What is British?

Posted: May 17, 2012 in Uncategorized

In my last post, I talked about receiving a script report back for my screenplay ‘Beach Huts’. After reading the report and going back to my script, I became aware of something. It’s not something I didn’t already know, but it’s something I began to think about in more depth. I’ve always pitched Beach Huts as a ‘British comedy drama’, and in essence that’s exactly what it is – but why? Why do I always tag the word ‘British’ onto the description when people ask me what sort of film it is? That’s what I want to discuss today, and perhaps it’ll give me some food for thought when tackling this latest draft.

Genre

I’m not a massive fan of categories and genres. I hate it when someone says ‘What music do you like?’ They instantly expect you to label yourself with a genre, so they can form some ill-informed judgement based on common stereotypes and misconceptions. If I say hip hop, will they think I’m some sort of stoner rude boy gangster wannabe? If I say drum and bass, will they assume I have a 10,000 watt speaker system in my car that I drive around blasting out at full volume? If I say trance, will they think I like to paint myself in florescent colours and jump around taking pills all night? I certainly can’t say ‘I have an eclectic taste’, because that the most clichéd comment EVER, isn’t it? Really what I want to say is ‘I like GOOD music’, but I guess that’s a bit of a conversation stopper and may label me a ‘twat’ rather than a musical stereotype. And what’s to say my perception of ‘good’ music is right anyway? Fuck it, I like music in general and that’s it…now piss off with your labelling! Apologies for the outburst. I know why it’s done – we need genres to help us when we’re shopping in HMV, obviously. A similar thing happens with film. We all know the basic genres – Action, Thriller, Romance, Horror, Comedy, Documentary etc. and the various break-off genres (whether labelled in HMV or not), Comedy Drama, Gornograhy, Mockumentary and so on. But every so often, you get a film that breaks all the conventions of its genre to produce something quite unique – films like Let the Right One In (2008) and more noticeably From Dusk Till Dawn (1996). I’ve always wanted to write a ‘good’ film without worrying about what genre it is. If people watch it and say ‘that was a great comedy’, then it’s a great comedy, right? Don’t mistake me for one of these pretentious artist types that will present a dog shit on a plinth and let critics form in-depth theories about how it ‘represents the breakdown of our society in the 21st century’, and then just agree by saying ‘it means whatever you think it means’. That’s bollocks. David Lynch is a name that springs to mind. I think elements of his filmmaking are great, but I’m not sure it’s a good thing to come away from a film completely baffled. Also, I don’t think it’s great that when asked about what one of his films is like, people just say ‘well, it’s a David Lynch’. I think a lot of people say they like his films just because they think they’re being intelligent by doing so, whether they understand them or not. I don’t want my films to be so obscure that they have to be categorised by my name. No, it has to be good and has to have a point, but it doesn’t have to be so engineered. I’m not opposed to selecting a genre and writing with its conventions in mind, but I think it’s important not to be constrained by them. I just know that Beach Huts was never written like that. It has funny moments, it has dramatic moments, and it’s overtly British on every level – I guess that’s where I get my description from! I did actually write an essay based on this script for my masters degree, and if I were being really technical I’d say something like ‘Beach Huts is best defined as a ‘social realist’ text’. The Full Monty (1997) is classed as social realism, but that’s not how it would be categorized online. In fact, a quick google search throws up descriptions like ‘British comedy’ and ‘comedy drama’.

I’ve never really thought of Beach Huts as being like The Full Monty, but I do recognise the similarities. Touching on ‘social realism’ for a second, I suppose it is one classification that encompasses the style, tone, and themes explored in Beach Huts. McKee (1998) defines this genre as the ‘Social Drama’; a genre that ‘identifies problems in society – poverty, the education system, communicable diseases, the disadvantaged, antisocial rebellion, and the like – then constructs a story demonstrating a cure.’ In its current form, Beach Huts does this, but I think it can do it better. I never formulated this idea by following conventions of the social drama, social realism or ‘British’ comedy/drama, but it so happens that it fits in these categories. Maybe it’s time I embrace the label and make it work ‘better’ to fit in this genre?

Why is my film British?

