The Golden Age of British cinema

Our film talent no longer attends awards for supporting role gongs or to be good losers. As the Baftas are handed out tonight, James Morrison reports on Britain's big screen revival
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The Independent Culture

If all goes to plan, tonight's Orange British Academy Film Awards will see the British contingent sweep all before them, capping a vintage year for British film-making.

All too many times, the leading lights of British film and television have shuffled off at the end of the Baftas with little more than a best supporting actor and best costume gong between them.

But a backstage revolution is taking place. Even before the pre-Oscars award season descended, with Dame Helen Mirren's regal double-whammy at the Golden Globes (best film actress for The Queen and best TV actress for Elizabeth I), UK artists and performers had been racking up trophies from Venice to Toronto. Ken Loach, so often the bridesmaid, finally won the Palme d'Or at Cannes for The Wind that Shakes the Barley, while Red Road, by first-time British director Andrea Arnold, was awarded the Jury Prize.

It's perhaps only fitting, then, that of the 120 nominees at tonight's Baftas, well over a third are either British or for UK-produced films. And there's no shortage of promising films still to come - from horror sequel 28 Weeks Later to Working Title's The Golden Age, in which Cate Blanchett reprises her role as Elizabeth I.

This year, there's the almost obligatory nod for Dame Judi Dench, forNotes on a Scandal, but come closing-time she's likely to be playing second fiddle to Dame Helen - odds-on favourite for The Queen. And beside such reliable grandes dames sit a host of oft-overlooked old boys, from Leslie Phillips (Venus) to Richard Griffiths (The History Boys). That's not to mention the younger generation, with Kate Winslet and 007 Daniel Craig joined by rising star James McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland) and Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada).

If anything, the array of back-room talent is more extensive. From veteran directors such as Stephen Frears (The Queen) through Hollywood-conquering maverick Paul Greengrass (United 93) to young turks like the Macdonald brothers, Andrew and Kevin, tonight's awards - and the Oscars to come - are teeming with UK names thatstand a chance of winning. And that's without considering the "craft" awards - music, costume, make-up - at which we often triumph.

So can we really be on the cusp, as some commentators have tentatively suggested, of a shining new era? Duncan Kenworthy, who produced the trio of Richard Curtis romantic comedies, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually, has heard this too many times.

"We should always play down expectations of a golden age - only disaster lies that way," he says. "Having said that, I would say 10 British films have come out in the past 12 months that are world class."

What distinguishes this year from previous ones, Kenworthy feels, is the breadth and diversity of the British films vying for top awards. From "real-life thriller" (United 93) to gritty contemporary drama (London to Brighton), the range is huge - and, there's scarcely a conventional costume drama or Lock, Stock clone in sight. Kenworthy is also heartened by the blossoming relationship between cinema and theatre - most notable in Alan Bennett's adaptation of his acclaimed play The History Boys and the Patrick Marber/Richard Eyre collaboration, Notes on a Scandal. Filmmakers are, he says, "following their noses" by pursuing projects about which they are passionate, rather than trying to "out-America America".

Sally Caplan, head of the UK Film Council's Premiere Fund, which funds mainstream movies capable of competing at the box office with US blockbusters, said: "Few countries can look back on track records this year that span as widely as Britain's.

"We have peaks and troughs in the British film industry, but there's been a period of prolonged interest in our films this year. We're looking at a very different situation to normal."

Ms Caplan cites the Treasury's tax relief for filmmakers as a prime motor behind the investment. Producers of films made in Britain can now recoup 20 per cent of the cost of those with budgets of £20m or less. The throwback is 16 per cent for bigger budgets.

One of the biggest beneficiaries of this regime is likely to be DNA, the London-based company formed by producer Andrew Macdonald and brother Kevin, the Oscar-winning director of One Day in September. Between them, DNA's films have 10 Bafta nominations.

Andrew is one of the few major players in "British film" unafraid to use this label - despite growing unease in the industry about applying it too glibly, in an age of tortuous international co-financing deals.

"Things have come a long way since the days when we had distributors like Rank and Thorn EMI, but we now have supportive TV stations and heaps of talent," he says. "I want to make 'British films', with box office income flowing back into the country."

So, the big question: could tonight be our night? His guard slipping for a moment, Kenworthy dares: "Who knows - maybe this year we'll have it all, and actually get some awards too."

The producer

Andrew MacDonald

Born in Glasgow, he has been nominated for a Bafta for 'The Last King of Scotland', and shares production credits on 'The History Boys' and 'Notes on a Scandal'. Won kudos for 'Trainspotting'

CAREER HIGHS: 'Shallow Grave', 'Trainspotting', 'The Beach'

Box office since 2003: £34m

The director

Paul Greengrass

Rose to international prominence with

'The Bourne Supremacy'. Bafta nominated for 'United 93', which he wrote and directed.

CAREER HIGHS: 'The Murder of Stephen Lawrence', 'Bloody Sunday', 'The Bourne Supremacy'

Box office since 2003: £54m

The star

Helen Mirren

One of Britain's best loved actresses, she has been nominated for an Academy Award three times. Tipped to win a best actress Bafta for 'The Queen'

CAREER HIGHS: 'The Long Good Friday', 'Prime Suspect', 'The Madness of King George'

Box office since 2003: £60m

The writer

Peter Morgan

Nominated for 'The Queen' and 'The Last King of Scotland'. Respected for writing dramas on big political issues such as the Blair/Brown rift and Watergate

CAREER HIGHS: 'Colditz' (TV), 'Henry VIII' (TV), 'The Deal' (TV), 'Longford' (TV)

Box office since 2003: £9m