Minister for movies promises: we'll make you watch more British films

Chris Smith talks to David Lister in Cannes
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The Independent Online
Chris Smith, the new Heritage Secretary, is considering a law to force cinemas to show a higher proportion of British films.

Interviewed at the Cannes film festival, where on his first major engagement last week he presided over a pounds 92m handout of Lottery cash to support the British movie industry, Mr Smith said he was determined to double cinema audiences for British films from the current total 10 per cent of all attendances to 20 per cent.

He has set up a working party to look at ways of upping the figure. When it was suggested that he could do it overnight with a new law forcing multiplex cinemas to show a certain percentage of British films, he replied: "We are looking at all the options - and I don't rule out legislative action."

That would alarm the big Hollywood film distributors who control the British cinema chains, but they would be very much in line with EU attempts at keeping European films alive in the face of American domination.

One of the more cultured members of the Government, Mr Smith is a music lover and regular film goer. The last movies he saw, appropriately enough, were Breaking the Waves and Shine - neither of which have any connection with Hollywood.

In addition, the 45-year-old minister will be spearheading a move to encourage older people back to the cinema, urging film companies to stop gearing their marketing solely to teenagers.

"In America, the 30- and 40-year-olds are among the biggest cinemagoers. In Britain, though attendances have grown phenomenally, the growth has been among the 17- to 25-year-olds," he said. The genial Heritage Secretary unveiled several radical proposals in this, his first full newspaper interview. At Cannes he was thrown into an unlikely limelight, rushing for three days from meetings with American movie majors to urge them to invest more in the UK and giving pep talks -and Lottery awards - to British film- makers.

In between, he posed for pictures on the beach front, unaware that between him and the multimillion dollar yachts were topless sun bathers. But back in Britain Mr Smith will be working on an egalitarian arts package in sharp contrast to the extravagance and decadence of Cannes that left him blinking. He is preparing a new "art for the people" initiative, moving away from what he regards as "cultural elitism".

He will touch on some of this in a major speech at the Royal Academy this week. "The arts are for everyone," he said. "I was very impressed with how Northern Arts transformed carriages on the Gateshead metro into a travelling art exhibition. I don't think we do enough bringing art into everyday life. Shopping malls, offices, making street furniture reflect good architectural styles."

Ministerial homilies of this kind have rarely influenced what actually happens on the streets, but Mr Smith will ensure change. "We will use funds from the Lottery particularly to sponsor art and creative activity at the local level. I am very keen on small scale grants, on things like the improvement of urban parks. This is the level where Lottery funding can make a fantastic difference to people's lives."

He will also highlight that the Department of National Heritage - a title he will soon change: the hot tip is the Department of Culture and Communications - is a major economic ministry, responsible for pounds 50bn of GDP

It is a message perhaps aimed at his colleagues, as government he admits "has often regarded my department as a side show". But he utterly rejects any idea that his move to the DNH was a demotion, or that he was moved from his post as shadow health spokesman because of his determination to keep open St Bartholomew's Hospital in the City of London.

"That would be strange. If anything, Frank Dobson [the Health Secretary] is even more committed to Bart's than I was." As for his new role: "I am loving it. When the Prime Minister appointed me he told me I was the victim of my own success, because `everyone in the arts and media world has been asking for you'."

Some of those Smith groupies might find him a more radical and interventionist turn than they expected. He confirmed that he will be meeting BBC governors and is concerned that the changes introduced by John Birt may not have produced greater efficiency. "I want to satisfy myself that the public broadcasting service is alive and well and thriving at Broadcasting House."

He has also asked for a report on the redevelopment of Covent Garden with pounds 78m of Lottery money in the light of last week's shock resignation by the Royal Opera House chief executive, Genista McIntosh. Did he think the post, which went immediately to the Arts Council secretary general, Mary Allen, should have been advertised? "I am not happy about what has happened, but my view is that probably the chairman of the ROH took the only cause of action sensibly open to him."

He will also be reviewing plans for millennium celebrations, including the Tories' decision to hold the festival at Greenwich. The new chairman of the Millennium Commission says he wants to ensure "every sizeable community is benefiting. I'm looking across the whole country".

The openly homosexual minister is also determined that his wide-ranging portfolio will still leave time occasionally to speak out on gay rights.

"I have always spoken out on it and I see no reason why I shouldn't continue to make a contribution to public discussion. I have never wanted my career just to be seen in terms of this, but I have no intention of changing my long-standing commitment to social justice."

n Two British films meanwhile have emerged as front-runners for the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes festival. They are Gary Oldman's rigorous, semi-autobiographical Nil by Mouth about growing up in South London, and Welcome to Sarajevo, directed by Michael Winterbottom, following a TV film crew to Bosnia.