Consensus, hybridity, and the national in British Cinema
In a month’s time I will be presenting a paper at the Manchester Centre for Regional History’s conference on Place and Identity, where I will be talking about why the hybridity thesis in British cinema studies does not work for Northern Ireland. Whilst I have been writing this piece, I’ve been reflecting on the relationship between consensus and hybridity in British cinema and this is a first attempt to outline some thoughts on that subject.
The concept of the ‘national’ has been highly influential in film studies. As an emerging academic discipline in the 1960s, film studies looked to national labels as a simple way of developing a curriculum, and (along with genre) this is still the dominant path taken today. Publishers and distributors of films have followed suit, releasing series of books dealing with the nation in film (e.g. Routledge’s national cinema series, Manchester University Press’s series on French and British directors) or films under national banners (e.g. VCI Entertainment have released a series of British films on DVD in America that place the nation at the fore of their marketing).
However, the concept of the national has been criticised for relying on an image of a homogeneous, unified nation that does not match the reality of living in a complex world. The nation overrides difference, and as a critical label, it blinds us to the diversity of identities in the modern world. The concept of ‘hybridity’ has been used to overcome this objection (see Hill 1992, 1999, Redfern 2006). Hybridity has become a key concept in cultural geography as an interpretive framework for understanding narratives and identities that are resistant to essentialist and essentialising notions of politics and culture (Mitchell 2005). Nations are no longer simply pure – they are hybrid. An individual’s identity is not pure, but is multidimensional and the nature of this identity is dependent upon the circumstances in which the individual finds him/herself.
Here I wish to explore two aspects of the relationship between national identity and other forms of identity in the case of British cinema.
Consensus is a means of coping with difference
Andrew Higson describes the decline of a national consensus and consensual images in the 1960s, but rejects the concept of the national specificity of a hybrid cinema and instead proposes a variety of cinemas that have no recourse to nationality. In Waving the Flag: Constructing a National Cinema in Britain, Higson argues that, ‘representations of the nation in British films are not reflections of the actual formation of the nation-state, but rather ideological constructions of “the nation,” a publicly imagined sense of community and cultural space’ (1995: 1). Analysing British films from the 1920s (Comin’ Thro the Rye [Cecil Hepworth, 1924]), the 1930s (Sing As We Go and Evergreen [Victor Saville, 1934]), and the 1940s (Millions Like Us and This Happy Breed [David Lean, 1944]), the industry that produced them, and the culture that consumed them, Higson identifies a set of recurring characteristics that allows for the imagining of the nation as a ‘knowable organic community’ characterised by a ‘unity-in-diversity.’ This community is expressed through a series of distinctive stylistic traits. The British cinema is characterised by a number of filmic traditions (the heritage film, the popular musical-comedy, the documentary-realist film) that, ‘typically refuse the rigours of classical narrative integration in favour of what seems a more “primitive” narrational form,’ distinguished by episodicism, multiple and interweaving narrative lines, and a diegesis that is ‘narratively excessive’ (1995: 276). The British cinema, Higson argues, is ‘a national cinema, then, which displays the multiple attractions of the nation,’ and displays these attractions from ‘a distanced and objective viewpoint’ that encourages the viewer to reflect on the nation, and through an exhibitionist use of space in order to construct ‘a public space, a social space, and a national space, rather than the private space of the classical romantic hero’ (1995: 276-277). These aesthetic strategies are based on pre-existing cultural traditions that are identified as British, and are motivated in an attempt to reflect the nation to itself and to differentiate an indigenous product from Hollywood. As such, Comin’ thro the Rye, ‘should thus be seen as a historically specific response to the increasing domination of British cinema by American films and American standards;’ while Sing As We Go is ‘addressed to an audience familiar with the conventions of both music-hall and cinema,’ and to ‘a mass audience on a national basis;’ and Millions Like Us and This Happy Breed represent the British ‘metaphorically as a small, self-contained tight-knit community, a unity-in-diversity, but one which is structured like a family’ (1995: 96, 166, 179).
The traditions of British cinema Higson identifies were most influential between the 1930s and 1960s. However, since the 1960s the inclusive, all-embracing nation these films construct has ‘been displaced by an attempt to articulate various different social identities, to represent the ethnic, sexual, regional, gender, and class differences around which community and identity have been formed in contemporary Britain’ (1995: 273). This shift towards hybridity is a function of ‘powerful international forces’ that move in the direction of ‘global markets and cultures,’ and a move towards the ‘construction and recognition of many public spheres, rather than a single, universal public sphere,’ at least on behalf of the independent sector of British film production. For Higson,
This raises the question of whether such [recent] films can still be usefully be understood as the products of a national cinema, or whether the national in national cinema always invokes the myth of consensus – which such films as My Beautiful Laundrette show precisely as myth. What is important about such films is that they refuse over-arching visions of national identity and stress these other senses of identity and belonging which have always criss-crossed the body of the nation, and which often cross national boundaries too (1995: 273).
