From Brit-Flicks to Shit-Flicks

By Julien Petley

hillary-and-jackie-anand-tucker.jpgHillary and Jackie, 1999

Have lottery-funded films been unfairly ambushed by the critics?

British critics have a long tradition of being harsh about British films, and cinema has generally been regarded in Britain as something which happens elsewhere – in Hollywood, continental Europe, Japan or wherever. For example, the first issue of Movie began with the damning verdict on the British “New Wave" that:

“All we can see is a change of attitude which disguises the fact that the British cinema is as dead as before. Perhaps it was never alive. Our films have improved, if at all, only in their intentions. We are still unable to find evidence of artistic sensibilities in working order.”

Similarly, Thomas Elsaesser complained in Monogram in 1973 that Britain “seems incapable of producing feature films which could rate with the best made in France, Italy, America, Sweden or Japan" and argued that:

“There is hardly a director working regularly in Britain today (except Losey) who can be said to have – whatever his personal themes or the level at which he chooses to work in the industry or outside – a specifically cinematic eye, an approach to the material he is dealing with, which is shaped by the requirements and possibilities of cinema.”

Harsh words indeed, and it could be argued that a certain self-lacerating quality has hardly helped the development of a film culture in Britain that engages seriously with British cinema. On the other hand, these strictures do stem from principled positions and are based on sophisticated conceptions of what actually constitutes cinema – which immediately places them light years away from the mish-mash of ideological warfare, cinematic illiteracy, cultural nihilism and sheer bone-headedness with which many British films, and especially those in receipt of public funding, have faced from the British press in the past four years.

beautiful-creatures-bill-eagles.jpgBeautiful Creatures, 2001

Of course, no-one should be surprised that, given the dominance of neo-liberal economic views in the British press, many British newspapers have routinely expressed hostility to British films receiving public funding, since they're ideologically opposed, in principle, to the public funding of anything! Equally, newspapers whose revenues are swelled by advertisements for the latest Hollywood products, and especially those which, in addition, are owned by Rupert Murdoch and are thus an integral part of the same global media empire as Twentieth Century Fox, are hardly likely to complain about the structural, systemic factors which lead to Hollywood's dominance of British screens and which thus leave the British film industry in need of state support of one kind or another.

Ever since Norman Stone's infamous “Through a Lens Darkly" piece in the Sunday Times in 1988, sections of the British press have clearly had it in for publicly funded British films (see, for example, “The Enemy in the Brain" in Vertigo 1 and “The Critic as Censor" in Vertigo 6), and the advent of Lottery funding gave them another chance to mount their ideological hobby-horse. The attack began in late 1997 and by mid-2000 the idea that vast quantities of public money were being wasted on box office flops had become firmly established on the news agenda. Thus, for example, in an April edition of Screen International, Bertrand Moullier of PACT summarised the predominant press view as follows: “Lottery cash has been poured down the drain: the production sector is now supposedly awash with it. A new subsidy dependency culture has been fostered, generating a glut of bad films that should never have been made". By the following month, Time Out could bear no longer Alexander Walker's increasingly obsessive listing in the Evening Standard of the sums of public money invested in each and every British film which he reviewed and declared that his “pathological opposition to public monies being invested in support of film production beggars belief". In July's Sight and Sound, Nick Roddick noted that “it seems to be open season on Britflicks. Any opportunity to write about films and, wham, in goes the boot", whilst that summer's panel discussion of the British film industry at the Edinburgh Film Festival was ironically sub-titled “A Nation Mourns".

ratcatcher-lynne-ramsay.jpgRatcatcher, 1999

By May 2000 this kind of story had climbed so high up the news agenda that the accuracy of its underlying facts and assumptions had come to be taken for granted by journalists. Were proof needed, this was amply provided by the hitherto relatively supportive Guardian running Jacques Peretti's now notorious “Shame of a Nation" article, a deeply confused, woefully ill-informed, wildly scatter-shot diatribe against a bewildering range of recent British movies. It's almost impossible to imagine that something quite so slipshod, spiteful and thoroughly mean-spirited – sample judgements: “Brit-flicks are shit-flicks" and “why are British films so terrible? So stunningly, excruciatingly, exquisitely bad?" – could have appeared in a newspaper which sees itself as the mouthpiece of informed, liberal opinion had it not been for the torrent of abuse and misrepresentation already heaped upon Lottery-funded films.

