National Identity in British Cinema

How does The King’s Speech (2010) and This is England (2006) represent a national identity?

This essay will deal with the social class and representation of characters in British cinema. The first film to be discussed is ‘This is England’(2006) directed by Shane Meadows as it reflects a shared notion of British working class yobs. The second is ‘The Kings Speech’ (2010) directed by Tom Hooper which portrays the identity of the British upper classes, specifically the royal monarchy.

With the different contrasting portrayals of youth and the royal monarchy, it will lead us to understand different views of national identity as seen from the perspectives of antagonistic social sectors. Through reception, especially with the second part of the essay, will focus on skinhead culture in This is England and the view that, “The concept of national identity is a construction, a representation based on a particular view of what it means to be British.” (Benyahia, 2005:31).

In addition, a conclusion will be formed which will reflect how notions of gender, class and race are significant influences in the consumption of films. All of which have contributed to building a British cinema in order to distinguish how audiences can perceive historical context and social differences in their own way.

This is England portrays the story of a working class boy, Shaun in 1983 who lost his father in the Falklands War. A gang with two skinheads as the leaders, Combo and Woody are characterized by their shaved heads and aggressive behaviour. They welcome Shaun into their group when he stands up for himself. Combo is portrayed as a father figure for Shaun although he is a convicted racist. It is important to mention that Margaret Thatcher was the prime minister of Britain at this point and she had a free market approach.

The “transformation of social visions” and “social attitudes” (Cannadine, 1998:171) were important to her just like the earlier prime ministers of Britain. There is an antagonist relationship that is symbolised through stereotypes of this subculture which were prominent in the 1980s due to peoples’ perception of them as thugs. This is how the film confirms that “British films produce the familiar critical duality which counterpoises a cinema of realism to a cinema.” (Ryall, 1998:19).

The public do not accept Combo’s individuality which supports that “British cinema… may only appeal to specific sections of the national community which allows cultural spaces. (Higson, 1995:7). Hence, Combo’s portrayal of a charismatic leader which imitates the type of person which the National Front used in order to create violent trademark for skinheads. Values of the white working class are open to interpretation which offers cultural spaces however, Combo attempts to manipulate us to think that skinhead culture is the way to express your British working class identity.

In terms of racism and acceptance, Meadows expresses, “how right-wing politics started to creep into skinhead culture in the 1980s and change people’s perception of it.” (Meadows, 2007:1). It supports the ideology that skinheads were racist as Combo does not accept Milky for his Asian culture. Combo violently attacks him prior to Milky saying, “I feel like I’m being interrogated” when he is referred to as a “nigga”. This demonstrates that “people were instantly classified as soon as they opened their mouths.” (Seabrook, 2002: 112-113). Milky sees himself as British rather than Jamaican.

However, Combo uses his Jamaican race against him due to the perception of skinheads as racists. Similarly, Thatcher “understood the fears of white Britons who were afraid of being ‘swamped’” by Asians (Powell, 2002:246). Yet, Combo is overwhelming from a working class perspective as he uses violence. This gives the impression that the British working class youth are the ones to be afraid of.

It is difficult to understand how skinheads want to be accepted when they are discriminating towards other cultures. Despite this, the gang are trying to show that their culture exists. Also their subculture is represented as one which has the potential to grow, as they welcomed Shaun. This gives a negotiated reading of their national identity as acceptance is revealed, yet Shaun is the youngest member which makes him more vulnerable.

The group’s dynamic consists of similar dress codes. Their checked shirts with braces and jeans identify a hipster look, although three members have a skinhead. In turn, they are not influenced by their own ideology that gang culture is a way of expressing themselves. They want to show that, their collective identity is necessary in order to portray the British working class attire. This national identity represents “complex social characteristics and dynamic of social relationships” (Kidd and Nicholls, 1998:17).

Even though they are sharing a collective identity, they are driven in different ways. Here, we notice that their national identity holds much significance to the soundtrack “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want” (The Smiths, 1984).

The use of music from a British band in the same era reinforces the ideology that the youth wanted to be accepted for who they were. However, the film does “show how Britain has been and continues to treat its own citizens from ethnic and minorities as outsiders.” (Murphy, 2009:411).

Shaun disobeys his mother when he arrives home late. This identifies the youth as disrespectful towards their elders. In turn, this shows that Shaun wants to respect his gang ‘family’ rather than his biological one. This connotes that during 1980’s, mothers did not give enough discipline and the youth had the authority to make decisions.

Furthermore, Shaun uses swear words in the conversation which implies that he has been influenced by the gang rather than his mother’s mannerism. This portrays his national identity as a young boy who respects the behaviour of a gang rather than his mother who has independently nurtured him for twelve years.

Typically, the gang tend to hang around near corner shops. This connotes that their criminal activity is more of a duty to attend to rather than being employed. Shaun is also seen reading a magazine and continues to read it after the shopkeeper demands that he leaves the shop or purchases the magazine. Shaun refuses even though the police are present. This implies that the British youth are challenging to deal with.

