Present disaffection with key institutions of the British state—the monarchy and the Palace of Westminster for instance—has brought about what Tom Nairn described recently as a transitional time, one in which ‘former subjects. . .have unintentionally half-mutated into citizens.’footnote1 He added that ‘in a society still unprogrammed for citizenship. . .the new is condemned to stagnate alongside the old.’footnote2 This situation with its confusions of new and old and its associated sense of historical blockage will be the focus of this essay. Heritage cinema offers us a space in which to test a hypothesis concerning these perplexities, namely that they can best be elucidated within the context of the break-up of the ‘bourgeois paradigm’ which is, according to Ellen Meiskins Wood, the ‘dominant paradigm of progress and historical change.’footnote3 Rather than seeing the present situation as Nairn does, maybe the particular narrative of change embodied in the bourgeois paradigm in which the new (bourgeois modernity) is appointed to overrun the old (the aristocratic ancien régime) is in disarray. The structuring oppositions with which the bourgeois paradigm attempts to understand historical change are often presented to us in condensed form in heritage culture. This is particularly evident in contemporary British cinema if we broaden the definition of heritage cinema to include not only period drama but also films which, whilst set in a contemporary context, make reference to heritage themes, styles and preoccupations. Often in these films oppositions of new and old lead us to understandings of the relations between class, capitalism and historical change that lie outside the bourgeois paradigm. To illustrate this argument, I will be drawing on mainstream, art house and avant-garde films including brassed Off (1996), The Madness of King George (1995), London (1994), Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Orlando (1993) and Remains of the Day (1993).

For some heritage culture represents an elite, conservative tradition—a crypto-feudal culture imposing idealized, mythologized versions of the national past from above—this position is associated with the work of Robert Hewison and Patrick Wright.footnote4 Others, notably Raphael Samuel, concentrate on the popular roots of heritage culture and interpret it as a democratic interrogation of the past. Heritage culture in this account is politically ‘nomadic’.footnote5 It is inadequate, in other words, to conceive of it as an expression of the New Right’s ideological project, a form of Little Englandism. Rather than representing an upper-class culture that is echoed by a befuddled lower class—the patrician/plebeian couplet that has become the class sign of British backwardness—contemporary heritage culture is actually the historical mark of political dealignment, the end of ‘two camp class divides’. Thus, as Samuel puts it, ‘heritage allows the Colonel’s lady and Judy O’Grady, or at any rate their daughters, to wear the same vintage clothes.’ The nightmare of caste culture is dissolved by a playful retro style culture; the burden of ‘pedigree’ is lifted from our backs by the interrogation of ‘period’.footnote6

For those arguing that heritage culture is politically and ideologically ‘nomadic’, the view that heritage cinema is simply the celebration of the spectacular pomp of the ancien régime is suspect because it subordinates the differences within the corpus to the dominant model of the national past—conservative, upper class, patriarchal, patriotic. It has been pointed out that feminist and gay concerns are important in these films. For Claire Monk the 1980s Merchant/Ivory work—A Room With a View (1986) and Maurice (1987)—contains complex and radical representations of female and gay sexuality. Indeed, she argues that since the early 1990s a ‘strand of period/literary films with a deep self-consciousness about how the past is represented’ has emerged—for instance, Orlando and Carrington (1995). Concerned principally with ‘non-dominant gender and sexual identities’, these films often ironize the caste culture of Old England. However, the emergence of this ‘post-heritage’ cinema involves us in a further paradox. Post-heritage cinema, Monk argues, despite its self-conscious position within heritage culture often appears to be entranced by the spectacle it is supposed to be critically placing. Thus later Merchant/Ivory productions such as Howard’s End (1992) Remains of the Day and Jefferson in Paris (1995) commit the sins which the anti-heritage critics ascribed, erroneously, to the early work. Howard’s End for example whilst straining ‘towards a post-heritage aesthetic in its melodramatization of the spectacle of property and landscape’ lapses into a ‘complacent Tory tract on the pleasure of property.’footnote7 A new world and an old one struggling to establish their differences find themselves mistaken for one another. The overall effect then is one of ambivalence—the simultaneous, riddling appearance of archaic complacencies and pleasures, alongside radical contemporary concerns.footnote8

