I have chosen the film Shirley Valentine, 1989 to show that I agree that the producers of British and Irish films use a set of codes and conventions to reinforce the myths about Britain. I will discuss Margaret Thatcher and her policies; I will discuss how Britain saw a revolution during Thatcher’s reign as Prime Minister and how by 1989, the time of the films release the country was completely different to how it had been before. Social Mobility will be the main subject as I discuss the question. The reason for this is because the film puts emphasis on this throughout. I will also discuss ‘Class Crazed Britain’ and how this affected us at the time.
The Mise en scene will be used to analyse the particular sequence I will use to prove that producers of British and Irish film use a set of codes and conventions to reinforce the myths about Britain, although I will discuss other elements of film making also. Narrative, Genre, Cinematography, Editing and Sound.
In 1989, Britain was led by Margaret Thatcher. By this time she had been in power for ten years and made radical changes to the country-radical changes that would deem significant forever. She decided that we should no longer be living in a welfare state. A state that Edward Heath created after the war to give the country stability. He provided Britain with The NHS, housing estates, better education, transport and benefits leading to TAX and National Insurance. Thatcher believed the state should now have a lesser role and people would have to work themselves out of poverty. Margaret Thatcher was responsible for the ‘right to buy’ scheme. Enabling council house residents to buy their homes at a discounted rate. This was the turn of an era for most people, especially people from working class communities who had never envisaged this could be possible.
Free Enterprise was another radical change under Thatcher’s power. All major organisations such as British Rail, British Gas and the Public Transport systems were privatised. Thatcher was to turn everything around in the way that the job of the Civil Service was no longer to manage Britain’s decline from the days of the empire.
All Thatcher’s policies caused uproar in the UK. Interest rates rocketed, as did unemployment and numerous strikes were held as rebellion against the ‘Iron Lady.’ Most significantly, the 1984-85 Miners Strike. A massive piece of history which caused mass heartache and destruction amongst decimated mining communities to this day.
Although Thatcherism is now sometimes used as a term of abuse she was also responsible for making things possible that had been unimaginable until now. People now owned their own homes giving them the freedom to move elsewhere-somewhere they could choose, social mobility had increased-especially for women. It was now more acceptable for women to have their own independence, have careers and be counted. The media was now offering productions of a different nature. It was no longer giving the idea that you should marry for life even if you’re unhappy. It was now thought of as acceptable to follow your heart and push the boundaries. In the film Shirley Valentine, we see the transition. We see a woman in a dull marriage living the same day every day. Although she isn’t in an abusive relationship she does feel guilt in the way that she had made her choice and would have to stick to it. She refers to marriage as “Like the Middle East, There’s no solution.” We then see her discover that her life isn’t doomed to Groundhog Day and that she can still go places.
By 1989, the time of the release of Shirley Valentine, Thatcher had only one year left to reign. The film continuously gives the audience evidence to prove it was set in a time just after the country had seen a revolution. By the 1980’s, films like Shirley Valentine were fairly common. We were living in a class crazed country which had evolved from Thatcher’s ‘right to buy’ scheme. People were now elevating themselves to higher classes believing it was their right as a homeowner, although realistically they were still in the same class as always. Women were rebelling against their stereotypical housewife roles and daring to be controversial, meaning divorce was becoming more accessible and popular.
The codes and conventions are shown in all the macro and micro elements of British film making-Narrative and Genre, being macro elements and Mise en scene, Editing, Cinematography and Sound, being micro elements. The Narrative is ultimately ‘the story.’ However the Narrative is constructed in a certain way in order to tell the story in a way we understand. Shirley Valentine, a middle aged housewife with no other purpose in life but to cook steak and chips for her husband, wins an all expenses paid holiday to Greece where she finds her true self and breaks free from her faceless, meaningless life in Liverpool. The Genre would be popular with women of the same era as the character. The Mise en scene should tell the audience where they are geographically and historically. In the case of Shirley Valentine I Established we were in Liverpool in the 1980’s. The Editing, Cinematography and Sound all work together to move us across scenes and chapters. The four micro elements are put together to create a reality within the film.
According to French Theorist Roland Barthes, we use a set of signs to read a film and its language. An approach called semiotics. We sub consciously absorb these signs, relating them to pieces of history meaning we can then understand what we see and hear without finding it confusing in any way. This leads us to the power of the suspension of disbelief. The suspension of disbelief enables us to hold back our desire to question what we see. Some films need us to suspend our disbelief more than others. Films with a complex Narrative which may not be from the realms of reality would require more suspension of disbelief. Films in the Genre of Shirley Valentine can be believed as actually happening in real life. Something absolutely possible.
When analysing Shirley Valentine, the signs which Roland Barthes discovered and the codes and conventions to reinforce the myths about Britain are apparent throughout. I have chosen one particular scene to reinforce we were living in Thatcher Britain at the time of production.
Shirley and her husband Jo obviously own their own house and in the film Jo runs his own business. Shirley doesn’t have to go to work which was probably saw as luxury in 1989. As Shirley is doing her morning cleaning, Shirley’s neighbour Gillian knocks at the door to ask a favour of Shirley. Although Shirley, as I said before is a homeowner and doesn’t need to work, she speaks with the same broad Liverpudlian accent and never claims to be “above her station.” The neighbour however, conforms to the class crazed society discussed earlier. She speaks with the Queens English and constantly informs Shirley of her Status. Gillian’s husband, Eric has to go to Brussels on business and she requires Shirley to feed their ‘Vegetarian Bloodhound.’
Gillian remarks on the trip as, “…such a bore, I said to him I really don’t know why it couldn’t be Paris or even Amsterdam.” The street which Shirley lives on is a typical suburban street and the Mise en scene creates a typical 1980’s house with lots of peach’s and pink’s, carpets with loud patterns and curtains draped in an equally loud pattern. A Street that would have no place for genuine aristocracy. A status the neighbour desperately aspires to be. As discussed earlier the ‘right to buy’ scheme introduced by Thatcher gave people the chance to choose not to be another council house resident-the same as everybody else. Margaret Thatcher once said, “There is no such thing as society, there are only individuals.”
I have discussed the 1980’s and the state of the country during this time. I have discussed the things that became possible during this decade such as social mobility, a new desire to be a high class citizen and the lapse attitude people now had towards marriage and even life in general. I have explained Thatcher’s policies and how the country saw a massive change in the way things were run and I have referred to a particular sequence in the film Shirley Valentine that reinforces the question being asked. The producers of British and Irish film do use a set of codes and conventions to reinforce the myths about Britain.