John Walsh reels in the movie maverick turned white knight
Alan Parker at the British Film Institute... nah, it doesn't sound right. Alan Parker, Chairman of the British Film Institute - overseer of the library sub-committee, scourge of archival mismanagement, kindly- but-firm figurehead, speechmaker, judicious hander-out of grants and funds, asker of boardroom questions like "Can I have that minuted, please?" - no, that doesn't sound very like him either.

Mr Parker, for years a colossal thorn in the side of the British film industry, has always reserved a fair-sized jug of bile for the BFI, calling it, at different times, "an ivory tower", "a little fiefdom" and, most scornfully, "28 intellectuals in a library". While Parker has made a succession of notably vivid and commercially successful movies, mostly in America (Bugsy Malone, Midnight Express, Birdy, Fame, Angel Heart, Mississippi Burning, The Commitments, Evita) the BFI gradually sank into desuetude, using part of its modest subsidy to finance small-scale films that were recognisable as British by their fitness only for the television screen. Now Parker the transatlantic maverick is taking charge of this nervous, moth-eaten, unloved and under-funded enterprise. Bull, meet china shop.

Parker starts in his new post in January. He is already taking it very seriously, spending a whole month away from his home in Los Angeles, getting to know the organisation. When we met, he already looked and sounded different from the combative, zip-fronted urban warrior of old. For one thing he is wearing a jacket and tie. "The jacket's from Los Angeles. Nice, innit? It wasn't expensive, it's not Armani or anything..." And the tie? After 20 years in an open-necked shirt? "Yeah, I had to start wearing them - it's supposed to be more chairmanly. But it's a whole new world for me. I've always been completely autocratic. I've never learned to be diplomatic or democratic. And now I've got to start."

His longish, middle-parted hair is greying but youthfully shaggy. His features are pouched and knobbly and put you in mind of a more debauched Tony Banks. His sharp eyes squint behind his steel spectacles, as if in pain from the smoke of his early-morning cigar, but when he stops directing his conversation at the carpet, they flash at you with sudden amusement. His voice is a fluently pissed-off Cockney growl without a trace of Californian surf in it, thank you, and is laden, these days, with chairmanly phrasings: "There are two arguments..."; "on the other hand..."; "with regard to..." One of these days he'll say "heretofore" in that Islington rasp and that'll be that.

"These are very exciting times for the film industry," he said, in new gung-ho mode, "and the BFI is a hugely important organisation that's at present rather unloved and misunderstood. But it's too important not to be terrific. It's a cultural organisation, and its basic function is education. We have an entire generation of film-goers in this country, who are more passionate about film than any generation before. But they've had very limited choices, they've been fed on American films and want more and more of them. The only way we can change that is not by force-feeding them something they don't want to go and see, but by educating them into a different kind of cinema. When I was young," Parker reflected, "You could go to the Academy One, Two or Three in Oxford Street and see foreign films there. It was like the whole world opening up, other people's countries and cultures. Now it's really difficult to go and see a foreign film anywhere."

He himself has had the culture of a quasi-governmental institution opened up to him in "an amazing crash course" over the past month, learning the workings of the Library and the Archive, and the role of the Institute's sister operations, the National Film Theatre and the Museum of the Moving Image, Sight & Sound and the BFI's other publications. He has to worry about the pounds 15m subsidy cash. These are a lot of high-profile housekeeping jobs for a man not renowned for calm domestic management.

He was offered the job by Tom Clarke, who was appointed Minister for Film by Tony Blair. It was, apparently, the new Minister's first official act, and it worked. "No, Chris Smith did not take me to lunch," says Parker crossly. "Clarke asked me first, then Chris, and I gave it a great deal of thought. The first thing I said to them was, `I'm a working film director, I can't stop making films, either from a financial point of view or a spiritual one. Most films involve a six-day working week and when I'm on a film set, I'm there all the time, I've little time for anything else. So I'll often be away.' But it's Catch-22. It they want someone for the job who's actively engaged in the industry, well... my day job isn't about going to board meetings or sitting in an office. It's about standing up to your knees in mud, a long way from home."

The last film he made was Evita, a typically rich, elaborate, high-gloss display of operatic passions and bravura direction. The scene of Evita's funeral has gone into many people's top 10 of Great Filmic Moments: it starts with a teeth-rattling chord on the soundtrack, to accompany the sight of the noble cortege, the mile-wide street pullulating with umpteen thousands of mourner-extras. The effect is of a great door slamming open rather than shut. Months after I saw it, Parker was still working on the laser and video versions, "and when you've done a film that's such a huge undertaking, you need to rest. You can't keep churning them out; I can't anyway. I do admire directors who come up to bat every year, like Woody Allen, who's extraordinarily prolific. I spoke to him on the phone once, to ask his advice after my first film. Oddly enough, his advice was to make British films..."

The other reasons why this busy, transatlantic control freak took the job are connected with home, too. "Yeah, there is a personal reason. You see, I never felt I was actually living in the United States. I always thought I was just on location. I conned myself into believing that. Then lately, I had a thought - that if I didn't come back to England now, well, there might be a very small memorial service for me at the Directors' Guild on Sunset Boulevard one day, and I didn't want that." Surely you don't mean, O gruff, Anglo-American roustabout, that you were were a teensy bit...

