Save our film heritage from the political vandals
Sunday July 8, 2007 Observer
The British Film Institute has been part of my life almost as long as I can remember. In Sixties London it was the only place to learn the history of the cinema, to see retrospectives of Howard Hawks or Roberto Rossellini. In the Eighties I was incredibly lucky to work with Derek Jarman, Terence Davies and Sally Potter as head of the BFI Production Board. It has thus been extremely painful to see the BFI being destroyed over the last 10 years by government policy. Ever since New Labour was elected in 1997 it has shown no sign of valuing this very British organisation.
When I left the BFI in 1998, it was regarded worldwide as the outstanding example of an educational and cultural film institution. It had experimental film and television production arms, a postgraduate programme and a cutting edge publications division. It hired the greatest clustering of film expertise in the world ranging from its curators to its academics. These had at their disposal the best film library and film archive in the world. They also had the National Film Theatre.Today there is a renamed cinema complex but every other activity has been abolished or is under threat while talent has haemorrhaged away. In international circles the BFI is now mentioned not as an enviable model but as an awful example of political vandalism. Variety magazine talks of the ‘tipping point’ at which the institute will cease to exist. In recent weeks the institute has announced that it can no longer support its publication division; its great library, the recipient of hundreds of valuable donations, from Derek Jarman to Richard Attenborough, is being offered to any university that will house it; and most recently the film archive itself has been declared in grave danger through lack of resources. This is the archive which houses not only the films of Hitchcock and Lean but also the biggest collection of silent film in the world and documentaries which record British life in every decade of the 20th century.
On the morning of Brown’s reshuffle and in his last interview as films minister Shaun Woodward recognised that the crisis in the archive was so acute that extra money must be found, but he refused to accept that these problems were the result of the decisions made by Culture Secretary Chris Smith in 1998 and 1999 when he stripped the institute of its innovative production and postgraduate activities and subordinated it to a new body, the United Kingdom Film Council. Smith wanted a ‘sustainable film industry’, but this is a fantasy that has failed in every decade, from Alexander Korda in the Thirties to David Puttnam and Goldcrest in the Eighties.
Britain cannot sustain an autonomous film industry. On the one hand it confronts Hollywood, which uses both our language and our stars and, on the other, it inhabits a culture in which television and theatre hold pride of place. Any British film policy has to link our film and television industries together. If we look at the great successes of the past decade or so – both the old guard of Frears, Loach and Leigh, and the new talent of Danny Boyle (Trainspotting), Paul Greengrass (United 93) and Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) – what is noticeable is their hybrid formation in film and television, a mixed economy crucial to Britain.
Shaun Woodward defended New Labour policies, citing the quadrupling of production in 20 years from 30 to 120 films annually. But this is a typically misleading Film Council statistic, for it fails to distinguish between films that have found real audiences and ones that are tax-avoidance schemes. According toScreen Finance, investment in the film industry collapsed by 57 per cent in the first three months of this year. The day the Treasury brought a halt to the iniquitous tax breaks which allowed City boys to trouser more of their bonuses by investing in films, the British film industry vanished in a puff of dodgy accounting and unseen films. Films only exist when they are distributed properly. As art they need context and educational support; publications; proper cataloguing and archiving – all roles for which the BFI was invented in the 1930s. The main problem is that Blair’s Labour policy for the arts knew only two arguments – an economic one for inward investment and a social one of inclusion.
Everybody I have talked to in the past week has warmly welcomed the appointment of James Purnell as the new Culture Secretary. Many have looked forward to him appointing a new chairman of the BFI when Anthony Minghella steps down at the end of the year. But the BFI is now the only Royal Charter institution not directly responsible to a minister. The new chairman of the BFI will be nominated by the Film Council. But it is the Film Council who have reduced the BFI’s budget to less than it was a decade ago, and have held the institute on a standstill budget for the last four years and provoked the present crisis.By my calculations, if you add the lottery, tax breaks and direct government spending together, Blair’s government outspent any previous government on film by a factor of at least 10. I know nobody within the film industry who thinks it got value for money and nobody outside who has noticed.
The present crisis in the BFI is merely a symptom of a much wider failure. Purnell’s first task for film is to commission an external report and then revisit the Film Council’s monopoly position. Make no mistake; this is not another cash-strapped organisation crying wolf. The events of the last weeks have made clear that two of our most valuable national collections, the library and the archive, are on the verge of ceasing to be national resources. If Purnell cannot save the BFI then it will rapidly become clear that the only safe home for these invaluable sources of popular memory is the British Library.