You're never alone if you've got a Bafta

Cayte Williams talks to three happy winners about why the British Academy Awards still matter
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The Independent Culture

You win an Oscar. Your fee goes up a 100 per cent, you have breakfast with Steven Soderbergh and you become an American citizen. Or you win a Bafta. You are allowed to extend your overdraft, you get lunch with Michael Winner and you relocate to London. A Bafta is to an Oscar what Sid James is to George Burns.

And yet, being ignored by the academy can ignite strong feelings. "It's very difficult to win an award around here," Michael Caine said at last week's awards ceremony in London. "They do make some strange choices." Let's face it, Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey didn't really need his Best Actor Bafta. And yet, nestled among the air-kissing and card-swapping, there were three Bafta-winners at very different stages in their film careers for whom the awards might prove a boon. Adrian McDowall, a film graduate from Edinburgh, won the Best Short Film Award; Lynne Ramsay, the director of last year's greatly acclaimedRatcatcher, won the Carl Foreman award for a newcomer in British film, plus £10,000 cash, and veteran production manager Joyce Herlihy won the Michael Balcon award for contribution to British cinema.

McDowall, 22, wrote, directed and edited Who's My Favourite Girl?, a semi-autobiographical tale centred on two boys going through the hormono-emotional high seas of adolescence. The £5,000 it cost to make was scraped together by the fledgling film-maker. "Girl was a community project," he explains. "We had a £2,000 new business grant and everybody chipped in, from the local hotel, which stumped up cut-price food for all the cast and crew, to our plumber, who gave us £20."

One Bafta award later, and he's being driven around in chauffeur-driven Mercedes with advertising agencies desperate for his directing talents. "I had a mad two days in London after the ceremony. I had meetings that started at 8.30am on Monday and I finished at 6.50pm on Tuesday night when I got my train back to Edinburgh."

Everyone wants to know about his second film, Toon Fair, which he's shooting in August; the pilot he's writing for the Granada Comedy Channel; and his full-length feature film, with the working title of Hindsight. McDowall is making the most of it. "Winning a Bafta has definitely opened doors to meeting important people," he explains, "but everybody wants their pound of flesh, while I need to get things in perspective. I have to ask myself, who do I really want to work with? And what do they want from me? It's difficult because I want to strike while the iron was hot, but there's no way I'm going to make a film straight away."

Advice from Christian Colson, head of development at Miramax, has helped. "He talked to me about marketing strategies and about keeping control of my project, which are the things that concern me," says McDowall. "I've seen too many British films recently that have been shot too quickly, on the third draft of a script and not the 10th. The money comes through too quickly, and people are pressurised to finish a film. If we do secure finance, I want to take two years to develop a script and then shoot it. The difficulty is making the money people understand."

Perhaps the most concrete example of the sway of a Bafta is that Who's My Favourite Girl? will be actually seen by the general public. Channel 4's Shooting Gallery is interested and it'll be screened at the Ritzy cinema in London for a fortnight from next week and then moves on to The Gate in Notting Hill. "What's most important to me," McDowall says, "is that I've written, directed and edited a small-scale film which I now know stands up in professional world."

For Lynne Ramsay, who at 30 is fast-becoming one of Britain's finest film directors, the £10,000 cash prize will just about keep her afloat. "It'll partly go towards my Visa debt," explains the Glaswegian, who now commutes between Scotland and London. "When you take into consideration that it takes two years to write a script and get it shot, £10,000 doesn't go that far. That's £5,000 a year, which will pay off some bills and basically keep body and soul together."

Ramsay reckons her Bafta is a "Brownie point" as she's finalising the £3m needed for her next film, an adaptation of Alan Warner's hit clubbing novel, Morvern Callar (1995), which is due for release next summer. "I'm hoping the film will be a co-production between the BBC and the Canadian company Alliance," she says. "We're looking at a £3m budget. Winning a Bafta will probably help."

For Ramsay, the Baftas are an opportunity for transatlantic networking. As a British film-maker on the brink of worldwide recognition, she relished her compliments from Kevin Spacey ("he loved my film clip") and Dustin Hoffman ("he loved my speech"). "There was a huge contingent of Americans there," continues Ramsay. "People like Harvey Weinstein from Miramax take the Baftas very seriously."

"I was disappointed that Mike Leigh didn't win anything," she goes on, "but Nil By Mouth was an interesting choice (in 1997). It showed that the Baftas are not just all about box office. They do recognise films that are really pushing the medium forward."

The Baftas - the British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards - began in 1949 and since 1952, 28 best actress and 30 best actor awards have gone to Brits (which, sadly, is just over half of all winners). The Academy's brief is to promote and support excellence in the film and television industries. It has around 4,000 members elected for their contribution to film, television and (since 1998) new media. Members are asked to vote on best film, actor, actress and the supporting role awards. Everything else is decided by juries of "experienced industry individuals" - one of whom is Stephen Woolley, co-chairman of the production company, Company of Wolves.

Woolley put forward veteran production manager Joyce Herlihy for the Michael Balcon award for contribution to British cinema. Herlihy, now 78, began her film career in the Fifties, working with Lana Turner and Sean Connery. Her last venture was as producer on Angels And Insects; she's worked with everyone from Mick Jagger to John Hurt.

"I started as a production secretary, temping as a shorthand secretary when there wasn't any work," she explains. "Eventually I was given the opportunity of becoming a production manager, then a line producer; and now I'm trying to get finance to produce my own film. I don't think the Bafta will necessarily help. It's a bit like winning an Oscar - people start thinking you're too expensive."

Herhily's experience is like a social history of British film: she talks about how she tried to stop Dustin Hoffman from going overbudget on Agatha, and how the Chief Electrician disappeared from the set of Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and was eventually presumed dead. The ceremony at which she received her award (previous winners include Kenneth Branagh and Alan Parker) was the first time she realised that she was respected.

"A producer is the ultimate boss," says Herlihy, "but the production manager oversees everything. You have to make sure that sets are ready, that artists arrive on time. It's your responsibility to keep a film on schedule and, along with the accountant, to stop it from going over budget.

"An award like mine gives people renewed enthusiasm," she continues, "because as far as I'm aware this is the first time somebody who has actually get their hands dirty has been acknowledged. So I hope there is some poor location manager out there in the pissing rain trying to control the traffic who thinks, maybe one day I'll get a Bafta. It's important to me that people can feel inspired to carry on working."

And of the award itself? "It's so heavy I can hardly carry it," she laughs. "A very respected cameraman phoned me up to congratulate me. He told me that it used to be lighter, but people complained that it would fall over and damage the furniture. So now its base is made out of marble."

'Who's My Favourite Girl?' is showing with 'American Psycho' at the Ritzy, SW2 (0171 737 2121) from Friday 21 April