Man with a mission

The term `British film industry' is an oxymoron, according to David Puttnam. But with the aid of lottery funding, he is about to change all that. Geoffrey Macnab discovers how
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The Independent Culture
David Puttnam may not have much of a reputation as a humorist, but one of the unexpected pleasures of his new book, The Undeclared War, is the sly wit with which it describes the assorted mountebanks, mavericks, inventors and small businessmen behind the birth of cinema. Targets range from pint-sized Paramount supreme Adolph Zukor, "a cross between Napoleon and Christopher Columbus", to Thomas Edison, "the wizard of Menlo Park", from Charles Pathe, "he thrived amid the noise, dirt and gaudy amusements of the fairgrounds", to those prim scientists, the Lumiere brothers.

Ask Puttnam to fix his satirical eye on himself, and the 56-year-old producer, the closest British cinema has come in recent years to its own Thalberg or Selznick, turns strangely bashful. I'm not a colourful character," he insists, "I wish I was, but I'm the product of my background. I was a middle-class boy with middle-class values who has turned into a middle- class man with middle-class values. I don't have that buccaneering spirit. I'm not a gambler."

Puttnam, it seems, is determined to present himself as the movie world's equivalent of a provincial bank manager: astute, sagacious, and maybe just a little bit woolly. He lacks the "flamboyance of an Alexander Korda". He has none of the cutthroat ruthlessness of the old Columbia despot, Harry Cohn, whose shoes he briefly tried to fill on an ill-fated foray to Hollywood a few years back. The only film figure he will allow himself to be compared to is the old Ealing boss, Michael Balcon. "The best of my qualities are not unadjacent to his," he muses in middle-management speak, using a rash of double-negatives. "I've always thought that in similar circumstances to the ones he inherited at Ealing, I would not do a dissimilar job."

It is true that Sir David Puttnam CBE, senior mandarin of the British film industry, and Sir Michael Balcon make cosy bedfellows. Quite apart from winning knighthoods and public respectability (rare commodities on Wardour Street), both producers share roughly similar business and aesthetic creeds. They are the high priests of middlebrow movie-making. Just as Balcon famously sought to "project Britain and the British character" in the films he oversaw at Ealing (everything from Scott of the Antarctic to Kind Hearts and Coronets), to combine good business sense with craftsmanship, and to respect his audiences, Puttnam too has attempted to make popular, intelligent pictures (Chariots of Fire, The Mission, Local Hero, Memphis Belle etc.) that edify as well as entertain.

Balcon, it should perhaps be remembered, was not just the benevolent patriarch of popular myth. Long before he started making Alec Guinness comedies, when he was production chief at Gaumont-British in the Thirties, he was behind one of the British film industry's wastrel, self-defeating attempts to buy itself a niche in the American market. Toward the end of the decade, he also served two stormy years with MGM under the bespectacled tyrant, Louis B Mayer.

Balcon's unhappy experiences with Gaumont-British and MGM strengthen, not weaken, Puttnam's identification with the older man. He points out that he endured something similar in the Eighties, first as part of the Goldcrest adventure (they too attempted to barge into the US market) and then as chairman of Columbia Pictures.

Given that Puttnam devotes large chunks of his book to berating the European film industry for not marketing its wares with anything like the energy of its American counterpart, it is surprising how ambivalent he sounds about his own brief stint in Hollywood. He'd no sooner arrived at Columbia in 1986, he recalls, than he managed to antagonise his bosses by giving an unsanctioned interview to Sixty Minutes. "Hysteria broke out. What I said was absolutely anodyne. But you needed permission from about 25 people before you were allowed to speak on network TV. I'd broken one of the cardinal rules of the Coca-Cola Company."

There is something comic and very British about his failure to learn Tinseltown etiquette. Even he admits he was clumsy. What he describes in the book as his "sophisticated boutique mentality" did not go down at all well at the studio. Nor was he always tactful about his employers. "I was quite unconscious of the fact that Americans can say anything about America and get away with it, but that as an Englishman, you have an accent and are perceived as a foreigner." In no time at all, he managed to enrage Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty, exasperate Bill Cosby and make enemies with major powerbroker, Ray Stark. "I have no doubt that I could have acted differently and been infinitely more successful," he reflects now, "but what that would have meant to me as me I don't even like to think about - all the hoops I would have had to lump through - I'm not sure I could have done it and retained my self-respect."

