Britpop Cinema: From Trainspotting to This Is England

Britpop Cinema: From Trainspotting to This Is England
by Matt Glasby

Intellect, Bristol, UK, 2019
230 pp. Paper $24.00
ISBN: 978-1-78320-987-3.

Reviewed by
Kathryn Adams
April 2020

“[Trainspotting’s] going to open the floodgates for a lot of really good British films that aren’t Hugh Grant Poncing Up the Hill.” (Damon Albarn, p. 5)

Something dynamic happened to British cinema during the 1990s to early 2000s that caused the film industry and audiences around the globe to pay attention to what is now referred to as the golden age of UK cinema. Within this cinematic heyday, there was a select group of films that erupted onto the big screen with a confident, pulsating brashness not usually seen amongst the usual British period pieces, or kitchen-sink dramas. These gritty films ignored the might of Hollywood, told homespun stories about ordinary British working-class people (all in regional accents) and blew our tiny minds in a flourish of speed, angst, violence, decadence, colour, humour, despair, surrealism and oddly enough — positivity and hope. These films have been collectively termed ‘Britpop cinema’ by author Matt Glasby, and in his book, Britpop Cinema: from Trainspotting to This Is England, he explains the evolution of these outlandish films and details the specific elements that determine which films qualify as Britpop cinema.

“If you came of age in Britain in the mid-1990s, there is something you need to know: Noel Gallagher envies you” (Hardeep Phull).

Glasby, an international film critic and co-author of Great Film Directors A to Z, not only jumps into the heart of the movies he classifies as Britpop cinema, but provides a complete rundown of the cinematic, musical and political events that contributed to their inception, success and rise in popularity. The book kicks off with a pithy foreword by music journalist, Hardeep Phull, who sums up very quickly the oppression and bleakness felt throughout Britain in the 1980s under a conservative government, and what it meant to come of age during the more optimistic 1990s with bands like Blur and Oasis heading up “…the last truly bacchanalian phase of British rock…” (p. ix). In 2003, Phull encountered Noel Gallagher at an NME awards night and after expressing to him what it meant to be 15 years old when Oasis’s inspirational album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? came out, Gallagher replied, “You lucky bastard!” Clearly, there was no such inspiration for Gallagher and his generation. This punchy anecdote immediately puts us in the picture and sets the mood of this book and it doesn’t let up until the end. Much like the films it is addressing.

“…it was only when British music began to flourish in the early 1990s that our film industry took its first stumbling steps back towards the light. But before Britpop cinema arrived, surging with life, music and enthusiasm, salvation came in the most unlikely form.” (p. 10)

With 1980s Thatcherism in the past and high hopes for the new Labour government, there was a groundswell of optimism and creativity being felt throughout Britain during the 1990s, and the UK film industry was jolted out of its coma and joined the Britpop throng. Through a series of revealing, often raw and humorous interviews with film producers, writers, directors and actors, Glasby’s wonderfully written dissertation gives a very candid and in-depth look at the UK film boom from the inside out. Although not technically classed as Britpop cinema, it was the global success of the film Four Weddings and a Funeral that gave the British film industry the impetus, funding, exposure and confidence to produce the raft of edgy films that followed; many of which are the focus of Glasby’s research.

So what constitutes Britpop cinema? Even though Glasby admits that “pinning down a functional definition of Britpop cinema…proves tricky” as it is “more of a frame of mind than a genre…” (p. 4). He concludes there are a number of common characteristics that thread through the films he has inducted into his Britpop cinema hall of fame. These films have an impressive cinematic feel about them combined with killer soundtracks. They are often about a gang or group of people (usually male), and there is often a sense of speed, being chased or trying to escape. Vivid colour, magic realism, deep-rooted anger (read Thatcher) sex or violent scenes, expletives, a rejection of American culture, humour and irreverence. However, “the most important factor is that Britpop cinema feels positive; alive with the possibilities of the times; woozy with the exuberance of territories new” (p. 5). These are keen observations, and readers will feel a compulsion to reacquaint themselves with these films and witness the commonalities they share for themselves. Revisiting these films is definitely one of the joys of having read this book.

Films such as Shallow Grave; Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels; Human Traffic; Billy Elliot; Sexy Beast; 24 Hour Party People; Shaun of the Dead; The Football Factory; This Is England; and of course, the ‘poster boy’ of the genre, Trainspotting, are all meticulously analysed in Glasby’s book, and feature in their own plucky-titled chapters with plot rundowns, and a “What Happened Next” section for further interest. Quotes from interviews with writers, actors and filmmakers, including Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting), Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People), Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), Simon Pegg (actor, producer and screenwriter), Irvine Welsh (author of Trainspotting) and other significant contributors to film, music and the Britpop movement are peppered throughout and provide Glasby’s book with a truthful, lively account of the time. In the Author’s Note, Glasby thanks “everyone involved for sharing their stories, even the unprintable ones,” which comes as a surprise because it feels as if nothing has been toned down.

The good and the uglier aspects of filmmaking and studio politics are all cited here, along with references to a whole cavalcade of movies in history—both great and forgettable. This meticulously researched, warts-and-all exploration of British cinema and its place in social history will impress, inform and delight anyone who has an interest in films and filmmaking, and will provide students of film studies with plenty of insight into the film production industry. Glasby’s analysis of the oeuvre is sharp, his admiration for the films and what they stood for is abundantly clear, and his enthusiasm for the subject matter is infectious in this spirited tribute to a movement that defined a generation. Choose it!