Future of the BFI: The BFI which Will Be 67 in the Year 2000

By Michael Chanan and Julian Petley

The British Film Institute is in crisis. There’s nothing particularly new about this. The 1945 Arts Enquiry noted that ‘the Institute has tended to spread its services too wide for its resources, and has accomplished little. Much of its work has been superficial and half-hearted… It has failed to serve the needs of education or the film industry, or to promote co-operation between the two…Inability to fulfil its functions adequately and the general trend of its policy have now created amongst those who should be its warmest supporters disillusion and even mistrust.

Plus ça change… Then, however, the problem was a fiercely self-protective film industry which had succeeded in narrowly circumscribing the Institute’s activities since its inception. Today the BFI’s problem is different, and is shared by every other cultural institution in the country, lottery money or no lottery money. The problem is not simply cuts, but the government-imposed requirement for everything to be subjected to cost-effectiveness and auditing, in other words, to the full panoply of ‘free market’ ideology.

The market is not a way of distributing things according to their value (human or social, cultural or aesthetic) but according to the distribution of income. However, since the purpose of public cultural institutions is, amongst other things, to democratise access, there is an inevitable contradiction here. Of course, this would not be the case if Thatcher’s ‘Victorian values’ had been those of Matthew Arnold rather than Thomas Gradgrind. There was a strong tradition in Victorian Britain of philanthropy, which placed great store in setting up public institutions to bring culture to the people. Of course the Victorians ensured it was only the kind of culture they approved of, compatible with the preservation of the status quo and suited to instilling the ‘right’ values in the lower orders. But there were positive effects to be had all the same, and when the State began to assume its cultural responsibilities between the two World Wars, the tradition of philanthropy was transformed into the arm’s length principle, whereby public money was not dispensed directly by the government, but by a body or agency staffed by liberal professionals set up for the purpose. In this way, the State avoided the risk of charges of political patronage. And thus, in the field of cinema, the British Film Institute was established in 1933, not to produce cinema, but to promote its cultural value for the nation. And of course, for a long time this worked well enough for very many people with a passion for the art of film to benefit from its services.

Yet the BFI has never been short of enemies. Many within Britain’s self-enclosed film industry have seen in it the spectre of government intervention in their jealously guarded business affairs. Nor was such a notoriously philistine industry likely to look kindly on arty-farty notions like film education (or appreciation as it used to be called). In this they were able to make common cause with other enemies – those anti-intellectuals who disapproved in principle of any public funding of the arts. Fortunately their influence was weakened by the country’s massive swing to Labour at the end of the Second World War. The first outcome of the new cultural equilibrium was that alongside the creation of the Welfare State, Keynes – the economist so hated by the monetarists – was allowed to create the Arts Council. Since the BFI already existed, this body conveniently excluded cinema, thus confirming a national ideology in which film was not considered to be an art. (It only came in later by the back door, when funding for films by artists was introduced.)

Ironically, the result was that in the 70s, while the Arts Council was firmly in the hands of patricians, the BFI was rejuvenated. The Production Board, created in the 50s as the Experimental Film Fund, broadened its encouragement for new film-makers, many of whom, as it happened, had been politicised by the events of the late 60s (and yes, this includes several of Vertigo’s editorial board). In the education and publications departments, a group of young dissident intellectuals advanced new theoretical positions about film culture. Support was given to small independent distributors who brought in films by important foreign directors to show alongside home-grown documentaries and a few independent features. When Channel 4 opened in the early 80s there was a much larger constituency of independent film-makers ready and able to supply the programmes than anyone had anticipated. Even Jeremy Isaacs expressed surprise at the 350 different companies commissioned annually in the Channel’s first years. The period was not some kind of utopia to be nostalgic about, but Britain at that time had a more thriving sense of film culture than now.

However, with the triumph of Thatcherism in 1979, philistinism came back with a vengeance, to be enthroned as a national virtue. Institutions such as the BBC, the Arts Council and the BFI were doubly damned – first as being part of the hated public sector, and secondly for wasting public money on airy-fairy nonsense which more likely than not was downright subversive. The whole cultural sector was put on notice. The order of the day was now sink or swim – adapt or perish. To adapt, you needed to develop new management skills, and enlist the help of accountants. Accountancy, after all, is simply monetarism in practice.

A report published some years ago by the Policy Studies Institute, entitled The Economic Importance of the Arts in Britain, demonstrated very clearly how public support for the arts pays off amply in terms of such factors as the employment generated and the invisible earnings it brings in from abroad. There is no clearer proof of the grossly ideological nature of the present regime than its refusal to recognise the economic benefits of public investment in the arts, and its lack of pride in the defence of national culture, of the kind to be found, especially in regard to the cinema, in France. The truth is that, whether in health care, education, the arts or for that matter, sports, the consequence of thinking like accountants is to put a price on everything whilst knowing the value of nothing. Worse than that, values which do not translate into monetary terms are simply ignored. The one question accountants never ask is what such institutions are for.

