The BFI’s assumption of the UK Film Council’s responsibilities continues a decades-long saga of chopping and changing in the British film industry
This morning’s announcement by Ed Vaizey confirms the rumours that have been circulating from pretty much the moment that the UK Film Council was abolished: the British Film Institute will be picking up the reins of lottery-fund distribution to the film industry. What’s remarkable is that, after over two decades of chopping and changing, we are back where we were in the late 1980s: the BFI is the only game in town.
It’s especially extraordinary given the kind of rhetoric that accompanied the establishment of the UK Film Council in 2000. When John Woodward was appointed the UK Film Council’s chief executive in 2000, an interview he gave to the Guardian was perceived to be a not-especially-coded attack on the kind of – largely experimental – film the BFI’s production board had sponsored since the early 70s: “The Film Council will help to finance popular films that the British public will go and see in the multiplexes on Friday night. Films that entertain people and make them feel good … It’s pointless to go on handing out thousands of small amounts of money to small films that will struggle to find a distributor and be seen in cinemas … Nowadays, it no longer makes sense to marginalise public support by confining it to a small group of independent producers and directors, who will make films that no one will want or be able to see.”
And the UK Film Council’s first chairman, Alan Parker, was a well-known loather of the Peter Greenaway tendency: I can still remember him, when he was promoting Angela’s Ashes in 2003 on stage at the National Film Theatre, complaining about the adulatory reviews Greenaway got in the mid-80s.
The UK Film Council – in public at least – deliberately set its face against the unconventional, the arthouse, the “difficult”. Interestingly, the council has made enemies in the same way as the BFI production board did – until, of course, its activities were curtailed with the UK Film Council’s creation. The difference, of course, is that the UK Film Council has had access to millions, while the BFI only had thousands – originally given as a grace and favour fund direct from the Lord President of the Privy Council. Writing about the films of Bill Douglas, Mamoun Hassan, one of the BFI’s early, influential commissioners, gave us an interesting insight into how its oppositional stance was built into its foundation: “It represented the beginnings of an alternative cinema in Britain. Denis Forman, then chairman of the BFI, pointed out to the government that the BFI was doing what the National Film Finance Corporation, the quango responsible for film funding, was not interested in.”
The NFFC, a body set up to secure loans for film productions, was the funding establishment of its time, but as long ago as 1976, the Wilson government thought that setting up a single British Film Authority – the UK Film Council of its time – was the way forward. It never happened: the Conservatives in the 1980s weren’t interested.
Looking back, it’s bizarre how state intervention in film funding has been dominated by personal and political agendas. The UK Film Council, a creation of the post-lottery age, was motivated originally by a desire to overturn the dominance of the art film in British funding. The Wilsonian unitary film authority was anathema to Thatcherite laissez-faire; something that appears to be playing out again in the present day. When the lottery funding first materialised, in the mid-90s, it was directly administered, piecemeal, by the Arts Council, who were supposed to give money to projects not able to secure funding elsewhere; hence “lottery film” soon became shorthand for something pretty third rate, and quickly became a target for the likes of Alexander Walker at the Evening Standard. (It has to be said that film-makers, always able to talk a good game, ran rings around bureaucrats normally used to dealing with experimental theatre companies or brass bands.)
The government went to the opposite extreme: the “franchise” system, in which large blocks of cash were given to proven outfits, was supposed to ensure quality product, but that didn’t work either. Over the last decade, the UK Film Council was rather obviously the best organised, and most serious, attempt to make proper use of the lottery windfall. But now the swing is back the other way: an organisation with serious cultural and archival interest will now take over.
Interestingly, the UK Film Council’s record shows that a disbursement body can’t just follow a single line: it may have aimed for pure commerce, but also put money into films that the old BFI production board itself might have funded – My Summer of Love, Bullet Boy, Red Road, even a Peter Greeenaway film, Nightwatching. (Of course films like Sex Lives of the Potato Men – an outrageous financial and artistic blunder – balanced the account.) And over the decade of its existence, the council was forced to reorganise itself a number of times, to deal with anomalies and problems its development process created. Will the 2010s be an exact parallel of the 1980s, with the BFI desperately shoring up a film industry left to swing by the Conservatives?
The BFI, having been systematically stripped by the UK Film Council of its production role, will now have to build one practically from scratch – the fourth time in 15 years that the lottery largesse has forced a wholesale reworking of the state’s film funding process. We really are back where we started.