Interview with The Minister for Film and Tourism, Tom Clarke

By Vertigo

The Minister for Film and Tourism, Tom Clarke CBE MP, accuses Vertigo of having its glass half empty. (Rightly). Vertigo asked for a refill

: You called your report A Bigger Picture. What about the fate of the smaller and sometimes more illuminating picture?

Tom Clarke: It is a bigger picture meant to take in every aspect of film. The responsibility of government is to create the environment in which individual talent and creativity is given its head. Now that is to generalise, but at the very start people should know where we are going in the report of the review group, a group of virtually all of the key players in every aspect of film from development to distribution and exhibition to marketing. It is chaired, as you know, jointly by myself and Stewartt Till, who is from the industry, and I think that is very important because this is the government that is business-friendly, which is also supportive of individual talent. And we’ve agreed that those serving in it, with the addition of some others, would continue as an action group for a further year so that the recommendations won’t simply gather dust. I remember I was working in the film industry when Lord Lloyd published his report and not very much was done with it.

V: What were you doing in the film industry?

TC: I was one of the Deputy Directors of the Scottish Film Council. One of my responsibilities was to make sure that we saw all the films that might be available for the film library, and I wrote the synopses for the catalogue. But in addition I was very much involved in amateur cinema. I was president of the British Amateur Cinematographers and I organised the Scottish International Amateur Film Festival.

V: Seeing that you come from that background how could it be that the – I hate that word but I can’t think of another – cultural sector was left out? We are now faced with the demise of the Arts Council Film Department and with the fact that the BFI Production Board is frozen. The independent cultural sector has never been in such crisis as it is now, and yet not one member of this sector is on your committee and there are only about two paragraphs relating to it.

TC: Well, I think that members of the committee, like myself, would be astonished at your assertion. Wilf Stevenson was appointed and there were people like Lynda Myles, a colleague of mine when she was running the Edinburgh Film Festival, also Stewart himself. Stewart Till wasn’t only heading PolyGram, he was one of the Governors of the National Film and Television School. With regards to the Arts Council, Charles Denton was very much there and gave us absolutely first rate advice on the very issues that you have raised. So, with great respect, I don’t recognise your view but even if it were the case, we were very open. So, I genuinely believe that, although people may feel that their views weren’t taken into account, they are perfectly free to feed that into the action group.

V: The report talks a lot about ‘creative industry’, quite correctly, but it doesn’t talk much about culture or a cinema that might deserve public support for its own sake. Do you see any difference between creative industries and film culture? Should the latter be supported by the government?

TC: I have to say that we were very, very conscious of creativity and that link to education and to industry in everything that we did. Now, as a group, we didn’t believe that the way to solve all of our problems was to throw money at them even if we had that money. I went to Cannes a week or two after I became Minister for Film and met with numerous people – it’s the easiest way to meet people – and nobody, absolutely nobody, asked for more money, but what they did ask for was a reasonable tax regime. Now, this is a Government that believes that fiscal measures are important, and when we think of what is happening in Ireland, for example, or the United States, where I have been in touch with Jack Valenti (President of the Motion Picture Association of America), I feel that our thinking is consistent with their views. I don’t think they would respect us if we poured money into every aspect of film.

V: As you say, your Government is business-friendly and the Till Report was indeed a business-friendly document. I accept all that. But during the eighties, when there wasn’t a film industry, it was the independents – I’m talking, for instance, about Terence Davies, Derek Jarman, Peter Greenaway, Bill Douglas, Maurice Hatton – who day by day imagined their films and worked on them. The Edinburgh Film Festival was very lively then. Now the imagination and the passion are slowly being driven away. What is your response?

TC: Well, with great respect, you are entitled to your view but I don’t share it. Forgive me for saying so, because you are such charming gentlemen, but I think your glass is half empty while mine is half full. Now, I accept your criticisms of the past and I also find it inspiring that you mention so many names. What you have done is remind me of the passion of the people you mentioned. Now, I want to give hope to those people and to people like them. Take the BFI. I asked Alan Parker to chair the BFI and I am delighted that he agreed. Likewise, I think that John Woodward was a very popular appointment. Now, I met with both of them on a number of occasions and, while we recognise the problems, I have to say that, sitting at this very table, they haven’t been quite as pessimistic as you are sounding. Now, there was a reduction of half a million pounds which I would have preferred to avoid, but the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that the Government was committed to the outgoing Government’s public expenditure for two years and we found that, in film, the outgoing Government had not taken into account a number of commitments. Now, we’ve also discussed with Alan and John what we have said in the Review about the BFI and I genuinely think that we are working together quite nicely.

You mentioned the Edinburgh Film Festival and I spent a long time there last year – not difficult because I only live thirty miles west of Edinburgh – and I tell you this, it was one of the best I have ever known. It was there that people, certainly in Scotland, first discovered The Full Monty. We had Regeneration, which I, thought was a wonderful film and the Festival concluded with Michael Caine’s and Sean Connery’s The Man Who Would be King. It was a very vibrant event.

V: According to the rumour mill, it is the DCMS that is saying to the BFI that it should close down production and I wondered about this. When Michael Balcon established the BFI Production Board in 1951 he said that the film industry is unique because it is the only industry that spends almost no money on pure research, research in ideas. In any other industry with a comparable investment of capital this would not be credible. And Michael Relph, as a producer, a BFI Governor and Chair of the Production Board, said that it was of critical importance that the Board should not be an extension of the commercial film industry, that it could only maintain its future usefulness to the industry by turning its back on it. Do you agree that the industry needs an experimental base, however difficult the work may first appear to be?

