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

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
Show Hide image

Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile