British Heritage Films: A Critical Examination of the Concept of ‘Englishness’

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‘The concept [of the heritage film]… has become associated with a powerful undercurrent of nostalgia for the past conveyed by historical dramas, romantic costume films and literary adaptations’ (Vidal, 2012: 1). There are a diverse range of texts which may be considered as heritage films, and many of them produce an image of the past that is undoubtedly nostalgic, resulting in a recreation of past events which come to stand in for actual, and therefore as fictional, history.

The heritage film label may be understood in several different ways. Andrew Higson, in his work on English heritage and cinema, suggests that ‘the heritage film label is of course a critical invention of recent years, emerging in a particular cultural context to serve a specific purpose’ (2003: 11). There is much debate about what the term ‘heritage’ stands for. For instance, it can be thought synonymous with the historical film, which depicts ‘actual figures from history, in their historical context’ (ibid: 12). The heritage film could equally be understood as a costume drama, which ‘is sometimes reserved for films that present fictional characters in historical settings’ (ibid). Film scholar Claire Monk furthermore suggests that the heritage film may be a literary adaptation, costume drama, or a narrative derived from real history. Within this, she argues that the heritage film is not so much a genre itself, as it is made up of various genres including ‘melodrama, romance, comedy, satire, picaresque, fantasy, crime film, action adventure, political thriller, colonial epic, war film, horror, or vampire film’ (2002: 176). Interestingly, Phil 2Powrie argues that there is a third type of heritage film, the ‘alternative heritage film’, that focuses on ‘difficult moments in the national past which indicate contemporary fears’ (2000: 316). This might include films such as Distant Voices, Still Lives (Terence Davies, 1988) and The Full Monty (Peter Cattaneo, 1997) which explore moments of social tension in the past to comment on contemporary issues. As such, the heritage film label covers a broad range of films set in the past, but they all share a common feature, in that they attempt in some way to create a particular version of Englishness, to ultimately establish a national identity.

The concept of the British nation is a way for Britain to create a sense of unity. This was particularly important after the nation was shaken by the affects of the Thatcher government. Margaret Thatcher rose to power as the British prime minister in 1979, resulting in significant changes around Britain. For instance, many manual labour industries such as the mines had closed down and, according to Simon Rogers, who outlines the ways in which Thatcher had changed Britain, unemployment in the UK hit a record high with almost 12% of the workforce unemployed in early 1984 (2013). It was however, the Northern regions of the UK that suffered the most as a result of industry closures, as that is where many of the manual labour industries were located. This regional divide resulted, according to Powrie, in a ‘geographical fragmentation of the nation intoMargaret Thatcher parts’ (2000: 324). In order to reunite the parts and re-establish a national identity, the image of the nation was emphasised, as Powrie suggests, as ‘something that, in the imagination at least, resolves separateness, difference, fragmentation’ (ibid: 325). The image of the nation is projected in the heritage film to restore not only our own faith in Britain and its cultural identity, but to reaffirm a positive image of the country to international audiences. Whilst this image is established and recognised as quintessentially British by national and international audiences, there is a significantly nostalgic focus on the image of upper and upper-middle class England, which then comes to be promoted as an authentic image of Britain as a nation.

Heritage films all commonly depict the past, but the way in which they represent the past differs. In the 1980s, when Thatcher was the prime minister, the films considered under the heritage label that were made during that time were arguably more conservative. Claire Monk points out that in the 1980s, the Thatcherite government was ‘at once highly generalised and explicitly dismissive towards ‘heritage films’ and their audiences’ (2011: 2). However, the films produced look back to the past and, as Higson argues, they ‘seemed to articulate a nostalgic and conservative celebration of the values and lifestyles of the privileged classes, and… in doing so [reinvented] an England that no longer existed… as something fondly remembered and desirable (2003: 12). The image of Britain, which becomes associated with the bourgeois societies of England, attempts to recreate the image of the English past, promoting conservative ideals, and avoids addressing the cultural and racial diversity of a changing Britain. Instead, heritage films ‘focus on a highly circumscribed set of traditions, those of the privileged, white, Anglo-Saxon community who inhabit lavish properties in a semi-rural Southern England’ (ibid: 27). Although this is perhaps far from a realistic depiction of Britain, in particular England, which the films often dwell upon, audiences, according to Higson, ‘must in some degree negotiate their ideas of England and Englishness… and seek to create an alternative mythology’ (ibid). British audiences, particularly those in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, accept the image of Britain portrayed in heritage films, despite it being a romanticised version of a minor section of the British population, that is, the bourgeois, upper and upper-middle class English communities. The image becomes a fantasy, and one which is sold to international National Trustaudiences, resulting in a promotion of the English past in the tourist industry. In other words, international audiences travel to Britain in order to be sold a particular version of Englishness, which is arguably why the English Heritage trust and the National Trust are popular. Monk supports this in stating that ‘the National Trust in preserving the private property of the upper classes had the hegemonic effect of constructing and maintaining a particular dominant conception of the national past’ (2011: 11). In visiting these places, audiences can engage in the nostalgic version of English history. The idea of the bourgeois English society and the nostalgic look back to its past is reflected in the aesthetic quality of the heritage film.

