Film: All that glisters could be gold

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