The struggle that British Cinema has endured to stay afloat over the years is well known. The establishment of Channel 4, and subsequently of FilmFour LTD, have had an enormous impact on the direction that struggle has taken. From the earliest days of the 1980s, Channel 4 has been an integral part of the history and development of two of the most dramatic decades in British film history.
This paper will explore the impact that the creation of Channel 4 and FilmFour LTD have had on the British film industry. It will also explore the intricate relationship between British nationalism and national identity within the framework of the film industry. Finally, it will examine some of the key political and social issues that have affected the development of British cinema, as well as those that continue to play a role in the industry today.
For a large part of its history, the British film industry has traditionally been plagued with financial problems. Essentially, it has had to fend for itself in terms of funding. This has often made survival a difficult, sometimes overwhelming task, especially for aspiring new filmmakers who have had plenty of talent but no funding to launch their careers.
This was the situation in the early 80s before Channel 4 came into existence. Without government support or other forms of financial assistance, the film industry in the UK was struggling to survive. In addition, it had to compete with television (which was funded by the government). There was also the omnipresent competition from outside of Britain—specifically Hollywood, which had always dominated the market and which continued to do so.
Not only had Hollywood monopolized the market in terms of commercial success, it had also begun to attract many talented British writers and filmmakers, luring them to come to the US. The promise of state-of-the-art equipment and lucrative profit margins was hard to pass up, especially when considering the limited possibilities open to them at home. In addition, there was always the uncertain—but appealing—dream of fame.
In addition to this, there remained the problem of distribution. Many believe that this was (and is) the biggest problem for the British film industry. Thus, even if a fledgling filmmaker could manage to obtain the necessary funding to get his or her film to the point of completion, there was no guarantee that it would ever be seen. This had been the fate of many other British-made films.
History and Overview The cinematic climate began to change in the 1980s. Arguably, the most important impetus for this change was the establishment of Channel 4 (which later launched FilmFour LTD). There is no doubt that Channel Four and FilmFour LTD have had a huge impact on British Cinema, injecting it with a vitality that it had not seen in some time. They attracted talented new writers and directors, and financed a number of low-budget films that have had wide-reaching effects on the cinematic world.
When Channel 4 was first established, it heralded a change in the relationship between British cinema and British television. Prior to this, Britain’s three television channels had been BBC1, BBC2, and ITV. Channel 4 became the fourth channel by an Act of Parliament in 1982.
The original idea behind the creation of Channel 4 was to offer viewers an alternative to the channels that were already in existence. Initially it was established to provide ‘television with a difference’, and its target audience was to consist of individuals whose interests were not addressed by the more traditional, mainstream broadcasting channels.
Before the existence of Channel 4, there had been considerable debate between the public service television sector and the commercial broadcasting sector. Channel 4 was thought to be a compromise between these two: ‘it was to be financed by advertising revenue from the existing private companies, but governed independently from them, with a brief to provide minority and complementary programming to the three existing channels’. In addition, it would make none of its own programming, instead publishing the work of others (Emanuel).
One of Channel 4’s most ardent proponents was the Independent Filmmakers Association, which was founded in1975. The IFA was influential in bringing Channel 4 into existence, strongly advocating the need for a new cultural channel that would be able to create programmes that were innovative and original. This would open ‘the TV airwaves to independent commissions and screenings where before, of course, there was nothing at all’ (Rees 92).
The fact that Channel 4 was to be a publisher-broadcaster, rather than a producer-broadcaster, made it unique. This made it different from the BBC or the ITV companies, which produced their own programming. This also made it one of the first ‘publishing only’ television broadcasters of its time.
FilmFour LTD was established under the umbrella of Channel 4 in the 1990s. Its original goal was to fund approximately 20 distinctive films each year. The films would be initially premiered on the FilmFour Channel, and on Channel 4 two years after release. The creation of Channel 4 gave independent filmmakers a chance, finally, to envision a realistic and major outlet for their films.
