At last, a cineaste in Westminster

After years of government neglect, a saviour is in sight for the British film industry - in the shape of Tom Clarke, the new Minister for Movies. By Rob Brown
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The Independent Online
No one was more elated by Gordon Brown's debut budget than Tom Clarke. As Britain's first "Minister for Movies", Clarke had the sheer delight last Thursday afternoon of watching a fellow Scot doing what successive Tory chancellors repeatedly refused to do - give the British film industry some flicker of hope.

If Tony Blair awarded Clarke the "film and tourism" portfolio as a consolation prize for not including him in the Cabinet - and it isn't overly cynical to suspect that motivation - then it is turning out to be quite a consolation, at least for now.

Two hours after Brown's announcement of unprecedented tax breaks for movie-makers in this country, Clarke had the pleasure of hosting a cosy celebration party in the House of Commons. Among those joining him in a palace abuzz with post-Budget excitement were Alan Parker, one of several leading film directors with whom Clarke is now on familiar terms. (Richard Attenborough - "Dickie", as Clarke refers to him - even ventured into darkest Lanarkshire to make an appearance at his final election rally.)

Clarke was in good spirits when we met up to reflect upon his role in the Government and what he hopes to deliver for the film-making community and, in time, the country's cinema-goers.

"The film industry was ignored, neglected, snubbed throughout the Thatcher- Major years because Britain was being run by people who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing," he said. "But now a feel-good factor exists all over Britain. It is widely shared throughout the film industry, where people are thrilled to have a government with the political will to confront problems that have been recognised for a long time. As well as a government that is listening, there are huge Lottery funds pouring into the British film industry. If we can't make that fly, we need our heads examined."

Wilf Stevenson, who is preparing to bow out as director of the British Film Institute, broadly echoes that analysis: "The new Chancellor has given the UK film industry a real shot in the arm." He joined Clarke to toast Gordon Brown's decision to allow a 100 per cent tax write-off on production and acquisition for British films with a budget of pounds 15m or less.

"Raising money for films will be much easier now that film-makers here are operating on a level playing field in terms of tax incentives," Stevenson says. "And we're delighted that there's a minister in the Government devoted specifically to developing the film industry."

Tom Clarke is quick to pay tribute to his departmental boss, the National Heritage Secretary, Chris Smith. But he clearly isn't going simply to beaver away in the background and let him hoard all the limelight. The Minister for Movies quickly generated some publicity for himself by attending the recent Cannes Film Festival where he posed for snappers in a film director's chair on the beach and regaled showbiz reporters with tales of his own brief cinematic career. In 1972 he entered a 15-minute short entitled Give Us A Goal in the French resort's amateur film festival. "It was a full 15 minutes long and shot on glorious 16mm film - quite ambitious for an amateur," he beams.

Clarke was 30 when he made that film and was president of the British Cinematographers' Society. Before entering politics, he worked as an assistant director of the Scottish Film Council. In that capacity he once interviewed a young man called Peter Capaldi for a job in the council's library. Capaldi went on to star alongside Burt Lancaster in Local Hero and later directed an Oscar-winning short.

Clarke is convinced there are lots of other Peter Capaldis in Britain. "One of the joys of being an MP is that you're invited to lots of school productions," he says. "I never go to one without thinking that there's at least half-a-dozen of the youngsters who would be perfectly capable of carving out a career in the audio-visual industry. But where are the opportunities?"

Few and far between, is the answer, which is why Clarke is determined that aid will not just be granted to established film companies but that training will be provided for the next generation of film-makers.

Although it is an open secret that Clarke was hoping to become Minister for Overseas Development - a position he shadowed in Opposition - there is no question that Clarke has the personal will to make the most of the hand he has been dealt. He puts a positive spin on his exclusion from the Cabinet, swallowing the official explanation that there was already a surfeit of Scots gathered round the top table and he would have to be the sacrificial Jock.

Others have seriously doubted Clarke's ability to hold down a top-level portfolio since he struggled painfully as Shadow Scottish Secretary under John Smith. Even now he must look back on that period in his political career as a sort of horror movie. Parodied by his political enemies - most viciously by supposed comrades in the Scottish Labour movement - Clarke was eventually forced to step down from the post. Even when he almost collapsed with illness, he was forced to run a daily gauntlet of prying tabloid news reporters and camera crews, eager to zoom in on his gaunt features. The cruellest rumour they perpetrated was that he had succumbed to Aids.

Clarke, who explains that he was suffering from the chronic fatigue syndrome ME, prefers not to look back on that grim chapter in is life. But friends say it has slightly dented his long-held commitment to Scottish devolution since he now doubts whether his countrymen are mature enough to exercise autonomy. "The way he was treated made him sadly ashamed of his fellow Scots," says one close colleague. But Clarke would never say anything like that on the record. He is delighted to leave Scottish affairs to Donald Dewar and focus on the film industry.

His own constituency, Monklands West, is the last place one would expect to spawn a Minister for Movies. Centred on the de-industrialised town of Coatbridge - a magnet for Irish immigrants when its coal and iron ore reserves made it an epicentre of the industrial revolution - the area is now scarred by poverty and sectarianism (factors which contributed a few years back to Monklandsgate, in which the local council was wrongly accused of operating a religiously biased employment policy).

But it was while growing up in grimy Coatbridge that Tom Clarke first fell in love with the movies. There were six cinemas in his home town at that time. Now there are none. When Clarke wants to see a movie at weekends, he has to drive out of town a few miles to one of Scotland's biggest multiplexes.

He did precisely that recently to see Brassed Off, a passionate comedy about a doomed colliery's brass band. But it is still the case that more than half of the films made in Britain never get screened in a British cinema. The multiplexes are awash with Hollywood fare.

Clarke acknowledges this problem but is careful not to slip into a rant about US cultural imperialism. "I'm not anti-American, but the Americans can't believe their luck when they look at their penetration into our cinema market. They see the British squandering their creative genius by failing to develop a proper film industry.

"I'll know we've succeeded when the British film industry has got up off its backside and is doing what it capable of doing. I'll be delighted when half the films I go to see are made in Britain"n

Entertaining Mr Clarke

First film you remember watching? When I was a wee boy my dad took me and my brothers to see How Green Was My Valley in my hometown of Coatbridge. He was a miner and I was moved by see a mining community like my own on the big screen.

Favourite black-and-white film? I saw The Young Mr Lincoln at the Edinburgh Film Festival many years after it was produced. Lincoln came across as a man of few words but total determination, rather like myself!

Favourite colour film? It has to be Fantasia which was the last film screened in the grand old Cosmo cinema in Glasgow. My affection for it is related to the occasion, which would have been sad had the cinema not been swiftly reborn as the Glasgow Film Theatre.

Last film you saw? Channel 4 gave me a sneak preview of Sarajevo last week. TV news footage of the Balkan conflict was interwoven with powerful drama sequences.

Last video you rented? Last weekend I got out the last James Bond movie, Goldeneye, because I'd been on the set of the next one and met Pierce Brosnan. But I don't generally go a bundle for video. It spoiled Gandhi for me.

Favourite actor? We're all allowed a wee bit of escapism, so it has to be Steve McQueen.