If the 1970s saw the critical estimation of British cinema at a low ebb, then the tide rose very quickly at the beginning of the 1980s. The breakthrough commercial success for British cinema was Hugh Hudson's Chariots of Fire (1981), which follows the stories of two British athletes, Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), at the Paris Olympics in 1924. The film's Academy Award ® for Best Picture, followed by a win for Richard Attenborough's Gandhi (1982), suggested a resurgence for British cinema on the international stage. These two award-winning films were both epic period pieces that recalled the Korda era. Their success helped revitalize the industry, but the significant changes were occurring on a much smaller scale.
The most significant development was a shift in funding. It was the funding provided by Channel Four that seemed to bring new vitality to British cinema. It also brought an increased regional sensibility as funding was no longer concentrated in the hands of London-based producers. It was not only different regions but different underrepresented groups whose voices were finally becoming part of British cinema. As its name implies, Channel Four was the fourth terrestrial television channel launched in Britain, first appearing in 1982. In an effort to maintain its arts-focused mandate and to provide quality material for the channel, a separate films arm, Film on Four, was established. During the years of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative governments, which were not at all kind toward the arts, the money, support, and exhibition provided by Channel Four were vital to the British film community.
A number of key films, and key figures, in British cinema of the 1980s and 1990s emerged as a result of the Films on Four funding. Among the first successes of the program were Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract (1982); Neil Jordan's Angel (1982); and Stephen Frears's My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), written by Hanif Kureishi. My Beautiful Laundrette suggested the potential of the Channel Four films to uncover new voices within British cinema. Kureishi's script, which explores the burgeoning gay relationship between two men, one white and one Pakistani, opens up many questions around identity in Britain and highlighted some of the difficulties that second-generation immigrants had in negotiating between cultural traditions and a British way of life. A number of key films emerged in the following two decades that explored the South Asian diasporic experience. Among these were Gurinder Chadha's Bhaji on the Beach (1993), which uses an outing to a typical British seaside resort to focus on the experiences of Asian women of different generations; the comedic, yet touching East Is East (1999), directed by Damien O'Donnell and based on the semiautobiographical play by Ayub Khan-Din; and Bend it Like Beckham (2002), which continues Chadha's exploration of gender issues in its focus on an Asian girl who would rather play soccer than learn traditional Indian cooking methods.
Other cultural groups in Britain have also found filmic means of making their voices heard. In 1983 a
group of black independent filmmakers established the production collective Sankofa. With funding from the Greater London Council (a progressive political body disbanded by Margaret Thatcher in 1986) and Channel Four, the members of Sankofa sought ways of telling stories employing their own cultural voices. The most notable member of the collective has been Isaac Julien (b. 1960), whose early films for the group included Who Killed Colin Roach? (1983); Territories (1985); and his meditation on the gay, black American poet Langston Hughes, Looking for Langston (1988). With funding from the BFI, Julien was able to make his debut feature, Young Soul Rebels (1991), a thriller that offers a rather idealistic portrait of racial togetherness among London's various music subcultures in the late 1970s.
Funding through bodies such as Channel Four and the BFI kept British filmmakers independent of Thatcherism and more recently of the New Labour ideals of Tony Blair. The filmmakers' response was films that were largely critical of the dominant vision of Britain. These films began to break the hegemonic representation of Britishness that had dominated the national cinema by opening up issues of gender, sexuality, race, and class. This is not to say that there have not been investments made in more commercial cinema. FilmFour, as Film on Four came to be called in the 1990s, invested in international hits such as Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994, directed by Mike Newell). The "heritage" film also became a major staple of British popular cinema and a successful international export. A number of Ismail Merchant (1936–2005) and James Ivory (b. 1928) coproductions were staple fare for this genre. The Ivory-directed A Room with a View (1985) followed on the heels of Chariots of Fire and Gandhi and helped to establish the key stylistic parameters for the genre. Later successful heritage films such as Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth (1998) and John Madden's Shakespeare in Love (1998), another Oscar ® winner for Best Picture, helped to cement the reputation of this area of British cinema.
In contrast to these versions of heritage Britain, the trend toward social realism has remained strong in many of the smaller British films that have been made in recent decades. Among the filmmakers who have consistently
employed this strategy has been Mike Leigh (b. 1943). Leigh's first feature was Bleak Moments (1971), but subsequently he turned to television, where his improvisational methods were more readily funded. He worked there until making his second feature, High Hopes , in 1988. Yet another film supported by Channel Four, as well as British Screen, the film is a family drama that is used as a poignant rejoinder to the consumerism spawned by Thatcherism. Leigh's focus on the working class continued in a series of social realist films, including Life is Sweet (1990), Naked (1993), Secrets and Lies (1996), and Career Girls (1997). All of these films focused on contemporary Britain, but Leigh demonstrated his ability to explore similar themes around class and British society employing historical subjects, as in Topsy-Turvy (1999), which examines the world of Gilbert and Sullivan, and Vera Drake (2004), which examines abortionist Drake's clash with British society in the 1950s.
While the films of the 1960s New Wave had focused on Britain's working class, more recent films have traced the lives of the underclass, former members of the working class who have been left behind in the new, technological economy during the reigns of Thatcher and Blair. Films such as Peter Cattaneo's The Full Monty (1997), Mark Herman's Brassed Off (1996) and Little Voice (1998), and Carine Adler's Under the Skin (1997), along with the continued work of Ken Loach, explore the desperate attempts at survival for those who have been cut off from Britain's economic boom. While such films offer positive moments, their use of location shooting and devout attention to detail do much to reveal the dark underbelly of Britain's current success.
Since the winding down of Channel Four's funding of films in 2002, the funding model in Great Britain has continued to evolve. The UK Film Council was set up in 2000 by the Labour government. The role of the council is to dispense money raised via the National Lottery to nine different regional screen agencies in England as well as the Welsh Development Agency, Scottish Enterprise, and the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland, each of which administers its own film-funding initiatives. The result is an increased regional diversification within British cinema.