Ironically, while the Americans perceived him as an eccentric European, back home the Europeans often felt he was in thrall to American ideas. He cites his decision to copy the American studios' preview-system as a prime example of a Hollywood-style initiative frowned upon in Soho. "I was treated as a pariah!" he exclaims with mock indignation. Previews, he was told, were an affront to artistic integrity - yet another example of ostrich-headed European insularity, he believes. "Hollywood has always been prepared to draw out of us Europeans what it needs. We, on the other hand, have gone into a state of denial, as if all things American and all lessons taken from America come from the devil."

One word that recurs again and again in the course of an interview with Puttnam is "audiences". He respects and cherishes them; speaks about them as if he's talking about a favourite maiden aunt who needs to be buttered up. There is no bigger sin in his eyes than taking her for granted, either shocking her with exploitation pies or patronising her with obscure art- house movies that make her feel stupid. He devotes a chapter of his book to scolding those naughty nephews, the European auteurs (and Jean-Luc Godard in particular), for turning their back on the cinema-goers who made them successful in the first place. "Godard despised his audience for falling in love with his work. He took upon himself a significant leadership role and then failed to provide leadership. I feel personally betrayed by him, Americans really love their audiences. It you don't love your audiences, you're functioning in a sterile capsule and it will show eventually."

As a cautionary tale to illustrate his point and to show that even British film-makers are prey to the auteur bug, he recounts the sad case of Bill Forsyth, the brilliant Scottish director with whom he worked on Local Hero and Housekeeping. "Bill had a terrific affection for his audience," Puttnam sighs, "but over the years that died in him. He became more and more interested in..." Puttnam pauses before spitting out the fatal word, "cinema." (He means the visual side of film-making, the sets, the costumes.)

The warning signs were there, but Puttnam failed to spot them. "What I should have said to him is `Bill, this is not what you do. You're not David Lean, you're Bill Forsyth.' The irony of Being Human (Forsyth's last completed feature) was that he was shedding his humanity in favour of a stylish movie with an American star. Bill lost his own plot - he forgot where his unique talent lay, namely in his extraordinary instinct for depicting the quirkiness of human nature."

The melancholy little homily over, Puttnam ponders the current state of the British industry and the likely impact of lottery funding, which he was instrumental in securing. The first point he makes is that the very term, British film industry, is a sort of oxymoron. "It's just a series of a disparate businesses making one-off products, each being a kind of experiment, in the hope that the product might find favour. It doesn't conform to any industry standard that I've ever encountered. That is what the lottery is trying to rectify."

For Puttnam, the significance of the three recent lottery franchise awards lies less in who won and who lost than in the opportunity for some long overdue self-analysis. "This extraordinary fractious, very splintered industry was, for the first time in the 25 years I've been in it, forced to analyse its strengths and weaknesses and to work out how it would structure itself in the event that it was allowed to behave like a proper industry."

He argues that the recent revival in British production is sustainable as long as it is accompanied by more robust distribution and marketing, and as long as the influx of lottery money doesn't cause costs to spiral. As multiplexes turn into megaplexes (Puttnam himself is involved in plans to build a 32-screen cinema on the site of the old Battersea Power Station), screen space increases, and Hollywood concentrates more and more on big budget spectaculars, there are bound to be gaps in the market for medium- budget British films.

What of Puttman's own future? His book is full of stories about producers and entrepreneurs who ended up living in penury. The great French pioneer, George Melies, for instance, was reduced to selling toys at the Gare Montparnasse in his declining years. No, Puttnam doesn't believe the same will happen to him, but he won't be making many more films after his current feature, Son of Adam (which is being directed by Hugh Hudson), is complete. "It's not an old man's game. I feel as if I've spent a huge amount of my life in hotel rooms and aeroplanes and there is soon going to be a point where I'm not going to do that any more."

Puttnam sounds as if he is tired of the business, but many observers believe he has simply change his priorities. Now, instead of producing films, he helps formulate policy. As an adviser to Tony Blair, he is sure to play a key role in the undeclared war between European cinema and Hollywood for some time to come. He might even yet turn into Britain's answer to Jack Valenti, chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America, and a ferocious lobbyist who, Puttnam points out, has managed to ensure that the fiercely competitive US majors march in tandem when they sell their wares overseas. Valenti could probably convince the Martians that Hollywood was good for them. Given the chance, Puttnam would not doubt do likewise on behalf of British cinema.

`The Undeclared War' is published by Harper Collins