During his Oscar acceptance speech for the 1981 film Chariots of Fire screenwriter Colin Welland declared “The British are coming!” Despite the optimistic claim made by Welland, the remainder of the decade saw the British film industry largely fail to break the hold of Hollywood. The attitude of the British Conservative government of the 1980s failed to assist film makers from the U.K. or abroad in making movies in the country.
The British government of the 1980s, spearheaded by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made large reductions in the tax breaks and funding opportunities offered to British and foreign production companies throughout the decade. Because of limited funding opportunities the production companies of the period generally limited themselves to low budget films. The usually quoted exception to this rule is Goldcrest films, which attempted to fund and produce larger budget movies such as the Al Pacino vehicle Revolution. This production is often seen as a folly, with the story of the American revolution filmed by a British company on location in the Norfolk area of England. Goldcrest was also responsible for larger budget failures, such as Absolute Beginnners. Poor critical and commercial responses led to these films causing problems for the company, which had earlier been successful with Oscar winning productions Chariots of Fire and Gandhi.
Alongside the period drama’s produced by the Merchant Ivory partnership, and comedies such as The Mission and Withnail & I British film became politicized during the 1980s. The introduction of funding from television company Channel 4, which looked for productions that would prove popular on television saw grittier films produced. The 1970s had seen sex comedies, such as The Adventures of… series and television sitcom spin offs, such as Steptoe & Son Ride Again dominate film production in the U.K. As dissatisfaction with the Thatcher government grew in the U.K. the number of films focusing on the difficulties of the period increased, including The Ploughman’s Lunch that told the story of a journalist becoming disillusioned with politics and The Falklands War, which forms the backdrop to the movie. Everyday life in the U.K. during the 1980s became a recurrent theme in the films of the period, with Letter to Brezhnev depicting life in the northern English city of Liverpool, and its high rates of violence and unemployment. The themes of British films during the 80s did not always allow for a high level of commercial success, such as My Beautiful Launderette, which told the story of a homosexual relationship between a man of Pakistani descent and a supporter of right wing, racist political groups.
British film of the 1980s was most popular for its critical successes, and low level commercial success. In a period dominated by low brow Hollywood comedies and action movies, British films attempted to make political statements about contemporary life in the U.K. The large scale success declared by Colin Welland did not materialize during the decade, with more emphasis placed on aspects of social realism and themes important to British people. An exception to this are the Merchant Ivory productions, such as A Room With a View that presented a romanticized version of Englishness often targeted towards American audiences. Some British filmmakers and production staff did work in Hollywood in the decade, with varying amounts of success. For example, producer Sir David Puttnam headed Columbia Pictures during the mid to late 80s, his attempt to change the focus of production from a few large budget movies to a greater number of lower budget films saw him removed from his position in 1988.