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- This article first appeared in the October 2021 issue of Sight and Sound.
I’ve been burnt before, as have we all, so before committing the 120 minutes needed to watch a new Netflix disaster I asked my son what he had thought of it. “It’s pretty bad, but it’s an OK phone movie” was his review. I hadn’t heard the term ‘phone movie’ before, assuming it was referring to those handful of features that many young directors and that early-adopter Soderbergh had filmed completely on their mobiles. But we were talking about The Tomorrow War, and I was pretty certain even the latest Samsung camera wasn’t able to provide that level of gloss. What he meant, it transpired, was that it was a perfectly enjoyable film providing your attention was divided between the movie and whatever you would normally be doing on your mobile; a movie to have on in the background that really only needed a fraction of your brain space for you to get the point, but would collapse as a piece of entertainment if you offered it your undivided attention.
Like it or not, there appears to be a whole subsection of society that doesn’t want to turn its phones off. Ever. We have to accept that, not least because so many former theatrical releases are taking the home-streaming route. This is a challenge that all filmmakers will have to deal with. I’m not entirely guilt-free, choosing new drama series in English rather than with subtitles so that I can check Instagram if it fails to grab me after the first ten minutes. I recently finished a marathon watch of Kurosawa. Some were new to me but all of them were engaging and involving enough for me to be blissfully Twitter-free for their running time. Afterwards, as a low-brow palate cleanser, I chose the 1980 big-screen version of that underappreciated British sitcom George and Mildred. Needless to say, it’s no Throne of Blood, but along with the fine work by Yootha Joyce and Brian Murphy I settled in and found myself absolutely loving it as a background movie – something I could glance up at and be momentarily transported to the 1970s before reopening my iPad to order batteries and dog chews.
Is this a fitting topic for Sight and Sound, in which filmmakers are celebrated for their genius, passion and commitment in struggling to tell their stories, intended, I’m certain, to be devoured by eager audiences giving them every last drop of their attention? Well, this is the world we made for ourselves, so I suppose they’re just going to have to suck it up, and it might even encourage studios to be a little more stringent with scripts before greenlighting the next Chris Pratt vehicle. I promise to give them all a fair shot; but meanwhile I’m working through the other sitcom-to-big-screen productions that were so prevalent here in the UK 40 or 50 years ago.
I understand the boom was in part due to the stringent taxation of higher earners which saw many big stars follow the Rolling Stones’ lead and move to warmer countries with softer tax laws. So Hammer, Rank and others looked to the small screen for possible franchises, many of which turned out to be not just huge commercial hits but actually stand the test of time rather well. Others, of course, are so of-their-time they would need a new certification – P for Problematic. The race ‘comedy’ Love Thy Neighbour (1973) is a hard watch. But the Steptoe films (1972 and ’73) and the two Alf Garnett features – Till Death Us Do Part (1968) and The Alf Garnett Saga (1972) – boast not only incredible performances but also well crafted and memorable scripts, and are deftly directed. They very nearly earned my full attention.
Others were delightful for other reasons. It’s perhaps cheating to bring in the Confessions… series (…of a Window Cleaner, 1974, etc), which were spun off from trashy novels rather than TV, but they are the perfect choice for wallowing in past fashions and revisiting the UK’s rapidly disappearing high streets. If you want to see a Morris Minor drive past a Dolcis shoe shop then you’re in luck. Ditto the Man About the House movie (1974), which builds to a disastrous and horribly speeded-up car chase. But it’s the closest thing to time travel I’ve discovered. The Porridge movie (1979), starring the inimitable Ronnie Barker, offers few such delights, as it’s set mainly within the grim confines of Slade Prison. But Please Sir! (1971), starring the charming John Alderton, more than makes up for that with glorious exteriors and my favourite combination of aesthetically challenging far-out fashions and funky dance moves, in a long disco sequence. The big screen Bless This House (1972) also serves up a hefty dollop of suburban locations; and – cheating again, seeing as the Carry Ons were a cinema staple since the 1950s – I’m going to also recommend Carry On Girls (1973) for its remarkable ambience.
Ambience is perhaps the key word here. When Brian Eno started experimenting with music to be enjoyed as a background soundscape rather than demanding or requiring your full attention he created a whole new genre. I’m offering up the cinematic equivalent, and although no one would want to use “It’s an OK phone movie” in their advertising campaign, I suspect in 40 or 50 years people will find something to enjoy in currently reviled movies that barely manage to get a Rotten Tomatoes rating in the double figures.