Don't sneer - there's more to heritage films than corsets, says Jeffrey Richards.
The heritage film is one of the newest and most controversial genres in British cinema. Despite - or perhaps because of - its success with audiences, it has been subjected to a barrage of sneering and dismissive criticism. "The Laura Ashley school of film-making", "white flannel films", "frock flicks", "middlebrow nostalgia-fests" are just a few of the epithets regularly hurled at the genre. Serious criticism has polarised between those who find the films to be conservative endorsements of an unchanging hierarchical and patriarchal society and those who see the films as radical or liberal critiques of unquestioned value systems and gender stereotypes.
In his thoughtful and absorbing new study, which will be required reading for anyone interested in the heritage film phenomenon, Andrew Higson sets out to map the genre, analyse the criticism and explain the box-office success of so many of the movies. He begins by identifying more than 100 titles that fit into the genre, from Chariots of Fire in 1981 to The Golden Bowl in 2000. With admirable scrupulosity, he agonises about what to call the films and how to define the genre, finally settling for the term heritage films and arguing that all genres are "loose, leaky, hybrid categories". But this causes him to cast his net rather too wide. I would not have included Robin Hood - Prince of Thieves, Braveheart or Rob Roy, which are by any definition swashbucklers rather than heritage films, a genre that Higson admits is largely confined to the period 1880-1940. He also agonises over whether they can be described as British films at all, since many of them were US-financed - but in the end, the subject matter, locations and acting talent involved persuade him to classify them as British.
One method of classification that Higson does not consider is a literary one, despite the fact that many heritage movies are literary adaptations.
Most of them are derived from works that conform to the Leavisite "great tradition of English literature", a tradition that was essentially feminine, delicate and refined and gave primacy to feelings over action.
Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, E. M. Forster, Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf: these are the recurring names in the corpus of heritage movies. It is therefore no coincidence that the audience most often attracted to heritage films was middle-class, middle-aged and frequently female, an audience for whom Frank Leavis had defined what constituted great literature.
Higson valuably and illuminatingly establishes the production and distribution context of the films, identifying the conditions that permitted the genre to flourish when it did. These include the existence of specialist US distributors, the availability of state subsidies and funding from Channel 4 and the BBC, distinctive advertising and promotion strategies, the "embourgeoisement" of the audience and, most important, the growth of the crossover film, the feature that was to move out of the art house and into the multiplex, broadening its audience dramatically ( Chariots of Fire and A Room with a View for example).
Higson carefully explores the critical debates and ingeniously resolves the apparently irreconcilable difference of interpretation by positing a crucial distinction between the visuals and the narrative of the films. The visuals, with their emphasis on elite culture and mythic landscapes, support a conservative interpretation, while the narratives, which are critical of entrenched attitudes and values, permit a radical interpretation. So he comes up with a fashionably postmodernist interpretation: the films mean different things to different people at the same time and there is no one "correct" interpretation.
He ends with two detailed case studies to illustrate his arguments. One is James Ivory's Howards End, a classic heritage film and one that defines the genre in every respect. The other is Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth. But Elizabeth was if anything an anti-heritage film, a political thriller that depicted the Tudor court as a 16th-century mafia, made a direct appeal to the Pulp Fiction generation and was about as far from the accepted image of heritage as you could get. It serves only to demonstrate that not every costume drama is a heritage film and there is a limit to how far generic definition should be allowed to be "loose and leaky".
Jeffrey Richards is professor of cultural history, University of Lancaster.
English Heritage, English Cinema: Costume Drama since 1980
Author - Andrew Higson
ISBN - 019 818293 7 - and 925902 X
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £50.00 and £16.99
Pages - 282