21 August 2007 | farne
Upmarket clip show, full of spoilers
British Film Forever is the BBC's flagship series on British cinema as part of its "Summer of British Film" season. While the season is a good excuse to show some lesser known films, this accompanying series is a bit of a disappointment.
For a series of seven episodes averaging around 90 minutes each, there's not all that much information being imparted. The selection of interviewees (mostly actors, including Michael Caine, Helen Mirren and Bob Hoskins) puts this above the average clip show, but they all cover well trodden ground and audiences are unlikely to learn much unless they are completely new to the subject. By later episodes, not very recognisable actors and comedians start to creep in as well. Interviewees tend to say things like "it was totally new" "it was a breath of fresh air" etc, but isn't all that illuminating for the audience without understanding the context of what/how/why something was new or how it compared to its contemporaries.
The series also has an irritating habit of starting with more recent films and working its way back. This may be an attempt to make it more appealing to viewers, but it hampers any attempt to place the films in context, or to show how a genre developed. The episode on thrillers, for example, starts with The Long Good Friday in 1980 - more than 70 years after the first British film thriller, while the period drama episode also starts in the 1980s, at least 50 years after British cinema became strongly associated with the genre. It does eventually get around to the earlier films, and sometimes, in the case of Bond or Get Carter, places them into a sociological context. But the films are often not placed into a cinematic context, and are rarely compared to American or European cinema This is difficult anyway when the programme tends to just flit from one film to another in no particular order.
There's also something wrong with the voice-over by Jessica Stevenson - she has a pleasant enough voice but its not authoritative and she tends to sound like a big sister telling you about her favourite films. She isn't helped much by Matthew Sweet's script, which takes a semi-jokey approach, occasionally bordering on the obtuse. Sometimes its amusing, sometimes its just irritating.
This series is also a bit of a spoiler-fest, especially the thrillers episode. The narrator explains the plot of the films in detail, almost always giving away the ending in the process, explaining who gets killed, by whom and why. The irony is that anyone who has seen these films probably won't learn much from the interviewees, while the narrator is happy to spoil them for anyone who hasn't.
Perhaps I shouldn't be too harsh. This show is a fairly harmless time-passer, but its hard to know exactly who its aimed at. I would assume that any viewers devoting more than ten hours to watching this would have a reasonably serious interest in the subject. And with seven feature length episodes and a raft of distinguished interviewees, this could have been an authoritative look at British cinema history, something enlightening for fans and scholars. But the treatment the subject gets here is largely superficial, and its hard not to see this series as something of a missed opportunity.