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

JOHN DEVOLLE/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

***

The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

***

 

The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

***

It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge