'Reel Britannia' review: Britbox series is vital reminder of the power of British cinema

·5-min read
Reel Britannia (Britbox)
Reel Britannia (Britbox)

New documentary series Reel Britannia is aimed at fair weather film fans and cinephile enthusiasts in equal measure.

Launching on Britbox on Thursday, 9 June, this four-part series casts a critical eye over the collective accomplishments of British cinema since 1960, and is essential viewing.

It pulls together every element which has influenced the film making landscape on these fair isles over that time, as well as bringing in some seminal movie makers to offer their two pence.

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Written and directed by Jon Spira (Elstree 1976, Hollywood Bulldogs), this cornucopia of cinematic facts pulls in formative voices such as Stephen Frears (Florence Foster Jenkins), Mike Leigh (Peterloo), and Edgar Wright (Last Night in Soho) for context.

These exemplars of the British film movement are all afforded an opportunity to educate and enlighten audiences looking to broaden their knowledge.

What Reel Britannia builds in those opening episodes is a foundation which is stitched together with period specific stock footage and selective film clips of the time. It offers a cinematic window into that era, but also incorporates social issues that tied into the subject matter being explored.

Luminaries of the establishment including David Puttnam (Chariots of Fire) wax lyrical about pioneers who are now lost to posterity, such as playwright John Osborne (The Entertainer), and film director Lindsay Anderson (This Sporting Life).

Actor Ben Cross in a scene from the film 'Chariots of Fire', 1981. (Photo by Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images)
Ben Cross in a scene from British hit Chariots of Fire, 1981. (Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images)

They all played their part in shaping what is referred to as the British New Wave — the 1960s phenomenon which spawned film stars in Albert Finney and Sean Connery, by way of James Bond.

Narrator Nick Helm also sheds light on a fundamental theme in British cinema referred to as social realism, where contemporary issues including racism, class and gender were first examined by British film makers.

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In a post-war period, which saw Britain become an epicentre of creative endeavour, with visionary directors plying their trade, before emerging as cinematic forces of nature.

(Eingeschränkte Rechte für bestimmte redaktionelle Kunden in Deutschland. Limited rights for specific editorial clients in Germany.) RICHARD BURTON (1925-1984). Welsh actor. Burton with Mary Ure in the film 'Look Back in Anger,' 1959.  (Photo by ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Richard Burton with Mary Ure in the film Look Back in Anger, 1959. (Getty Images)

Kitchen sink dramas such as 1959's Look Back in Anger (John Osborne), sat in opposition to psychedelic fever dreams including Performance (Nic Roeg), or haunting character studies like Kes (Ken Loach).

Films which celebrated the British psyche in all its infinite hues, leaving behind moments of stark realism in conjunction with hedonistic examples of anti-establishment cinema.

As episode two opens audiences are left reeling from the abject navel-gazing and drug-fuelled visions of an emerging counterculture, and Ken Russell makes his entrance with The Devils.

Vanessa Redgrave portraying a nun in a scene from the film 'The Devils', 1971. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images)
Vanessa Redgrave portraying a nun in a scene from the film The Devils, 1971. (Warner Brothers/Getty Images)

Russell's film made the most extreme use of the rock star aesthetic in its lead Oliver Reed, whilst gratuitous violence and religious iconography kept an uncut version in the Warner Bros. vaults permanently.

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What also becomes apparent in the 70’s is just how much creativity dropped off, as a focus on sex comedies and long form versions of popular television shows reigned supreme.

Exceptions to the rule during this period being Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, and the emergence of advertising director Ridley Scott amongst others.

Kino. Uhrwerk Orange, Clockwork Orange, A, Uhrwerk Orange, Clockwork Orange, A, Malcolm McDowell Alex (Malcolm McDowell,m) und seine Gang., 1971. (Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images)
Malcolm McDowell in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. (Getty Images)

Throughout this documentary, writer-director Jon Spira strikes a perfect balance between social context and cinematic reality, as the boom of 1960’s cinema made way for a less affluent era, when changing musical tastes, fluctuating political allegiances, and the economic impact of minimal film investment all played their part.

However, throughout this time certain iconic film actors endured, breaking silver screen stereotypes and proving pivotal in shaping audience expectations going forward.

Michael Caine was one such example coming up through the 60’s as Alfie, then going on to personify a harder edged 1970s mentality in seminal flick Get Carter.

Michael Caine, British actor, wearing a black raincoat and holding a black telephone receiver in a publicity still issued for the film, 'Get Carter', United Kingdom, 1971. The crime thriller, directed by Mike Hodges, starred Caine as 'Jack Carter'. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
Michael Caine in Get Carter. (Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

This hard-hitting movie paved the way for The Long Good Friday, Mona Lisa and Harry Brown which came later, and captured a moment in cinema history which marked a turning point for all concerned.

Beyond the facts and figures of who played their part in shaping British cinema, Reel Britannia also makes a real effort to remain engaging, striking a balance between information, spectacle and analysis which other film makers sometimes get wrong.

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There is a sharp focus on real world events which played their part in shaping the institution of British cinema. This focus embraces every facet without favouring one over the other, nor avoiding the simple fact that things were not always a bed of roses.

Edgar Wright is just one of many engaging talking heads that appear in Reel Britannia. (Britbox)
Edgar Wright is just one of many engaging talking heads that appear in Reel Britannia. (Britbox)

Above all this Britbox documentary series goes a long way towards inspiring audiences into action, by illustrating how influential UK based cinema has been for untold generations.

As we continue to break new ground, explore alternate ways of storytelling, and recognise unity through the visual medium of cinema, Reel Britannia has never felt more vital.

Alongside other examples of the documentary sub-genre from masters like Mark Cousins, Reel Britannia should be mandatory viewing.

Episode 1 of Reel Britannia is streaming on Britbox now, with subsequent episodes releasing weekly on Thursdays.

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