Britpop Cinema, from Trainspotting to This Is England and beyond

Longtime Flicks contributor Matt Glasby has just published a new book on cinema, focusing on British films of the 90s and early 00s. Grouped together under the genre Britpop Cinema, Glasby’s book is handily titled… Britpop Cinema.

As the Britpop Cinema blurb notes, “The Britpop movement of the mid-1990s defined a generation, and the films were just as exciting as the music. Britpop cinema pushed boundaries, paid Hollywood no heed, and placed the United Kingdom all too briefly at the center of the movie universe.”

Glasby’s book hits all the classics of the period – Shallow GraveTrainspotting, The Full MontyLock, Stock and Two Smoking BarrelsShaun of the Dead and many moreexploring the connections the films have with each other and within the broader scope of film history in the UK and beyond. Featuring exclusive interviews with key players such as Simon Pegg, Irvine Welsh, Michael Winterbottom and Edgar Wright, Britpop Cinema combines eyewitness accounts, close analysis, and social history to celebrate a golden age for UK film.

Steve Newall turned the tables on Matt Glasby, the interviewer finding himself our interview subject when Flicks asked him about his book (which you can buy online right here).

FLICKS: What would you say to anyone else that’s thinking about writing a book, and how hard is the process?

MATT GLASBY: Well, there’s a brutal reality of whether the book you want to write is a book that anyone wants to publish. And I started out thinking that this would be an incredibly popular, populist subject because it was so dear to my heart and my youth. And then actually, it became apparent that a lot of publishers weren’t that interested because it didn’t have a major international point of view.

So I just kind of ploughed on all the same, which I don’t necessarily advise that people do. But I’m already a journalist. I’m already a published author. So I thought I’d be thrown a bit of leeway. And then eventually, the book’s coming out, and hopefully, people will be interested.

When you got to the end of your first book, could you even contemplate doing another at that point?

Yeah, because I loved it and because the first book was an A-to-Z of great film directors with illustrations. So actually, the writing was about 300 words on each director. I’d spent all this time trying to think of how to describe Martin Scorsese in 300 words, so the idea of having all the words in the world, to take a really deep dive into something, was really refreshing.

Can you sum up a few characteristics of the genre you’ve coined as Britpop cinema?

It’s very loose, and it covers a selection of films over the years in the 1990s. It was more a feeling than an exact genre. But there are common things that you’ll often find in Britpop cinema.

Firstly, there’s lots of speed and colour. Think about the beginning of Trainspotting, where they’re running away from the security guards. Even though this is ostensibly a grim film about Edinburgh junkies, it’s immediately cinematic and exciting. Danny Boyle has said he likes to shoot all his films like action movies, and you get that sense all the way through.

So there’s a sense of colour, a sense of speed. Britpop cinema films have also got music in their DNA. It’s not necessarily Britpop, just classic pop music, and that gives it a kind of pulse.

Often, it’s about gangs of young men trying to escape their circumstances. You think about Trainspotting, actually, in the book, they’re very divided. They’re junkies. They’re doing their own thing. But the film and certainly the poster presents them as if they were a gang that you might actually want to hang out with. A gang looking to escape.

Also, Britpop cinema contains a residual anger towards the Thatcher government of the 1980s and an exuberance that seems to reflect the Labour Party coming in the mid-to-late ’90s, New Labour and Tony Blair, when politics was repackaged as something shiny and exciting.

I think that’s a pretty good encapsulation. One of the things that I really like about this era of filmmaking is that there is a real rejection of formality in so many of the films and a willingness to challenge the audience in terms of a film not just being necessarily internally consistent – containing absurdity, I guess, or unrealistic elements.

There’s a really lovely phrase in a book by Murray Smith on Trainspotting, he says it has “black magic realism”. So it’s not just magical realism, where anything can happen and it’s wonderful. It’s black magic realism where you’re a junkie crawling into a toilet but that toilet turns for a second into this beautiful dream. And that’s all over the place.

In Sexy Beast, there are lots of little fantasy moments which show Ray Winstone’s character dreaming even though it’s a gangster film, it shouldn’t really have this stuff in it.

Billy Elliott‘s got a beautiful moment where he’s dancing along the street and it just turns to winter, which just shouldn’t happen in a realist film about miners. It’s a little moment of magic.

I think that’s one of the things that’s really appealing about the genre, is that it’s a break from that kitchen-sink tradition and its realism, where the only things that can happen on screen are things that can happen in real life.

