Today’s guest blogger is from crime fiction critic Barry Forshaw. A former Vice-Chair of the Crime Writer’s Association Barry is a writer and journalist whose books include British Crime Writing: An Encyclopaedia and The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction. He is also the editor of the crime fiction website Crime Time. His latest book is British Crime Film: Subverting the Social Order – a comprehensive social history of British crime film.
The British (or, perhaps, the English) have a problem with being proud of things these days. It may be a legacy of the less admirable aspects of Empire, but while other nations allow their chests to swell with patriotic pride (look at the Scots; for instance), the English have a more ambiguous attitude when it comes to celebrating their own achievements. The recent, much-trumpeted opening ceremony for the Olympics featured extensive sections of rap (British, perhaps – although it might be argued that it’s a quintessentially American phenomenon), but the one short burst of Elgar was virtually the only acknowledgement of the prestigious musical tradition in this country, and there wasn't even any real faith invested in the second Elgarian Olympic moment at the closing ceremony, interrupted within seconds of it starting by Timothy Spall's hectoring, pantomime impersonation of Winston Churchill.
Nevertheless, when it comes to self-deprecation – why, we’re bloody good at that. Moreover, perhaps we have reason to be; there was much national soul-searching over the recent decimation of Army ranks (widely felt to be a dumping on the scrapheap of men who had dedicated their lives to the service of their country) which was widely covered. And this strange conflict between British pride and shame had me thinking of one thing we can be proud of: the long, impressive legacy of crime movies made in this country. What's more, one of the most famous, The League of Gentlemen, had as a crucial part of its narrative Army men who felt they had been thrown on the scrapheap (and turn to crime). Topical, eh? And writing British Crime Film, I was reminded – again and again – how often this branch of popular cinema had its finger on the pulse of many key notions of Britishness (and even Englishness).
In many ways, the modest critical standing of much British crime cinema has afforded it a rich seam of possibilities. Genre cinema was for many years treated with critical disdain (consolidated by the fact that audiences – while enjoying it – regarded the field as nothing more than entertainment).
From Robbery to Get Carter
Throughout its long and colourful history, British crime cinema has encountered a series of problems peculiar to the genre. While the subject of the heist or ambitious robbery (in films such as Quentin Lawrence’s Cash on Demand (1961) or Peter Yates’ version of the Great Train Robbery, Robbery (1967)) has been relatively unproblematic, there are certain areas that proved to be incendiary when the films were examined by the British Board of Film Censors (the name of the organisation was changed in a piece of Orwellian rewriting to the British Board of Film Classification – appropriately, in 1984); and it’s not hard to discern the reasons for the fuss. In the 1960s, the BBFC made little secret of the fact that it regarded its role as maintaining the rigid status quo of society as much as protecting the vulnerable, biddable public from sights that would cause offence or (worse still) inspire imitative behaviour. The 1961 Joseph Losey film The Damned featured scenes of gang violence in the original screenplay submitted to the Board, and inspired a strikingly nannyish response. The earlier Brighton Rock (1947) had caused a similar fuss. As so often in the history of British film censorship from the 1940s onwards, it is the ‘dangerous influence’ of popular cinema that was seen to be as threatening as any graphic violence or sexuality (although the latter elements in crime films were firmly fixed in the popular imagination as depicting more explicit erotic activity and female nudity than more mainstream product). Ironically, though, the most iconic of modern British gangster films, Mike Hodges’ Get Carter (1971), casts a notably cold eye on its ruthless protagonist, however charismatically he is played by Michael Caine. There was an ideological distance between British filmmakers and their criminal subjects – these films did not deal in hero-worship, despite the compelling energy of their protagonists.
Class and sex
Studying the British crime film from the mid-1940s to the present offers a microcosm of the events that shaped the nation, from the election of the post-war Labour government through the subsequent shift from middle-class drawing-room drama to the new dominance of northern-based realist drama. There was a changing view of class and a freeing-up of previously rigid sexual attitudes. However, most significant was the new, more jaundiced take on the certainties of the establishment (the government, the legal profession or the hidebound moralism of the press). And the often-iconoclastic impulses of the crime film could be read as a commentary on the shifting sands of moral viewpoints.
Subversive? Perhaps. Finally, though, this is an imposing parade of truly impressive films that we in Britain can point to with pride. Writing British Crime Film was my attempt to celebrate this striking legacy. A legacy that is, thankfully, alive and kicking.
British Crime Film by Barry Forshaw is published by Palgrave Macmillan and is officially published on Monday 3 September 2012.