Film: All that glisters could be gold

Three British film directors were asked to give a masterclass. They delivered a vision. By Kevin Jackson

Let's begin with a fairy-story. Once upon a time there was a small farmer who discovered a platypus in his garden. This animal could lay golden eggs, but since the farmer was a bit lazy - and knew, anyway, that only geese lay golden eggs - he let the critter waddle over to the land of the big farmer across the river. Before long, the platypus was well-fed, contented and pumping out gold by the bushel, and the big farmer was richer than ever. The small farmer felt grumpy, but he soon forgot all about it. Then, one day, he woke up to find that another platypus was browsing in his garden. And this one was a giant. The small farmer scratched his head, wondering what on earth he should do about such a weird-looking beast. Meanwhile, the big farmer started to wonder what was causing all the funny noises across the river...

Well, the real picture is perhaps slightly more complex, but, if Sir David Puttnam's assessment is accurate, the basic shape of that narrative is about right. The big farmer is Hollywood, the small farmer is Britain and what's left of its film industry, and those aurioviparous animals are the film-making resources we have cultivated here and then let go through sheer negligence. We did it in the Sixties, when we allowed our special-effects industry, at the time the most advanced in the world, to drift off to the West Coast.

And, Puttnam warns, unless we act quickly we are about to lose out again, on what he considers the most promising growth area of the next 20 years: the development of an audiovisual industry dedicated not, like the first century of cinema, to spectacular fun but to education, from child literacy to job-training. "Education will be bigger than entertainment," maintains Sir David, who thinks that we have two years at most to prepare for the new gold rush before the multinationals wake up and snaffle our claim.

This combination of threat and promise was delivered, appropriately, in an educational context: a movie masterclass held at Granada's Manchester studios last week, organised by Bafta with its sponsor, Lloyds Bank, and attended by the would-be film-makers of cinema's second century - media students from the University of Salford, which initiated the masterclass project. Three worthies of the British cinema - Sir David and a brace of directors, Michael Apted and Ken Loach - gave the students the benefit of their varied experience; Stuart Cosgrove of Channel 4 chaired.

While the lessons Salford's budding cineastes might take home from these classes were varied, not all of them were explicit in the speakers' words. From Michael Apted, they might reasonably have picked up the subtext that the quickest path to Los Angeles is via the Granada studios. It was in this building that Apted cut his teeth as a producer of documentaries (including 7-Up, the modest study of British children made in 1964 that has developed, through its seven-yearly updates, into one of the most remarkable documentary projects the medium has produced) and, for a short term, a director on Coronation Street. Mike Newell, the director of Four Weddings and a Funeral, was a colleague on the show, he recalled, adding that "the biggest punch-ups I've ever seen weren't in Hollywood, they were between Pat[ricia Phoenix] and Vi[olet Carson]."

The official burden of Apted's talk was a demonstration of the way in which his early training in documentary film-making fed into his work as a director of television plays and then feature films; and then of the reciprocal process, by which, he believes, his experience with fiction has sharpened his capacity to tell stories and convey character.

All interesting stuff, but, as one student asked, what chances are there nowadays for young Brits to try out such technical and ethical considerations in practice? Apted conceded that the scale of the competition is terrifying, but urged his listeners: "Just do it! Do something, get hold of a video and make a short; the only way to learn to direct is to direct." And he did offer one more substantial note of comfort: "In terms of documentaries, the whole world still looks to Britain. Without Britain, the documentary might peg out."

Next in the televised order, though not the real-time chronology, came Ken Loach. This masterclass took the form of an informal interview by Mr Cosgrove, weaving into and out of (prepared) questions from the floor and clips from the likes of Hidden Agenda, Raining Stones and Ladybird, Ladybird. Among the issues raised: the advantages of working with non- actors, the point of making films about social deprivation ("If the place is going to change for the better, the people who are going to make it change are those who have nothing to lose"), the difficulty of bringing socialist work to the television screen in the Nineties: "In the Sixties, people were more confident. There was no constant referring-up... the chance to do something different is missing now, they're frightened men."

The most dramatic moment was not about film-making. Replying to one of Mr Cosgrove's questions, Loach suddenly veered away to object to the requirement that there should be repeated name-checks for the event's sponsor in the studio links. We were gathered to discuss films, not banks, Loach said, and, as the students applauded, he plunged straight on into the rest of his answer "to make it difficult for you to cut." Lloyds bank will not, one suspects, be falling over itself to sponsor Loach's next project.

It would be nice, though, to think that they and other potential players - particularly the Government - will attend carefully to what the film industry's newest knight had to say. The first part of Sir David's talk concentrated on The Killing Fields - a film directed by another Granada graduate, Roland Joffe. We learned how to make John Malkovich look shocked (let off an explosion where he's not expecting it), how to extract maximum production value from a limited number of skeletons, and why one crucial scene in the film just doesn't work (it's almost impossible to post-sync an emotional line).

But the most important lesson we learnt, and perhaps the most important lesson anyone could learn from this session, is Sir David's survival plan for the British cinema, founded on that vision of audiovisual education taking over from entertainment. Apart from the odd once-a-decade fluke (Chariots, Weddings), he believes our feature films will continue to operate in a niche market, and theatrical releases will themselves become a more marginal phenomenon: by 2010, 95 per cent of movie revenue will come from the so-called "ancillary" markets of cable, video and so on. The future lies in a synthesis of CD-Rom, video games and virtual-reality technology applied to educational purposes. Whether Britain has a stake in that future is a different matter.

Puttnam has recently been researching this area for the EC. His estimates suggest that the audiovisual business will be expanding by some 300 per cent over the next 15 years - a rate of projected growth exceeded only by the environmental clean-up industries. By a number of historical flukes, Britain is "uniquely well-placed to benefit from this development: we have the best animators and video technologists, we have the cultural precedents of the Open University and BBC education..."

Off the platform, Sir David was rather more downbeat. He suspects that Britain's response will probably be too sluggish, too piecemeal, that the USA will rapidly monopolise the AV education boom and that a decade hence we will be lamenting another squandered opportunity. True, both his enthusiasm and his gloom may be exaggerated; but the man who (as Apted said) "was the British film industry in the late Seventies and early Eighties" is better placed than most to read the signs.

Sir David delivered a paper on his proposals to the Labour Party conference last October. He stresses, though, that his campaign issue is not party political, and hopes that John Major's government will pay attention to his conclusions. It's certainly rare to hear anyone speaking about the future of British production in terms of its boundless potential; one can only hope that the next few years prove Puttnam's optimism justified and his pessimism groundless. Otherwise, those Salford students would have been better off attending a masterclass on managing unlimited leisure time.

n The Lloyds Bank Bafta masterclasses will be shown on ITV later in the year

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
Crime watch: Cara Delevingne and Daniel Brühl in ‘The Face of an Angel’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
News
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
News
‘The Late Late Show’ presenter James Corden is joined by Mila Kunis and Tom Hanks for his first night as host
news
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss