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Lost in adaptation: The film tie-in edition of James Hawes's novel "Rancid Aluminium"

Chris Smith is one of the nicest politicians I have met. The former member for Islington South was cultured, witty and kind. He was also brave in his way. Smith was the first MP to come out as gay, although admittedly that was easier to do in Islington South than Newcastle upon Tyne East.

When Tony Blair came to power in 1997, Smith was his natural choice as Culture Secretary. Smith’s first priority on taking office was to save the British film industry.

“Save the film industry!” Ah, how that cry once echoed. In the 1960s, the British “new wave” produced critically and commercially successful films. But the new wave turned out to be the last wave. Chariots of Fire in 1981 convinced the credulous that a British renaissance was beginning. It never came. James Bond and the odd independent production aside, the “industry” was reduced to being an offshore centre for Hollywood.

Those whom the vulgar call “Islington luvvies” convinced Smith to revive one of the nation’s greatest cultural assets. They begged him to fight Hollywood imperialism and defend dear old art itself. New Labour heard their call and gave investors in films the most extraordinarily lavish tax breaks.Smith was triumphant. He wanted to get “better British films into better British cinemas”, he declared, “with a specific target of doubling the market share”.

In Bertrand’s Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, the one Christian the old atheist had any time for was St Francis of Assisi. “Unlike most saints, he was more interested in the happiness of others than in his own salvation,” wrote Russell. He never showed any feeling of superiority to the humble and wicked. He loved the world and the world loved him.

As soon as he died, the Franciscans degenerated into corruption. “If Satan existed,” Russell concluded, “the future of the order founded by St Francis would afford him the most exquisite gratification.”

Satan might take an equal delight in the fate of Labour’s effort to revive the film industry. Instead of promoting culture, it unleashed one of the most greedily devoured tax scams in modern British history. Instead of producing films that might compete with Hollywood, it produced films that were rarely seen and, quite probably, never meant to be seen. Movies like Sex Lives of the Potato Men, Mad Cows and Love, Honour and Obey took advantage of tax breaks that, at their most extreme, allowed people to claim £1.40 in tax relief for every £1 they “invested”.

The comic novelist James Hawes described the process by which Soho filmmakers turned his fine novel Rancid Aluminium into a film in 2000. The result was not entirely happy. The Guardian said that by “universal consent, it was the worst film ever made in the UK. People who have seen it belong to an exclusive club. They cannot speak about the film — they simply shudder.”

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