One of the most prominent cinema industries in Europe is the British. With a unique identity and its constant competition for dominance against Hollywood, movies made in the UK (like Harry Potter or Notting Hill) are amongst the most watched worldwide. But what happened before our times? How did cinema develop in Britain? What have been their forgotten achievements?
It started in Leeds, in the north of England, when the Frenchman Louis Le Prince (heralded as the "Father of Cinematography" since 1930) shot the world’s first moving picture in 1888. After him, photographer and inventor William Friese-Greene developed the first moving pictures on celluloid a year later, and patented the process in 1890.
The United Kingdom kept pioneering in the industry and in 1899, inventor and cinematographer Edward Raymond Turner developed the very first films in color, who patented a 3-colour additive motion picture process. The earliest film in color was found in 2012 by the British National Media Museum in Bradford, and dates back to 1902. It is important to note, however, that Another British man, George Albert Smith, was believed to have developed the first color system, Kinemacolor, in 1908.
During the 1910s to mid-1920s, British cinema started to lag behind the American counterpart, due to the larger market across the Atlantic and WWI (a time in which finances in the country were focused on the war). This era saw the remarkable works of Charlie Chaplin in silent cinema, despite that fact that his first appearances and success in movies occurred in the US. While at the peak of his career, Chaplin faced numerous scandals, including his ties to communism in America in the 1940s. He eventually left the country and settled in Switzerland in 1953, where he died in 1977. Amongst Chaplin’s most important films are City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940).
The 1930s saw the rise of the man who would be later known as “The Master of Suspense”. Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929) is often regarded as the first British sound feature by historians. Hitchcock was another British talent who fled to the US after his success at home, where he was dubbed "Alfred the Great". By March 1939 he moved to Hollywood where he filmed Rebecca (1940), which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Notorious (1946), Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), Psycho (1960), among others. Hitchcock died at age 80 in Bel Air in 1980.
The first documentary from the UK arrived during this time as well, including John Grierson's Drifters (1929) and Night Mail (1936).
During the 1930's two other valuable entities flourished in the country’s industry: the British Film Institute and the National Film Archives. To this day, they maintain and develop a movie library not solely composed of British films, but of international ones as well. These institutions also restore damaged prints and transfer nitrate stock onto safety film.
World War II and Post-war era
As WWII escalated, British cinema focused its efforts on documentaries, though productions were less numerous than in years prior. During these years, Humphrey Jennings begun his distinguished series of documentaries including London Can Take It! (1940), about the London Blitz.
After the war, a new approach to cinema rose thanks to young directors such as David Lean, who produced important movies from this era like Brief Encounter (1945) and his Dickens adaptations Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948).
In the 1950s, British productions began to concentrate on popular comedies, WWII dramas, and some horror films, all of which led to social realism productions. That latter wave, which started at the end of the decade and spanned four years, was usually characterized by angry young men protagonists. Amongst the most popular films of the decade were Dracula (1958), with Cristopher Lee as the famous vampire, Tony Richardson's A Taste of Honey (1961), and Victim (1961), a story about the blackmailing of homosexuals.
A Boom in the 60s
American producers became interested again in British cinema during this decade, and films that combined sex with exotic locations, casual violence and self-referential humor were phenomenally successful. James Bond movies starring Sean Connery, which turned into worldwide blockbusters, are perfect examples.
The decade was also marked by the permanent move of American directors to Britain, led by Joseph Losey and Stanley Kubrik. It is remarkable that four of the decade's Academy Award winners for Best Picture were British productions, including six Oscars for the musical film Oliver! (1968). Another successful film of the decade was David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), starring Peter O’Toole.
A More Relaxed Censorship
After WWII, the British government tightened their control over film content; however, starting in the 1970s, the iron hand began to soften, opening space to new, controversial stories. Perfect examples include cult classics such as Ken Russell's The Devils (1970), Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971), and Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971).
It was at this exact time that successful productions took flight, with the prime example being success of acts like Monty Python, who enjoyed massive commercial success with Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979).
The 80s Decline and Re-birth
The 1980s represented a gruesome recessionary period for the British film industry. In 1980 only 31 UK films were produced, down 50% from the previous year, and the lowest output level since 1914.
However, this led different national channels to extend extra effort in cinematic production, thus creating an overwhelming enthusiasm by a new generation of actors and filmmakers. Such eagerness paid out with films like Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire (1981), which won four Academy Awards in 1982, including Best Picture. This decade also saw the emergence of directors like Ridley Scott and actors such as Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tim Roth and Rupert Everett, who would soon gain international recognition.
A New Commercial Approach and Present Day
The 1990s began with difficulties for British cinema as few movies enjoyed significant commercial success, locally or internationally. A new trend, however, commenced in 1994 with Richard Curtis’ Four Weddings and a Funeral, leading to a renewed interest and investment in the industry.
Such effort turned into commercial worldwide hits like Sliding Doors (1998), Notting Hill (1999) and the Bridget Jones films, all with a pattern of romance and comedy.
After that, the new era that began for British cinema from the 2000s saw even more money flowing to support the industry with massive projects like the Harry Potter saga and other projects like Children of Men (2006), and Oscar winning movie The King’s Speech (2011).