Directors’ cut: the end of UKFC

In abolishing the UK Film Council, Jeremy Hunt has shown himself to be ignorant of history. David Pu

On 15 June 1990, I was one of 20 senior representatives of the British film world invited to 10 Downing Street by Margaret Thatcher to discuss the parlous state of the industry and to find out what her government might be able to do about it. Sitting alongside the prime minister was Lew Wasserman, head of Universal Studios and a man who, over almost six decades, had deployed a mix of business acumen and political guile to establish himself as by far the most powerful man in Hollywood.

It was Ronald Reagan who had recommend­ed that Wasserman, who was once his agent, be invited. Reagan used to say, "Lew, if only you'd got me a longer-running TV series, I wouldn't have had to run for president!" For some years, Reagan, a fan of British movies, had tried to persuade Mrs Thatcher that this was an industry with a lot to offer.

The seminar generated a series of proposals that eventually resulted in the establishment of a new quango, the British Film Commission, along with a £5m European Co-Production Fund and a dedicated tax break. A few years later, at the urging of Richard Attenborough, the then prime minister, John Major, agreed to National Lottery funds being used to support film production.

In retrospect, that seminar in 1990 can be seen as the beginning of the British film industry's long march back from the wilderness. Ironically, it was Thatcher's government that had cast the industry into the wilderness in the first place, with a series of hasty decisions driven very largely by ideological prejudice.

One of the most striking, and to me distressing, things about the coalition government's recent decision to abolish the Film Council is that it appears to have been taken without any examination of the way support for British cinema evolved over many decades. For it was the Conservatives who first introduced government support for the industry with the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927, which created an advisory committee and introduced quotas on distributors and cinemas.

However, it was only after the Second World War that the concept of public subsidy for film, and the need for a dedicated, independent and expert body to administer and disburse such funding, were recognised. It was Harold Wilson, then president of the Board of Trade, who was the moving spirit behind the initiative to create an organisation that would give "improved access to finance to qualified independent producers during the difficult period of postwar transition".

In 1949, Wilson's efforts led to the Cinema­tograph Film Production (Special Loans) Act and with it the creation of the National Film Finance Corporation, which can in many respects be seen as a forerunner of the UK Film Council. Its mandate was to support people who

. . . while having reasonable expectations of being able to arrange for the production and distribution of cinematograph films on a commercially successful basis, are not, for the time being, in a position to obtain adequate financial facilities for the purpose on reasonable terms from an appropriate source.

The first chairman of the NFFC was Lord Reith, and the corporation was able to borrow money from the Board of Trade which was then loaned to producers. Alexander Korda's company British Lion was an early and significant client. At the time, the creation of the NFFC led to predictable gibes from opposition benches about "casting couches across Whitehall", but the body quickly proved its worth.

It was supposed to have a lifespan of just five years but, following the Conservatives' election victory in 1951, and despite a broad antipathy to state intervention, Winston Churchill (a great film fan) set about strengthening the NFFC and putting it on a secure long-term footing. In 1952, the Tories passed legislation enabling the corporation to borrow an extra £2m from sources beyond the Board of Trade, and in 1954 further legislation extended the NFFC's lifespan - as well as introducing a scheme enabling loans to be written off.

It was also the Conservatives, under Harold Macmillan, who were responsible for the next significant piece of film legislation, the impact of which would be felt for almost three decades. And once again, they chose to build upon the foundations laid by Harold Wilson. In 1949, a Treasury official named Wilfred Eady had proposed an ingenious voluntary scheme for reducing the impact of the entertainments tax on cinema owners, while also rewarding producers of successful British films. Eady proposed that a proportion of the ticket price should be set aside, with half retained by cinemas (in effect a rebate on the tax) and half divided among producers of British films in proportion to the UK box-office takings that their movies achieved.

The Cinematograph Films Act 1957 placed the Eady Levy on a statutory basis. It specified that one-twelfth of the price of a cinema ticket would be paid to the British Film Fund Agency, and that the payments would be allocated to support the NFFC and the Children's Film Foundation. Support was later added for the British Film Institute Production Board and the National Film School.

From 1957 to 1984, the landscape of film policy remained broadly stable, underpinned by a cross-party consensus. To be sure, the Eady Levy had its fair share of critics - not least the cinema owners who believed it helped to drag down admissions, when it was really the impact of television, along with their appalling lack of investment in the fabric of the cinemas themselves, which led to the downturn.