Despite this, friendly impressions are expressed as Woody and Combo do not disapprove of Shaun which supports a positive identity of the skinhead culture. Therefore, there is truth in the matter that “the realities of life for people in different social classes have remained pretty constant.” (Reid, 1998: 240).

Stereotypes have predominantly produced negative identities of skinheads in Britain. They have do not set good examples for other British citizens to follow as they have welcomed a younger boy to their group whose innocence and education has been taken away.

The end of the film shows the St George’s flag sinking into the sea which symbolises the destruction of society. It shows how citizens have failed when it comes to following their national identity. Meadows has shown us how films can twist representations in British cinema when attempting to engage with traditional British life. This supports the concept of a “national identity as a construction” (Benyahia, 2005:31) from the perspective of Shaun’s adaption of skinhead culture.

A construction is apparent as the gang dress the same and share the same social activities. The audience are manipulated to believe that the nation belongs to white working class members, hence Shaun is only accepted into their gang once he adapts to the working class skinhead culture. This gives a negative perspective as a film on national identity in the 1980s as there was no movement with discipline. However, more contemporary films such as The King’s Speech, offer a perspective from a film made in 2010 towards national identity in 1939.

The King’s Speech tells the story of a man called Bertie (played by Colin Firth) who becomes King George VI. This was because his elder brother – Edward VIII was abdicated so that he could be with his American divorcee wife Wallis Simpson. Similarly to Merchant and Ivory films, Hooper “shows how struggles determine the characters’ reactions to the situations they face throughout the film.” (Raw, 1936-2005:15)

Bertie has a speech therapist called Lionel Logue who helps him to become a well-respected monarch that he aspires to be. He achieves this by getting to the core of Bertie’s problem – his speech impediment and the fear of leading his people. Lionel offers equality to Bertie as he insists on calling him Lionel rather than “Mr Logue” as well as referring to his client as Bertie instead of the “Duke of York”.

As Bertie presents himself to England via live radio, we are given three features which conquer his problem – purpose, pressure and persistence. He admits that he has a speech impediment and accepts the support from his wife Elizabeth. Though he does bear in mind that several speech therapist sessions had failed in the past. Towards the end of film he overcomes this problem.

Firstly, Bertie realises that the purpose of solving a problem is the most important part of being a monarch, especially with the upcoming of the Second World War period. He wants to assure his people that they have a leader who is confident like other English Kings such as King Edward VIII who was king prior to his brother King George VI in 1936.

Moreover, King George was the first monarch to introduce his national identity to the United States. In the film, Archbishop Cosmo Lang portrays history as it was suggested that George became king due to the Archbishop of Canterbury and his strong views against marrying a “twice-divorced woman” (Edward VIII: The Plot to Topple,2012).

Secondly, Bertie discovers how pressuring the challenge is. He learns that he needs to overcome his feeling of discomfort with crowds as his people do not expect this from a king who of high royal status. Consequently, Lionel expresses “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail” which illustrates that strengthening your power takes determination. Hooper’s aim of the film is to illustrate that Bertie is a good British king regardless of his speech impediment.

Thirdly, Bertie is aware that persistence is essential and that he should never give up. He maintains the faith that Elizabeth and Lionel have in him and changes his anxiety into more self-belief. For example, all his hard work is paid off at the end of the film when he successfully presents a speech in front of thousands of people (even though he is only seen in a room with Lionel).

People finally see reassurance as Bertie has filled them which more hope. In turn, he is applauded for his potential greatness and the film has restored the characteristic of charisma where kings such as Edward VIII have had prior to King George VI. The fact that he has defeated his speech impediment and turns into a confident monarch represents his persistence. This conveys British national identity as an inspiration for others to follow. Here, an upper class hero character type is established, perhaps because he shows how everybody has imperfections and it should not affect your potential to gain more confidence.

In relation to language, Colin Firth promotes national discourse as he is an English actor and he uses familiar language from an upper class British society. For example, references to “Her Majesty” reinforces the context of 1930s post war language is still today in the royal family. At the beginning Bertie is struggling with his stammer in front of a crowd at Wembley stadium which echoes and introduces us with his anxiety and fear of leading his people.

Here, sound acts as a signifier “of national identity through speech and recurring representations which reflected many of the decade’s ideological concerns.” (Street, 2008: 48). As Bertie is regarded to be future king of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, upper class national identity is usually associated with a formal tone like previous kings.

Whereas, Bertie’s stutter shows how “ideological concerns” come into play as his stutter disappears when he swears. In turn an ideological message is formed that, one can have a problem when interacting with others regardless of their status. Meanwhile, phrases from Lionel such as “you do have a flabby tummy” are not as motivational. This suggests that Bertie is solely concerned about the level of respect from the public which implies that the former prince wants to be a man of pride like other Englishmen in the royal family.

Also, Lionel tells him that “the recording is free – please keep it as a souvenir”, yet upper class people are not particularly bothered with free items.