Many heritage films tend to be adaptations of canonical literature, which ‘functions as an important selling point, playing on the familiarity and/or cultural prestige of the [text]… and the status of a national cultural tradition… [where] the source text is as much on display as the past it seeks to reproduce’ (Higson, 2003: 20). Heritage film therefore becomes a symbol of quality, and arguably becomes a more valid representation of the past as a result of this. However, heritage films, often at the expense of narrative, focus largely on spectacle, transforming texts into works of art to be gazed at, placing aside any critiques the source text has to offer. Vidal believes that the ‘architectural sites, interior designs, furnishings and, in general, the mise-en-scéne of objects, settings and period artefacts… construct a sense of Englishness according to a certain bourgeois ideal of imperial tradition, stability and propriety that belies the subtler ironies of the novels faithfully adapted’ (2012: 9). Heritage films tend to focus more on the sets, costumes, and mise-en-scéne, than on any social critiques or commentary, arguably to portray a more idealistic version of England and Englishness. The conservative and idealistic representation of England and Englishness is arguably most evident in the traditional heritage films of the 1980s, particularly those produced by Merchant Ivory.

In Ismail Merchant’s book of Merchant Ivory interviews, James Ivory, one of the co-founders of Merchant Ivory Productions, was questioned about the company being a place for making films of value to which he replied ‘we certainly make quality films’ (2009, 123). The company produced films which were critically successful and are, according to Higson, ‘celebrated for their tasteful, soft-edged, pictorial recreations of the English past’ Howard's End(2003: 16). Their depiction of England as an idyllic place of luxury and wealth, in which refined upper and upper-middle class societies stroll through picturesque gardens, is sold to audiences as a place of culture and wealth. People who live within England are likely aware that heritage films often promote an alternative image of England to the realistic one. However, heritage films recreate an image of the past that is arguably more appealing than the present, and audiences are therefore arguably encouraged to do the same. This reinforces the concept of looking back to the past that was central to the policies of the Thatcherite government in which, according to film scholar Jim Leach, Thatcher ‘promoted a cultural vision of a return to supposedly Victorian family values’ (2004, 200).

Merchant Ivory, whilst producing films which were critically successful, they have, according to Earl G. Ingersoll, been severely criticised ‘for consciously appealing to nostalgia in later twentieth century-viewers for the last (and lost) days of beauty, comfort, peace, and charm associated with an older England’ (2012: 86). Merchant Ivory films tend to focus significantly on imagery and spectacle, and recreate the past as a nostalgic fantasy. In doing this, their films are arguable made more enjoyable not because of their faithful literary adaptations or critical success, but because they indulge in the heritage fantasy that so many audiences invest in. A Room with a View is based on the canonical novel of the same name (E.M. Forster, 1908). The film is one of three Merchant Ivory adaptations of a Forster novel in the 1980s, the other two being A Passage to India (David Lean, 1984), and Howard’s End (James Ivory, 1992). Similarly to the other two, A Room with a View arguably supports the heritage stereotype in some ways by promoting a conservative image of England through spectacle and idealistic representations of the ways in which people lived. It adapts Forster’s novel into a traditional heritage film that paints its landscapes with picturesque countryside, whilst the upper-middle class characters elegantly stroll through the backdrops, making each frame of the film resemble a work of art. The intertitles further compliment the focus on elegance, as the titles labelling each phase of the film are surrounded by stylish swirls. The characters are neatly clad in traditional, constrictive Edwardian garments, which play their part in connoting the repressive nature of this upper middle class society. Pam Cook, in her research on costumes and identity within British cinema, argues that ‘costume plays an important part in asserting and reinforcing national identity’ (1996: 41), and so it does in A Room with a View.

