The news that the UK Film Council is to be scrapped inspires me with mixed feelings, all of them negative. It’s true that this organisation, which attempted to promote commercially viable British cinema, failed more often than not. But it seems a wretchedly British response to a good idea that’s not working: abolish it, rather than fix it.
Recently, The Irish Film Board came under threat. In financially tight times, support for the arts is a soft target, and art which is tainted by commerce, or seen to be “low,” is the easiest thing to slice away at. But it was pointed out that Irish film made a healthy profit for Ireland, not least in terms of tourism, and the threat was seen off. (Scottish Screen, with far less of a commercial record, has been folded into something called Creative Scotland and its commitment to production funding is in doubt.) Had the UK Film Council performed as successfully, it might have justified its existence, even as it ignored Britain’s most talented filmmakers (Terence Davies being the one we always point to on such occasions).
It all makes a black farce out of Matthew Vaughn’s asinine call at election time for the country to vote Tory. “My love for films and politics blossomed at the same time. I had seen Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, perfect escapes from a miserable Britain. Under Labour we had strikes, nationwide discontent and economic meltdown. The country needed to change before we fell off a cliff. Sound familiar?” As has been pointed out in The Guardian, RAIDERS appeared two years into Thatcher’s Reign of Terror, and strikes, discontent and mass unemployment were the norm under Thatcher, the former only fading out after she aggressively broke the power of the unions with her end-justifies-the-means fascist approach. And it was Thatcher who abolished the Eady Levy, removing tax support for British cinema and causing a massive crisis in the domestic industry.
Under the Conservatives, British cinema steepened the decline it had experienced through the seventies, with only the blip of British Film Year in 1985 attempting to put our cinema back on the map. Predictably, it was the heritage cinema of Merchant-Ivory and Richard Attenborough and CHARIOTS OF FIRE and David Lean which was promoted. The one positive effect of Thatcherite policy was the cinema of protest which arose in defiance of it, although I was never enthused by MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE (in fact, I regard Hanif Kureishi as a dreadful blight on cinema) or Ken Loach (most of whose anti-Thatcher efforts appeared, redundantly, under New Labour, although I suppose I can hardly blame him for being unable to obtain funding earlier).
New Labour, a largely bogus and repulsive organisation, all the more so for its fraudulent claims to socialism, did at least attempt to do something about the decline in production. Unfortunately (and intentionally), The Film Council became the only game in town after the abolition of the BFI, which aimed to support artistic expression and sometimes did, if you could get past the stifling political correctness, and British Screen, which was there for commercial cinema, but in fact supported a soulless middle-brow agenda which addressed nobody.
I have to struggle to recollect any films backed by the UKFC which actually struck me as particularly good. Ben Hopkins’ SIMON MAGUS was probably the most interesting, and showed the funders taking a chance, Jane Campion’s BRIGHT STAR is certainly impressive, IN THE LOOP is funny and opened up new possibilities for TV talent to make creative use of cinema, MY SUMMER OF LOVE is a near-masterpiece that should have been more heavily promoted. But of the others I’ve seen, I’m not hugely taken with the respectful literary adaptations and cosy Judi Dench films. But there’s acclaimed work like HUNGER, whose distribution they supported.
In Tuesday’s Guardian, Ronan Bennett provides the statistic that for every £1 spent by the UKFC, British films make back £5 at the box office. Which would be very impressive if not for the fact that the UKFC counts James Bond and Harry Potter films as British. So the films making most of that money were NOT supported by the UKFC. This kind of vague or dishonest accounting makes the UKFC harder to support — critically popular films are often trumpeted as successes, implying box office triumph, which is frequently not the case.
Overall, this seems like bad news. I’d definitely call it a dumb move by a government indifferent to British cinema. But great cinema and state support are not always companions — in Australia, government intervention arrived just as the vibrant cinema of the seventies collapsed, and while the higher rates of production in the UK over the last ten years were undoubtedly positive for the people who make their living in British film, I don’t think it resulted in anything like a Golden Age. But when even a relatively benign change in funding apparatus results in a drop in production while the producers get their heads around it, this act is pretty much the equivalent of kicking away a crutch.