During that period, the NFFC was well managed, productive and relatively well funded. It was also responsible for launching the careers of many outstanding British cinematic talents, including Alan Parker and Ridley Scott, both of whom got an early boost from the NFFC. A film that I produced called Stardust (1974) made sufficient money to encourage the corporation to invest in the making of Bugsy Malone (1976), directed by Parker. As a direct consequence of the success of that film, Paramount in the US offered to put $1m into the next project I was hoping to produce. That was The Duellists (1977), Ridley Scott's first feature.

On the basis of Paramount's offer, I was once again able to secure the balance of the finance from the NFFC, resulting in what Scott recently referred to as "a personal landmark". So, the support from the NFFC, along with that he'd received as a student at West Hartlepool College of Art and subsequently at the Royal College of Art in London, provides a vivid demonstration of the way in which public subsidy can nourish outstanding creative talents, offering them space in which to demonstrate their ability and, in doing so, providing the catalyst for hundreds of millions of pounds of inward investment.

But despite, or possibly because of, the state- owned corporation's comparative success, in 1984, Thatcher's government published a white paper in which it proposed to do away with both the NFFC and the Eady Levy. At the same time, the government introduced legislation abolishing the capital allowances which, following a decision by the Inland Revenue in 1979, had been used as a form of tax relief by the film production sector.

This combination of measures was regarded as a disaster by large parts of the industry (with the notable exception of the UK cinema owners). Even the Conservative minister Kenneth Baker confided to me at the time that he had severe doubts about the wisdom of the proposals.

The abolition was fiercely opposed in a campaign led by the Association of Independent Producers, which described the substitute proposals as little more than "interim measures and vague hopes for the future". Ignoring the criticism, in 1986 the Tory government created British Screen Finance, a private company to support British film-makers, with shareholders including Channel 4 and the Rank Organisation, topped up by an annual government grant of £1.5m. It quickly developed a decent track record of investment, helping to support such films as Stephen Frears's Prick Up Your Ears in 1987 and Mike Leigh's High Hopes in 1988. But its budget was far too small to enable it to make a meaningful difference to the overall levels of production. As a result, investment in British films declined from roughly £275m in 1984 to £137m by the end of 1990.

These were barren years for British film production. However, a meeting between a thoroughly enlightened arts minister, Richard Luce, and Richard Attenborough led to the idea for that Downing Street seminar. And together with John Major's subsequent decision to allow Lottery money to be used for film production, the meeting helped to put the industry on the road to recovery.

Consequently, when Labour assumed power in May 1997, the landscape for British cinema looked very different from the way it had been in 1990, before the Downing Street seminar. But film policy continued to lack any real strategic coherence. To remedy this, the incoming secretary of state, Chris Smith, set up a "film policy review" chaired by Stewart Till, then president of Polygram Filmed Entertainment. Among its many recommendations was the proposal to create a unifying body with strategic responsibility for film, which in turn led to the creation, in 2000, of the UK Film Council. (The idea for a "British Film Auth­ority" had in fact been proposed as early as 1976, by a working party created by none other than Harold Wilson, but it had never been taken further.)

Tragically, instead of building on everything that has been learned, the present government has set about destroying the UK Film Council - to little purpose and with even less of a plan. In doing so, the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, would appear to have acted without any sense of the role that his party, and Margaret Thatcher and John Major in particular, played in breathing new life into an industry that, in 1990, had still to recover from the blow dealt to it by the abolition of the Eady Levy and the withdrawal of tax allowances.

At some point, long after Hunt and his team have left the Department for Culture, Olym­pics, Media and Sport, the work of rebuilding a coherent film policy, organised and controlled by a single body, will have to start all over again. It would be extremely helpful, therefore, if the Secretary of State were prepared to debate with me and others in a public forum, so that we might better understand why he and his coalition partners, in making their decision to demolish the UK Film Council, failed to take account of any of the lessons of recent history.

David Puttnam is a former film producer and a Labour peer

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Melvyn Bragg guest edit

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The lost magic of England

The great conservative journalist Peregrine Worsthorne reflects on a long life at the heart of the establishment.

In a recent editorial meeting, our subscriptions manager happened to mention that Peregrine Worsthorne was still a New Statesman subscriber. A former editor of the Sunday Telegraph and, during a long Fleet Street career, a self-styled “romantic reactionary” scourge of liberals and liberalism, Worsthorne used to be something of a pantomime villain for the left, a role he delighted in. He had close friends among the “Peterhouse right”, the group of High Tory intellectuals who gathered around Maurice Cowling at the small, conspiratorial Cambridge college. He was a frequent contributor to Encounter (which turned out to be funded by the CIA) and an ardent cold warrior. His social conservatism and lofty affectations offended lefty Islingtonian sensibilities. On several occasions he was the Guardian’s reviewer of choice for its annual collection of journalism, The Bedside Guardian, and he invariably delivered the required scornful appraisal while praising its witty television critic, Nancy Banks-Smith. There is no suggestion, he wrote in 1981, that the “Guardian ever sees itself as part of the problem; itself as having some responsibility for the evils its writers described so well”.