Now, of course, no British film, however funded, should be immune from criticism. Various recent British films are hard to defend by any critical standards – for example Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Food of Love, Mad Cows, The Secret Laughter of Women, Janice Beard 45 WPM, Rancid Aluminium, Guest House Paradiso, and Honest, although this did not prevent Guest House Paradiso and Mad Cows from performing relatively well at the box office. On the other hand, concentration on films deemed to have failed has eclipsed discussion of those which have succeeded either at the box office, or critically, or both, such as Wilde, Ratcatcher, Hilary and Jackie , An Ideal Husband and Topsy Turvy. It might be argued that Billy Elliot proves the exception to this rule, but in all its press coverage, little attention has been paid to its part-funding by the Lottery.

Furthermore, a film's commercial success cannot be judged simply on its home box office takings, but these are precisely the figures routinely trotted out by most newspapers to “prove" decisively that a film has flopped. However, by these standards most Hollywood films would have to be judged flops too, since a crucial part of any movie's earnings are accounted for by foreign sales, as well as TV, video and DVD rights.

Another yardstick regularly employed by the press to label a film a commercial failure is if it does not go into distribution the moment it's completed. However, the main reason why so many British films face distribution, and then exhibition, problems has little to do with the qualities of the films themselves, reflecting instead the American dominance of the distribution and exhibition sectors. Indeed, were many Hollywood movies reliant for their distribution and exhibition solely on their cinematic excellence, rather than on their status as mere adjuncts to deals to secure the latest lucrative blockbusters, far fewer would be cluttering up screens in empty British cinemas, and British films might secure distribution and exhibition quicker than they do at present.


Most disturbingly of all, we now seem to have arrived at a situation in which films are condemned, irrespective of their cinematic merits, simply because they've received public funding. For example, the critical savaging of Beautiful Creatures really does seem explicable only in the light of a particularly shrill press campaign, in the months preceding its release, against the Lottery funded consortia in general, and against Beautiful Creatures' production company DNA in particular for being the last consortium actually to produce a film. Indeed, Beautiful Creatures came under fire even before it had opened, and it appears to have been a film for which the press were simply lying in wait. Thus in the Daily Mail the political pundit Simon Heffer asked “why should Lottery players fund this self-indulgent garbage?", whilst the Independent's critic opined that “work as shoddy as this would, in a different sort of market, ensure that [its makers] would be practically unemployable, but this is the British film industry, where monumental career flops have no bearing on anything". Meanwhile in The Times Nigel Cliff noted that “though it's not the worst lottery-funded film by a long chalk, it looks depressingly likely to follow most of the rest into the cinematic equivalent of the remainder bin", and in the Guardian Peter Bradshaw argued that “like many a Lottery-funded British movie, this is a misfiring comedy thriller in which the alleged thrills are supposed to make up for the lack of laughs, and the supposed comedy is an alibi for absence of thrills". And yet, there really is nothing in the film itself to merit the critical kicking it received. I saw the film in my capacity as a member of the International Critics Jury at the 2000 London Film Festival, and not one of my fellow jury members reacted to the film in remotely the same way as their British counterparts.

As the independent sector demonstrated in the 1970s and 1980s with publications such as Screen, Afterimage and Framework, one of the prerequisites of a vibrant film culture is a discursive space, and this is something which the contemporary British cinema almost entirely lacks. Without such a space for informed debate and discussion, the danger is that the terms in which the contemporary British cinema is, indeed can be, debated will simply be set elsewhere, and by those with a variety of ideological and cultural axes to grind.

It's still too early to judge the long-term effects of this particular press campaign. Certainly it does not make for a helpful or supportive climate in which filmmakers and the new Film Council have to work, but far more worrying are its possible effects upon future public funding. Should the idea that all publicly subsidised films are automatically box-office poison pass into government orthodoxy, or should it be decided that the only films to receive a subsidy will be those most likely to repay it in the short term, the outlook for a culturally distinctive British cinema would be grim in the extreme.

Julian Petley lectures in media and communications studies at Brunel University. He is co-editor (with Duncan Petrie) of the Journal of Popular British Cinema, Vol 5, to be published in April 2002. It looks at British Cinema in the 1990s and contains a longer version of this article. Recent publications are the edited collections Ill Effects: the Media/Violence Debate (Routledge 2001, Second edition) and British Horror Cinema (Routledge, 2002).