Chariots of ire

Lottery board blocks cash for film-maker who spoofed David Puttnam's finest hour
Click to follow
The Independent Online
New-found harmony in the British film industry has been punctured by an accusation from an award-winning young film-maker that the establishment tried to block finance for his new movie because it satirises them.

And certainly, Stiff Upper Lips, by Gary Sinyor, who won a best newcomer award for the acclaimed Leon The Pig Farmer, is a merciless parody of some of the best-known period dramas.

Merchant Ivory films such as A Room with a View and Remains of the Day receive savage treatment, as does Sir David Puttnam's Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire.

The new film opens nationwide in June, but has already opened the Bradford film festival where an exit poll found that 60 per cent of the audience thought it "excellent". Its satire is sometimes heavy-handed, but the film critic of Time Out, the London listings magazine has described it as "a delightfully irreverent and consistently funny parody of British period drama."

It has a star cast including Peter Ustinov, Prunella Scales, Frank Finlay, Sam West and Georgina Cates. But yesterday Mr Sinyor, a past winner of the Evening Standard best newcomer and Edinburgh Film Festival awards, said promised lottery funding of pounds 1m was cancelled when it was realised that film industry luminaries were to be mocked.

The opening scene parodies the Chariots Of Fire running race in a Cambridge quadrangle. The race is wrecked when a "toff" wanders in front of one of the runners who trips over him. Meanwhile, a Cambridge don is looking out of a window rhapsodising about the runners' buttocks.

Mr Sinyor said yesterday: "Sir David is a member of the lottery board and would not have been enamoured by the parody. We were sent the film lottery board's assessor's report recommending that the film receive pounds 1m lottery funding. We went out and raised pounds 1.6m private funding on the basis that the lottery deal was on. We passed all the various committees, but then we got to the old guard. And they stopped it going ahead. They don't like jokes being made at their expense.

"To our amazement we were told we hadn't got the money. I had to go to Peter Ustinov and the rest of the cast cap in hand. He took a pay cut, the budgets were cut all round, and I had to sell the Spanish and Italian rights. Profits that would have come from those territories back to British investors will now stay in Spain and Italy."

Sir David Puttnam said last night: "It is nonsense to suggest that offence was taken at being parodied. Maybe it makes him more comfortable to think that. But is this the same Gary Sinyor who wrote to me thanking me for starting him in the film industry?"

Mr Sinyor responded yesterday: "Yes, in the early stages of my career I did worship the ground he trod on. But once you see your heroes close up, maybe they're no longer so heroic."

The Independent has seen the lottery board assessor's conclusions. Signed by Shelly Bancroft, independent assessor to the Arts Council, it lists the application as for pounds 1m and states: "I recommend this application for an award ... Stiff Upper Lips is a British comedy, a cheerfully irreverent send-up of the British class system and class snobbery, involving scenes which parody British 'period' films such as Chariots Of Fire and the Merchant Ivory films."

An Arts Council spokeswoman said last night: "David Puttnam wasn't even in the discussion which decided against the application. The assessor did recommend that it be supported, but expressed very severe reservations about the quality of the film. It is not an assessor we use any more. In financial terms the film didn't fulfill any of our requirements. There was no means by which the Arts Council could have recouped its investment, and the film was going to be made in the Isle of Man which is technically outside the EC."

In fact, the film was shot in London, Italy and India as well as the Isle of Man, and has a certificate saying it is a British film. In addition the assessor's report while admitting the film may not win awards or have the cachet of the films it is sending up, says "it seems to have a great deal of potential for a British audience" and goes on to say that such a provocative film should be supported as "a British film for the British public funded by the British public."

Mr Sinyor, 34, is open in his scepticism about the success of the films promoting a traditional view of Britain. "I frankly think it's maintained by The English Patient," he said. "Everything is upper class and tight- lipped."

On 14 and 15 April, Mr Sinyor will be teaching a course in London for aspiring film-makers. He will be instructing them on how to take on the British film establishment. He said yesterday: "If you want to make films in this country, you need to know some basic practicalities. Where to go when the usual suspects say no. How to get private investment. How to make the film you want for less money than you actually have. How you approach an actor behind an agent's back. How to break a few rules and still be honest."

Comments