Jeremy Isaacs was the initial chief executive of Channel 4, and his agenda included a commitment ‘to the substantial financing of features, at least some of which were to be allowed a full theatrical release before transmission’ (Christie 70). Although the concept of acting solely as publisher without also producing films seemed like a good idea, it soon became apparent that there were conflicts of interest that made this difficult to carry out in practice.
Still, in the early 80s it was apparent that in the world of British cinema things had begun to change for the better. Perhaps due to the establishment of Channel 4, there seemed to be an abundance of talented young filmmakers entering the scene—notably Alan Parker, Ridley Scott and Hugh Hudson—and they brought with them a wide array of highly technical skills and new ideas (Roddick 20). This further revitalized the lagging industry.
One film which was a success in the early days of Channel 4 was Jerzy Skolimowski’s Moonlighting, which was funded in part by Channel 4 in conjunction with other sources. Channel 4 also commissioned or helped to fund a number of ‘feature films’ in the early 80s, including Ploughman’s Lunch; Another Time, Another Place; and Angel. The collaboration of television and film seemed to be a mutually beneficial one at the time. Filmmakers would have the opportunity to have their films exhibited in a theater, which is where they were meant to be seen. The picture would have better definition, and the audience would be more attentive than easily-distracted home TV viewers. In addition, reviews based on the theatrical release would (optimistically) stir up additional interest when the film was finally aired on television (Roddick 28).
However, as mentioned earlier, this was not always successful, since audiences, knowing they could see the films on TV, would simply wait until then to view them, leaving the cinema with empty seats. Still, during this period, ‘the relationship between the two arms of the moving image industry’ was described as being ‘more symbiotic’ than it ever had been in their rocky history (Roddick 27).
Channel 4 made good on its pledge to reinvigorate the British film industry: twenty movies were produced during the first year of ‘Film on Four’. Eight of these twenty were released theatrically, and one of them, The Draughtsman’s Contract, actually made it to the number one spot in the London box-office poll in 1983 (Auty 58).
In addition to stimulating the film industry at home, Channel 4 helped to broaden the scope of the British film industry by forging affiliations with production companies from Europe and America, primarily by creating ‘Film Four International’.
The groundbreaking and controversial film My Beautiful Laundrette was directed by Stephen Frears in 1985. The screenplay was written by Hanif Kureishi. It is significant to note that this also was author Hanif Kureishi's first screenplay, for which he received an Oscar Nomination for Best Screenplay in 1986.
Although it was shot in only six weeks and had a very low budget, it went on to become an international success, thus helping to establish Channel 4’s reputation in the arena of feature films. In fact, it was thought to be one of Britain's most commercially and critically successful films for that year. It was originally shot on 16mm and later converted to 35mm for international distribution.
Because sensitive issues—race, class, sexuality—were featured in the film, there was a great deal of controversy over it, and it came to be considered a landmark film. It took a close and critical look at London society in the 80s, bringing issues like multiculturalism and class into sharp—and sometimes uncomfortable—focus. Along with its political and cultural messages, Laundrette managed to be a tender and moving film as well. It has often been thought of as symbolising the changing image of ‘Britishness’ throughout the world.
In the late 80s and 90s, perhaps due to the infusion of energy provided by Channel 4 and FilmFour LTD, a number of groundbreaking films were created. Many of these films represented working class life in Britain during the 80s and 90s: ‘Film-makers in Britain in the mid-1990s showed a renewed interest in portraying working-class life, projecting images of alienation and crisis amidst landscapes of industrial recession and economic decline’ (Hallam 261).
Some films that came out of the later years of Channel 4’s existence include Shallow Grave (1994), Trainspotting (1994), Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), and Brassed Off (1996). These productions share a similar range of thematic preoccupations, projecting critical images of contemporary life in post-Thatcherite Britain to international audiences’ (Hallam 266).
Shallow Grave and Trainspotting were both key in revitalizing British film industry in the 90s. Both films are explicitly concerned with the representation of a particular region or country, in this case Scotland. They are representative of the confidence that Scotland had begun to take on as it began to develop an identity of its own, independent of Britain.
