On BFI Player
Reviews: Geoff Andrew, Time Out, 8 January 1997; Paul Julian Smith, Sight and Sound, January 1997; Eithne O’Neill, Positif 509/510 (July/August 2003); Andrew Burke, Historical Materialism, 14.1, 2006, 3-29; Time Out ‘100 Best British Films’ no. 52.
Robinson in Space (1997) was photographed between March and November 1995. It documents the explorations of an unseen fictional character called Robinson, who was the protagonist of the earlier London (1994), a reimagination of its subject suggested by the Surrealist literature of Paris. Robinson in Space is a similar study of the look of present-day England in 1995, and was suggested to some extent by Daniel Defoe’s Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-26). Among its subjects are many new spaces, particularly the sites where manufactured products are produced, imported and distributed. Robinson has been commissioned by ‘a well-known international advertising agency’ to undertake a study of the ‘problem’ of England.1 It is not stated in the film what this problem is, but there are images of Eton, Oxford and Cambridge, a Rover car plant, the inward investment sites of Toyota and Samsung, a lot of ports, supermarkets, a shopping mall, and other subjects which evoke the by now familiar critique of ‘gentlemanly capitalism’, which sees the UK’s economic weakness as a result of the City of London’s long term (English) neglect of the (United Kingdom’s) industrial economy, particularly its manufacturing base.
Early in the film, its narrator quotes from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray: ‘It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible. . . .’2 The appearances by which the viewer is invited to judge are initially the dilapidation of public space, the extent of visible poverty, the absence of UK-branded products in the shops and on the roads, and England’s cultural conservatism. Robinson’s image of the UK’s industry is based on his memories of the collapse of the early Thatcher years. He has assumed that poverty and dilapidation are the result of economic failure, and that economic failure is a result of the inability of UK industry to produce desirable consumer products. He believes, moreover, that this has something to do with the feel of ‘Middle England’, which he sees as a landscape increasingly characterised by sexual repression, homophobia and the frequent advocacy of child beating. At the same time, he is dimly aware that the United Kingdom is still the fifth-largest trading economy in the world and that British, even English people, particularly women and the young, are probably neither as sexually unemancipated, as sadistic or as miserable as he thinks the look of the UK suggests. The film’s narrative is based on a series of journeys in which his prejudices are examined, and some of them are disposed of.
1. Nations for Sale, a study of Britain’s overseas image, was written by Anneke Elwes in 1994, for the international advertising network DDB Needham. Patrick Wright reported (‘Wrapped in tatters of the flag’, The Guardian, 31 December 1994) that she found Britain ‘a dated concept’ difficult ‘to reconcile with reality’.
2. The statement is part of Lord Henry Wotton’s monologue to Dorian on their first meeting; see Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in Complete Works, general ed. J B Foreman (London: Collins, 1984), p.32.
From ‘Port Statistics’, The View from the Train, (London: Verso, 2013).
The film was adapted as a book published by Reaktion in 1999.