His prose style was Oxbridge high table, more Walter Pater than George Orwell. It was essential not to take Worsthorne too seriously, because he delighted in mischief-making and wilful provocation – one of his targets for remorseless ridicule was Andrew Neil, when Neil edited the abrasively Thatcherite Sunday Times. He ended up suing Worsthorne, who was famous for his silk shirts and Garrick Club lunches, for libel; he was awarded damages of £1, the then cover price of the Sunday Times.

“I wrote that in the old days editors of distinguished Sunday papers could be found dining at All Souls, and something must have changed when they’re caught with their trousers down in a nightclub,” Worsthorne told me when we met recently. “I had no idea he was going to sue. I was teasing. I occasionally run into him and we smile at each other, so it’s all forgotten and forgiven.”

After his retirement in 1989, Worsthorne, although he remained a resolute defender of aristocracy, seemed to mellow, and even mischievously suggested that the Guardian had replaced the Times as the newspaper of record. In the 1990s he began writing occasionally for the New Statesman – the then literary editor, Peter Wilby, commissioned book reviews from him, as I did after I succeeded Wilby. Like most journalists of his generation, Worsthorne was a joy to work with; he wrote to length, delivered his copy on time and was never precious about being edited. (Bill Deedes and Tony Howard were the same.) He might have had the mannerisms of an old-style toff but he was also a tradesman, who understood that journalism was a craft.

Shortly before Christmas, I rang Wors­thorne at the home in Buckinghamshire he shares with his second wife, Lucinda Lambton, the charming architectural writer. I asked how he was. “I’m like a squeezed lemon: all used up,” he said. Lucy described him as being “frail but not ill”. I told him that I would visit, so one recent morning I did. Home is a Grade II-listed old rectory in the village of Hedgerley. It is grand but dishevelled and eccentrically furnished. A sign on the main gates warns you to “Beware of the Dog”. But the dog turns out to be blind and moves around the house uneasily, poignantly bumping into objects and walls. At lunch, a small replica mosque in the dining room issues repeated mechanised calls to prayer. “Why does it keep doing that?” Perry asks. “Isn’t it fun,” Lucy says. She then turns to me: “Have some more duck pâté.”

As a student, I used to read Worsthorne’s columns and essays with pleasure. I did not share his positions and prejudices but I admired the style in which he articulated them. “The job of journalism is not to be scholarly,” he wrote in 1989. “The most that can be achieved by an individual newspaper or journalist is the articulation of an intelligent, well-thought-out, coherent set of prejudices – ie, a moral position.”

His Sunday Telegraph, which he edited from 1986 to 1989, was like no other newspaper. The recondite and reactionary comment pages (the focus of his energies) were unapologetically High Tory, contrary to the prevailing Thatcherite orthodoxies of the time, but were mostly well written and historically literate. Bruce Anderson was one of the columnists. “You never knew what you were going to get when you opened the paper,” he told me. “Perry was a dandy, a popinjay, and of course he didn’t lack self-esteem. He had a nostalgia for Young England. In all the time I wrote for him, however, I never took his approval for granted. I always felt a tightening of the stomach muscles when I showed him something.”

***

Worsthorne is 92 now and, though his memory is failing, he remains a lucid and engaging conversationalist. Moving slowly, in short, shuffling steps, he has a long beard and retains a certain dandyish glamour. His silver hair is swept back from a high, smooth forehead. He remains a stubborn defender of the aristocracy – “Superiority is a dread word, but we are in very short supply of superiority because no one likes the word” – but the old hauteur has gone, replaced by humility and a kind of wonder and bafflement that he has endured so long and seen so much: a journalistic Lear, but one who is not raging against the dying of the light.

On arrival, I am shown through to the drawing room, where Perry sits quietly near an open fire, a copy of that morning’s Times before him. He moves to a corner armchair and passes me a copy of his book Democracy Needs Aristocracy (2005). “It’s all in there,” he says. “I’ve always thought the English aristocracy so marvellous compared to other ruling classes. It seemed to me that we had got a ruling class of such extraordinary historical excellence, which is rooted in England
almost since the Norman Conquest.

