Britain fails its screen test

April 14, 2000

In a recent survey of top film schools, Britain failed to get a mention. But if, as critics say, the National Film and Television School has lost its cutting edge, how come recent graduate Lynne Ramsay has scooped two major awards? Anne Sebba reports.

A recent survey in Spanish newspaper El Pa!s listed the most important film schools in the world as those in Cuba, California, New York and Paris. No mention was made of Britain's National Film and Television School, although a decade ago it might well have topped the list.

An irony of the Spanish poll is the success of Cuba's film school, which employs primarily British tutors, many of whom also teach at the NFTS. So why is the 30-year-old British school no longer considered a cutting-edge institution by El Pa!s? Is the nurturer of such varied talents as documentary-maker Molly Dineen and animator Nick Park no longer producing directors of international renown?

Deputy director Roger Crittenden, who has taught at the NFTS since its inception, insists its standards remain high. "It's measurable by the number of students we have applying to us from European countries, all of which have film schools. We train in a number of areas others don't and," he adds, defensively, "the school has a better reputation in Europe than in some quarters at home."

Crittenden, who has also taught in Cuba, says that the Latin American establishment has two advantages. "It has its own site, which means that the students are there 24 hours a day and you can create a real community, and it takes only 25 students a year, whereas we take 50."

However, others believe the problems are more deep-seated. The National Film School (as it was originally known) was set up in 1971 in what remains little more than a series of Nissen huts just outside Beaconsfield, under the aegis of Labour's then arts minister, Jennie Lee. Funded by a government/ industry partnership, the intention was to train indigenous talent in order to maintain a viable British film industry in line with other major western countries. The school quickly gained a reputation for mildly anarchic, eccentric charm under its founding head, Colin Young. Some old hands in the industry lament the passing of a period when, they claim, artistic merit ranked above commercialism and individuality was allowed to flourish.

As director of the school for the past two years, American-born producer Stephen Bayly, a student under Young, has been responsible for introducing some radical changes. His dream agenda, he says, "is to better relate the school to the film and television industry and vice versa. We need their money and they need our talent. It is a symbiotic relationship. Hitherto, the school has not effectively reached out to the industry or looked upon the relationship with its funders as mutually enhancing. I hope to change that."

Last year, recognising that 86 per cent of its graduates go on to work in television, a stand-alone television specialisation was introduced, with shorter modules on sport, news, sitcoms, soaps and drama. This, says Bayly, was in response to the proclaimed needs of the industry. Bayly has also established advisory groups from the industry for various areas, including animation, cinematography, editing, fiction, screen-writing, sound and music. "They keep an eye on the curriculum and talk about what they need. But they don't meddle in specific developments," he insists.

"The school has undergone immense change in the past couple of years. There is an intensity now that wasn't there before," Crittenden says. Compacting the main course from three to two years was the principal change necessitated by the introduction of tuition fees three years ago (Pounds 3,600 a year for British and European Union students, Pounds 9,000 for those outside the EU).

For many students, mostly in their 20s, no longer able to rely on parental income and often with other commitments, the courses suddenly became prohibitively expensive. "Fees have changed the culture," admits Crittenden, "and there could be a whole catchment group we are now failing to find." He quotes one film director, who, asked recently where the interesting new film-makers were coming from, replied: "Not from any of the film schools but from minorities - women, blacks and gays - because it's about having something to say."

Some critics argue that the recent changes are at the expense of flexible learning, where the disciplines overlap and learning can take unexpected, but often highly instructive, turns. "Inspiration is the word one is looking for," sighs Mamoun Hassan, producer, director, teacher and former head of the British Film Institute Production Board. "One can only speculate on what makes a good film school because you can teach all the craft in the world and the work is still dead. But one thing I had when I was learning - not at a film school - was good conversation, especially with Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reissz. This no longer exists (at the NFTS) because there is too much curriculum."

Kim Hopkins, a leading documentarist who teaches at the NFTS, sees advantages and disadvantages to the new culture at Beaconsfield. "The school now has an eye on the commercial world of television, which it didn't have before. It used to be rather an exclusive place of excellence. More commissioning editors are now visiting the school looking for product, and they are steering stuff to conform to their own strand - even the length has to be specific. Television doesn't take risks, there are fewer production values and less training: the bright side is that the graduates do get work at the end."

Director Stephen Frears - My Beautiful Launderette, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters - who teaches at the school when he has time, believes that if there is a change of culture "it's fuelled by the zeitgeist. Lots of students worry about getting jobs, and they are driven by anxiety about unemployment. It's a different situation from the 1970s. But that doesn't mean you don't maintain other values. I'd say, on balance, it's hard to turn a place such as the NFTS into a factory because the students' individuality would frustrate any attempt at that."

Television bosses certainly appear to welcome Bayly's flair and sparky leadership. David Lloyd, head of news, current affairs and business at Channel 4, believes the old NFS had a rather purist approach.

"Typical of the mentality was a sort of moral superiority that mystified film-making and turned it into an art. For too long the British film industry was academically based and did not know how to make films that spoke to British audiences," Lloyd adds.

But there are signs of change. Witness the surprise success of the feature film Ratcatcher, winner of the prestigious Cannes Jury Prize and the Bafta for best British newcomer. Written and directed by 29-year-old Lynne Ramsay, a recent NFTS graduate, Ratcatcher focuses on the British working-class underbelly, in this case deprived families living in a tenement block in Glasgow. The movie is set against the backdrop of the 1970s' dustmen's strike, which Ramsay uses as a metaphor for the disintegrating lives of the kids.

Bayly believes social realism is what NFTS graduates are good at. When asked what he thinks the school's weaknesses are, he does not hesitate:

"The buildings and the location," he says.


Sarah Gavron, 29, read English at York University, thencompleted an 18-month MA at Edinburgh College of Art. "I was never a film buff before, I was more interested in drama, but at art college I got friendly with a group of undergraduates who taught me that there was this whole other world. So I made a short and it was shown at the Edinburgh Festival. After that, I knew what I wanted to do."

Gavron worked as an assistant producer for the BBC and from there applied to the NFTS. She is well aware that without independent means she could not have afforded the three years. "Seventeen of us did the two-week induction workshop, from which five were chosen. I wanted to work in Britain and this is the best place I could have come to. It offers amazing resources and has brilliant tutoring. Stephen Frears often sat in the cutting room while I was making a second-year film. That sort of constructive criticism really puts you through your paces."

Gavron directed a 28-minute short, Losing Touch, which has just been shown at the National Film Theatre.

Douglas M. Ray, 25, read politics at Bristol. After six months work experience with Radio 4 in Bristol as a researcher, he came to the NFTS on the production course. "I'd been making videos since I was a child and at university did a lot of directing, but I'd always wanted to make films. I just had to get another degree as a back-up to please my parents."

Ray's tuition fees this coming year and in his final year are paid by Columbia TriStar. "If I didn't have that I wouldn't have been able to come here and would have had to join a film company as a runner or something and work my way up," he says.

Last summer, Ray was selected to go on a BSkyB scholarship, which took him around the world seeing how various broadcast systems operate.

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