Thus, the project of a national cinema in the United Kingdom is at an end, and as the role of the nation-state has been challenged over the last three decades Higson states that in this new climate, ‘I would rather call for a socialist cinema, or a green cinema, or a feminist cinema than for the renewal of British cinema’ (1995: 279).
But why should consensus override difference? It is important here to understand the rather unusual way in which the United Kingdom came into existence.
Richard Rose argues that the creation of the United Kingdom was ‘certainly not the product of any logical plan, nor is it the product of a particular ideology’ (Rose 1982: 4). Britishness came into being with the Act of Union of 1707 that formally created England, Wales, and Scotland as ‘one United Kingdom by the name of Great Britain,’ with Ireland added to the Union in 1801. This act established a single political authority under the sovereignty of the monarch, and in doing so superimposed a state-based identity over the existing categories of English, Welsh, Scottish, and, later, Irish. The new identity of British did not eradicate the pre-Union identities of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom. Rather, Britishness permitted these older forms of identification to co-exist alongside it. As a political superstructure resting lightly on a diversity of identities, David McCrone suggests that the United Kingdom is ‘a state-nation masquerading as a nation-state:’
By referring to Britain as a ‘state-nation’ we are alluding to this fact that it was a state first, and only later (if it all) a nation. At no times can one seriously consider Britain a ‘nation-state,’ that is a homogeneous cultural grouping which mobilised that homogeneity to become a state. The British state was quite unlike later state formations which sought to align political, cultural, and economic structures in the classical form of the ‘nation state’ (2001: 97-98).
Britishness, then, is an identity founded upon what Tom Nairn (1997) describes as an ‘occluded multi-nationalism,’ and which Ben Wellings argues is an ideology that ‘developed post facto in order to legitimise the new state in the face of possible threats from social and nationalist sources’ (2002: 96). These commonalities have been explored in fascinating detail by Linda Colley in Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837. Colley argues that warfare and protestantism were the uniting factors as the newly-formed United Kingdom engaged in a sustained period of conflict with France, the Catholic enemy to the South. They [the British] came to define themselves as a single people not because of any political or cultural consensus at home, but rather in reaction to the Other beyond their shores.’ Britain, she writes,
was an invention forged above all by war. Time and time again, war with France brought Britons, whether they hailed from Wales or Scotland or England, into confrontation with an obvious hostile other and encouraged them to define themselves collectively against it. They defined themselves as Protestants struggling for survival against the world’s foremost Catholic power. They defined themselves against the French as they imagined them to be, superstitious, militarist, decadent and unfree (2003: 5-6).
From this perspective Britain is, and always has been, hybrid. The national consensus and the identity that rested upon this (‘Britishness’) was a way of uniting diverse peoples but did not eradicate older forms of identity (Scottishness, Englishness, etc.). Consensus was a way of coping with difference in the nation, but does not necessarily require the elimination of difference.
We can see examples of this in British films from World War Two – This Happy Breed (1944), In Which We Serve (1942), San Demtrio-London (1943), Went the Day Well (1942), The Way Ahead (1944), The Way to the Stars (1945), and Millions Like Us (1943). All of these films bring together groups of men and women from different parts of the UK, and different social classes and show them in sympathetic relationships to one another.The Manchester Guardian review of Millions Like Us noted that,
Nothing more clearly marks the coming-of-age of the British cinema than its treatment of ordinary working people, especially as minor characters or in the mass. The clowns of ten years ago first became lay figures of sociological drama and then, with the war, patriotic heroes. In Millions Like Us they are real human beings, and the British film has reached adult maturity (quoted in Chapman 1998: 44).
The film tells the story of a young woman Celia Crowson (played by Patricia Roc), who is called up for war service as a machine worker in an aircraft factory, and is sent to a government hostel, where she encounters women from a diverse range of social backgrounds: Gwen Price – a Welsh, working class graduate of the University of Wales; Annie Earnshaw – a down-to-earth Lancashire lass; and Jennifer Knowles – a snobbish society girl. In Millions Like Us, then, a small community of people are united in a common cause in which collective social responsibility outweighs individual desires, regardless of class, regional identity, and traditional gender roles. It presents a vision of a society that depends not on competition but on co-operation, offering a vision of Britain as a nation that Higson (1995) as:
- includes people of a variety of class positions;
- includes people of a variety of regional types and accents;
- includes people of a variety of ages and experiences;
- depends on reasonable, democratic, and co-operative forms of authority;
- has the appearance of organic unity; and,
- is structured like a family.
The film ends on an image of stability and unity, but it is one where the individual (Figure 1) is enveloped within an all-embracing community (Figure 2). It is a community in which each individual proves his or her worth to the team, and so by implication to the nation and the war effort.
