I became aware of the difficulty in transferring cultures across national borders when last autumn, under some pressure from the children, we visited Euro Disney. To make it more agreeable, we decided to see it with long-standing French friends, the Deschamps. They, under similar pressure, felt more able to confront the 'cultural Chernobyl' if they saw it with some Anglo-Saxons.
And so it proved. We were greeted, very late at night, at our cabin at 'Le Camp Davy Crockett', with Bordeaux and Brie. The next day, M Deschamps and I were able to talk about trends in interest rates and the future of the ERM as we joined the interminable queues for the rides (he runs a building society in Lille) and by six o'clock everyone was desperate to get back into France. Nearby there was a tiny village called Villeneuve- le-something and, since any place called Villeneuve is always 650 years old, it was delightful. Dinner cost less than a hamburger at Euro Disney. Why pay for fake antiquity when the real thing is available for half the price?
The central point is that both France and the US have powerful domestic cultures which, for all their attractions, are not easily exportable to each other. The US can export its culture to most places other than France, but France finds it difficult to export its culture across the language barrier to the Anglo-Saxon world. Anyone who watched Luc Besson's thriller Nikita, shown on Channel 4 on Saturday, will have seen an example of this. Like several other foreign films, it has been remade by Hollywood and has just opened over here as The Assassin, in English of course, and with Briget Fonda instead of Anne Parillaud. Hollywood can sell its films to the world simply by dubbing them into the local language: most years, three or four of the top five films in Japan are American. Foreign films can achieve cult status in the US. But if any non-English language film is to make it in the mass market, it must be remade into an American product.
If this seems unfair, it is a phenomenon that works to Britain's advantage, for we sit between North America and Europe, and as a result are an astonishingly successful exporter of culture. As with most really interesting economic issues there are no comparative international figures, but there is some British research that shows how successful we are.
Two years ago the Economists Advisory Group reported on foreign earnings from the arts, including everything from foreign sales of records and CDs, to receipts from tours by the RSC, to theatre tickets bought by visitors to London. The total came to just over pounds 6bn in 1988/9, up from pounds 4bn in 1984/5. It is quite plausible that exports are running at pounds 8- pounds 9bn now, and it is equally plausible that these exports are higher, per head of population, than those of any other country in the world. In absolute terms we are probably second only to the US.
This is important for two reasons. While the total foreign earnings are quite small in relation to overall trade - our merchandise exports are worth well over pounds 100bn - these cultural earnings are growing very fast. More important still, culture is something that North America and Europe possess which cannot be made more cheaply in Taiwan.
In the past few weeks a wave of self-questioning has swept Europe: how can we justify our standard of living and afford our welfare services when our goods can be undercut by East Asia? Not only are workers there less well paid, they also are more motivated and, most worrying of all, becoming at least as well-educated as ourselves.
The best hope we have - aside from improving our educational achievement - lies in the uniqueness of our culture. This goes for Britain and America, but also for the continental European countries. We have everything from Shakespeare at the RSC to ragga in Brixton; in France, the culture is perhaps expressed as much in fashion as in the performing arts. But it is in culture, widely defined, that the profit lies. The manufacturing cost of a CD is perhaps 5 per cent of its selling price, the added value coming from the performer and the marketing and selling of the total package. The manufacturing cost of perfume is equally tiny: promotion alone can easily account for one-
third of the selling price.
But for Britain and America the performing arts dominate. This week sees the launch in Britain of two important cultural products: Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical, Sunset Boulevard, and the UK premiere of Jurassic Park. One would be hard put to name a single cultural product developed anywhere in East Asia in the past year, maybe in the past five years, which could earn anything like either of these. Name a successful Japanese musical; or a block-busting film from Taiwan.
But musicals and films are direct exports where quality can be controlled from home base. Exporting theme parks relies on foreign production. If the Nissans or Toyotas made in Britain cost more and performed worse than the ones made in Japan, we would not buy them. Tokyo Disneyland is objectively as good as the Anaheim version and is a blessed counterpoint to Japan's powerful culture - even the Japanese sometimes find their culture a bit much. Euro Disney is objectively not as good as the US version and sits badly within French culture.
The real lesson of Euro Disney is not that the Americans and French between them have made a mess. It is just how difficult it is to build international trade in cultural activities. For all the difficulty, though, Britain is clearly very good at it. The language helps, but it is not just that. The unique thing that enables us to pay our way in the world is the inventiveness of our people. The explosion of cultural activity, at all levels of our diverse society and in all parts of the country, is a wonderful economic asset. It also makes Britain an interesting place in which to live.Reuse content