manor, made their silver screen debuts in the early 1930s. Combined early in the millennium, Pinewood Shepperton boasts a 1,500-strong credit list and successfully floated on the London Stock Exchange in 2004.

The news is cheerful so far: the company reports half-yearly profits of £6.7 million, a 15.8% boost. Chairman Michael Grade, former head of Channel Four, said the performance was slightly ahead of expectations. And two new projects are underway: an underwater filming stage at Pinewood and the extension to the eastern workshops at Shepperton.

The formal gardens, lake, orchard and woodlands add to the allure of Pinewood in Slough. The vast grounds include the largest external water tank in Europe. Shepperton even claims a ghost, among all the celluloid fantasia in Staines. The studios share 36 stages, including two purpose-built, digital wide-screen television studios, with 200 acres of back lots and grounds.

As for Oxford, the UK's second most filmed city is contemplating a full-time movie officer (especially as one in six tourists to the UK includes a location on the itinerary). Scouts need little encouragement though: the majestic towers, trailing ivy, cobbles, columns, riverbanks and meadows enchant easily.
But the real magic would be to capture the town's uneasy shadow, Blackbird Leys: the working-class foundation of the world-class Ivory Tower. Let's hope British filmmakers carry on trying until the whole picture emerges.

See sidebars. Please note, this is my original, unedited text. Moviemaker ran a shorter version. Neither address the spectacular nosedive of British cinema in early 2005, unfortunately.



 

 

 



"Fey films like
Neverland, King Arthur,
Charlie and the Chocolate
Factory and the Harry
Potter franchise cavort
like sugarplum fairies
on center stage."










"Superman, Star Wars and
all the wisecracking Bond
boys also buffed up here."
For every Nobel laureate,
the city has dozens of
teen moms and former
factory workers on welfare.
Oxford's true character
is the sum of these
“town” and “gown” parts.


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