Bafta, schmafta - I want a Judi

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The Independent Culture

The attempt to make the Baftas seem as significant as the Oscars, or at least in the same family, took a large step forward on 24 February. It wasn't just that many of the London awards (Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly for A Beautiful Mind, and even The Lord of the Rings as Best Picture) seemed plausible predictions of where Oscar might end up. It was that in so many categories, Oscar and Bafta shared nominations. The only American contenders not up for British nominations were I Am Sam, Ali and Monster's Ball. That is a big change from those years when many Oscar winners were still unreleased in the UK.

Yet, pause a moment: is it really necessary that the Baftas swim in the American mainstream? After all, for several years now in Los Angeles there have existed the Independent Spirit Awards founded on the assumption that most mainstream movies are worthless, so there needs to be some way of recognising the merits of pictures seen by far fewer people. Britain could hold to the separateness from America that it aspires to in several other fields of endeavour. It could participate in European awards. As it is, the Baftas keep a place for the Carl Foreman Award, meant for the most promising newcomer to British Film. And they persist with the Alexander Korda Award for the "outstanding British Film of the Year".

Such labels raise more questions than they can ever settle. Two of the films up for the Korda – Gosford Park and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone – were directed by Americans. Bridget Jones cast an American actress.

Even Iris had an American producer. And all four, I think, relied on American money. All of which raises the question as to whether a British film is British material, talent or money, or a genre (like the Western, film noir or the weepie). In other words, the deliberate playing upon English conventions and the routine employment of that barrel of English character-actors? It is a consequence of that genre thinking that many Americans (maybe even Robert Altman) can carry on in the fond belief that most of Britain is still like Gosford Park.

I raised the question a while ago in this column as to whether the Harry Potter films owed more to British story-telling or American franchising. A similar question applies to Lord of the Rings. What could be more English than Tolkien, or Ian Holm and Ian McKellen? Yet where would they be without a New Zealand visionary and $270m? Put those anxieties aside, and assume that there is some point in having the Baftas compete with the Oscars, or join in the procession that starts in January with the Golden Globes and leads up to the Oscars. For that to have some meaning, then the Baftas need to break the threshold of consciousness in America. I believe that if I went out on the streets of San Francisco this afternoon and asked people to identify a Bafta, we would all be playing Call My Bluff, with vague answers striving for po-faced solemnity. The British TV audience was apparently told that this year's Baftas were being televised live in America – a first. If so, I have yet to discover on what channel, or anyone who saw the show.

But it might happen one day. After all, the Golden Globes were justly ridiculed for years, but now they have found themselves and mean something in box-office strategies. For the Baftas to get that place they need a name change. A Bafta does sound like a cross between a ha-ha and a collapsible wall. A few years ago, I suggested that the awards be re-named Dianas (with an appropriately graspable figure). The name Oscar came by chance rather than design, but it is resonant now. And Bafta is just a silly, pompous acronym. If Diana has gone out of fashion, what about a Judi after a very regular winner? But here's another point. Britain and America are several hours and several thousand miles apart. But that has never mattered less. The phone, the fax and e-mail have withered distance. In real human and business terms, the countries are not just close, they're in step. So how much longer must Britain endure the gap of months (sometimes close to a year) between the release of a film in America and its opening in London? That gap is all the more puzzling when critics at early screenings of Lord of the Rings were searched for video-cameras in the attempt to prevent pirating of the movie – in Asia and elsewhere. Why don't movies open just like the little flag that tells us all "You've got mail"? Achieve that, and the Judis are off and running, and she and Oscar are a couple.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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