"Homesick? Yeah, simple as that. Three of my children live here [one daughter and two sons; they're respectively a painter, a documentary maker and a composer; a fourth son is studying playwriting at Columbia University in New York] and I've got a granddaughter called Lily that I rarely see. You know what she calls me? My name isn't `Granddad', it's `GranddadinAmerica', it's one word. I don't mind that, but I would like to be `GranddadinEngland'."

Sweet. The last reason is political. Mr Parker is a long-standing Labour supporter. ("May the First was such a great night. I was watching it at home in LA in broad daylight. There's a channel called C-Span which took the whole BBC coverage. I sat there for five hours, occasionally jumping in the air with excitement. My favourite moment? Mr Portillo...") After years of truculent union activity in the early Eighties, lobbying the government for a more enlightened approach to film subsidy and tax concessions ("I was always trucking up Whitehall because I could be relied on to be unpleasant and aggressive"), Parker gave up in disgust and frustration. Now he seems awestruck as he surveys what the Blair administration has done, appointing a Minister of Film and offering business investors attractive tax breaks for putting money into British movies.

"That's far and away the best thing that's happened," he glows. "It's just extraordinary that it happened in the very first Budget. It's immensely encouraging. Ten years ago, I was always complaining, because things were so difficult for all of us. When I started in Wardour Street, I had Frank Pool of Rank at one end of the Street and Nat Cohen of EMI at the other end. And if both of them said no to a project, then that was it, you couldn't go anywhere else. Now there are 25 or 30 places where film-makers can go to look for money for their films." He shook his head, as if overcome with sentimentality. "This is the first government in my living memory that cares about films or wants to support them, not just for cultural reasons but for economic ones too. It could be crucially important for this country if we got the film industry in proper working order."

Quite apart from masterminding the British film renaissance ("We're all a bit wary of that word. D'you remember that battle cry, a few years ago, `The British are coming!' and suddenly the British weren't coming after all..."), Parker is doing battle with a dozen anomalies of distribution and exhibition. "Getting more films made is one thing. What you have to sort out first is that the ones that are made get to be seen. A very worrying fact that must be addressed is that 50 per cent of British films that are made don't get shown in Britain. It's the multiplexes, which are completely and totally dominated by the American product. Of course one argument says, it's a free market and the audience can see what it likes, but if they don't get the chance to see British movies, if they're not offered the choice, they won't know the difference."

He instances Mike Leigh, the Oscar-winning director of Naked, Secrets and Lies and Career Girls. "Did you know Mike never got a proper mass release for Secrets and Lies? As he complains - and quite rightly - that film made more money in Paris than in the whole of the United Kingdom."

Mike Leigh, I said, started his career making low-key, low-budget, uncommercial, movies without star names in them. They were classics of what used to be called the "art house" genre. Parker, master of the full-on Hollywood big-screen, multi-soundtrack, audience-manipulation commercial smasheroonie kind of enterprise, has always been talked about as the antithesis of the art-house movie. Did the distinction still apply? "I used to find it irritating that the word `art film' was used only about a certain kind of film. I used to think, and still do, that there's a great deal of art in the films that reach very large audiences. There are very similar skills involved. But polarising films into two camps was a big mistake in this country. The United States never had pretensions about such things."

Had he mellowed in his view of the films of Peter Greenaway, the art- house dweller supreme? "Just because I spoke up against his films didn't mean that I thought he shouldn't be making them. I'm a pluralist. I've always argued that as many different films as possible should be made."

As occasionally happens when you talk to Mr Parker, a ringingly positive pronouncement like this is quietly subverted moments later. When I asked about the BFI's own-brand productions in the last decade, many co-financed by Channel 4, he briefly stopped being St Francis of Assisi. "The BFI was never meant to be in competition with the commercial sector. It was meant to encourage new film-makers. Its brief was to be `cutting edge' and `innovative', though many of us were critical of those words because they led to rather boring films. Avant garde? Instant narcolepsy, I called them."

Between now and January he has a lot of thinking to do, about money and museums and festivals and education programmes, and helping to create substantial film companies to get out of the trap of making movies small enough to fit the living-room TV. He'll have to decide whether the irretrievably shabby NFT would be better off re-located to the centre of London. He will have to fend off the avalanche of screenplays that will land, for his attention, at the BFI's modest door. He will become the No 1 theorist about the way we make and view movies in this country, and he will have government and City backing for whatever he suggests. It will be quite a homecoming for the Islington painter's son. Had he still got that nice house on Ham Common? "No. But my ex-wife has a very nice house on Ham Common. I'm living here at the Covent Garden Hotel. I'll have to find somewhere to live very soon." And will he give up LA? "I'm keeping that house because I love it. It's very small and pretty and, because of the climate, the garden is nice all year round. It's always been a little English house in the Hollywood hills." Alan Parker is a truculent sod. It's very good to have him back home again.