The costumes worn by the characters in A Room with a View emphasise the spectacle element of the film, acting as something to be gazed at rather than enhancing the narrative in any way. In heritage films it is often the case that costumes will take centre stage in scenes which serve no narrative purpose, for instance Michael Williams, in his analysis of A Room with a View as displaying traditional spectacle alongside various sexual politics, paraphrases Andy Medhurst who believes that the ‘almost demonically oppressive… white lacy ruffles of the blouse worn by Helena Bonham Carter… [are] another example of the ‘“white flannel” texts that infested’ British cinema in the 1980s’ (2005: 92). The costumes appear both repressive and respectful, indicating a society in which sex is a taboo topic and the characters are prim and proper in both their dress code and their manner. Lucy Honeychurch’s (Helena Bonham Carter) fiancé, Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day Lewis), is illustrative of this as he awkwardly attempts to give Lucy a kiss, one whicJulian Sands and Helena Bonham Carter in A Room With a Viewh is absent of any passion or emotion. This form of conservative thinking, emphasised by the white, laced up gowns of Lucy, suggesting her innocence, portray a society that is reflective of British, and more importantly, English values during Thatcher’s reign. Despite A Room with a View and many other heritage films, particularly those of Merchant Ivory, creating a version of Englishness that oozes refinement however, the films are arguably overtly aware of the image of English, and therefore British, culture that they are selling. England therefore, through its cinematic representation in the traditional heritage film, arguably promotes the values of a conservative nation. Interestingly however, there are alternative readings of A Room with a View that suggest it is more playful in terms of its representation of sexual politics.

Perhaps one of the most memorable scenes in A Room with a View is the one in which Lucy, Charlotte (Maggie Smith), and Eleanor (Judi Dench), accidentally stumble across three male acquaintances, one of which is Lucy’s brother, Freddy (Rupert Graves), who are completely naked whilst they playfully splash each other with water in the stream. Williams argues that this scene, ‘without making an issue out of sexuality, which would therefore create a narrative problem… is open and even liberating’ (ibid: 95). Whilst some audiences may interpret this scene as innocent and playful, it can also be read as an example of homosexuality. Furthermore, to paraphrase Williams, on the one hand thisRoom with a View men swimming scene depicts the homosexual subtext in a securely closeted way, and can therefore be regarded as fairly repressive. However, as the scene is not labelled as illustrative of homosexual desire, it simultaneously ‘does not become an issue that would stand in the way of the utopian dream’ (ibid: 95 – 96). Williams points out that ‘in the era of Thatcherite conservatism… the ‘PG’-rated spectacle seems truly exceptional’ (ibid: 96). Therefore, although A Room with a View is typically understood as strongly supportive of the Thatcherite policies, it is evident that there is also a deeper, more liberating subtext within the film that the film also appears to be aware of. Through this more playful depiction of English heritage, England is arguably represented as both a conservative nation that looks to the past, and a nation ready to break away from tradition. Playfulness in the heritage film is evident within other heritage films, particularly those that emerged in the 1990s, Shakespeare in Love being a prime example of this.

Shakespeare in Love can be considered under the label of a heritage film because it is very loosely based on a historical figure (William Shakespeare), and is set in the past (the Elizabethan period). The characters are clad in period costume, and in heritage film tradition, the film is overtly aware of, and attempts to promote, its vision of England through sets and costumes which act as a spectacle. For instance, the film begins with pans around the Shakespearian theatre, allowing the spectator to gaze upon a landmark of 8culture, in which iconic Shakespearian plays were acted out, promoting a vision of England to audiences as a part of the Shakespeare heritage. On the bonus features of the Shakespeare in Love DVD, the filmmakers explain that to capture the visual beauty of the Elizabethan day, they set to recreate the look on a plot of land in Shepperton studios (John Madden, 2011). In re-creating Elizabethan England, the film is attempting to visually recreate history. Were this portrayal accurate however, there would be a significantly larger display of poverty, and streets filled with rats, particularly as Hugh Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson) declares that all the theatres are closed as a result of the plague. However, there seems to be a lack of this, as the film romanticises its vision of the past in order to create a more attractive version of England. Whilst Shakespeare in Love in many ways relies on heritage film tradition, it simultaneously attempts to break it in much like A Room with a View, only in a more obvious way.

