Nic Roeg and the lost visionaries of British cinema

As 'the country's greatest film-maker' is celebrated, Geoffrey Macnab asks why Nic Roeg and others can't get a movie made

Take snapshots of Britain's most adventurous film-makers in the latter part of their careers and the images are likely to be both surprising and disheartening. Lindsay Anderson, the director of This Sporting Life, If... and O Lucky Man!, was directing pop videos and making a film about Wham! in China. Ken Russell went from Women in Love and The Devils to collaborating with Cliff Richard. Charlie Chaplin ended up in retirement in Switzerland. The Boulting brothers, among the boldest young British directors in the 1940s, were directing sex comedies .

British cinema has never much cared for its visionaries. Film-makers who are too daring and too offbeat invariably end up neglected or working in the farthest margins of the industry. The cautionary tale of how Michael Powell's career unraveled after Peeping Tom (1960) is often told. The greatest British director of his generation scandalised the critics with his film about a voyeuristic murderer who tried to capture the moment of his victims' deaths on camera. ("Flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer," one reviewer, notoriously, suggested.) The net result was that Powell ended up living forgotten and near poverty until he was rediscovered by American admirers like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.

Equally glaring is the case of Nic Roeg (whose career is being celebrated at BFI Southbank.) According to Time Out magazine in London, Roeg is the greatest British film-maker of all. His 1973 feature Don't Look Now topped the magazine's recent list of the 100 best British films; Performance (1970), which he co-directed with Donald Cammell, was likewise in the top 10, and Roeg's Walkabout (1971) and Bad Timing (1980) also feature. Despite this roll-call of glory, the dismaying fact remains that Roeg hasn't only made one feature film in the last 15 years.

Producer Jeremy Thomas, who produced Bad Timing, Eureka and Insignificance for Roeg, argues that it is a matter of "historical fact" that visionary directors seldom thrive in British cinema.

The French treat their visionary auteurs very much more sympathetically. As has been regularly pointed out in recent years, when film-makers like Roeg and Terence Davies have struggled to raise finance for new projects in Britain, veteran directors on the other side of the Channel, like Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Alain Resnais blithely carried on working.

"The subsidy system in France is very consistent. Generally, it is looking for excellence. It doesn't always achieve it but it is willing to back film-makers who have this kind of personal vision and want to make a very particular kind of film," Sandy Lieberson (producer of Performance and of Ken Russell's Mahler) states. By contrast, he adds, the British public funding system is "erratic" and has been "rather ungenerous" to visionary film-makers. Jeremy Thomas makes a similar point, referring to "the very strange disease" that has seemed to infect public funding bodies when it has come to supporting the most radical talents. He refers darkly to a system where "young equals good.... that is something everybody feels as they age".

The main problem with visionaries, from financiers' points of view, is that their work simply doesn't make money at the box office. Years down the line, their films may achieve cult status but, by then, the financiers have long since lost faith.

Below, we profile some of British cinema's most visionary talents and ask why, so often, their careers seem to end so badly.

William Friese-Greene (1855-1921)

British film pioneer William Friese-Greene is called, on his memorial stone in Highgate cemetery, "The Inventor of Kinematography". Whether or not that claim can be sustained, he was one of the visionary inventors of his era – British cinema's very own answer to the Lumière brothers. He made little money from his cameras, often skirted close to bankruptcy and is not well-remembered today. Not even The Magic Box (1951), the Boulting brothers' film about him made during the Festival of Britain, and starring the personable Robert Donat, made him a household name.

Alexander Mackendrick (1912-1993)

Mackendrick was the most talented of the directors to work at Ealing Studios in its golden period. Under the benign patronage of studio boss Michael Balcon, he directed such gilt-edged classics as The Man in the White Suit, The Ladykillers and Mandy. When he decamped to Hollywood in the mid-1950s, he made arguably his finest film of all, The Sweet Smell of Success (1957), starring Tony Curtis as an unctuous publicist. But after some juddering collisions with big Hollywood beasts like actor-producer Burt Lancaster, he sought refuge in teaching at CalArts: "I found that, in order to make movies in Hollywood, you have to be a great deal-maker... I have no talent for that... I realised I was in the wrong business and got out."

Michael Powell (1905-1990)

Now commonly acknowledged as one of the towering figures in British cinema history, Powell was close to being forgotten in the 1970s. The British critics had excoriated Peeping Tom in 1960. He made a few films afterwards, including the oddball Australian comedy They're a Weird Mob, but he was living in near-poverty and the memories of his magnificent movies like The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus (scripted by Emeric Pressburger) were fast fading. Thanks to the efforts of historians like Kevin Gough-Yates and Ian Christie, and the wild enthusiasm for his work from US directors like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma, Powell was rediscovered before his death. There wasn't time for him to make any more movies, though.

