One nation under a lens

October 10, 1997

Media and cultural studies: party political PR, film, video and the net in an age of media domination

Alfred Hitchcock's English period, the history of the Gainsborough studio and filmic representations of national heritage are among the topics being explored by University of East Anglia researchers studying the history of British cinema.

The heritage project is being carried out by Andrew Higson, chair of UEA's film studies unit. The work was partly inspired by recognition of the huge success in recent years of prestigious adaptations of canonic literature. Typical of this genre are the Merchant Ivory productions Howards End and A Room with a View.

Particularly striking about these films is the lavish parading of heritage artefacts like period buildings, paintings and costumes. Yet for Dr Higson they also operate at a different level, such as the exploration of gender issues.

Film maker Alan Parker famously dismissed Merchant Ivory as the Laura Ashley of the film industry, purveyors of a cosy, conservative world of little relevance to the present. But Dr Higson says others have argued that, on the contrary, Merchant Ivory's films can also be read as a liberal critique of the materialism of the Thatcher years, exploring issues of gender, class and nations. They are also a very big hit abroad.

"Merchant Ivory films, for example, were so popular in Japan that there was a real fashion there for a time for tea parties and outside wedding receptions," he said.

Dr Higson's work on filmic representation of British heritage in the late 1980s and 1990s has now been broadened to look at its history since the beginning of cinema in the 1890s. Around the turn of the century the most popular representation of heritage featured the royal family.

"Film makers at that time were very concerned with showing the image. They were as fascinated with the decor and the finery as with the narrative."

This has parallels with modern explorations of heritage," he adds. A Room with a View, for instance, "delights and revels in decor and period architecture".

In the 1930s a whole series of costume dramas dealing with the English monarchy was made. Alexander Korda's The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) was the Four Weddings and a Funeral of its day. Then there were Herbert Wilcox's films about Queen Victoria, Victoria The Great and Sixty Glorious Years.

"On the one hand these films are reverential about royal heritage but on the other hand they are irreverent and delight in prying into the private lives of the royals."

Dr Higson hopes analysis of films which focus on the monarchy will provide him with new insights into the complex relationship between media and the royal family this century. He plans to publish the research as a book, provisionally titled English Heritage, English Cinema. UEA's film unit is planning a conference on British cinema next July.

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