TC: Basically, I think that research and development in film are every bit as important as any other aspect of British industry. I’m delighted, incidentally, that you mentioned Michael Balcon because in the Scottish International Amateur Film Festival we have the Michael Balcon trophy and I used to carry the trophies up and down from Glasgow to London. One of the heaviest was the Humphrey Jennings one. Yes, these names are very important, but so is the future. Tony Blair reminds us that this is a government of the many and not the few, for the future and not just about the past. That given, we take on board the view - which seems to be the unanimous view of the industry and film culture – that there is far too much fragmentation, sometimes duplication.

V: To me the Till Report is very much ‘Old Labour’ because it is about making a huge industry. In your idea of industrialising and being against fragmentation and duplication, which I understand, are you not chucking out the baby with the bath water? The independent sector has for a long time been in terrible circumstances and now it’s given a worse deal by Labour.

TC: Again, I recognise your views but there is a fundamental difference between us in perception. If I had been thinking merely of the past of interventionist film policy, then we would have come out with lots of recommendations about where public money is coming from. In fact that hasn’t happened, and I would think that was much more consistent with Tony Blair’s views. Now, I think it would be patently absurd in the modern world not to look for private investment; I’ve had lots of discussions about venture capital. I have spoken, unashamedly, to Guinness Mahon because I think there is a lot of money out there. I see no reason why we shouldn’t regard private investment as being a very important part of the modern film industry.

V: Absolutely, but the question is about the sector I’ve been talking about, where private capital doesn’t come naturally. Did your Department, your Ministry, say in any way to the BFI that they must close their Production Board down?

TC: The brief answer is no.

V: We haven’t yet mentioned the Lottery. Everyone knows that the Lottery funds themselves are under a lot of pressure. Currently the Arts Council’s Film Lottery Department doesn’t even have an agreed budget to work with. Do you expect the new Chairman of the ACE, Geoffrey Robinson, to accept the Report’s recommendations that it must have a million pounds out of the Lottery funds, and do you expect the ACE to continue to administer Film Lottery funding?

TC: What I know is that discussions are on-going, and I think we can reach a reasonable agreement on what is the best way to distribute Lottery funding in the best interest of every aspect of film. One in twenty films in the United States moves from the development stage to the screen and in Britain one in three. I think there is a very clear message there. I would like to quote Stewart Till who was the co-chair of the review – another important thing is that this is the first time ever that a Minister has co-chaired a review like this and it was quite remarkable that we were able to get so much agreement – Stewart Till often says you can make a bad film with a good script but you can’t make a good film from a bad script. I think they are slightly better in America at getting their films right from point one, partly due to their marketing policies. If we make fundamental mistakes, as we do, time after time, at stage one then it is obvious that things probably won’t go right at the other stages.

V: Can you give an example of such a mistake?

TC: I think that would be invidious.

V: Even given that this is a small circulation film magazine?  

TC: Well, seeing as you press me. I have only directed one film in my life, an amateur film called Give Us a Goal. Rather than going round chastising people, I’m looking at my own film and saying, if I had had more training as a director and a producer it would have been a better script. I can think of other examples about my own little film, Give Us a Goal, even if though it was a prize winner.

V: Don’t you think there is a contradiction between the use of the American comparison and the Report’s recommendation that development should be directed at those who have proven box office success. Shouldn’t it be targeted at stimulating diversity which would actually be closer to the American concept?

TC: I think particularly where public money is concerned we’ve got to have some indication of previous success. But I take your point about giving people their first opportunity. Now, here is where private investment comes in. I have had discussions at this very table with Orange. Now, they are investing a million pounds on exactly the issue you’re raising, encouraging young, new people to develop their talents, to make it big.

V: American cinema is a culture, but it is also global culture. Would you accept that there might be some of us who think that in England we need to resist that global grip, we need to make our own cinema and that American solutions are not necessarily good for us?

TC: You’ve your own view about the American cinema. I would simply say this, that we do live in a global world. That’s why at my local cinema, which I was at on Saturday evening, the Americans decided on computer in LA what films I should see. But I don’t want to appear envious. I think that it’s best that we work in the global world in which we find ourselves. There is a big market out there and I want to see more British films being shown in Britain and in America as well as elsewhere and we’ve got the advantage, and we haven’t made enough of it, of the English language.

V: Aren’t we trying to establish a vital new European film industry to rival the US? Shouldn’t we be better stimulating and encouraging further investment and marketing across Europe rather than courting the US?

TC: I think that we’ve done both and I don’t think that we need to be forced into making a choice.

V: I know you have to go but can we have one final question: can we have a recommendation from you that the Production Board is not closed?

TC: So far as the British Film Institute is concerned I can’t make an announcement. What I can underline is this Government’s commitment, and mine in particular, as a former Governor, to the role of the British Film Institute, especially in education and culture.

V: What about production?

TC: I would be astonished if the BFI ever felt that they couldn’t make a contribution to discussion on production.

The two Vertigo interviewers were last seen in Sunderland measuring 15,750 new Labour glasses, and were forced to write out 1000 times “New Labour glasses do not have false bottoms”.