Lindsay Anderson (1923-1994)

The waspish British film-maker of If... and O Lucky Man!, whose motto was "never apologise", certainly didn't feel sorry for himself, but it's striking how few movies he made in his career and how under-appreciated they often were, especially in Britain. His last feature, The Whales of August (1987), was dignified, moving and had a fascinating cast (Bette Davis, Lillian Gish.) Nonetheless, when you remember the machine guns on the roof in If..., you can't help but ask why a director as subversive was reduced to chaperoning elderly Hollywood legends.

Ken Russell (b. 1927)

The belligerent and colourful Ken Russell is such a flamboyant personality that it's easy to overlook what a consummately gifted film-maker he once was. His early television work, for example his documentary on Elgar, is still feted. His best feature films, like Women in Love and The Devils, are likewise regularly revived (and The Devils is still the focus of considerable controversy). However, it is now two decades since he has made a film with a proper theatrical release in the UK.

Kevin Brownlow (b. 1938)

Brownlow won an honorary Oscar late last year, so he isn't entirely neglected. It's also a moot point whether a film historian, archivist and documentary-maker can really be classified as a visionary. Nonetheless, Brownlow has done astonishing work in preserving silent cinema and proselytising on its behalf. It is depressing how British broadcasters, who used to support his restorations of silent films, and aired the great series on silent cinema he made with David Gill, have pushed him to the margins. When he made a documentary about Lon Chaney, Brownlow's support didn't come from Channel 4 or the BBC, but from Turner Classic Movies and Playboy boss Hugh Hefner.

Terence Davies (b.1945)

Terence Davies, the visionary director of Distant Voices, Still Lives, is revered by the French – always a very suspicious sign in the eyes of the British industry. His low-budget, archive-based documentary about Liverpool, Of Time and the City, was rapturously received in Cannes three years ago. Even so, British financiers have been in no hurry to support him. He spent years trying to make an adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Sunset Song. You could hardly blame him when he railed bitterly against the broadcasters and public funders who made him jump through hoops and then still wouldn't back his film. But, at last, he is back at work. His Terence Rattigan adaptation, The Deep Blue Sea, should be out this year, but if it doesn't win prizes or score a big box-office hit, he will very quickly be back in purdah.

Lynne Ramsay (b. 1969)

When she made Ratcatcher in 1999, young Scottish director Lynne Ramsay was heralded as a visionary young talent. Her second feature, Morvern Callar, in 2002, underlined her credentials as a film-maker with an adventurous and utterly personal style. Why, then, has it taken her well-nigh a decade to make another film? She was bounced off The Lovely Bones, eventually made by Peter Jackson instead. Now, she has adapted Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin, to be released later this year.

Jonathan Glazer (b. 1966)

In between his Guinness ads and pop promos, Glazer has made only two films. Sexy Beast (2000), with Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley as overheated gangsters on the Costa del Sol, was a commercial success. Birth (2004), starring Nicole Kidman as the bereaved woman convinced that a young boy is the reincarnation of her dead lover, flopped. However, Birth was grievously underrated. His next project, if it gets made, promises to be even more offbeat. It's an adaptation of Michel Faber's Under the Skin. Scarlett Johansson is lined up to play the lead – an extra-terrestrial who scours the highways looking for men to seduce, and then turn into food for the benefit of her fellow aliens.

Nic Roeg (b. 1928)

"I love that his films are so bold and so shocking. You go to see your view of the world exploded with Roeg. A starburst of the mind is what his work is," Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle enthuses of Roeg, whose collaborators speak about him with awe. "To me, Nic Roeg's work is more like a very, very fine piece of art-work. There is more than meets the eye in the way it is shot, the way it sounds, the thoughts behind it. You keep on seeing more and more and more," says Jenny Agutter, who starred in his Walkabout. However, aside from his Fay Weldon adaptation Puffball, there have been no new Roeg movies since the mid-1990s. The BFI hails "his astonishing legacy". Time Out has acclaimed his films as the best of British. The dispiriting side to all these tributes is the presumption that his best work is long since behind him. He is the quintessential visionary of British cinema – one reason why financiers seem determined to ignore him.

Nicolas Roeg, BFI Southbank, London SE1 (020-7928 3232) to 18 March. Jenny Agutter will attend a Q&A screening of 'Walkabout' on 5 March (the newly restored version will show in selected cinemas) and producer Sandy Lieberson will introduce 'Performance' on 4 March