Gilbey on Film: can Russell Brand save British cinema?

The UK Film Council wasn't perfect, but we need a high-profile campaign to support home-grown movies

What a rum time for British cinema. Recently it was announced that the latest James Bond film, which was to have been directed by Sam Mendes, has been moved to the back burner because of financial problems at MGM.

Daniel Craig, appearing at San Diego's Comic-Con on Saturday to promote Cowboys & Aliens in which he stars opposite Harrison Ford, would not delve into the matter when a question about the project's status was put to him by a member of the audience. "All I can say is that I want to get going on it as soon as possible," he replied.

Then it was announced yesterday that the UK Film Council was for the chop. The UKFC coughed up some of the money for Roger Michell's adaptation of Ian McEwan's Enduring Love, in which Craig appeared. I wonder what the actor has to say about the decision to scrap a funding body on which so much of the country's film industry depends. It would be good for him and other actors to speak out about it.

So far, it has mostly been directors and producers voicing their objections. This could all go much wider if an A-lister were involved, someone like Craig who could get the story into the tabloids as well as the broadsheets, turning it into some kind of call to arms. Amazing the miracles that can be worked by a little magic dust from a celebrity.

Russell Brand must be busy preparing for his upcoming remake of Arthur, but imagine the attention he could bring to the story simply by mentioning it, let alone flying out to meet the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt ,and pointing out to him that without the UKFC's help, Brand's own film career might have stalled. (Perhaps it's best if Brand didn't mention that the film in question was St Trinian's. Leave Hunt to believe it was Get Him to the Greek or something.)

Some of the most original and challenging films of the past decade were given a helping hand, financially speaking, by the UKFC: Better Things, Bright Star, The Constant Gardener, Crack Willow, Fish Tank, Gosford Park, London to Brighton, Red Road. (They also put some money into Mike Leigh's forthcoming Another Year.) But as this magazine's Daniel Trilling has rightly pointed out, it would be unhelpful to look upon the UKFC as tireless promoters of experimental cinema when so many of the projects they funded or co-funded were evidently spawned or dogged by commercial second-guessing.

And Alex Cox made some trenchant observations about the fraudulence of this idea of Britishness which comes out in times like these. He called the UKFC's axeing "very good news for anyone involved in independent film. The Film Council became a means by which lottery money was transferred to the Hollywood studios. It pursued this phoney idea that James Bond and Harry Potter were British films. But, of course, those films were all American - and their profits were repatriated to the studios in Los Angeles."

If I were a politician, I might use that dreaded phrase I despise so much and say that we need to open a dialogue. The real brutality here is not that the UKFC is being axed -- perhaps the sums will be shown to make sense; who knows? It's that the death sentence has been passed with no apparent chance of a stay of execution.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He blogs for Cultural Capital every Tuesday

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The Wood Wide Web: the world of trees underneath the surface

Mycorrhizal networks, better known as the Wood Wide Web, have allowed scientists to understand the social networks formed by trees underground.

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden, an extensive rumination on his two years, two months and two days spent in a cabin in the woodlands near Walden Pond. It was situated on a plot of land owned by his friend, mentor and noted transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thoreau’s escape from the city was a self-imposed experiment - one which sought to find peace and harmony through a minimalistic, simple way of living amongst nature. Voicing his reasons for embarking on the rural getaway, Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”

Walden cemented Thoreau’s reputation as a key figure in naturalism; his reflections have since been studied, his practices meticulously replicated. But in the knowledge that Thoreau’s excursion into the woods was a means to better understand how to integrate into society, curious minds are left to wonder what essays and aphorisms Thoreau would have produced had he known what the botanists of today know of nature’s very own societal networks.

As scientists have now discovered, what lies beneath the ground Thoreau walked upon, and indeed beneath the ground anyone walks upon when near trees, is perhaps the most storied history and study of collaborative society in something which is now known as the mycorrhizal network or the “Wood Wide Web”.

Coined by the journal Nature, the term Wood Wide Web has come to describe the complex mass of interactions between trees and their microbial counterparts underneath the soil. Spend enough time among trees and you may get a sense that they have been around for centuries, standing tall and sturdy, self-sufficient and independent. But anchoring trees and forestry everywhere, and therefore enjoining them into an almost singular superoganism, is a very intimate relationship between their roots and microbes called mycorrhizal fungi.

Understanding the relationship between the roots of trees and mycorrhizal fungi has completely shifted the way we think about the world underneath them. Once thought to be harmful, mycorrhizal fungi are now known to have a bond of mutualism with the roots – a symbiotic connection from which both parties benefit.

Despite the discovery being a recent one, the link between the two goes as far back as 450 million years. A pinch of soil can hold up to seven miles worth of coiled, tubular, thread-like fungi. The fungi release tubes called hyphae which infiltrate the soil and roots in a non-invasive way, creating a tie between tree and fungus at a cellular level. It is this bond which is called mycorrhiza. As a result, plants 20m away from each other can be connected in the same way as plants connected 200 metres away; a hyphal network forms which brings the organisms into connection.

At the heart of the mutualistic relationship is an exchange; the fungi have minerals which the tree needs, and the trees have carbon (which is essentially food) which the fungi need. The trees receive nitrogen for things such as lignin – a component which keep the trees upright, and various other minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, copper and more. In return, fungi get the sugars they need from the trees’ ongoing photosynthesis to energise their activities and build their bodies. The connection runs so deep that 20-80% of a tree’s sugar can be transferred to the fungi, while the transfer of nitrogen to trees is such that without the swap, trees would be toy-sized.

It’s a bond that has resulted in some remarkable phenomena. Suzanne Simard, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia, has researched into these back and forth exchanges and has found that rather than competing against one another as often assumed, there is a sort of teamwork between the trees facilitated by the mycorrhizal fungi.

In one particular example, Simard looked at a Douglas fir tree planted next to a birch tree. Upon taking the birch tree out, there was a completely unexpected result: the fir tree – instead of prospering from the reduced competition for sunlight – began to decay and die. The trees were connected underground via the mycorrhizal system, transferring carbon, nitrogen and water to one another, communicating underground, talking to each other. As Simard says in her TED talk, “it might remind you of a sort of intelligence.”

It has been documented that trees share food not just with trees of the same species, but with trees of all kinds of species, forming a social network which some have come to describe as a socialist system. Growth rates are positively affected while seedlings face greater chances of survival. There is in fact a group of plants – the mycoheterotrophic plants of which there are around 400 species – which wouldn’t survive without the mycorrhizal network. These plants are unable to photosynthesise and are therefore heavily dependent on other plants for carbon and minerals.

Over the years, Thoreau has had his fair share of critics who deemed his trip to the woods nothing more than an exercise in self-indulgence and narcissism. Perhaps if Thoreau had the chance to head back to Walden Pond with the knowledge of the Wood Wide Web at hand, he would fully understand that no one man is an island, as no one tree is a forest.