Honourable men unable to cope with the reel world

The Heritage Select Committee might have done the British film industry more good by pitching scripts to US movie moguls, says Charles Miller
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The Independent Online
When MPs set out to investigate the movie business, there was always going to be scope for incongruity: Honourables are, in the main, tired middle-aged men whose film-going days are remembered as part of the courtship of their first wives. Predictably, the Heritage Select Committee's film industry inquiry has had something of the clumsy enthusiasm of grown- ups trying to sound interested in Power Rangers.

The committee is not without movie credentials, notably in the person of its chairman, Gerald Kaufman. On a fact-finding trip to Dublin he was gratified to find a copy of his recent book on Meet me in St Louis for sale at the Irish Film Centre. Other members also claim an interest: Anthony Coombs, like all proper young Tories, admits to enjoying Sylvester Stallone movies. Labour's Joe Ashton picks On the Waterfront as his favourite film, and his colleague John Maxtan never misses a chance to refer to Indiana Jones.

The MPs have been examining the film business with a view to publishing a report in the next few weeks, recommending how the Heritage Department might stimulate filming in Britain. The committee began work last October by awarding itself a week in Hollywood. This drew hostile fire from newspapers, but in fact the trip was a long round of meetings, interspersed with journeys across the city in a hired minibus. When we asked members for interviews for a BBC documentary during the trip, we found the headlines had hit home: most agreed to be filmed in the hotel garden only on condition that the swimming-pool was not in the shot.

The moguls they met were welcoming: "British talent" was praised at every studio. Unfortunately, the average American film-goer was not as conscious of Britain's contribution to the movies: our films were said to be slow ("I think of subtitles," one teenager commented), and those asked to name British players rarely got further than Anthony Hopkins and, as one self- proclaimed movie buff called him, "Kevin Branagh".

Next week's Oscars may again raise Britain's profile, but that won't mean a more secure British film industry. In that very phrase, the problems begin: "what British film industry?" every waggish bloke-in-a-pub asks. But the bloke would be wrong to suggest films aren't made here any more; they are - small ones, very small ones and big American ones. Life for British film-makers is complicated by the lack of a British equivalent to the Hollywood studios, which produce high-budget films for a world audience.

The films Britain can most fully claim as its own are smaller enterprises, underwritten by the BBC or Channel 4, British Screen or the British Film Institute. In their financing, marketing and profitability, each of these films has its own business arrangements. The result is that successful films do not necessarily mean others will follow. Duncan Kenworthy, producer of Four Weddings and a Funeral, dismisses his record-breaking hit, backed by Channel 4 and Polygram, as a one-off. He has returned to television: Four Weddings is, for him, a gold-plated calling card, but it does not, as it would in America, bankroll a studio for a season.

The fragmentary nature of the British industry has presented the Heritage Committee's MPs with conflicting evidence. At hearings in Westminster, they have been asked to recommend a clutch of measures, each of which, its advocates promise, will release the creative juices of British film- makers, and bring rich rewards for our culture and the economy. But different lobbies - producers, distributors, exhibitors, writers - each had their own panacea, be it tax breaks for producers, greater government funding, the reservation of a quota of screens for British films, or a requirement on US companies to finance British production from the takings of their British cinemas.

All these options have been explained in long submissions to the committee. The hearings have sometimes exposed the MPs' ignorance of their witnesses and their business. Debate has degenerated into something resembling a third-rate media studies class. The director Mike Leigh responded tactfully to a rambling question about what made British directors British with the protest that it was "such a wide question, it's difficult to know how to focus down". Alan Parker, more bluntly, said he was "trying to figure out what is the point of the question". The Conservative Toby Jessel asked about car-parking arrangements at cinemas, and, in two separate sessions, embarked on a hypothetical question about the taxes Picasso would have paid if he had painted in Britain.

Joe Ashton ruffled the feathers of witnesses by drawing unfavourable comparisons between the film industry and others, including construction, car manufacture and coal mining. But his obsession was with the beer industry, whose real ale lobby he commended as a model. The most conscientious inquisitor, Labour's Jim Callaghan, prepared such long questions, with extended quotations from Hansard, that their creditable purpose was often lost.

For all this, the committee had absorbed enough information before setting off to Dublin to realise that the enthusiasm of the Irish arts minister, Michael Higgins, is sadly lacking here. Ireland's tax system allows film- makers to write off some costs against tax. The results were seen by the committee as it rubbed shoulders with Irish film luminaries at the Dublin premire of Interview with the Vampire (which most of them privately loathed). There was an atmosphere of confidence and optimism, and talk of more Irish films being made, more jobs created, and the city being regenerated by the money film-makers have spent. The committee is likely to recommend tax changes designed to emulate Mr Higgins's initiative, even though such measures mean a loss of government revenue, at least in the short term.

Most of those called to give evidence have been canny enough to avoid the word "subsidy". But the reality is that any attempt to help the film industry means persuading the Government to treat it as a special case. For the department, represented at the final hearing by the Heritage Secretary, Stephen Dorrell, the industry is just one of many seeking favours.

The MPs seldom managed to break through Mr Dorrell's jokey tone, as he parried the proposals they had distilled from months of hearings and visits. Sir John Gorst, Conservative deputy chairman of the Committee, complained about the minister's "dry as dust" approach to questions of tax and finance. Mr Dorrell laughed, assuming Sir John was being facetious. It might have done more for British film-makers if the committee had taken a pile of scripts to its meetings with the Hollywood executives.

The author is director of BBC2's `Scrutiny' documentary `The Road to Hollywood', to be shown on Saturday 25 March at 4.05pm.