Shakespeare in Love is overtly playful in its representation of gender politics. It is liberating in the way that Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, Viola, breaks gender boundaries by cross-dressing as Thomas Dent in order to audition for the part of Romeo in William Shakespeare’s (Joseph Fiennes) new play, as women were not allowed on the stage. Viola’s liberation not only from the female role in a patriarchal society, but also from the rules enforced upon her by her mother, who attempts to force her to marry Lord Wessex (Colin Firth) in whom Viola has no interest, is illustrated in various sequences throughout the film. For instance, as Shakespeare and Viola are about to have sex for the first time, William unravels Viola’s corset binding as she dances gracefully. Costume is symbolic within the film and although in this it adheres to the traditional heritage film, and acts as a spectacle to be gazed at, it is also indicative of the break from tradition, as Viola is symbolically liberated from all that oppresses her within society. On the DVD bonus features, Judi Dench remarks that this film is about youth. The film is also regarded as one which many fifteen year olds can relate to (ibid), suggesting that the film’s break from tradition is ultimately a break from Thatcher policies and more a reflection of the changing British culture. Shakespeare in Love therefore, can be regarded as both characteristic of the English heritage industry, and significant in how it promotes an arguably more contemporary vision of England.

Heritage films are widely acknowledged as quintessentially English, and as such, they focus on creating an image of England through sets, costumes and spectacle. The image produced in the films, particularly those of the Merchant Ivory films, have come to stand as a universally accepted image of Englishness, and although some films, Shakespeare In Love for example, attempt to break away from the heritage label, they still adhere to theShakespeare in Love tradition of recreating a romanticised image of the English past. Whilst these films are a kind of fantasy that is inherently filled with a sense of nostalgia, they may also avoid the reality of the English past. Although the vision of England created in these films acts primarily as a fantasy spectacle that appeals to both national and international audiences, they are also used as a way to establish an English national identity and unite the nation that became fragmented as a result of the Thatcherite government. The contemporary heritage film label therefore, can be considered as significant in its portrayal of English history, and the way in which it can be understood as a reflection of contemporary society. As Moya Luckett states – ‘national identity is always elsewhere, a paradox that seems to be echoed in the current efforts of audiences to find the nation in the images of British cinema’ (2000: 99), and the image of Englishness in the heritage film.


CHAPMAN, J., 2005. National Identity and the British Historical Film. London: Tauris & Co.

COOK, P., 1996. Fashioning the Nation: Costume and Identity in British Cinema. London: British Film Institute.

HIGSON, A., 2003. English Heritage, English Cinema: Costume Drama Since 1980. London: Oxford University Press.

HIGSON, A., 2006 Re-presenting the National Past: Nostalgia and Pastiche in the Heritage Film. IN: FRIEDMAN, L., 2003. Fires Were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism. London: Wallflower Press.

LEACH, J., 2004. British Film. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

LUCKETT, M., 2003. Image and Nation in 1990s British Cinema. In: MURPHY, R., British Cinema of the 90s. London: BFI.

MERCHANT, I., 2009. Merchant Ivory: Interviews. Missisippi: University Press of Mississippi 

MONK, C., and SARGEANT, A., 2002. Introduction: The Past in British Cinema. In: MONK, C., and SARGANT, A., 2002. British Historical Cinema. London: Routledge.

MONK, C., 2002. The British Heritage Film Debate Revisited. In: MONK, C., and SARGANT, A., 2002. British Historical Cinema. London: Routledge.

MONK, C., 2011. Heritage Film Audiences: Period Films and Contemporary Audiences in the UK. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

PIDDUCK, J., 2004. Contemporary Costume Film. London: British Film Institute.

POWRIE, P., 2000. On The Threshold Between Past and Present: Alternative Heritage. IN: ASHBY, J., and HIGSON, A. 2000. British Cinema, Past and Present. London: Routledge.

ROGERS, S., 2013. How Britain Changed Under Margaret Thatcher In 15 Charts. The Guardian. [Online] 8th April. Available at < [Accessed 28th April 2013].

SORLIN, P., 2001. How to Look at an “Historical” Film. In: LANDY, M., 2001. The Historical Film: History and Memory in Media. London: The Athlone Press.

