Lack of Money? No, it’s the Culture, stupid.

As the argument about Jeremy Hunt’s plan to abolish the Film Council continues, with actors and industry types weighing in everyday, perhaps the best and most clear-sighted contribution comes today from Julian Fellowes. Fellowes is the Oscar-winning writer of Gosford Park, and subsequent writer and director of The Young Victoria. Both of these films, he points out, have been used by outraged critics of Hunt’s plan as evidence of the vital need for the Council for the future of this country’s film industry.

Fellowes does not go along along with this. In the Telegraph, he writes:

It is true that the council was crucial in providing the initial seed money for Gosford, but this was the result of a personal and very brave decision by Robert Jones, then head of the council’s UK Premiere Fund, for which he was roundly criticised at the time, both in the press and, more to the point, by others serving on the council, because the project was “commercial” and therefore, according to the philosophy prevailing, “could find funding elsewhere”.

In fact, the film would almost certainly have foundered without Mr Jones’s intervention, as the only real investment it attracted in Britain was from Capitol Films, run by Jane Barclay and Sharon Harel. Apart from Jones, the male British film establishment wanted nothing to do with it.

The case of Young Victoria was simpler. Having made many assurances while the production company was choosing whether or not to film here, the council delivered on none of them. I do not suggest there was any bad-heartedness in this, merely an instinctive, perhaps even subconscious, resistance to the idea that such a movie merited its attention…The problem is that, all too often, the thinking behind the council’s decisions reflects the complaint against Jones: money should not go to any film that “could find funding elsewhere”…

The result of this anti-commercial mindset of the film élite – which also infected the distribution of lottery money – has been a slew of films that failed to achieve box-office results, or even, in many cases, a release. Films, in fact, whose audience could comfortably be accommodated in the bar of the Soho House. I know the council has had its successes – The Constant Gardener, In the Loop, This is England among them. But set against the number of films in which it has invested public funds, it is a short list.

Fellowes is spot on here — but I would go further. The travails of the UK film industry (as with so many of our problems) are always described in terms of lack of money. Proper support would open the dam which currently holds back the talent that would otherwise be gushing through. But I am not convinced by this endless boosterism. Having reviewed movies in one form or another for nearly twenty years, I have sat through more than my fair share of simply terrible British films, which in their crassness, amateurism and ineptitude leave one depressed and (like audiences at local multiplexes) heading straight for the nearest Hollywood blockbuster.

In other words I am not so sure that there are such great reserves of talent there, waiting to be tapped. If you think this is too harsh, just watch Sex Lives of the Potato Men. It is not so much about the money as the culture, and ours right now is downwardly aspirational, often nihilistic and polarised between the morbidly miserablist and the sexed-up nostalgic. No amount of financial support will alter this.       

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