It would be too easy to blame the BFI’s sorry state on a cadre of accountants and careerists within the institution, but there’s no point in personalising the issue. They are not baddies, but people caught up in a generalised loss of faith, a crisis of belief and culture. It is more important to ask ourselves where, in all this, has been the oppositional voice of the film culture which, we thought, the BFI was there to nurture and serve. Where is the 90s version of the Members Action Group? And where is the equivalent of the massive campaign to save the BBC World Service? Is contemporary film culture so fragmented, amnesiac, unsure of itself, lacking in identity, that it no longer has the courage of its former convictions? Nor are the current cast of accountants and managers (whether in the BFI or elsewhere) mere Thatcherite clones. Many of these professional administrators and arts bureaucrats probably regard themselves as Leftists who have convinced themselves that the only way to ‘save’ the institutions in which they work is to become ever more entrepreneurial. Some even believe, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that Thatcherism had a ‘radical’ and anti-Establishment agenda that was worth in part supporting. If they sneer at Vertigo, the voice you hear is bad conscience.

An essential element in the provision of democratic access is that value cannot be judged solely in terms of numbers and tickets. But in a society in which even public libraries are being closed down, and in many of those that remain, the shelves are being stripped of their less popular titles, what is now under threat is the very existence of the principle of access, the disinterested provision of a general cultural benefit to all members of society. Or rather, since some values, like national pride, cannot be removed from the agenda, they are promoted only on condition that they are subjected to the cacophony of the marketplace, which inevitably debases them. This is the problem which has now overtaken the BFI. Political expediency demands that it is transformed away from its old-fashioned cultural remit towards full-scale entry into what the Frankfurt sociologists in the 30s first called the culture industry.

The Thatcherite ideology is one which cannot tell the difference between business and society, or cost and value, with disastrous consequences. Mrs Thatcher infamously declared that society didn’t exist, and proceeded to squeeze all forms of public provision. The same regime under John Major has not let up, but has rather extended and deepened the cuts in every area of such provision. Health care, education, you name it, are all being subjected to grotesquely inappropriate market mechanisms. Massively aided by the press, mostly Thatcherite clients with their own commercial agendas to pursue, the government has even bullied the BBC into line, while the liberal press for long glossed over the real issues. The Birt regime is, it seems, the price of the BBC being allowed to survive at all.

But then again, just suppose for a moment that Birt had stood up to the bullies in the government and the client press. Supposing he’d called their bluff and said that there’s simply no way the BBC is going to be broken up or privatised – period. Supposing the BBC had then organised a massive campaign in its own support – rather like the campaign to save the World Service. It would have been able to draw on huge reservoirs of public support and a great deal of informed and influential opinion. But the government was never put to the test. Perhaps there were already too many Tory placepeople on the Board of Governors to make this possible. Perhaps the BBC was just too battered and cowed to try it on. Or perhaps the managerial caste in the BBC really did think they were doing the right thing. The result is the same. Like Nixon and North Vietnam, Birt is the process of destroying the BBC in order to ‘save’ it.

Apart from the occasional stupid and malicious story in the press, the BFI has been much less in the public gaze than the BBC, yet it too has been facing similar problems – the same hostility to public institutions, the same resentment of public money spent on anything smacking of art and culture. But whereas the BBC, whether you like it or not, has come up with and put into practice a plan for the survival of public service broadcasting, the BFI seems increasingly to be floundering. Reductions in government funding seem not to have resulted in any strategic re-think but in the endless cheese-paring of internal reorganisation, which climaxed this year in near death by a thousand cuts and numerous redundancies. The BFI is in the grip of full-blown managerialism: this is not simply the elevation of management and the measurement of efficiency by accountants, but ‘downsizing’ with a vengeance (which here amounts to cultural asset stripping). Such a programme requires disregard for educational opinion and the suppression of democratic participation on top of the subjugation of all values to the single denominator of monetary cost. It also brings with it the advancement of ill-conceived public relations and news management. All told, it leaves the organisation in a depleted, divided and demoralised state.

It ends up with few friends left. The BFI’s constituency, particularly in education and in the regions, feels increasingly marginalised and considered irrelevant. There is little in the way of consultation, dialogue, debate or discussion – the parallels with the way the leadership of ‘New Labour’ behaves are only too obvious. A grandiloquent ‘mission statement’ is suddenly flourished under our noses, hatched within the BFI’s confines and apparently writ in stone. One either accepts or rejects, and that, apparently, is that. But is such a ‘mission statement’ either appropriate or relevant to the real life of a cultural institution? Or is it a case of the writer who declares that they want to write, but sadly, has nothing at all to say?

In the two articles which follow, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith examines the history which has led to the BFI’s present pretty pass, while Graham Murdock looks at the vision which he believes the BFI ought to be pursuing...