British Sounds By Ronald Bergan
What an excellent idea of the Turin Film Festival to arrange a retrospective of films devoted to what could be called, rather grandiloquently, the British Renaissance, i.e. films made in the U.K. mostly in the 1980s under the imperious rule of Margaret Thatcher. Those few guests at the festival who were part of the “movement”, producer Kenith Trodd, directors Bill Forsyth and Pat O’Connor, and ex-Python Michael Palin, seemed pleasantly surprised to find themselves referred to as “Renaissance Men”.
At the press conference, held in the 17th century Graneri della Roccia Palace, a significant example of Piedmontese Baroque, Trodd remarked, “Personally, in that precise historical moment, I wasn’t aware of the fact that I belonged to a movement. Hearing about it now almost flatters me, but back then we had no idea.” As for Forsyth, “I wasn’t aware of the definition ‘British Renaissance’. I discovered it while looking through the Festival’s programme.” Whether they were part of a movement or not, they all agreed with Palin that “there was an extraordinary sense of creative freedom; we knew we needed to do something as an alternative to the political climate in which we lived… There’s a factor that brings together all the directors of the ’80s; a deep hatred towards Mrs. Thatcher.” According to Pat O’Connor, “Everyone despised her: she had drastically cut the budget dedicated to the cinema, aside from having created severe problems that made us all plunge in anger and frustration as if we had been struck by a catastrophe. This pushed us to make movies, which later turned out rather interesting.”
In fact, although the 40 films obviously differed in subject and style, there emerged, after the lean period of British cinema in the ’70s, a new invigorating activity, small and middle-scale productions, a cinema made of social and cultural clashes, very national yet paradoxically international, a cinema that reignited the attention of film critics and the public world-wide. And the public’s enthusiasm for the British films of that period has not waned, if one can judge from the reaction of the young audiences in Turin.
The superb programme, curated by Emanuela Martini, included the rarely-seen The Terence Davies Trilogy, three short debut films which already deal with his constant obsessions — family, religion and sexuality — developed in his subsequent work such as his latest, impressive but rather portentous, Of Time and the City, shown outside competition. Another supplement to the retrospective were four TV plays of the writer Dennis Potter (1935-1994) — Brimstone & Treacle (1982), Pennies from Heaven (1978), Dreamchild (1985) and The Singing Detective (1986) — an exciting revelation to most of the non-British audiences.
The British Renaissance section was accompanied by an excellent book and three essays on the programme in the catalogue. Stephen Frears commented on the period, many years later: “I remember thinking, that, in a certain way we were true models of Thatcherism. We would be working hard in scarcities and economies, and we would transform ourselves into export products. But she never liked us, what she wanted were variety shows and game shows.”