This is England

The acclaimed director on a new breed of British film-makers.

There was a curious film industry party last July to celebrate Britain's "rising talent". That very morning, the government had abruptly announced that it would axe the UK Film Council. So the celebration became a funeral - the sort of funeral where everyone is very angry and very loud. And underneath the anger was the question: don't they love us any more?

The Labour government had showered the industry with love, in the form of money and the Film Council. Before then, film funding in Britain had been a rickety affair, with small sums doled out to projects deemed worthy or arty; commercial ventures felt similarly hit-and-miss, largely dependent on money sourced from television or the States.

The Film Council was going to change this. Film would be a sustainable business. The Brit­ish were coming, again. But in return for the money, we would have to be a little more American in our thinking. Most Hollywood studios are run by people who have worked their way up through the marketing and selling side of the business; they are the ones who know what the public wants (even if the public doesn't), and their job is to supply that want. So the Film Council devised schemes to give distributors more influence on what was made and ear-marked funds for explicitly commercial fare.

The culmination of this policy was The King's Speech, which differed from previous lightning successes (The Full Monty, Billy Elliot) in feeling more precision-engineered, less accidental. We can file under irony the fact that the predicted returns to the Film Council will roughly cover the costs of its demolition.

Every 20 years or so, Britain attempts to match Hollywood at its own game - Tom Jones in the 1960s, Chariots of Fire in the 1980s. And every time we produce an individual or a company of proven talent and commercial nous, Hollywood buys it. But does it matter?

David Cameron probably thinks not. He thinks we should be making more films like Harry Potter (by "we", he must mean Warner Brothers); after all, the jobs are created here. This inward investment was an economic story the Film Council was always keen to broadcast. But because that story was about money, and a bit complicated, it never really caught on.

The French know where they stand. Film is the seventh art (between poetry and television, if you were wondering) and central in the projection of French identity and culture in the world. In France, obscure films are discussed without embarrassment on national television. Here, Jeremy Paxman's memorable reaction to the death of Ingmar Bergman was: "Not exactly box office, was he?" And when the BBC's admired Storyville strand broadcast Petition, an acclaimed Chinese documentary that premiered in Cannes, the corporation retitled it China's Bleak House, presumably because it considered the audience that might know of the petition system or care to research it under its own name too minuscule to bother with. It was probably right. Some art forms are permitted to be pretentious - but films should be fun.

My film Lawless Heart was said by critics to be very French. Had it been in French, it probably would have been more commercial - there is a reliable audience for French-language fare (which is often set among the bourgeoisie); this audience is usually wary of non-period British films (which tend to be set on council estates). At the time of Lawless Heart's release, in 2000, they had good reason to be wary. I recall some surprise that a British film with merit had been made at all. Our dramas were worthy and our comedies effortful. Only the period films delivered reliable pleasures.

This is no longer the case. There has emerged a new breed of more energetic and committed distributors and production companies, frequently working in alliance. Decent or good British films get made quite often. Recent and forthcoming films such as Submarine and Attack the Block (released on 11 May) feel like honest, well-made attempts to represent Britain in an entertaining and imaginative way. Not high art, but sincere. Commercial, but not crass.

So, perhaps the Film Council did its job after all, and achieved a significant shift in the film industry. As long as you don't mind that the company distributing both films has been bought by the French. l

Neil Hunter's "Sparkle" is out now on DVD

This article first appeared in the 09 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Beyond the cult of Bin Laden