British cinema’s dialogue with Thatcherite ideas, meanings, and values during the 1980s

Length: 1007 words

The eleven years of Margaret Thatcher’s reign, which spanned through the 1980s were known for the social turbulence they caused. The right wing political ideology that has come to be called Thatcherism is deemed reactionary in many ways. To given an example, a pub near the Underground station at Highbury and Islington in north London was forced to paint the following sign blank under Thatcher’s conservatism: An Equal Opportunities Pub Regardless of Race, Creed, Nationality, Disability Or Sexual Orientation. This illustrates the deep impact of Thatcherism in all domains of cultural life. This was a period when “the very existence of society was placed in doubt, when the belief that greed is good was promoted as a moral imperative. It was also the decade when London came to seem like another country.” (Street, 1997, p. 106)

Cinema, being a major cultural product, was especially subject to pressure from the conservatives. Cinema as an industry suffered majorly as a result of cuts to government subsidies to the arts. Though the Thatcher government did not have a well-articulated culture policy, it nevertheless displayed an “instinctive hostility to the principle of state funding for the arts, which was loosely yoked

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to a visceral philistinism. They had no developed sense of culture as a site of personal or collective belonging, and hence lacked any real sense of the deep anguish caused by the cuts, which were taken as carefully targeted assaults by so many groups.” (Watney, 2006) The film industry, though a victim of this policy framework, nevertheless sought to create art out of the unraveling pathos. The medium was thus used to capture the “ghastly screeching tone of so much of British life in the 1980s, from the hate-filled headlines of the tabloids to the deluded rantings of those who maintained that we were all only a hair’s breadth away from fascist dictatorship.” (Watney, 2006)

The oppressive socio-cultural atmosphere under Thatcher did produce some beneficial social tendencies. In the academic world, there was renewed focus on nascent currents within Cultural Studies and Film Studies. Moreover, Thatcherism consolidated regional and minority social identities of groups that perceived themselves as being targeted by the Thatcher government. This had an indirect impact on the film industry, as reflected in

“the impressive growth of independent black cinema, local nationalisms, the women’s health movement, the gay response to HIV, and so on. Such areas of struggle and contestation generated a great number of very different and often exciting cinematic projects, including exhibitions, many of which were met by distinctly hostile criticism, especially from would-be populist politicians and newspaper editors eager to promote moralistic controversy and hence sales.” (Watney, 2006)

What the films of 1980s tried to showcase was the sudden change in the nation’s economy from an industrial to a financial base. The film industry, having already been denied support by the Thatcher government, found itself with a new conundrum. For the previous two decades the industry was content to operate with the culture-is-good-for-you belief. But now the changed economic scenario demanded engagement with new questions. No longer could cinema project the belief that the future would inevitably be better than the past. All arts had to find new narratives and new social riddles. Cinema too found itself faced with this challenge. Other events like the advent of Channel 4 blew a challenging new wind “through television, and also put the British cinema revival on track with its hugely influential Film on 4 series. Multiplex cinemas later in the decade arrived just in time to put 30 years of seemingly terminal decline in cinemagoing into reverse.” (“Golden Jubilee Special: 1980s,” 2002, p. 16)

The success of Chariots of Fire is in part due to the abundance of narratives opened up by Thatcherism’s hostile social policy. Other notable films include Hanif Kureshi and Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette, MikeLeigh’s Meantime and David Leland’s Made in Britain. My Beautiful Launderette has a strong Thatcherite context and it deals with the British Asian experience in the 1980s. Against a background of racism and the market economy, a young Pakistani man, Omar, has a relationship with a white punk, Johnny. Omar makes a living managing his uncle’s launderette. With creative inputs from Johnny, he manages to transform the struggling business into a success. It is as much a success of the personal relationship between the two men. But in Thatcher’s Britain racism is never too far. This sad fact was illustrated by the attack on the couple by racist punks. (Street, 1997, p. 107)

Finally, in terms of a head-on confrontation with the Tory party, it was The Ploughman’s Lunch that was the most bold. Written by novelist Ian McEwen and directed by Richard Eyre the film “took a scalpel to the contemporary Conservative Party itself.” (“Golden Jubilee Special: 1980s,” 2002, p. 16). The Ploughman’s Lunch is the most overtly political film about Thatcherism to have emerged in the 1980s. It deals with an attempt by a BBC news editor (played by Jonathan Pryce), to publish a book on the Suez crisis just as the crisis in Falklands was escalating. The news editor has an arduous time in retrieving the true past. Just as false propaganda was rife in the ongoing Falkland crisis, the past was also falsified through the acceptance of certain historical accounts over others. He associates such falsities with the 1980 Conservative Party Conference, making a bold condemnation of the Thatcher government. The film “works on the principles, not of harmony, but of cacophony, not consensus but dissent.” (Walker, 1985:264). The film is unusual

“in its interweaving of fictional narrative events with their contemporary historical context: the micro-level is James’ quest about Suez, while the macro-level is undoubtedly Thatcherism. The viewer is therefore encouraged to arrive at political conclusions about the film’s many dissenting elements: its portrayal of consumerism (the title alluding to the manufacture of the past), the world of television journalism and the Conservative Party under Thatcher. As one critic put it, The Ploughman’s Lunch ‘was about the exploitative, fraudulent, manipulative skills of the Eighties’.” (Walker, 1985:264).

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