In offering a fuller account of the struggle between new and the old, it is necessary first of all to open out the representations of class structure and historical change found in heritage cinema. A useful place to begin can be found in the work of Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn.footnote9 Originally formulated in the early 1960s and added to in the 1980s, the Nairn-Anderson theses offer a ‘history of the classes’ in response to what is perceived as the British crisis—an archaic political system, anachronistic class structure and inefficient economy. The theses state that the English revolution of the seventeenth century was ‘the first, most mediated and least pure bourgeois revolution of any European country.’footnote10 It occurred too soon for the bourgeoisie to fulfil its historic destiny as the agent of modernity. Although it was a bourgeois revolution in the sense that it resulted in the establishment of the economic conditions that would favour capitalism, it left intact an archaic social structure. A rejuvenated ancien régime had no reason to modernize the social order and bourgeois subordination (economic, cultural and political) in turn produced a subordinate proletariat.

Films such as Patrick Keiller’s London pose the ‘problem’ of London in a way which directly restates the crisis articulated by Nairn and Anderson—as the film’s narrator says, ‘The failure of the English revolution is all around us’. Evidence of a backward bourgeoisie is offered in the absence of a culture of public space, a lack ascribed, in turn, to the longevity of the ancien régime—the Corporation of London, the monarchy and so on. The narrator describes London’s public spaces as ‘either void or the stage sets for the spectacles of nineteenth-century reaction endlessly re-enacted for television’. To make this point, Keiller includes diffusely nostalgic, panoramic views of traditional heritage spectacle such as Trooping the Colour and the Lord Mayor’s Show. Equally, however, heritage culture in London possesses the democratic quality Samuel associates with it, appearing as an activity which in the person of the film’s invisible flâneur, Robinson, must be understood as involving the artful exercise of popular memory. This retro-vision seeks to rescue democratic counter-memories of London—take the web of allusions to the radical-patriotic version of heritage culture traced through public transport networks; the Routemaster bus and its origin in aircraft design from World War ii, for instance. Here is the process, referred to by Samuel, whereby traditions are reinvented from below rather than imposed from above.

Retro-culture is often theorized along the lines of the postmodern aesthetic of bricolage. The key term here is style. Style remains indistinguishable from spectacle for the anti-heritage critics and is seen as the commodification of the past and the disappearance of history;footnote11 from the perspective of postmodern enthusiasts, however, it creates imaginative spaces which support the construction of alternative identities. London does not restrict its view of heritage culture to monolithically English versions but is open to heterogeneously British ones—Divali in Southall and so forth. Yet its overall effect is marked by ambivalence. The retro features and stylish postmodern sensibilities in the film are constantly being deflated by the melancholy return of the spectacle of archaic decay—London, it seems, will never be another Paris—whilst at the same time the use of the Nairn-Anderson theses to account for British decline is comically punctured by the narrator’s view of them as eccentric and self-indulgent conspiracy theories.

Evidence to support Nairn and Anderson’s account of English class history is to be found in Franco Moretti’s analysis of the English Bildungs-roman (1749-1861).footnote12 For instance, the tradition of the insipid hero, from Tom Jones to Pip, represents for him the disappearance of middle-class agency. In terms of the narrative structure of these novels, he notes that plot, the very medium of bourgeois self-transformation, is devalued as a concatenation of distractions and dangerous digressions in favour of the classificatory closure of an aristocratic order. The protagonist must resist the temptation of the ‘great expectations’ of modernity. To prosper he or she must remain unchanged. Moretti remarks that here we see ‘the bourgeois theme of social mobility’ acquiring ‘aristocratic features’.footnote13 Sally Potter’s Orlando is clearly constructed in opposition to this model. Rather than social mobility acquiring aristocratic features, caste fixities are constantly being volatized. The longevity of the protagonist (who remains the ‘same person’ over four centuries) is coincident with a series of liberating metamorphoses through sex, gender and class indeterminacies.