A new Golden Age of cinema: They may long for the old days of Ealing, but British film-makers are doing well despite a hostile environment, says S J Taylor

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The Independent Online
TONIGHT the heartless, soulless, glitzy Academy Awards ceremony takes place in its natural home - Hollywood, California. And despite the relentless self- denigration of British film-makers who berate themselves, their work, their talent and their power in the world's film capital, they will not only be represented at the event but represented in force.

At the top of the British heap nominated for highest honours are the now familiar names and faces of Emma Thompson, Sir Anthony Hopkins and Daniel Day-Lewis. Then, sky-rocketing from a calmer world outside Hollywood comes Liam Neeson (Co Antrim, Northern Ireland, one of ours), the ethereal Pete Postlethwaite and the chilling Ralph Fiennes. The Merchant-Ivory production The Remains of the Day has stockpiled eight nominations, and the London-born Irishman Jim Sheridan is up for best director for his controversial film In the Name of the Father. A shoestring Welsh production, Hedd Wyn, is also a strong contender in the foreign language category.

All this, of course, doesn't even touch upon the army of British set and costume designers, cinematographers, editors and special effects technicians who are up for the big one tonight on the West Coast.

For an industry only a few years ago indicted for its cynical pandering to the masses, the intellectual texture of this year's contenders is nothing short of a renaissance for what must be defined as the most influential art form of all time - a global phenomenon of visual story- telling so compelling that it attracts its audience from every age group and social class, from first world to third world countries, from fundamentalist to decadent mentalities, from the ignorant to the intelligentsia.

But trust the British. They refuse to admit they are a force in this provocative and entertaining medium because, they will say, the world's only film industry is located 5,000 miles away and the only way to work in it is to travel back and forth from British television to American movies; or just go out there to live, where all the streets are neatly gridded, and three left turns in a row, that is, the correct left turns, will get you where you want to go.

So this is where the money comes in. Steven Frears loves to tell the story of a British cameraman who is working on a film with him in England and suddenly gets this telephone call from Hollywood. And the guy doesn't even take his eye off the lens; he just says, 'Tell them it's American rates.'

According to Frears, whose credits include My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick up Your Ears, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters and The Snapper, the concept of American rates encapsulates the complex, competitive and even mysterious relations between British film-makers and their American counterparts.

American rates are high; British rates a good deal lower. And the Americans control the industry because the Americans have the money. So film-makers work in England because they love the work, because they are compelled to make the films they are making; and they work in America, well, for the money. That's the logic, that's the complaint, and that's the problem, they will tell you privately, off the record.

But Frears, who next month goes into production here with Julia Roberts and John Malkovich in the Tri-Star production Mary Reilley, welcomes the opportunity to work with American film-makers.

'You've seen the British going to Hollywood,' says Frears, 'and you can see the expression on their faces, 'I can't believe I'm getting away with this'. You can see it on all of them. Life in Britain is still in the sort of post-war state. We all grew up with rationing and someone is saying, 'Come into this land of milk and honey, come into the Garden of Eden']'

The operative term in Frears' assessment of Hollywood, and anyone in his generation of British film- makers, is 'post-war'. It was long before the Second World War, however, that the industry was hijacked by the Americans. During the crucial years when the technology was first emerging, Britain was in the trenches of the First World War. Even as the film industry on this side of the Atlantic atrophied as a result of that war, the Americans were setting up in the sunny climes of California, where the weather guaranteed a good day's shoot. The then-secretary of commerce, Herbert Hoover, who had clear vision and amazing organisational abilities, realised that the export of films would create a demand for American products abroad, and he created incentives for the business community to underwrite the film industry.

After the war, British film-makers scrambled to catch up, and eventually their efforts led to what film historians refer to as the 'Golden Age of British Cinema'. The British documentary reached the level of an art form; melodrama, such as the classic of the genre, Brief Encounter, came into its own; and the Ealing comedies appeared. But all this came crashing down when the British government in the Thirties imposed a 36 per cent tax on gross takings on the industry. The government was mesmerised by the prospect of a tax windfall from this lucrative new industry (as it was again some 30 years later with the emerging commercial television sector). By the time the tax was ended the British film industry had shrunk to one-third its size.

Today, while the French protect their film industry to the extent of having threatened the entire Gatt agreement, the continuing indifference of the British government means that production companies that struggle to get big Hollywood names to work on this side of the Atlantic are forced into complex dealings with the Inland Revenue just to ensure that American film- makers aren't double taxed on their earnings.

In a country such as England, where the commercial imperatives are often less important to film- makers than the artistic statements, any attempt to make a film inevitably turns into a cottage industry. Raising money is a complex matter of going to European investors or persuading British television or British Screen Finance to back the project; or it can be a matter of all three. The wait to go into production can be long. The script for The Crying Game, for example, was written years ago.

And even when a film-maker gets the money and actually makes the film, there is still the problem of distribution. To a large degree, distribution of a film is limited by availability of appropriate cinemas rather than the success of the film. In the case of The Cement Garden, which won several awards and was widely reviewed in London, the producer, Ene Vanaveski, was told by her distributors that they were unable to keep the film open because other films had been previously booked around it.

'In a sense we were lucky, though,' she says, 'because the distributors owned their own cinema, so they were able to keep it open there long after it had closed elsewhere.'

In the case of English film-makers, a commitment that goes beyond profit and a high level of craftsmanship - often learnt from television - leads to a maverick talent outside the mainstream mentality of Hollywood. It seems lately to be a talent Hollywood cannot do without.

Who besides an English production team would have dared to translate a novel as fragile as Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day to the big screen?

It is marketed as a period piece, a story of thwarted love, but in fact the content is a subtle whisper of past collaboration in high places and betrayal of the lower by the upper classes.

Who else besides a London-born Irishman would consider creating an international anti-hero from a wrongly convicted, ragtag Irish boy with no particular agenda for his life except free love and rock 'n' roll? And where in Hollywood would you find the sensibility

to create a love story between a heterosexual IRA man and a transvestite?

'Hollywood loves talent,' one scriptwriter says wearily, and somehow it comes out sounding like a complaint. Of course Hollywood loves talent. One can't help wondering why England doesn't feel the same way.

The author's latest book, 'Shock] Horror] The tabloids in action', is published by Black Swan, pounds 7.99.

(Photographs omitted)