Gilbey on Film: From big screen to small

Actors and directors are turning from film to TV.

Perusing the Best Director nominations in last Sunday's Emmy awards, you would be forgiven for thinking that there had been a mix-up with the paperwork from the Oscars: Martin Scorsese, Todd Haynes, Neil Jordan, Curtis Hanson (with the French director Olivier Assayas also nominated for Carlos, which received a cinema release in the UK). Would it have been such a shock if one of these film-makers had begun an acceptance speech by mistakenly thanking the Academy?

It is well known by now that US television has been receiving a transfusion of film acting talent for some time -- Kate Winslet, who won Best Actress in a Miniseries or Movie for her lead role in Mildred Pierce, was only the most tearfully effusive example. Not too long ago, this would have looked like a knock-out cast list for a mid-budget, grown-up Hollywood movie: Glenn Close, Alec Baldwin, Forest Whitaker, Kelly Macdonald, Steve Buscemi, James Woods, Guy Pearce, Michael Pitt, Gabriel Byrne, Kathy Bates, Minnie Driver . . . Now, it represents a cursory roll-call of US television.

The Emmy's directing categories show that the exodus has come from behind the camera, too. Are all the best directors heading to TV? I'm not suggesting there would be any shame in it -- how can there be, when the quality of so much television, especially cable shows, remains so dazzling? Besides, any snob who feels like railing against film directors who "defect" to television can be swiftly silenced with two words: Berlin Alexanderplatz (the 14-part, 941-minute TV series directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in the 1970s).

But it's a sea change worth noting. The Wire incorporated into its roster a fair amount of directors who had made their name in cinema (Ernest Dickerson, Agnieszka Holland, Brad Anderson, Peter Medak). The Sopranos, too (cast member Peter Bogdanovich, as well as Mike Figgis and Lee Tamahori). Six Feet Under is probably the show that accommodated the largest number of movie directors (among them Rose Troche, Migeul Arteta, Nicole Holofcener, Lisa Cholodenko, Jim McBride). Walter Hill directed the pilot of Deadwood and acted as the show's consulting producer. Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, the first two X-Men films) and the screenwriter Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show, Donnie Brasco) have both had executive-producer credits on the hit medical drama House since the show started. The list goes on.

Happening upon an interesting New York Times article on the phenomenon of film directors developing pilot TV shows, I found this quote from Allison Anders, whose movies include Gas Food Lodging and Grace of My Heart: "'My friends told me, if I could get past the vanity of having a theatrical release, so many more people would see this movie on television than they would in a theatre." Of course -- I hadn't considered that the immense and immediate audience would be such a draw. "'I was, like, 'If I have another movie come out and die in the theatres in two weeks, I am going to die' . . . Five million people saw [Things Behind the Sun, her film about a rape survivor for the Showtime network] on the first night that it aired . . . I've never had five million people see one of my films in the theatres."

I called Anders to discuss the subject; she is now a fully fledged TV baby, having directed episodes of Sex and the City, The L Word and Southland among others, though she still makes cinema features, too. She told me she thinks the influx of heavyweight movie directors into TV is a mixed blessing:

"It's a little scary. In the Directors' Guild, if you want to have something nominated that you directed for episodic television, you have to actually nominate it yourself -- you have to physically send it in to be considered. I was so proud of an episode of Southland which I directed that I sent it in. Then it occurred to me: 'Oh, this'll be interesting, I'll be putting myself up against Martin Scorsese and God only knows who else. Maybe Steven Spielberg will be in there too!' I was laughing about it but if I were exclusively a TV director, you know, a TV journeyman, I'd be so pissed at having to compete with Oscar-winning directors.

"But I know why people like Martin wanna do TV. It's the same reason I do -- you get to develop these characters; and if you're a character-based film-maker, you wanna develop them over long period of time. And since none of us can make money off movies any more, TV is, in many ways, more reliable: if you have a hit TV show, well, you've got a nice life. The size of the audience is the amazing thing -- the people you can reach. And that's where movies have become a bit heartbreaking if you're someone who wants to say something to an audience. We don't make these things in a vacuum. You want people to see your stuff, and that's tough."

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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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times