Figure 1 Celia Crowson: the individual …
Figure 2 … and the collective in Millions Like Us.
What’s class/race/ethnicity/sexuality/gender/region go to do with it?
Perhaps the problem we have with these films is that they are naive in their optimism for the possibility in creating a consensual and supporting nation. The UK (like everywhere else) has a long history of racial intolerance, homophobia, sexism and so on. Perhaps the image of a consensual nation is simply too unrealistic for the post-war world, where we need to recognise the importance of other forms of identity (race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, region).
However, there is no reason why the national should in any way disappear. To the external observer the apparent boundedness, continuity, and homogeneity of the nation may appear unstable, vague, and permeable. However, Handler (1998) notes that the ‘fuzzy boundaries’ evident to such an observer do not fundamentally challenge the identity of a national entity, and that a ‘subjective boundedness’ – the sense that group members themselves form a distinct and homogeneous community – may be sufficient to overcome large objective differences to achieve a national self-awareness. Difference is only relevant to those who think it is relevant, and there may be many who do not think that it is (or have not even asked themselves the question). Furthermore, an individual’s expression of their identity tends to contingent on the circumstances in which they function. Pat Hudson suggests that ‘it is likely that people have different concepts of the self simultaneously which are switched on or off by particular situations and contexts,’ and sees the region as just such a heuristic device for the analysis of territory and identity (1999: 14, 8). It is the ability to switch identities on and off according to context that allows individuals to assume a number of seemingly contradictory group memberships.
An oft cited example is how other forms of identity leads us away from the national is a comment by Virginia Woolf:
As a woman I have no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.
This is, I think, a fascinating statement that begs numerous questions about the relationship between gender and geography – what is it to be a woman in a nation? What is it to be a woman in the world? But if you found yourself at a party talking to someone you had just met; and, having asked them where they were from, they replied ‘I am a woman,’ how would you respond? Naturally, you would be confused, because this is a non sequitur: gender identities and geographical identities may influence one another, but they are not substitutable. You cannot be gay or German – the distinction does not have any meaning. You cannot give up a national cinema for a feminist cinema, a socialist cinema, or a green cinema because this would also be meaningless as the one cannot be substituted for the other. Alternative forms of cinema may have nothing to do with the nation – there is no reason why they should. But the non sequitur holds for cinema as it does for the party-goer.
In the context of British cinema, we have come to the hybrid as a means of relating different types of identity. In British Cinema in the 1980s, John Hill describes the emergence of such a national cinema in the UK, reflecting ‘a much more fluid, hybrid, and plural sense of ‘Britishness’ than earlier British cinema generally did. In this respect, while the British cinema of the 1980s failed to assert the myths of the ‘nation’ with its earlier confidence it was nevertheless a cinema that could be regarded as representing the complexities of ‘national’ life more fully than before’ (1999: 241). This hybridity is derived from the ways in which the British cinema ‘became involved in a cultural politics of ‘identity’ and ‘difference’ and, in doing so, sought to negotiate the complex terrain of class, gender, sexual orientation, “race,” and nationality’ in the 1980s (Hill 1999: xii). Like Higson, Hill points to the Stephen Frears/Hanif Kureshi films My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987) as exemplars of the cultural hybridity he seeks to identify as the defining aspect of British cinema in the 1980s. For example, he writes that:
Characters’ identities are constructed across different axes – black/white, male/female, gay/straight – which also place them in ‘different’ and complicated ‘positionalities’ to others. Thus, in the case of the Asian lesbian, Rani (Meera Syal) in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, her identity is not simply Asian, female, or lesbian but one which is ‘overdetermined’ and shifting… (Hill 1999: 208).
Hill argues that in presenting the shift towards hybridity in 1980s British cinema films such as Sammy and Rosie Get Laid represent the multiple and complex axes of identity (class, gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity) that are characteristic of modern Britain. This conception of British national cinema as a historical, impure, hybrid, and complex cinema has become the dominant model in British cinema studies, and this reflected in writing on class (Gillett 2003), race and ethnicity (Malik 1996, Bourne 1998, Alexander 2000), gender (Geraghty 2000, Harper 2000, Monk 2000) and sexuality (Bourne 1996), and regional identity (Redfern 2007) in contemporary British cinema.
The concept of hybridity has become an important crititcal reference point in British cinema studies, and has been primarily used as a way of dealing with the multitude of contemporary identities in the UK. The emergence of hybridity has taken place in the context of the rejection of consensual images of the nation. However, if we view the UK as a nation that emerged as a hybrid, in which a British national identity emerged through the commonalties of English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish (however complicated this last might be) and did not replace older identities, then we can also view consensus in British cinema as a strategy for coping with the diversity of identities. A research programme for British studies is to trace this shift from consensus to hybridity.
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