Academic journal article CineAction

The New Face of British Heritage

Academic journal article CineAction

The New Face of British Heritage

Article excerpt

Current definitions of heritage films focus on narratives of privilege that present a very narrow image of British cultural heritage, one anchored by literary, aristocratic visions. The abandonment of the term heritage to an upper-class point of view overlooks too many cycles of British films while giving a privileged position to a restricted worldview. One of these overlooked cycles is the contemporary British crime film which reworks conventions of the 1940s British spiv cycle. The spiv cycle featured a noirish world of flash-dressing, petty black market racketeers, who thrived in the specific historic context of the postwar underworld economy. Some contemporary British crime films enact this cinematic heritage of class and crime, providing rich territory for a historical analysis of forms of white British masculinity. Such analysis opens up the notion of heritage and in turn may illuminate relationships among gender, class and nation.

Thomas Elsaesser has argued that what nations sell as national cinema in the international film market is their history. This is certainly true of the heritage film segment of the British film industry, as these films display both class and literary traditions. What British heritage films sell is specifically a history of class that, while concentrated in the aristocratic, fuels plot lines with a small inoculation of class conflict.

The recognized heritage films emphasize the aristocratic worldview, and minimally sympathize with the outsiders. Limiting the term "heritage" to films that substitute the class narratives of the aristocrats for broader-based narratives of all classes promotes a very conservative image of the past's importance and of our usage of the past. Reclaiming the term heritage for a wider selection of narratives dethrones the aristocratic worldview from its privileged place as the history and heritage of Britain.

The recent film Face (Antonia Bird, 1997) reworks conventions of the spiv film, and can be understood as an "urban heritage" film which emphasizes a working-class narrative, albeit one that is white and masculine. Like the spiv film, it constructs a particular politicized world, one that embodies characteristics of the social and economic legacies of Thatcherism.

Crime and Heritage

Peter Wollen argues for the spiv films as heritage films and I agree. The heritage film category can be defined through an urban strain, in which spiv films, based on clearly-defined working class milieus, reside. Contemporary British crime dramas partake of this different strain of heritage, an urban one with cinematic roots in the spiv cycle, which first appeared in the closing years of World War II. The spiv was not an "ordinary" criminal, but one whose crimes were linked to conditions of living, specifically the state regulation of economy and rationing that produced the black market. The spiv became "the man who" could get you...stockings, tires, cigarettes etc. Spivs were also noted for their flashy dress, which some critics says represents a "flashy flaunting of authority and petty regulations". (1) Other sources suggest that the spiv mode of dress was taken from Hollywood gangster films. Despite their flash suits and ties, spivs were an indigenous type originating from the wartime black market econom y, which continued to grow with post-war rationing. The films of this cycle also represent an intersection of crime and class, presenting concrete portraits of "life and work within the community combined with transports of demonic evil." The spiv film flourished between 1945 and 1950, the years of the first postwar Labor government, when the working class gain real power for the first time. Spiv films constitute one of the first British film cycles clearly based in a working-class milieu. (2)

As a member of the community, the spiv occupied an ambivalent place in World War II and post-war Britain:

...there were mixed attitudes toward the spiv in the community; people "knew a man who. …

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