On your marks, get set... sell out!

Some great films have been made in Britain, argues director Alex Cox. So why is the industry about to be flogged off to the US?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The Film Council, which last year failed to spend £73m of Lottery money which it had been allocated, has just spent a bit of dosh re-branding itself. Out goes the old, un-cool "Film Council". In comes the new, exciting "UK Film Council" with retitled website and letterhead to match.

It is hard to see how the name change will affect the institution. The Film Council's mission, self-imposed, is not just to support, but to define British film. The results of this can be read in chairman Sir Alan Parker's speech to BAFTA, made last bonfire night. "We need to abandon forever the 'little England' vision of a UK industry comprised of small British film companies delivering parochial British films," he said. "It's time for a reality check. That 'British' film industry never existed, and in the brutal age of global capitalism, it never will."

Sir Alan went on to call for British films and distributors to "compete in the world marketplace". The way to do this, he said, was to redefine the nature of a British film. Right now, to qualify for Lottery funding (via the Film Council) or tax benefits, a film has to be overwhelmingly British in content. Something like 80 per cent of the crew and cast have to be British. Sir Alan proposed doing away with these restrictions, so that any film - for example, Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, with a UK director and actor - would qualify for Lottery funds and tax breaks.

The inevitable result of this proposal is what this Saturday's "Film Parliament" at the Cambridge Film Festival has been convened to discuss. It would mean the slow or speedy death of specifically British films, as investors would be able to put their money into American blockbusters instead. It is an outrageous proposal, based on imaginary premises. Small British companies making British films "never existed"? Tell that to the directors of Bryanston, a small company making British films in the early Sixties, one of which - The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner - was recently re-released by the BFI.

It was a very New Labour proposal. And it made sense to Parker, who lives and works in the USA. But for anyone working in the UK industry (at least the part of the industry that doesn't service American features at Pinewood studios) it was the death knell of our careers.

I called John Woodward, the chief executive of the Film Council, and asked if Parker was prepared to defend his proposals in an open debate. John said he was, but later he started to backtrack and now eight months after his provocative pronouncements, Parker is still hiding out in Beverly Hills. But I suspect that his proposals haven't gone away. A couple of months ago, a parliamentary committee looked briefly into the Film Council and British film policy. I was one of the people questioned. One of the things the committee asked was: "Is it important to seek to preserve a capacity to make British films about Britain in the UK?" I thought perhaps our parliamentarians were having a laugh. Nevertheless, I answered it as seriously as I could. "It is crucial," I wrote. "Our culture is not the same as that of the US. The great British film successes - whether Billy Elliot, The Full Monty, Trainspotting, Women in Love, The Devils, If, Kes, Brighton Rock or Brief Encounter - talk about our own unique experiences. They cannot be replicated in the US or in Prague. These films are our cultural patrimony, and the (often regionally based) creative people who made them its custodians. To lose our capacity to make British films about Britain in the UK is like losing our capacity to paint, or to write poetry. It is impossible; to contemplate it is a cultural crime."

I've no idea what the MPs thought of this answer, assuming they read it. I have the strong impression that the sell-out of British film and British film-makers to the multinational corporations is a done deal.

It's no secret that London looks to the US for its cultural clues, and that many working in the London film industry dream of a first-class, one-way ticket to LA. But there is also a burden of guilt that comes with such attachments. Hence Parker's outrageous claim that small companies never made small but great British features. Parker can't admit that the world of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner ever existed because such films - rebellious, free, and British - call into question his own work as a propagandist for the US, rewriting history in trash like Mississippi Burning.

It's worth thinking a bit about Tony Richardson's great film, because it illustrates the problematic situation we are in now: the antagonists of Long Distance are Tom Courtney, a bad lad from the North who won't obey his betters, and Michael Redgrave, a militaristic but well-meaning Southerner, who wants Courtney to be an excellent competitive sports performer. But Courtney isn't having it, and at the end of the film he throws the race. He's won, but he won't cross the finish line. He won't play by the beneficent state's rules, won't be defined by their terms, won't compete in their contests, even if it means being sent to assemble gas masks on the Borstal production line. Film-makers who won't play ball aren't sent to manufacture gas masks. But they are denied their patrimony - the right to make personal, individualistic, non-feature films. Look at America!, say Parker and the Film Council (and Blair and New Labour). They are winners! We must be like them! Well, we mustn't. We know exactly what America thinks of any culture other than its own.

At the Film Parliament, we have a chance to deal with a little bit of this enormous problem. It's a small chance, but we'd better grab it. I have invited John Woodward and expect that he will come. I think Parker should come as well. If he doesn't, one of the first pieces of business should be to declare him deposed, and to propose a replacement. I'd nominate Margaret Matheson as head of the Film Council, but would be equally happy with Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Jeremy Thomas, or even Lord Puttnam (though he did produce the dreadfully pro-competitive Chariots of Fire). Hell, I'd be happy with Jose Bove [the French farming activist]. He's not a film-maker, so he has a lot in common with the Council's army of paid consultants; he understands the meaning of the cultural exemption to IMF and WTO attempts to dominate the world; and he favours smaller-scale, indigenous, unique and quality products over fat-filled tat and trash!

The Film Parliament is part of the Cambridge Film Festival, Thur to 20 July. For more details call 01223 504444 or visit www.cambridgefilmfestival.org.uk