“Just read the 18th-century speeches – the great period – they’re all Whig or Tory, but all come from that [the aristocracy]. If they didn’t come directly from the aristocracy, they turned themselves very quickly into people who talk in its language. Poetic. If you read Burke, who’s the best in my view, it’s difficult not to be tempted to think what he says has a lot of truth in it . . .”

His voice fades. He has lost his way and asks what we were talking about. “Oh, yes,” he says. “It survived when others – the French and Russians and so on – were having revolutions. It was absolutely crazy to set about destroying that. There was something magical . . . the parliamentary speeches made by Burke and so on – this is a miracle! No other country has it apart from America in the early days. And I thought to get rid of it, to undermine it, was a mistake.”

I ask how exactly the aristocracy was undermined. Even today, because of the concentration of the ownership of so much land among so few and because of the enduring influence of the old families, the great schools and Oxbridge, Britain remains a peculiar hybrid: part populist hyper-democracy and part quasi-feudal state. The Tory benches are no longer filled by aristocrats but the old class structures remain.

“Equality was the order of the day after the war,” Worsthorne replies. “And in a way it did a lot of good, equalising people’s chances in the world. But it didn’t really get anywhere; the ruling class went happily on. But slowly, and I think unnecessarily dangerously, it was destroyed – and now there are no superior people around [in politics]. The Cecil family – Lord Salisbury, he was chucked out of politics. The Cecil family is being told they are not wanted. The institutions are falling apart . . .

“But there were people who had natural authority, like Denis Healey. I’m not saying it’s only aristocrats – a lot of Labour people had it. But now we haven’t got any Denis Healeys.”

Born in 1923, the younger son of Alexander Koch de Gooreynd, a Belgian banker, Worsthorne (the family anglicised its name) was educated at Stowe and was an undergraduate at both Cambridge (Peterhouse, where he studied under the historian Herbert Butterfield, the author of The Whig Interpretation of History) and Oxford (Magdalen College). “I have always felt slightly underprivileged and de-classed by having gone to Stowe, unlike my father who went to Eton,” Worsthorne wrote in 1985.

Yet his memories of Stowe remain pellucid. There he fell under the influence of the belle-lettrist John Davenport, who later became a close friend of Dylan Thomas. “He was a marvellous man, a famous intellectual of the 1930s, an ex-boxer, too. But in the war he came to Stowe and he was preparing me for a scholarship to Cambridge. He told me to read three books, and find something to alleviate the boredom of an examiner, some little thing you’ll pick up. And I duly did and got the scholarship.”

Can you remember which three books he recommended?

“Tawney. Something by Connolly, um . . . that’s the terrible thing about getting old, extremely old – you forget. And by the time you die you can’t remember your brother’s name. It’s a terrible shock. I used to think old age could be a joy because you’d have more time to read. But if you push your luck and get too far, and last too long, you start finding reading really quite difficult. The connections go, I suppose.”

Was the Connolly book Enemies of Promise (1938)?

“Yes, that’s right. It was. And the other one was . . . Hang on, the writer of the book . . . What’s the country invaded by Russia, next to Russia?

Finland, I say. Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station (1940)?

“Yes. Wilson. How did you get that?”

We both laugh.

***

Worsthorne is saddened but not surprised that so many Scots voted for independence and his preference is for Britain to remain a member of the European Union. “What’s happening is part of the hopelessness of English politics. It’s horrible. I can’t think why the Scots would want to be on their own but it might happen. The youth will vote [for independence]. This is part of my central theme: the Scots no longer think it’s worthwhile belonging to England. The magic of England has gone – and it’s the perversity of the Tory party to want to get us out of the European Union when of course we’re much more than ever unlikely to be able to look after ourselves as an independent state because of the quality of our political system.

“The people who want to get us out are obviously of an undesirable kind. That the future should depend on [Nigel] Farage is part of the sickness. I mean the real horror is for him to have any influence at all. And when you think of the great days of the Labour Party, the giants who strode the stage – famous, lasting historical figures, some of them: Healey, Attlee, who was probably the greatest, [Ernest] Bevin. I’m well aware that Labour in the good days produced people who were superior.”

He digresses to reflect on his wartime experience as a soldier – he served in Phantom, the special reconnaissance unit, alongside Michael Oakeshott, the philosopher of English conservatism who became a close friend, and the actor David Niven, our “prize colleague”.

“I remember Harold Macmillan saying to me, after the Second World War, the British people needed their belt enlarged; they’d done their job and they deserved a reward. And that’s what he set about doing. And he wasn’t a right-wing, unsympathetic man at all. But he didn’t – and this is what is good about conservatism – he didn’t turn it into an ‘ism’. It was a sympathetic feel, an instinctive feel, and of course people in the trenches felt it, too: solidarity with the rest of England and not just their own brotherhood. Of course he didn’t get on with Margaret Thatcher at all.”

