What is Britishness? Why the UK's lack of a real independent film industry is harming all of us.

June 25, 2020

 

Should we talk about how the UK seems blindly happy with the death of the UK Film Industry? I mean, I get that it's not a priority for people at the moment, but we should probably acknowledge it. The lack of support for artists and venues throughout Coronavirus has been a death knell for many of those in the industry, sure, but the UK has a long and sordid history of destroying artistic encouragement and stifling creativity.

 

And yet it's importance to us, and to our culture, can't be understated. We live in a bemused state of constant uncertainty, and part of that is down to our growing lack of cultural identity. What does it mean to be British in 2020? A question many need answering, and fast. Sadly we don't seem to have an outlet for a culture of a grand and global scale. We did, but we destroyed it, taking it apart one piece at a time.

 

So, where do we begin?

 

I once commented on some thread somewhere that I felt like the British film industry was doomed. That it was almost non-existent, and in its place was an extension of the Hollywood system. I got a reply, one that explained to me that the British film industry has, actually, never been better. There's loads of ongoing productions, and lots of work for those who want it. When I asked this person how many of those productions were from British studios they disappeared. It's been three years and there hasn't been a reply to my comment.

 

I wasn't trying to catch them out, it's just... something feels off to me about the way our industry works.

 

See, it seems to me that our independent film industry, once a thriving and vibrant place filled with classic Hammer horrors, Carry On films galore, or any number of other creative and inventive projects, was quietly dismantled over several years, more or less culminating in the termination of the Eady Levy in 1985 by, you guessed it folks, the Tories.

 

Now, don't worry, this whole thing isn't just a Tory bashing - although I'd be happy to do that if you want? Maybe next week - it's just that since then, as I see it at least, the industry in the UK has become more of a service-for-hire kind of place than an actual hub of creativity. Hollywood makes the big bucks and we just can't compete. Not only is there a lack of funding available, but all the space and talent are being sucked up by the Hollywood machine.

 

That's not to say that there isn't funding available, although to be one of the very few successful candidates you have to jump through countless hoops, and even then there's the fact that most funding awarded isn't enough to produce anything that would compete with... say Star Wars. And that's assuming, of course, that the funding is enough to feasibly produce anything without top-ups or investment from elsewhere. Most filmmakers will likely never get close to the level of something like The Full Monty, let alone a budget to realistically produce something that would take on the Hollywood machine. We used to have government-funded schemes that would support artists and help them to refine their work and seek funding from investors. This was never enough to fully tackle the loss of the real independent industry, but it was something.

 

However, in 2011 the UK Film Council was dismantled, with many of its responsibilities being passed over to the BFI. This move, by the Tories, saw the loss of a Development Fund, a New Cinema Fund, and a Premiere Fund, all of which were designed to stimulate and encourage the UK Film Industry.

 

The UKFC also supported distributors in aiding them to get fewer mainstream films into theatres and in front of audiences, and various other schemes that either actively encouraged or helped to produce screenings, projects, and lots of other film-related things. While the BFI does great work, and I wouldn't want to take anything away from them at all, their focus has always been far more on the preservation and education side of the film, so although they do their bit, it simply doesn't quite have the impact it should.

 

Thing is, it's not as if the Tories are unaware of the problem here.

 

David Cameron even claimed that he had "big plans" for the industry in 2012, and spoke about the need to help UK producers make commercially successful pictures that would do good business at home and overseas. What those big plans were, however, remains a mystery, because as of now we remain a place for Hollywood to dump their projects, skim off our tax incentives, swallow up all our resources, and then bugger off and take all the profit.

 

And this isn't just about money, it's about UK Culture and its place on the big screen. Films you may consider to be British aren't; Harry Potter and James Bond offer up Hollywoodised versions of British life, but they're American productions, shot through a Hollywood Studio lens, and all the profit goes overseas too.

 

Perhaps the most baffling part of this, for me at least, is that you would think a thriving, homegrown film industry that represents our culture honestly and from within on the global stage would be something the nationalistic, so-called Patriots of Johnson's Brexit Party would be clamouring for, but instead, we've got total apathy over the destruction of the arts, shrugs about the fact that theatre is dying, and calls to defund the BBC, arguably one of the most crucial players in keeping what tiny semblance of an industry we have afloat.

 

The arts, and particularly film and TV are key to how we consume and take on information, they help us to deal with our emotions, to realise and explore ideas, to vent frustrations, and to contextualise things. Whether you think the arts are important or not is kind of irrelevent; they are. This is a fact. And that's before we even get to the bit where Britain's art industry is one of the world leaders, bringing in billions every year, not just in ticket sales and merchandising, but in tourism as well. And, it's worth noting, that until COVID-19 came along, that was the case despite the fact that our film industry is an almost non-existent space that existing solely as a resource pool for the likes of Marvel, Lucasfilm, Pixar, Fox...

 

Wait, all of those are Disney... what other studios are there?

 

Universal.

 

Yeah, Universal.

 

Oh, and Sony!

 

Look, I wouldn't dare to place all the eggs in the UK Film and TV basket, of course there are many other elements at play when it comes to what I'm about to talk about - socioeconomic factors, political factors, the UK's oppressive, outdated class system - but I do fear that a lot of the problems we currently face as a country is in part down to frustration over a lack of any real national identity. We're stuck in the past, looking back at a time when we were represented on screen, but this is now outdated. Modern interpretations of our culture tend to come either entirely from gritty realism, kitchen sink dramas made by upper-middle class folks, or lavish, purely fantastical period pieces about the wonders of the aristocracy and the ruling class. And if it isn't either of those two, it's Richard Curtis' impossible middle-class British prattishness or J K Rowling's world of magic and wonder, where actual child abuse is a kind of amusing, largely unpunished and unexplored character beat... hardly a realistic portrayal of life in contemporary Britain.

 

Furthermore, most audiences will see more American culture on the big screen than they will homegrown projects, so is it a surprise that we've seen our political landscape morph into a nonsensical, Americanised shouting match, stuck between two viciously opposing views and an army of blind supporters on either side? Our politics, our contemporary collective societal fears, and our history, are relegated to Oscar-baiting period pictures like 2017's Darkest Hour, a film that, for all intense and purposes appears to be British, but one that is actually made for Universal Studios (who own Working Title Films), one of the big Hollywood companies/

 

And since America audiences seem to love this Downton Abby-esque, purely fictional idea of Britain as a fairy tale land where everyone lives in a mansion and the rich and the poor's biggest issues are the hilarious confusions born out of over-polite Britishness, should it come as much of a shock that the idolisation of the past, of this fairy tale-esque "better way of life", exists when so much of our media is born out of it; even if it is made in Britain, with a British director, and a British cast, period settings designed by American studios to placate to American audiences isn't British.

 

And this goes further, as we veer off into pure fantasy and fiction. Take Game of Thrones for example. Sure, it's set in a fictional world, but it draws of iconography, ideas, and media born from Britain. Nonetheless, it's an American produced, written, and directed show that spawned countless imitators, from The Snow Queen to His Dark Materials, many of them from the BBC and Channel 4, all British companies now attempting to capture an American company's view of an American's version of a fantasy novel inspired by British history. All of this, no doubt, through the lens of someone very much aware of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, and America production, directed by a New Zealander, based on a British book...

 

That's not to say that we don't have great, mainstream British films from modern British filmmakers, from Shaun of the Dead to Attack the Block, but so often these are the exception rather than the rule, and so often, if you trace the money, it's not really going back into the British studios. How can we possibly compete when all our films are being made by America already? 

 

This whole post has risked becoming a rambling spill of frustrations (and I'm not sure it isn't that already), but at some point, something has got to give, right? The UK Film industry isn't dying, and COVID-19 isn't going to kill it, because in a sense it's already dead, and has been for a long time. There isn't a British Film Industry, there's a Film Industry based in Britain, and those are two very different things. I want to see British studios making British films, funnelling money back into Britain. At the moment, sadly, it seems that people just don't care. And why would they? If you can spend your time looking back at the glory days rather than pushing forward through the murky present, then why would you choose to do anything else?

 

Perhaps that is what it means to be British; purposefully caught in a bubble of nostalgia for a fictionalised time, blissfully, wilfully ignorant of any and all outside factors that might cause the bubble to pop. Maybe in that sense the Hollywood system actually got it right. We don't want our culture represented on screen, we want someone else's version of, because God forbid someone actually hold a mirror up.

 

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© Alex Secker 2018