Especially with Danny Boyle on Trainspotting, I found that really freeing. All of a sudden characters can jump from a wall and end up in another scene. They can fall through the floor when they’re overdosing because that’s how it feels, not exactly what’s happening. And, yeah, I love that. I find that really alluring.

How important do you think music videos are to that aesthetic?

That’s a really good point actually. It’s probable that what I’m tracing in the mid-’90s was born at the same time as a growing sophistication in music videos. And often there’s a crossover.

So Guy Ritchie, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels‘s director, did music videos beforehand. Jonathan Glazer, who made Sexy Beast, did really wonderful music videos for Radiohead and Blur and adverts as well actually, really beautiful, surreal adverts. So it sort of makes sense that it would translate into a kind of lawless style, with surreal imagery.

Even though you’re making a gangster film, there’s no reason to have that kind of dreaminess completely dissipate.

It’s like there’s a fuse lit that you can trace back to a period before these films hit. To the cinema-goer, to the person reading Select or whatever on the other side of the world, these things arrive as an explosion, but they’ve been coming for quite some time. Is that true to say?

Yeah. I mean, one of the problems about writing this book is firstly, as you experience history, it’s just happening to you. And then secondly, you look back and it’s very easy to make it look two-dimensional.

Trainspotting, Britpop happened, and then UK cinema exploded, and that’s that. But actually, the realities of this are things that have their roots five or ten years beforehand. Things take ages to happen in film.

When I started out writing the book, it was meant to be about Trainspotting and Britpop. And that meant starting with Four Weddings and a Funeral, which for all its good qualities is about the least exciting film of that era. But actually, I couldn’t deny that it made people look at British films, it made British films investable, all this unsexy stuff. So the history of that ’90s boom starts with that film.

So, yeah, it’s much more complicated. And the further you go into it—it’s a wormhole—the harder it is to get out and to explain it.

I wasn’t trying to write a complicated book. I was trying to write a celebration of this really wonderful time. And then all of a sudden, you find yourself researching tax breaks and all that stuff. You’re like, “How am I going to get this in this book and make it funny and make it interesting?”

And so there was a real need to explain properly what was happening but still have some of that excitement and immediacy. Otherwise, you’ve just written the worst book in the world about tax breaks or something. So, yeah, it’s a real struggle. That’s really tough.

The period and genre of filmmaking that you cover here is one that made many people on our side of the world wish they were British. How did it feel watching these films for you in your local cinema, and how did it feel watching them travel the world?

Well, firstly, I love the idea of people watching British films and wanting to be British. That makes me really happy because that’s often not how the British feel any more in the world.

And then watching the stuff in the cinema, I’d say I would have been 16, 17 when Trainspotting came out. So too young to have seen it in the cinema legally, but I think we managed somehow.

And there’s a real arrogance when you’re that age. You just sort of think everything’s awesome or everything’s awful because you think it is. So as far as I could tell—we were 16, 17, 18—films like this were coming out all the time and that’s just how things were.

It’s only when I got a bit older that I realised it was actually an incredibly lucky period with Britpop, Britpop cinema, Danny Boyle, all these things happening at the same time. It was a sort of accidental golden era that we’d been just the right age to experience.

Maybe there hasn’t been one like that since. Maybe I’m just too old to know.

Were you cognisant of how those films traveled as cultural ambassadors of some sort?

No. What was happening was that it was a rejection of American culture. American grunge. And Hollywood films were dominating. And I think as opposed to seeing how things traveled, it was more that we were really excited that we had our own thing and it didn’t just have to be an American movie every Friday night.

So it was more like British culture in decline finding a little moment in the sunshine. And you go, “Actually, we can do stuff that’s pretty cool, and we don’t have to just take what we’re handed by the Americans.” So it felt like a step back towards cultural prominence I guess.

I think Four Weddings might be the first film that you mention in the book where the sheer importance of a good marketing spend comes in because from where we’re sitting, we were aware of a bunch of these films before they arrived, Trainspotting being the obvious example. It seems very obvious to say this in the present era, but to throw a lot of money at the film’s marketing, clearly, this was a good example to be setting at the time.

Yes. There was a company called PolyGram who were behind the marketing for Trainspotting and Shallow Grave and Lock Stock and lots of these films. And basically, they decided to try and market films like albums, to try and get the young people involved.

They gave the Trainspotting poster that really striking orange and black and white look and made it look really cool. They were behind Four Weddings and a Funeral making as much money as it did. And they were behind this boom in British cinema.