Dress codes help to represent the English way of life as the film, “often identifies national character and patriotism… it’s a gentleman’s agreement” (Durgant, 1970:13). There is use of traditional dress codes of a Victorian hat, suit, waistcoat and tie. As with the inspiring leader of Queen Elizabeth, as she wears pearl beaded necklaces and earrings, a crème satin blouse and a furred neck coat. Rich materials and real pearled jewellery connote wealthy possessions from an upper class life and further enhances the ideology that when you are well-groomed you are able to speak confidently and appear authoritative.

Bertie is seen as a handsome prince by Elizabeth however he does not show as much charisma as King Edward VIII did, which gives a different identity for Bertie as he presents himself through his speech impediment. Notably, Britain was in a place of insecurity to begin with as Bertie’s first impressions were not highly thought of.

One of the main key factors to Bertie’s success is Lionel’s knowledge, which leads him to believe that, “you are only as great as the people you surround yourself with – you have to reach out” and keeps him in a good place throughout the film.

However, one would question how an Australian man could teach an Englishman the correct pronunciation and speech perfections as he does not have a British accent. Lionel places Bertie’s needs before his own and he does not demand recognition or boast about his accomplishment, reiterating the fact that Bertie has a friend, and not just a mentor to help with his speech impediment.

Bertie is told to complete tongue twisters which reinforces the idea of how difficult it can be to fight for solving a speech impediment and embarrassing in front of new people. This represents a new national identity as no previous monarchs have dealt with this issue before. Bertie attempts to fight this with the hope that he can prove he can be a well-respected and valued monarch. He gives praise to national identity as he is trying to find his own voice.

In conclusion, dress, class and relationships have been used in order to create visual and musical symbolism and storyline in each of these synopses to highlight elements of national identity.

It is true to say that we can interpret the idea of a British film as “a gentleman’s agreement” (Durgant, 1970: 13) as The King’s Speech uses formal language and dress codes. However, through a national identity of working class, This is England most certainly does not portray the English way of life towards this “gentleman” ideal as the skinhead culture represents more of a ‘rough’ look and is perceived as thugs and bullies.

The King’s Speech does lean more towards the higher patriarchy and stores the “wonderful” life that the British nation share even through the expectancy of war with Germany. This has been evident with Bertie’s persistence throughout the film. Whereas, from the perspective of the gang in This is England, being known for their subculture is more important in sharing their uniqueness regardless of their racist perception.

National identity has been portrayed both positively as Bertie grows to be a confident monarch and negatively as Shaun is accepted into a gang but he disobeys his mother and changes his personality both emotionally and physically. Overall, both films show a contrasting ideal of a British national identity.

The films have used these conscious and visual techniques to represent a perspective of national identity that is sympathetic to the perspective of the writer as well as a response to the view of their respective current national identities at the time they were released.

Bibliography 

Benyahia, S. (2005). Teaching contemporary British cinema. London: British Film Institute. Cannadine, D. (1998). Class in Britain. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Durgnat, R. (1970). A mirror for England. British movies from austerity to affluence. London: Faber and Faber Ltd.

Goldberg, D. (1993). Racist culture. Oxford [England]: Blackwell.

Higson, A. (1997). Waving the flag: constructing a national cinema in Britain. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Kidd, A. and Nicholls, D. (1998). The making of the British middle class?. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton.

Meadows, S. (2007). Shane Meadows, director of This Is England, recalls a youth of ska music and scrapping. [Online] the Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2007/apr/21/culture.features [Accessed 20 Mar. 2015]. Murphy, R. (2009). The British cinema book. 3rd ed. London: British Film Institute.

Powell, D. (2002). Nationhood and Identity: The British State. London: I.B. Tauris. Raw, L. (2012). Merchant-Ivory: Interviews. 1st ed. [eBook] Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, p. XV. Available at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=x-UaBwAAQBAJ&dq=Ivory, +J.+(1973).+Savages+and+Shakespeare+wallah&source=gbs_navlinks_s [Accessed 26 Mar. 2015]. Reid, I. (1998). Class in Britain. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press. Rocket and Hill (2006) National Cinemas and World Cinema

Rockett, K. and Hill, J. (2006). National cinemas and world cinema. Dublin, Ireland: Four Courts Press. Seabrook, J. (2002). The no-nonsense guide to class, caste & hierarchies. London: NI.

Street, S. (2009) British National Cinema. 2nd ed. London: Routledge

Teleography

Edward VIII: The Plot to Topple… [Television programme, online], Prod. Credit n.k. Prod. Company n.k. Prod country United Kingdom. 21:00 09/05/2012, Channel 4, 70 mins, http://bobnational.net/record/99259. [Accessed 10/03/15)

Filmography

The King’s Speech. (2010). [film] United Kingdom: Tom Hooper.

This Is England. (2006). [film] United Kingdom: Shane Meadows.
Shakespeare Wallah. (1965). [film] United States: James Ivory.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s