The arena has been one of the most influential factors in determining the tone and genre of Beach Huts. The beach location has been a focus for a number of British filmmakers. Gurinder Chadha, Pawel Pawlikowski and Michael Winterbottom, with the exception of Shane Meadows, have all made films using the British seaside as their primary location. I think Beach Huts challenges our understanding of this location by exploring what it represents for the different characters, looking at how these perceptions might mirror or contradict those within contemporary Britain. The ‘seaside’ setting in Britain has changed over the years, but still a wide range of predominantly British iconography remains. Fish and chips, amusement arcades and pleasure piers’, including the beach hut itself (a uniquely British phenomenon) have all been used in Beach Huts to build this British theme. But can more be done? This is what Alec had to say in his script report – ‘looking at UK films recently (and not so recently), I see a trend of placing them in distinctively recognisable time periods. ‘Hunky Dory’ has the long, hot summer of 1976 as it’s backdrop; ‘Wild Bill’ has the building of the Olympic infrastructure, ‘Submarine’ is deliberately vague on its 80s setting, and of course ‘Billy Elliot’ happens with the miners’ strike in the background. You might want to consider threading through a similar strand just to make your film resonate more as British.’ We discussed a number of possibilities, and I think we’ve come up with an idea that will work. There’d be no point in shoe-horning something in without it being integral to the plot – it has to be something that works to drive the narrative. I’m going to give this new idea a go and see how I get on…maybe it’s the missing link to tie everything together? Maybe this is what I need to drive home that social realist tone?

It’s British, but is it?

Now this is what’s been bothering me. Whatever happens with this latest draft, Beach Huts will be set in contemporary Britain (at least post 2004). However, the characters in the script only reflect a small proportion of the ethnic demographic in Britain’s current multicultural society. In another essay I wrote for my MA, I was critiquing Doc Martin in relation to this very subject. Entitled ‘Doc Martin: The people’s Doctor?’ my argument was that this series was created purely for entertainment value and maximised audience ratings, with no awareness of Public Service Broadcasting and the cultural diversity of a contemporary British audience.

Similar to Beach Huts, Doc Martin has a picturesque, typically British setting. Unlike Beach Huts, this arena is combined with light-hearted comedy and a feel-good factor that doesn’t really challenge an audience. I must admit, I’m a fan. It’s the escapism I enjoy, but that doesn’t stop me noting the use of stereotypes that inhabit a stereotypical community comprising of the plumber, the school teacher, the doctor, the policeman etc. In Beach Huts, there is no real reference to the character’s occupations – you learn about each of them through their interaction and reaction to scenarios. That’s not to say some of them don’t need a little more development, but generally I’ve tried to steer clear of outright stereotypes. Now, the problem I have is the diversity of the characters. In Doc Martin (at least throughout the first three series), we see no inclusion of diverse cultures. In fact, there isn’t a single individual who represents any other culture or background other than ‘white British’. It could be argued that it isn’t relevant for such a programme to include a multi-cultural cast. With such a rural location as a remote fishing village in Cornwall, would the inclusion of a multi-cultural community not be seen as a form of ‘tokenism’ or misrepresentation? This is what I’m struggling with. I don’t want to include characters in my script just for the sake of being PC, but I do want to show some awareness of a multi-cultural audience. This is something I am going to have to consider carefully with this latest draft.

Am I happy my film is British?

I love British films. Not all of them, but a lot of them. The ones I know and love have a real candour that I can only hope to achieve in my own writing. I think I’m getting there, but I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that I want my film to speak to many different people on many different levels. With Beach Huts, the arena, the characters and the tone are what renders it British…I never set out to write a typical British film, but that’s just the way it turned out. What I hope is that the story will travel. I don’t think the question I should be asking myself is ‘am I happy my film is British?’ I think the questions I should be asking is ‘am I happy that people may perceive my film to be written for a ‘select’ British audience?’ The simple answer is, NO. However, I’m not going to change my characters for the sake of being politically correct. I’ve been told they’re ‘strong’ and ‘well developed’, so why sacrifice that when the story is the element I want people from other communities and cultures to engage with? Beach Huts is about  a community, and the struggles with class, acceptance and rebellion within that community. Isn’t it what the story is about that’s important, not the people telling it? It’s something I’ll be thinking about over the next few days, but any thoughts on the matter will be gratefully received.

However Beach Huts pans out, I know my next project will include a much more accurate portrayal of contemporary Britain’s hybrid society. You can’t set a film in London and not expect it to represent characters from a wide range of backgrounds and cultures.

It’s back to the writing for me, and you should go back to whatever it was I’ve just distracted you from!

Until next time…

PEACE x

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