Worsthorne admired Thatcher and believed that the “Conservatives required a dictator woman” to shake things up, though he was not a Thatcherite and denounced what he called her “bourgeois triumphalism”. He expresses regret at how the miners were treated during the bitter strike of 1984-85. “I quarrelled with her about the miners’ strike, and the people she got around her to conduct it were a pretty ropey lot.

“I liked her as a person. I was with her that last night when she wasn’t prime minister any more, but she was still in Downing Street and had everything cut off. The pressman [Bernard Ingham] got several of us to try to take her mind off her miseries that night. There’s a photograph of me standing at the top of the stairs.”

In the summer of 1989, Peregrine Wors­thorne was sacked as the editor of the Sunday Telegraph by Andrew Knight, a former journalist-turned-management enforcer, over breakfast at Claridge’s. He wrote about the experience in an elegant diary for the Spectator: “I remember well the exact moment when this thunderbolt, coming out of a blue sky, hit me. It was when the waiter had just served two perfectly poached eggs on buttered toast . . . In my mind I knew that the information just imparted was a paralysingly painful blow: pretty well a professional death sentence.”

He no longer reads the Telegraph.

“Politically they don’t have much to say of interest. But I can’t put the finger on exactly what it is I don’t like about it. Boredom, I think!”

You must read Charles Moore?

“He is my favourite. Interesting fellow. He converted to Catholicism and started riding to hounds in the same week.”

He has no regrets about pursuing a long career in journalism rather than, say, as a full-time writer or academic, like his friends Cowling and Oakeshott. “I was incredibly lucky to do journalism. What people don’t realise – and perhaps you don’t agree – but it’s really a very easy life, compared to many others. And you have good company in other journalists and so on. I was an apprentice on the Times, after working [as a sub-editor] on the Glasgow Herald.”

How does he spend the days?

“Living, I suppose. It takes an hour to get dressed because all the muscles go. Then I read the Times and get bored with it halfway through. Then there’s a meal to eat. The ­answer is, the days go. I used to go for walks but I can’t do that now. But Lucy’s getting me all kinds of instruments to facilitate people with no muscles, to help you walk. I’m very sceptical about it working, but then again, better than the alternative.”

He does not read as much as he would wish. He takes the Statesman, the Spectator and the Times but no longer the Guardian. He is reading Niall Ferguson’s biography of Kissinger, The Maisky Diaries by Ivan Maisky, Stalin’s ambassador to London from 1932 to 1943, and Living on Paper, a selection of letters by Iris Murdoch, whom he knew. “I get these massive books, thinking of a rainy day, but once I pick them up they are too heavy, physically, so they’re stacked up, begging to be read.”

He watches television – the news (we speak about Isis and the Syrian tragedy), the Marr show on Sunday mornings, and he has been enjoying War and Peace on BBC1. “Andrew Marr gave my book a very good review. He’s come back. He’s survived [a stroke] through a degree of hard willpower to get back to that job, almost as soon as he came out of surgery. But I don’t know him; he was a Guardian man.” (In fact, Marr is more closely associated with the Independent.)

Of the celebrated Peterhouse historians, both Herbert Butterfield (who was a Methodist) and Maurice Cowling were devout Christians. For High Tories, who believe in and accept natural inequalities and the organic theory of society, Christianity was a binding force that held together all social classes, as some believe was the order in late-Victorian England.

“I was a very hardened Catholic,” Worsthorne says, when I mention Cowling’s book Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England. “My mother was divorced [her second marriage was to Montagu Norman, then the governor of the Bank of England] and she didn’t want my brother and me to be Catholic, so she sent us to Stowe. And I used to annoy her because I read [Hilaire] Belloc. I tried to annoy the history master teaching us Queen Elizabeth I. I said to him: ‘Are you covering up on her behalf: don’t you know she had syphilis?’

“Once I felt very angry about not being made Catholic. But then I went to Cambridge and there was a very Catholic chaplain and he was very snobbish. And in confession I had to tell him I masturbated twice that morning or something, and so it embarrassed me when half an hour later I had to sit next to him at breakfast. I literally gave up going to Mass to get out of this embarrassing situation. But recently I’ve started again. I haven’t actually gone to church but I’ve made my confessions, to a friendly bishop who came to the house.”

So you are a believer?

“Yes. I don’t know which bit I believe. But as Voltaire said: ‘Don’t take a risk.’”

He smiles and lowers his head. We are ready for lunch. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle