David Lister: The Week in Arts

Desperate for the merest hint of Britishness
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The Independent Online

I have no wish to be unpatriotic, still less to knock this week's good news story in the arts, but I couldn't quite keep a straight face reading about the great renaissance of British film.

It was, of course, cheering to read that the market share for British productions at the UK box office has expanded, and that British films now account for 27 per cent of box office takings this year against 19 per cent for 2006. The latest Harry Potter was the biggest piece of good news, grossing £49.2m. And, the UK Film Council crowed, UK director Paul Greengrass's The Bourne Ultimatum also grossed more than £22m.

Well, up to a point. The Harry Potter films are indeed shot and produced in Britain with a British cast, based on the work of a British author. But they come out of Warner Bros, which isn't exactly British. A case can be made for its Britishness, though. But making a case for the quintessential Britishness of The Bourne Ultimatum is stretching it a bit. OK, this Hollywood movie with all-American boy Matt Damon in the lead role had a British director. But is the UK Film Council really saying that that makes it a British film?

If so, then allow me to praise other British film classics, films such as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and The Birds, admittedly made in Hollywood with American casts, but with a good old Londoner behind the camera.

The UK Film Council tells me that Harry Potter is largely financed by Warner Bros, but does have some British money; The Bourne Ultimatum was indeed largely financed by Universal in America, but was party shot here; Miss Potter (starring the not quite English Renée Zellwegger as Beatrix Potter) did have some American money too, but was shot here and is a British story.

Perhaps we should go further and rewrite the whole history of cinema. Surely, Gone with the Wind must now be classed as a British film as it starred our own very lovely Vivien Leigh; William Wyler's Wuthering Heights had both a British actor in Laurence Olivier and, to use the UK Film Council's phrase, was "a British story"; Thelma and Louise cannot deny the British origins of its director Ridley Scott. In fact, give me a few minutes and I'll make a case for a large percentage of all the films ever made being British.

The UK Film Council does actually have two definitions of what is a British film (and under which film-makers can apply for funding and tax relief). The 1985 Films Act states that the requirements for a British film relate to three aspects of the film: the nationality of the maker; the percentage of the production cost spent in the United Kingdom; and the percentage of labour costs representing payment to citizens of all persons ordinarily resident in the Commonwealth or the European Economic Area or EEA.

This year a new "cultural test" was introduced to expand that definition. The cultural test looks at the rather cryptic-sounding criteria of cultural content, cultural contribution, cultural hubs and cultural practitioners. A film receives points for such things as director or cast being British, location being British, story or music being British.

But, for most of us, a British film must surely be either overwhelmingly financed here, or be shot here with the entire artistic team home grown. Either definition rules out The Bourne Ultimatum, and at least one of the Harry Potter films. The UK Film Council's generous definition of Britishness makes our film industry look very rosy. Any other definition makes it look in deep trouble. So maybe we shouldn't go there.

Millais as an old lech

I thoroughly enjoyed the current exhibition at Tate Britain of the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais, right, but was disconcerted to read the Days Like These column in this paper, which publishes diary entries from famous figures for the day in question.

The entry for Thursday 15 November was from the diary of Beatrix Potterin 1885. She wrote how Millais came to the house to visit her father. She added: "He addressed some embarrassing personal remarks to me, but compliments from him would take longer to turn my head than from any other source. If he sees a tolerably comely girl, he cannot keep his tongue still, and I am certain that when I was a child he used to tease me to see me blush."

I suppose in a more modern vernacular that equates to: "That old lech Millais came round. He tries to chat up anything in a skirt." John Everett Millais being lewd with Beatrix Potter: it's an image I'm desperately trying to get out of my head, but can't.

* As has been widely reported, Amy Winehouse gave a truly terrible concert in Birmingham on Wednesday, slurring her words, failing to finish her final song, and talking about her jailed husband. Angry members of the audience have asked for their money back. They are wrong to do so, for I predict that in time this gig will become a treasured memory for them.

Gigs come and go, but the ones we really remember are those where something utterly extraordinary happens. And it doesn't always have to be something extraordinarily good. This was undoubtedly a footnote in music history, and in years to come will be one to tell the grandchildren about. How long before that ubiquitous word "legendary" is applied to it – and before people who were nowhere near Birmingham that night convince themselves that they were there?