Again, marketing’s one of these things that’s really, really unsexy and the opposite of why you get into writing about films. But actually, it probably is the reason that these films were noticed, because there’s good films being made all the time, but they’re not necessarily being seen or holding their own against huge international blockbusters. But these Britpop cinema films did, and that’s partly because they were very good, and partly because they had an international marketing team behind them that did a really, really amazing job. So, yeah, that is a real factor in this stuff.

The box office business done by some of those films and the impact they had within your country suggest that many ticket buyers were people who may never have watched a film from the UK in their life or certainly never paid to go and see one, right?

Well, I think they paid to go see American films and wouldn’t think about it particularly. Again, this is something we all think about in retrospect. But, yeah, all of a sudden there’s almost an extra incentive, isn’t there, to go and pay to see something that speaks of something that you recognise as well?

I mean, Danny Boyle’s always been really clear about this. Why do we need to go and see Tom Cruise films on a Friday night? Why can’t we go and see films about people from Edinburgh, steelworkers from Sheffield or people going out clubbing in Cardiff? Why does it have to be a group of Americans?

It doesn’t have to be that. There’s no reason at all except for money and history for that to be the case. To suddenly see yourself reflected back is really, really exciting. I think that’s another reason why this stuff caught on so quickly.

What was going on in British cinema for you prior to the Britpop Cinema era, what did you think cinema was before this wave of stuff arrived in your late teens?

There’s two answers to this. There’s my professional, I’m-a-film-critic answer and there’s my answer as a youngster in ’90s Britain. And my film-critic answer is that British film was underfunded and lots of our big production companies who took risks like Palace Pictures who made The Crying Game, etc., had started to go out of business under a repressive Conservative government. There wasn’t much funding around. It was all a bit grey.

And my personal reaction is it just felt like British films were shit and you would do anything to not watch them. Either we had kitchen-sink stuff, which is all cups of tea and abortions, with no life or joy in them.

Or we had literary stuff like Merchant Ivory, which felt very stuffy and like the sort of thing you’d watch at school. Or we had American films. There was nothing purely entertaining that was British.

I think that both of the personalities you describe might actually share that same sentiment, very grey.

Yeah. I mean, obviously, that’s a product of having few resources. You’d shoot films like TV shows because you can’t afford blockbusters with massive car chases. It’s a product of a modest film industry and a realist tradition. It’s not necessarily bad, and I’m not trying to be down on the Ken Loaches and the Mike Leighs. It’s just that none of it’s any fun. And it always just felt like it was a bit of a punishment as a viewer.

You acknowledge in your author’s note the many hours of interviews with actors, writers, and filmmakers. What was involved in the process of you putting this book together?

I decided on the films that fit into my categories of Britpop cinema, which is sort of 10ish films over 10ish years. Then I noted down the common denominators between those films, mainly directors and actors, producers.

Then I used all of the contacts I’ve built up in the industry over the past 15 years, and luckily enough that worked. So whenever I couldn’t get a director, I’ve got the producer instead.

For example, I couldn’t get Guy Ritchie to talk about Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but Nick Moran was really kind and sat with me for a couple of hours, and actually, some of the stuff he said was way more revealing, I think, than the director might have been.

So it took probably 20 or 30 interviews, some of which were on the phone, some of which were really nice chats in a bar somewhere, some of which were very, very formal with sort of very busy, grown-up-seeming producers, and some of which were just completely nuts with slightly more eccentric participants. And then I ended up with this brilliant mosaic of the truth.

And I could sort of fade people up and fade people down. I didn’t get everyone I hoped to, but then I got loads of people that I hadn’t expected to: Irvine Welsh, Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, Michael Winterbottom… People were really, really generous with their time.

It’s no joke for people to talk about a film they made 20 years ago and be happy to talk to me for 90 minutes about it. That’s really kind of them. And so I really do appreciate all of that stuff. And I think it gives the book a texture that really wouldn’t be there otherwise.

You mentioned that there’s some stuff you couldn’t include for legal reasons and some stories that are unprintable. And that’s the sort of thing that always gets me interested. So I’m going to have to grill you on some of this now. I don’t expect you to include names, but you probably won’t get sued about an interview running in the Southern Hemisphere (hopefully). So feel free to dish anything you feel prepared to share on this front.

My day job as a sub-editor involves a lot of libel law. So I know what I can and can’t say in print. I would happily tell you some of this stuff off record. But on record, it’s a small industry, people get very passionate about films, and some people get sacked. So there’s lots of behind-the-scenes dramas which are fascinating, but it would be illegal for me to put in the book. Sorry.