RIP UK Film Council


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 Vaughan’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.

15 Responses to “RIP UK Film Council”

  1. While the discussions regarding the end of the UKFC seem to wholly focused on film funding, a voice has to be raised for the body’s work in exhibition and community cinema. Praise has been heaped on the after school Film Club, teaching kids to read films and engage critically. The British Federation of Film Societies (who I volunteer for) also relies heavily on the UKFC for being able to support community cinema across the country. Great ‘big society’ volunteer led things outside the care of the new government.

    And what’s going to happen to the digital screens network? Are all art house cinemas going to have their new projectors pulled? They’re on a lease scheme, paid for by UKFC. Say what you will about digital projection, but it has opened up programming across the country.

    Of course as the UKFC was hard to defend in it’s current form, and its cost and its function is always going to be disputed. It’s just for all the mickey-mouse Harry Potter support, there was a hell of a lot of other good work going on. Budget cuts aside, klling it without a review reeks of cheap political points scoring.

  2. Chris Atkins of the doc Starsuckers picks a few holes in the digital screens network here —
    But in general I agree — work on distribution and education took years to build up effectiveness and is now all in jeopardy.

    I was inclined to believe the talk of “The economy is in a worse state than we’d imagined” by the incoming government, until I heard the line used in The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer — this is obviously an old political cliche that 60s audiences could laugh at, and we’ve forgotten it because we’ve just had two governments that lasted over a decade each.

  3. Rather surprised to read of your Kureshi antipathy. LOVE Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid . Venus isn’t bad either, IMO.

  4. I pretty much distrust the social realist school, although admittedly Kureishi has more than one string to his bow. His directorial effort, London Kills Me, may lie at the root of my dislike. “I’m not very interested in telling stories with pictures, like someone like Peter Greenaway,” was his comment, which is wrong on so many levels. Textbook example of someone who should never have been allowed to direct a movie.

  5. London Kills Me simply demonstrates that his talent lies in scriptwriting. Leave the direction to the ever-essential Stephen Frears.

    I share his dislike of Greenaway. Complained about him from the start. Therefore you cannot imagine my bliss when David Hockney sat next to me at a press screening of Prospero’s Books and after ten minutes heaved a world-weary sigh and walked out.

    I stayed through to the end alas.

  6. It is an unappetising list, isn’t it? RED ROAD was good, at least.

    Nauseating Vaughn quotation – thanks for that.

  7. A surprisingly balanced, and quite admirable, piece (though I of course would argue that our minds immediately go to Peter Greenaway or Nic Roeg or Lynne Ramsey post Morvern Caller or Andrew Kotting rather than Terence Davies when we think of filmmakers abandoned by the UKFC!)

    The UKFC had many issues and seemed to be creating a certain kind of ‘urban heritage cinema’ all of its own with the various talents and material it chose that were closer to New Labour philosophies than Conservative upper class country house stuff.

    But I agree – while I’m ambivalent as to the closing (and since I’m outside the industry with no friends in it don’t have any particular sympathy one way or the other), it is never good news when this kind of upheaval occurs. At the very least it seems like it will create just as many administrative and funding issues to get funding through a different body than it would to have just radically restructured the running of the Council, and therefore it strikes me as worryingly more of an abolishment of a whole industry than simply a change in funding (but this one more example of something that is occurring in every section of British society at the moment, as the infrastructure is being systematically removed, presumably replaced with squads of unemployed ‘volunteers’ being forced to keep the basic services running properly for no pay.)

    In terms of UKFC films, they’re quite a sorry bunch, though I would stand up for The Proposition, Morvern Callar, Yes and the apparently grudgingly funded Nightwatching from that imdb list. Franklyn and Simon Magus were quite interesting too, though all the above seem to be the exceptions that escaped the rather cynical sounding and atomising audience ‘positioning and empowering’ meetings rather than the rule.

  8. A Peacock Says:

    As others have mentioned, the number of great filmmakers ignored by it means I won’t shed any tears… And hopefully this will encourage people to go out and make films with their own money and not sit around for years until they’ve satisfied a government funding body. With good digital cameras so cheap and easy to use, who really needs a big budget?

  9. I have always disliked Greenaway and will continue to dislike him until he re-incarnates into an artist of real talent.

    Shame about the UK Film Council, as chance would have it, I got to see two films funded by the UK Film Council today…one is a short film called Bypass and another is MAN ON WIRE. The second film seemed a little too smug for my liking while the first is shot well as far as it goes.

  10. I was usually not crazy about their choice of shorts. However, I think short films are important and should be funded to some level — I’d probably favour making more of them cheaper, rather than fewer more expensively, although I’ve been benefitted by a big budget personally.

    Those who are delighted with the closure of UKFC and say we will now all learn how to get private funding seem to overlook the fact that there will now be more filmmakers clamouring for the same private finance, now that getting money from the state will be harder.

    I’d say the number of good films, or defensible films, made with UKFC was slightly above the level you would get from chance, which is better than I’d usually expect from a committee. I suspect Scottish Screen’s hit rate was lower than the chance rate, meaning that they tended to filter out anything of interest…

  11. I think its desperately worrying – particularly the less glam side of distribution and supporitng cinemas, festivals and the tiny networks and schemes which where helping filmmakers keep the dream alive…

    I’ve seen at close quarters what ‘private funding’ means. It doesn’t maen Derek Jarman it means god bothering films or frankly bad screenwriters getting films made becasue they know rich people who can chuck money away on a tax dodge. I have a freind a producer who has spent 4 years trying to get an indifferent writer to produce a decentish script and a hideous ‘business type’ person to do a business plan. Endless endless scurring around utter wankers. And when I question her about wasting time with these people she says they are the only people she knows with a likelyhood of acessing cash from investors.

    Thank F**K we live in scotland and the effects of this will be ameliorated for a year or so..

  12. Didn’t Channel 4 at least used to screen short films? Whatever happened to The Shooting Gallery? Or did that disappear with the Film4 overreaching and then going bankrupt as a subscription channel?

  13. Channel 4 produced and showed short films, like Morag McKinnon and Colin McLaren’s excellent Home. For a while, several TV channels had short film schemes. Now I think the way forward has to be the no-budget feature.

  14. The no-budget feature? You mean screenwriting.

  15. For anyone who wants to direct, writing will only get you part of the way. Nobody will give you a feature directing gig unless you have experience, and the only experience that would count is large scale TV, or another feature. Making a feature for 10K could do it, if the thing looks professional enough (and especially if it reaches some kind of audience).

    It’s still a longshot, of course.

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