Film: Has he got the commitment?

Alan Parker once famously dismissed the British Film Institute as `28 intellectuals in a library'. Now Chris Smith has appointed him to be the chief librarian. Geoffrey Macnab offers a turnip head's guide to British cinema's new leading man
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The Independent Culture
"Phoneys", "long-hairs", "intellectuals", "the corduroy trouser brigade" - these are just a few of the unflattering epithets used over the years to describe the denizens of the British Film Institute. BFI- bashing has long been an industry hobby. The Institute was regularly mocked as a state-sponsored ivory tower inhabited by pettifogging academics watching Eisenstein films. In the l980s, at least, Alan Parker (the man who brought us Fame) was among the most vociferous critics. He referred to the BFI as "a little fiefdom", and famously ridiculed one of the directors whose careers it helped nurture. If Peter Greenaway ever made another film, he threatened, he would go abroad.

That was a decade ago. Parker was true to his word - moving to Hollywood to make such crowd-pleasers as Mississippi Burning, Angel Heart and, most recently, Evita - but now he is back in Britain. What's more, Chris Smith has just appointed him Chairman of the BFI. At first glance, it seems an astonishing decision - akin to letting the proverbial bull loose in the china shop. The ex-advertising maverick, an unashamed populist who wears his working-class Islington credentials on his sleeve, looks set to strike terror into the breasts of the "28 intellectuals in a library" (as he caricatured the BFI in a recent radio interview). But the news doesn't seem to have alarmed the outgoing BFI director Wilf Stevenson in the slightest.

"I'm absolutely thrilled. It's the best appointment we could possibly have had," trills Stevenson. "It sends all the right signals. What we wanted was somebody who when he came into the room, would make people sit up and say, `Ah, British cinema'." Stevenson met Parker at a conference in April, realised that he might be interested in the job (which is both part-time and unpaid), "and the Secretary of State took it on from there".

Asked if Parker is sympathetic to the aims and spirit of the Institute, Stevenson replies "absolutely. He knows that our educational work is at the heart of our activities and he supports that." Stevenson acknowledges that Parker finds the BFI "too academic and too inward-looking", but insists that there have been radical changes in recent years. "In the old days, he wouldn't have touched us with a bargepole." (One suspects the feeling would have been mutual.)

The industry too seems to welcome the appointment. "There's a new climate, a new optimism in British cinema, and he is sure to act as a stimulant," observes John Adair from Moving Pictures International. "He's a populariser at heart. He's as well suited as anyone. If British films are to move out of an art-house ghetto, he's a highly appropriate figurehead."

It's a big "if" and it remains to be seen whether Parker will demonstrate the same schmoozing, wheedling and cajoling abilities that his predecessors, Lord Attenborough and Jeremy Thomas, brought to a post which entails chairing endless meetings, making speeches, supervising appointments, fending off government funding cuts, and generally behaving like the BFI's own pet ambassador. As his debunking 1986 documentary, A Turnip Head's Guide to the British Cinema, suggests, Parker is brazenly outspoken. He's the kind of director who invariably uses a sledgehammer to crack a nut (think, for instance, of the slow-motion scene in Midnight Express in which Brad Davis bites off his Turkish prison-warder's tongue). Subtlety isn't exactly his forte.

His appointment is clear evidence that the young turks from the advertising industry who galvanised British cinema in the early 1970s before decamping to Hollywood are back in Britain and fast becoming the new establishment. His old advertising associate David Puttnam (who produced his first feature, Bugsy Malone, in 1976) is part of Tony Blair's "cultural hit squad". His immediate contemporaries, Ridley and Tony Scott, are now owners of Shepperton Studio.

Look back to his advertising career and there's evidence that Parker regards British films with at least some sort of vexed affection. He was responsible for the Bird's Eye commercial that spoofed David Lean's Brief Encounter, using railway stations and Rachmaninov to sell frozen-food dinners. He also once parodied Lean's Oliver Twist with an ad showing the little orphan waif begging Mr Bumble for "more".

He may claim to detest Greenaway-style art-house cinema, but he reveres Ken Loach (hardly the most commercial director around) and recently named Loach's Kes as the best British film since the war. A true original, he's sure to jolt the BFI out of any lingering complacency, even if he does leave a trail of corduroy-wearing casualties in his waken

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