British Cinema – The View from Europe

By Ian Christie

winstanley-kevin-brownlow.jpgWinstanley, 1976

British craft and financial skills may command respect but we have a dismal record of sounding informed, enthusiastic and passionate in the European arena

I remember once taking the Russian director Elem Klimov to the Tower of London, where all the armour and weapons prompted him to ask what films we had about the English Civil War. Very few, I replied: perhaps only Cromwell, Winstanley and Witchfinder General. Now, after a long wait and much-publicised finance difficulties, we have To Kill a King, an enterprising addition to a surprisingly meagre genre. But you had to be quick, and sceptical about most critics’ opinions, to catch it. Released on few screens, with short-lived advertising and generally off-hand reviews, it seems like another film maudit in the making – likely to be rediscovered as a brave, forgotten film in decades to come but now suffering the common fate of British films trying to be properly British and deal with our history.

As a distributor and exhibition advisor with the British Film Institute, and a board member of Europa Cinemas, I’ve had nearly thirty years experience of observing British cinema trying to relate to Europe. It’s worth remembering that Britain isn’t only seen as the land of Loach, Leigh and Greenaway. It’s just as much the source of Spiceworld, Bean, Ali G and Bond, which are among the major box-office films across Europe, even if we might not want to be defined by them. So, how do we look from across the Channel?

Overwhelmingly we’re not seen as team players in Europe. Britain’s abrupt withdrawal from Eurimages was widely interpreted as an anti-European gesture, even though the actual reason seems to have been one of short-term economy. But the fact that it was not seen as symbolic in British government circles already points to a major difference of perception. More evidence of lacking the will to play ball would be Britain’s low-level commitment to the MEDIA programme over its three phases to date, the lack of any recent participation in the pan-European archive training programme Archimedia, and the total lack of interest from UK broadcasters in joining ARTE, the Franco-German cultural channel.

A second major difference between Britain and at least some other European countries is the lack of attention we’re seen to pay to promoting and nourishing young filmmakers. Our neighbours find it hard to grasp why, having closed the BFI Production Board, the Arts Council film department and British Screen, we place no obligation on any of our broadcasters to devote part of their programme funding to film production. The Film Council would say that this has had no adverse effect on production levels, which they claim were up to 115 features in 2002. The European Observatory, using different criteria, would give a lower figure, but the fact remains that there are few places where an emerging filmmaker can go for support.

The fact that a high proportion of British filmmaking is actually American financed means that the average budget of our films is twice as high as in France and most other European countries. While this may result in films that have higher production values, it means that beginners and mavericks face a higher threshold to cross.

Compared with elsewhere in Europe, there’s also a problem of domestic status and visibility. British films are hard to see in Britain, often failing to reach mainstream cinemas, and rarely play for long. There is little concerted support from British critics, and no regular festival of British cinema where they could be seen and discussed en masse. Not only is there currently no distribution or exhibition subsidy to support them – a scandal which the Film Council is perpetuating through its prevarication, after the earlier fiasco of massive Lottery funds going exclusively to production – but there are actually disincentives to screen them in specialist cinemas. Under pressure from Brussels, Europa Cinemas subsidy is largely determined by the proportion of ‘non-national’ European films a member cinema shows, which means it may cost a cinema vital support to choose British rather than a film from elsewhere in the EU.

Finally, I think there is a cultural problem. The people running British cinema are not perceived as having a cultural stake in cinema at all, let alone a vision of British cinema per se. Rightly or wrongly, they are perceived as being in the pockets of the American majors, or at least their boutique divisions. British craft and financial skills may command respect but we have a dismal record of sounding informed, enthusiastic and passionate in the European arena. Our culture ministers and civil servants have a record of sounding crass, when they actually turn up, and sadly the most famous sound-bite associated with the chairman of our Film Council isn’t a declaration of faith in national or European cinema but an absurd attack on Peter Greenaway.

So what can we learn from (the rest of) Europe? Four things, I would suggest.

First, we need to have an open debate about a national, as well as a regional, film policy. How will it advance our culture and identities and provide training, employment – and pride – in British cinema? We need fewer consultancies at the Film Council and more up-front vision. Second, we need to think about the ‘value cycle’ of cinema, as John Woodward has rightly said. But this means taking distribution and exhibition as seriously as production. Not just paying lip-service or wasting time on gimmicks like four-walling Odeons and digital beaming: we actually need bricks-and-mortar places where people can see British and other European films.

Next, we need to think about future audiences for films not in American accents, and plan a national screen education strategy that would link schools and colleges with cinemas. If we don’t do this soon, other plans will be pointless, since there’ll be no audience for any films that our neighbours and we might make.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need high-quality, well-connected advocacy for British cinema. Dickie Attenborough and David Puttnam have shouldered this burden for many years and had considerable success in the teeth of successive governments’ hostility and indifference. But they can’t go on forever, and we desperately need new spokespeople who can argue passionately and persuasively for that impossible dream – a British cinema.

Ian Christie is Professor of Film and Media History at Birkbeck College, London; Director of the AHRB Centre for British Film and Television Studies; Vice-president, Europa Cinemas and a critic/broadcaster