Now showing (and failing) at a cinema near you

September 21, 2007

Why is British film so disappointing at the moment? Simon Popple blames a lack of leadership and vision

There is a horrible sense of deja vu every time I approach the next "great" British film - inevitably, Colin Welland's hollow cry of "the British are coming" rings in my ears as I enter the cinema. As the latest UK Film Council funded movie, Mrs Ratcliffe's Revolution , nears release, one can only hope that it is more imaginative and original than most of its predecessors.

Sadly, given the long and largely misdirected history of state intervention in film, my expectations are not high.

Ever since the first commercial movies were produced in Britain in the 1890s, the status of the industry has become a regular topic for discussion among academics, reviewers, politicians and exasperated audiences. A long series of detractors has belittled any notion of a defined national cinema, including Pauline Kael, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. Stephen Frears' ballsy riposte (bollocks in plain Anglo-Saxon) to the Gallic arrogance of Truffaut and his cineaste colleagues was certainly deserved and pricked at the assertion that Britain was unable to produce anything competitive or aesthetically valuable.

Over the course of the past century, we have produced some remarkable films that are a match for cinema anywhere and a series of visionary exponents of the medium who have often fled to richer pastures. We have also produced some of the most talented and sought-after production staff in the world. What we have consistently failed to do is secure any sense of continuity, unable to buy into the factory system of Hollywood or (thankfully) the worst excesses of the European art film. Instead, we have produced a regular stream of distinctive, quirky and socially relevant films that, sadly, appear less frequently than they used to.

The various attempts at state intervention through protectionist legislation or tax incentives have had little success. Much of the state-supported product of the Nineties and beyond increasingly resembles the quickie quota fodder of the Thirties, often going straight to DVD.

We still have some remarkable directors and a rising tide of promising new talent - but we seem to have settled for safe, small-scale stories or literary adaptations that relentlessly trade on past glories and flimsy national stereotypes.

As a film historian, the first thing I look for in any new book on British cinema is how the author seeks to tell the story of our cinema; whether they fall into the trap of trying to construct a narrative that presents a purely linear history and fill in all those embarrassing gaps in the record with missing geniuses or forgotten classic films. Other approaches, increasingly questioning the notion of a national cinema, are nearer the mark.

Perhaps this traditional reliance on that flimsy concept is at the bottom of much current dissatisfaction and we would do better to think about film- making in a much more fluid sense, taking advantage of the technological possibilities of digital cinema and online distribution. We are all potential film-makers now. In another 100 years, cinema will be something very different - we may not even recognise the term - and we will automatically think internationally and outside the boundaries of defined national cultures. But in the meantime, we do not need any more gangsters, endearing Northern types or formulaic whimsy.

So what is the prognosis? We cannot rely on buying our way out of the creative doldrums with taxpayers' money, nor can we allow the market to have a free rein. We are in a peculiar and difficult place at present.

Our film industry is becalmed, and the leadership and direction required from our cultural institutions is unfocused and unco-ordinated. The state of the British Film Institute is symptomatic of a broader malaise in the arts, and perhaps we should start to think outside the monolithic culture of a national cinema.

There are signs of hope with the intervention of small initiatives here and there such as Microwave or CobraVision that seek to promote new talent and encourage small independent producers. These are piecemeal and often a source of cheap content for advertising purposes but at least offer a model that our institutions and politicians could support more vehemently and genuinely help to engender a truly "national" film culture. If we do not act soon, future generations of historians will have to fill in a very large gap indeed.

Simon Popple is a senior lecturer in cinema and director of the Louis Le Prince Centre for Films, Photography and Television at the Institute of Communication Studies, Leeds University. Mrs Ratcliffe's Revolution opens in northern England next week.

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