Books

The Birth, Life and Death of the UK Film Council

Colin Firth as King George VI in The King's Speech (2010)

The Rise and Fall of the UK Film Council provides an informative academic account of the recent birth, life and death of the UK's film funding body.


The Rise and Fall of the UK Film Council

Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Length: 213 pages
Author: Gillian Doyle, Philip Schlesinger, Raymond Boyle and Lisa W. Kelly
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2015-08
Amazon

In UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s much hyped and unevenly executed bonfire of the quangos, the UK Film Council (UKFC) was one of the first organisations to find flames lit beneath it by the blue side of the Coalition Government. Howls of outrage came from many prominent figures, all falling on predictably deaf ears as the funding body suffered summary court martial and a swift firing squad, so swift there was barely time to work out what to do with the remains. Half a decade on from its demise, a highly readable academic study has arrived to assess the birth, life and death of the UKFC.

The narrative is all there in the title. Gillian Doyle, Philip Schlesinger, Raymond Boyle and Lisa W. Kelly, bringing together a wide range of interviews with the key players, plumped for The Rise and Fall of the UK Film Council. Coming in briskly at just over 200 pages, the book reads like it sort of is: a collection of articles on the different stages of the UKFC. Thankfully, they flow together well, marching briskly through the history of film policy in the UK before slowing down to examine the reasons for the UKFC’s creation in 2000, destruction in 2011, and success in-between.

It’s a logical approach handled with crisp thoroughness. Enough conflicting views on the funding body have been gathered to suggest this is no hatchet job in any direction. Figures ranging from former UKFC boss John Woodward to established UK film producers all contribute on the record. Others add their feedback anonymously. From this muddle of voices, a consensus begins to emerge as the chapters roll by. The UKFC arrived to spearhead a self-sustaining film industry, like the French but not following the same approach. Inward investment became the key as the UK set itself up to draw in foreign (though mostly American) projects and money.

There were teething problems as you’d expect for an organisation that arrived at the turn of the millennium and had only a decade to work before the curtain closed. Money was directed towards bigger projects and the creation of a US-style studio system that could never have succeeded. Hollywood and its impressive international dominance is itself something of an anachronism in the age of globalisation.

Instead of sticking with failing methods, the course was adjusted. Lessons were learned and funds shifted to supporting early development, backing smaller productions and promoting Britishness in its various guises. There were notable successes along the way. The King’s Speech, Gosford Park, Man on Wire and Touching the Void all receive a mention, as does the occasional failure: Sex Lives of the Potato Men anyone?

The scope throughout is narrow, cutting out comparisons to other cultural sectors, and anything that strays too far from the specific remit of the UKFC. It makes it hard to see the bigger picture, but ensures focus is maintained from one chapter to the next. It’s one of several traits that mark this out as an academic text. Juicy but ultimately irrelevant gossip is not to be found, nor are open displays of bias. The writing for the most part remains dry and to the point. It actually falls down when it strays from this, occasionally throwing in unnecessarily emphatic language such as references to fateful decisions and showdowns.

Advancing through the UKFC’s brief history, certain themes become apparent, teased out with repeated mentions. It seems the UKFC did not always get on with British producers, disagreements arising over cuts to tax credits, the distribution of funding, and the funding body’s aggressive, and by all accounts effective efforts to recoup investment from films that strike it big. The high salaries paid to UKFC staff frequently confused efforts to gets to grips with the oncoming digital revolution, and the awkward divide between the UKFC and its cultural counterpart, the British Film Institute (BFI) all feature heavily.

It’s this split with the BFI, the cultural protector of film and inheritor of the UKFC’s diminished funding responsibilities on its demise, which marks the central plank at the heart of the tale. Both before, during and after the UKFC, central government struggled to decide whether film policy exists to create cultural product or support economic success. The two are clearly connected, but the decision as to which approach to take seems to be remarkably binary. It’s one the book recounts on numerous occasions. It’s why money is first pumped into the likes of Gosford Park, directed by already acclaimed US filmmaker Robert Altman and later used for more experimental means. It’s an argument that still has no clear winner.

The demise makes for the most pointed section, helped by the fact that it's so fresh in the minds of interviewees. Three possible reasons are floated for the decision to axe the UKFC, and the speed with which it is taken: the personal ambition of Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt out to prove his political credentials, revenge for the Labour Party leanings of the organisation both in its origins and the sympathies of key staff, and negative lobbying by rivals unhappy with the way the UKFC conducted business. The truth is likely a combination of all three.

Founded in a fog of well-meaning intentions, and torn down when key political figures were racing to establish budget slashing reputations, the UKFC managed a decent number of successes in its time. It’s too soon to tell how if the BFI will assume the mantel. Two things are apparent in the book: film still holds a niche in the cultural world and film policy remains a constantly shifting mess. The future for the former is hard to know. Sadly for the latter, it’s all too predictable.

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