In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section British Cinema

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Transnational Relations
  • Censorship
  • Cinema Going
  • Collected Criticism
  • Production Personnel
  • Studies of Individual Directors
  • Studies of Individual Films

Cinema and Media Studies British Cinema
Amy Sargeant
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0012


Before the 1960s, much historical and critical writing on British cinema was generated outside of the academy—for instance, a multivolume, largely economic history of the silent period, subsequently republished in the 1990s, was commissioned by the British Film Institute and sought extant personnel as consultants. With the introduction of film courses to British universities came an unfortunate prejudice against the homegrown product, largely inherited from European commentators. A small contingent of trailblazers then led a group of writers, teachers, and disciples who did not affect to despise British films and who found British cinema a worthwhile subject of study and analysis. British cinema became no longer “an unknown continent.” The number of designated courses has proliferated alongside the publication of increasingly specialized and focused monographs and edited collections, devoted to specific periods, genres, themes, individual directors, individual films, and individual stars and actors (a distinction recurrently made in British cinema discourse). In recent years, attention has broadened from discussions of British cinema as narrowly “national” (something possibly peculiar and insular) to a just appreciation of demonstrable transnational exchanges in historical and contemporary contexts. Coverage has correspondingly deepened, with volumes devoted to particular roles in production: cinematography, composition, editing, and set and costume design. It has also extended to “cult” and “alternative” areas of production and reception, addressing not only films that fall into these provisional categories but also their audiences. Fandom itself has become a topic of investigation. Furthermore, a trend toward “bottom-up” history and a reevaluation of personal and collective memory as the basis for the writing of history have encouraged both investigation of the cinema in Britain as a social space and a broader investigation of mainstream and underground film culture.

General Overviews

There remain few monographs covering the entire span of British production, distribution, and exhibition. However, this more or less “happy few” are commended for their ability to trace prevalent themes (Berry 1994, Petrie 2000, Leach 2004, Sargeant 2005), character types, and discursive concerns (Armes 1978, Barr 1986, Higson 1995, Street 1997, Sargeant 2005)—across three centuries, across fiction and nonfiction, and short films and features. Subsequent reissues have improved on the first editions of Murphy 1997–, duly reflecting the growth in interest in the subject. This and Sargeant 2005 are likely to appeal to students, not least for their ample illustration and textual analyses.

  • Armes, Roy. A Critical History of the British Cinema. Cinema Two. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

    Influenced by a contemporary resurgence of interest in “primitive” and “pioneering” cinema, Armes devotes a decent amount of space to the silent period. However, despite his dismissal of Rachael Low, he inherits many of her prejudices. Chapters cover Rank and Korda (versus Balcon); directors Hitchcock, Asquith, Dickinson, Powell, Reed, and Lean; and émigrés and rebels of the 1960s and 1970s.

  • Barr, Charles, ed. All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema. London: British Film Institute, 1986.

    A collection of essays prompted by a Museum of Modern Art retrospective, embracing the influence of precinematic traditions (music hall and theatre) and later interactions with television. Star case studies cover Paul Robeson, Dirk Bogarde, and Diana Dors. Chapters also cover the Film Society, independent film production, and animation.

  • Berry, David. Wales and Cinema: The First Hundred Years. Cardiff, UK: University of Wales Press, 1994.

    The definitive work, spanning “pioneer” traveling showmen and producers to Twin Town, by way of Elvey’s hagiographic and long-lost Romance of David Lloyd George.

  • Higson, Andrew. Waving the Flag. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.

    Higson follows a general discussion of film culture and the idea of national cinema in Britain with in-depth case studies devoted to Comin’ Thro the Rye, Sing As We Go, Evergreen, Millions Like Us, and This Happy Breed. He concludes that cinema has been as much an apparatus for constructing, as reflecting, the nation.

  • Leach, Jim. British Film. National Film Traditions. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    A wide-ranging discussion accompanied by oddly skimpy and weirdly formatted illustrations, organized by way of recurrent motifs (the public school) and topics that raise “important issues regarding British cinema,” including the vexed issue of realism, expressionism, comedy, history, and heritage, with a chapter also granted to British stardom. Extensive film-title citations barely touch on the first generation of British film.

  • Murphy, Robert, ed. The British Cinema Book. London: British Film Institute, 1997–.

    Subsequent editions, collecting together essays from a number of contributors, have expanded coverage of individual decades and themes, with a general introduction outlining the field.

  • Petrie, Duncan. Screening Scotland. London: British Film Institute, 2000.

    Coverage of the contribution of certain representational motifs (urban and rural), together with the participation of directors, both Scottish (Harry Watt, Bill Forsyth, Bill Douglas, Peter Mullan, Lynne Ramsay) and with Scottish ancestry (Alexander Mackendrick), to British cinema.

  • Sargeant, Amy. British Cinema: A Critical History. London: British Film Institute, 2005.

    Equal weight given to silent and sound periods by decade, with each chapter subdivided into prominent thematic concerns addressed by film content, and cultural and industrial debate. Additional individual chapters are devoted to World War I and World War II. A key film study summarizes each chapter. The discussion is supported by a wide range of primary and secondary reference material.

  • Street, Sarah. British National Cinema. London: Routledge, 1997.

    Scant regard to the silent period; sound period organized chronologically, with additional chapters devoted to significant areas of critical commentary.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.