From romantic evocations of Britain’s past, to angry engagements with contemporary social and political life, the screen dramas of Thatcher’s Britain represented the peak of a golden age on the British screen and told us much about how film and television can both support and interrogate the politics of its day.
Though somewhat simplistic, it is useful to survey the television and cinema in the period through the same oppositional framework that we might use to understand the consensus-breaking impact of Thatcher’s premiership. On the one hand, the 1980s on screen showed us a Britain at war with itself, divided along class, gender and racial lines, on the other, we saw narratives of Britain’s imperial past, as many filmmakers seemed to indulge in a myth-making about national identity that appeared to reflect Thatcher’s own attempts to assert the country’s ‘harmony’ and not its ‘discord’.
Ironically, some of the most politically bold and radical films of the period were aided in their genesis significantly by Thatcher’s government. The legislation that saw the establishment of Channel 4 in 1982 created an entirely new source of domestic funding for filmmakers. With 170 films funded (partially at least) by the new channel between 1982 and 1990, it’s not unfair to suggest that Thatcher’s deregulation of the film and television industry brought about something of a renaissance in British cultural life.
One of Film4’s biggest early successes was Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette (1985). Written by Hanif Kureishi, the film’s portrait of young businessman Omar’s attempts to turn a run-down laundrette into a thriving enterprise runs alongside a masterfully developed and entirely non-judgemental romance plot, which sees white, working-class Johnny and Pakistani-Muslim Omar embark upon a sexual relationship that is as tender and beautiful as it is radical and transgressive. The ideological divisions of the period are never far away as Omar’s father, an embittered socialist, rails against his son’s embrace of Thatcherism and laments Omar’s relationship with his uncle, Nasser, whose words: ‘there is no question of race in the new enterprise culture’ deftly summarise the film’s radical conflation of the cultural politics and economics of the decade.
Following the huge success of My Beautiful Laundrette, Frears and Kureishi returned to the big screen with their flawed masterpiece (and commercial failure) Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, an anarchic take on inner city London in the wake of Thatcher’s third election victory. The film opens with the 1987 victory speech (‘we’ve got a big job to do in some of those inner cities’) sound tracking images of an empty wasteland, and reaches its peak in the same space as travellers are violently evicted by the police on the orders of shadowy businessman. Just as Thatcher’s words jar against the desolate urban space at the beginning, the nationalistic hymn ‘I Vow to thee my Country’ accompanies the climactic eviction scene, as images of a decaying Britain are juxtaposed against aural elements that suggest mythical connotations of of ‘Britishness’ that are perhaps no longer relevant in the world that the film depicts.
Frears’ and Kureishi’s radical ‘state of the nation’ portraits of Thatcherism seem restrained in comparison to the work of experimental filmmakers in the 1980s. Like Sammy and Rosie, John Akomfrah’s masterpiece Handsworth Songs combines Thatcher’s voice with an arresting collage of images and sounds tracing the history of Black Britain and later relaying interspersing footage of and responses to the race riots in Birmingham in 1985.
In a similar manner to Akomfrah, Derek Jarman chose a disjunctive and darkly poetic register to angrily lament a perceived sense of decline in Thatcher’s Britain. His abstract visual essay The Last of England represents the high point of an experimental decade in British cinema where the medium sought to find a new language with which to interrogate the systems and myths of Thatcherite nationhood.
These bold, but difficult films contrasted profoundly with the rebirth of heritage cinema and television in the period. The huge international success of Chariots of Fire combined with a number of acclaimed literary adaptations on the big and small screens to lead many to equate the conservatism of Britain’s government with dramas that seemed to hark back to an image of Britain far removed from its turbulent social realities. Such a view, however, ignores the subtle aesthetic radicalism of those works such as Brideshead Revisited, which, while conspicuously romantic in its evocation of Britain’s past, re-imagines a relatively concise literary work over 11 hours of poetic and painterly television drama; letting Waugh’s prose breath and imbuing the text with a visual afterlife that serves as a paradigm of the symbiotic connection between novel and screen. Indeed, while arguments can be made for heritage drama as visual propaganda for Thatcher’s Britain, its important to note that the aforementioned Chariots of Fire was produced by David Putnamm, now a prominent Labour peer, and directed by Hugh Hudson, whose 1987 party political broadcast Kinnock: The Movie was a bold attempt by a resurgent Labour party to capitalize on the decade’s embrace of the moving image as a political tool.
In an era of apparent political apathy where our culture seems increasingly to escape from rather than engage with the issues of the day, we can reflect on the 1980s as a decade where filmmakers and dramatists enthusiastically explored the potentials of their medium to reflect the turbulence of the period. Might we talk in years to come of a cinema of the coalition? Perhaps. Will the films and dramas we survey be as radical, exciting and willfully diverse as those produced under Thatcher? I think not.