When you think of 'realism' in British cinema, what comes to mind? How is British cinema funded (especially when compared with Hollywood? How has British cinema reflected British society throughout the 20th century? Is this relationship changing in the 21st century? This course looks at British cinema from its beginnings at the end of the nineteenth century up until the early 1970s. The premise is that British cinema is best considered as subscribing to the dominant tradition in English fiction: namely a disposition towards social and moral realism that is continually challenged by a poetic impulse that delights in the fantastic and the symbolic.

The course, which is generally chronological, considers what we mean by the word “realism” and having briefly surveyed the Victorian novel then surveys the history of British cinema in the first twenty years of the last century. There are sessions on the principal traditions of the 1930s: John Grierson’s Documentary Movement, International filmmaking by Alexander Korda at Denham Studios, the British Thriller, particularly the work of Alfred Hitchcock, as well as the domestic musical comedy. Classes on British cinema at war between 1939 and 1945 contrast the work of documentary filmmakers and feature film production. The course concentrates on the ‘realism’ of the films produced at Ealing Film Studios in West London in the post-war decades, the work of Free Cinema, and the cycle of films featuring the English working class that began in the early 1960s and that has been described as an English version of the French nouvelle vague. The semester concludes with the apparent triumph of the fantastic and surreal in the work of such directors as Lindsay Anderson and Nicholas Roeg.



  • British Film Institute, South Bank
  • British Board of Film Classification
  • BFI Reuben Library



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