STREET, S., 2009. British National Cinema. Oxon: Routledge.

VIDAL, B., 2012. Short Cuts: Heritage Film: Nation, Genre and Representation. New York: Columbia University Press.

Williams, M. 2005. Room With A Gay View?: Sexuality, Spectatorship and A Room With A View. In: FURBY, J., and RANDELL, K. Screen Methods: Comparative Readings in Film Studies. 2005. London: Wallflower Press.


Distant Voices Still Lives. 1988. [Film]. Directed by: Terence Davies

The Full Monty. 1997. [Film]. Directed by: Peter Cattaneo.

Howards End. 1992. [Film]. Directed by James Ivory.

A Room With a View. 1985. [Film]. Directed by: Ismail Merchant and James Ivory.

Shakespeare In Love. 1998. [Film]. Directed by John Madden.

Shakespeare In Love. 2011. [DVD]. Directed by John Madden.

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4 Responses to British Heritage Films: A Critical Examination of the Concept of ‘Englishness’

  1. Feminism Through Cinema and Literature says:

    Terrific post!

  2. CSM says:

    Interesting essay – well-read and wide-ranging! Especially interested to read about Williams’ piece. The queer pleasures (and queer readings) of A Room With A View are well-documented, and their relevance extends far beyond the bathing scene. Unsurprising, as Forster was a gay novelist, and (the Indian and American, not English) Merchant and Ivory gay filmmakers and life partners. Queer literary criticism has long argued that ARWAV (as much as Forster’s overt gay novel Maurice) ‘translate[s] the ideas of the early homosexual emancipation movement into ideals against which are gauged individual growth and social health’ – Claude J. Summers, 1983: 143).

    For my money, that same ethos is fully present in Ivory’s film – and (as Monk 2011 x 2, both the book and the follow-up article, show in detail), such pleasures may be more relevant to ARWAV’s continuing popularity with audiences than Thatcherism–national–ideological readings of ‘the heritage film’ (however popular these have become in academia!) You give a very good account of the academic debates (though is Shakespeare in Love perhaps a ‘post-heritage’ film?). But the attempt to shoehorn ARWAV (and similar examples) into that reading (in the face of the films’ many other known pleasures: queer, actor-centred, character-centred, comic, romantic, etc) means that you constantly rub up against the inconvenience of real audiences and their inconvenient responses – which, quite logically, tend not to support the Thatcherism–national–ideological critique. e.g. ‘The image produced in the films, particularly those of the Merchant Ivory films, have come to stand as a universally accepted image of Englishness…a romanticised image of the English past…a kind of fantasy…’: ‘universally accepted’ by whom? What do the films’ audiences, fans – and indeed makers – have to say on this? And how far is this – extremely common – assertion complicated by the reality that Merchant, Ivory and their usual screenwriter, the late Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, were not British filmmakers but a transnational team? (Jhabvala was a German-Jewish refugee from the Nazis, M&I made their earliest films in postcolonial India.)

    Relating to this, I spotted a factual error which may have implications for your analysis. A Passage to India (1984), directed by the late British director David Lean (Doctor Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia, Brief Encounter…) is, by definition, not ‘one of three Merchant Ivory adaptations’. Curiously, you’ve omitted Merchant Ivory’s *actual* third E. M. Forster adaptation: their 1987 film of Forster’s posthumous 1971 gay novel Maurice, made on a shoestring straight after the success of A Room With A View. Maurice won three awards at the 1987 Venice Film Festival (for Ivory, its joint lead actors James Wilby and Hugh Grant, and soundtrack composer Richard Robbins) and remains one of the best-loved of all gay films. It also broke new ground: by bringing LGBT romance into the mainstream (the Washington Post called it ‘an intoxicating tuxedo-ripper’), and for its unprecedented happy ending.

    The existence (and continuing popularity) of Ivory’s Maurice is, of course, highly inconvenient for the critiques which cleave to the insistence that Merchant Ivory’s films ‘portray [an] idealistic version of England’, lack ‘social critiques or commentary’ or are ‘inherently filled with a sense of nostalgia’ (for a period when gay love was a serious criminal offence!?!) I’ve come to suspect that this is so many critiques of ‘the heritage film’ DO ignore it. (You essay is far from alone in this, and I appreciate you’ll have taken your cue from earlier work!)

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