British cinema’s dialogue with Thatcherite ideas, meanings, and values during the 1980s

The eleven years of Margaret Thatcher’s reign, which spanned through the 1980s were known for the social turbulence they caused.  The right wing political ideology that has come to be called Thatcherism is deemed reactionary in many ways.  To given an example, a pub near the Underground station at Highbury and Islington in north London was forced to paint the following sign blank under Thatcher’s conservatism: An Equal Opportunities Pub Regardless of Race, Creed, Nationality, Disability Or Sexual Orientation. This illustrates the deep impact of Thatcherism in all domains of cultural life. This was a period when “the very existence of society was placed in doubt, when the belief that greed is good was promoted as a moral imperative. It was also the decade when London came to seem like another country.” (Street, 1997, p. 106)

Cinema, being a major cultural product, was especially subject to pressure from the conservatives.  Cinema as an industry suffered majorly as a result of cuts to government subsidies to the arts.   Though the Thatcher government did not have a well-articulated culture policy, it nevertheless displayed an “instinctive hostility to the principle of state funding for the arts, which was loosely yoked to a visceral philistinism. They had no developed sense of culture as a site of personal or collective belonging, and hence lacked any real sense of the deep anguish caused by the cuts, which were taken as carefully targeted assaults by so many groups.” (Watney, 2006) The film industry, though a victim of this policy framework, nevertheless sought to create art out of the unraveling pathos.  The medium was thus used to capture the “ghastly screeching tone of so much of British life in the 1980s, from the hate-filled headlines of the tabloids to the deluded rantings of those who maintained that we were all only a hair’s breadth away from fascist dictatorship.” (Watney, 2006)

The oppressive socio-cultural atmosphere under Thatcher did produce some beneficial social tendencies.  In the academic world, there was renewed focus on nascent currents within Cultural Studies and Film Studies.  Moreover, Thatcherism consolidated regional and minority social identities of groups that perceived themselves as being targeted by the Thatcher government. This had an indirect impact on the film industry, as reflected in

“the impressive growth of independent black cinema, local nationalisms, the women’s health movement, the gay response to HIV, and so on. Such areas of struggle and contestation generated a great number of very different and often exciting cinematic projects, including exhibitions, many of which were met by distinctly hostile criticism, especially from would-be populist politicians and newspaper editors eager to promote moralistic controversy and hence sales.” (Watney, 2006)

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