Shallow Grave is about three Edinburgh ‘yuppies’ who are looking for a roommate to share their flat. The characters are shown to be cruel and shallow as they mercilessly flay applicants during the interview process. This unflattering representation of Yuppies is no surprise. They were a hated symbol in Tory Britain, heedless of the feelings of other people, and since they had little regard for others, behaved with callous disregard towards them.
When the successful applicant turns out to be a gangster who dies of a drug overdose, the yuppies have a dilemma: they find themselves with a dead body and a suitcase full of cash. What they do from this point on is in keeping with the negative view of yuppies as a social group in general. According to Moya Luckett, ‘we are invited to judge these characters on their appearance and, as none are particularly glamorous, their image-consciousness is all the more unnerving, demonstrating that cruel superficiality exists everywhere (93).
Trainspotting has been described (along with Twin Town) as ‘anarchic, nihilistic comedies that both thematically and formally seek to overturn rather than recycle stereotypes’ (Hallam 267). Trainspotting’s depiction of Edinburgh heroin culture is set at a time when Edinburgh was thought to be the ‘HIV capital of Europe’. It deals with such issues as poverty, racism, and attitudes towards disability, often in quite disturbing portrayals. As Hallam writes:
In a society where identity is based not on who you are or where you come from but what you consume, heroin is the ultimate consumer product. If what you consume is the hallmark of your identity, socially sanctioned goods and objects become a sign of social conformity; taking drugs is one way of demonstrating personal alienation and a rejection of establishment values (269).
Four Weddings and a Funeral is often referred to as a ‘very British’ story. Robert Murphy writes that ‘it was conceived as a clever commercial package’ packaged for the American market. Four Weddings, Murphy writes, ‘combines an affection for English traditions and rituals and an easygoing benevolence to its wide spectrum of characters’ (298). Instead of the abrasiveness of Thatcherism, viewers get the less oppressive sence of John Major’s government.
Brassed Off was written and directed by Mark Herman in 1996. The film is set in the fictional town of Grimley, in Yorkshire, in 1992. This is historically accurate, representing the period of time during which Margaret Thatcher’s program to close coalmines was in place. The town residents are ‘brassed off’. This term takes on a double meaning, given the existence of the town’s brass band, which is made up of soon-to-be-unemployed coal miners.
Part of Brassed Off ’s popularity may be attributed to the universality of the theme of unemployment. This theme would of course resonate with British blue-collar workers, who are no strangers to hardship. This theme is amplified in the film when massive layoffs take place in a once-thriving coal-mining town.
This film gives its audience a look at how the coal industry was affected by the conversion to nuclear power, which was instituted by the Tory government in the early 1990s. The result was devastating; it is estimated that hundred of pits were closed. This caused approximately a quarter of a million miners to lose their jobs, ruining not only their careers and altering their sense of self as well as their feelings of masculinity: ‘These sympathetic portrayals of working-class men as physically redundant in the workplace and emotionally retarded in the home create an image of masculinity in crisis that emphasises the non-aggressive, non-threatening aspirations of the group’ (Hallam 266).
Issues that Affect the British Film Industry
Some issues that affect the British film industry today are:
§ the constant struggle for sufficient funding;
§ identity issues
§ competition from the American film industry
§ and the representation of minorities
As stated earlier, financial problems have been the bane of the British film industry. The establishment of Channel 4 and FilmFour LTD reinvigorated and gave new life to the industry. It gave independent filmmakers an opportunity to find major outlets for their works. It also brought many talented new filmmakers out of obscurity and gave them a chance to contribute significant and groundbreaking works.
However, policy changes have lessened the financial assistance that is available, and Channel 4’s influence has diminished:
With Channel Four’s abandonment of its original commitment to experimental programming (except in animation), the continued reduction of funding for BFI Production and the closure of the Arts Council’s Film and Video Department in 1998, there are few obvious domestic sponsors for the paradigm-shifting new image-makers of the future (Christie 78).
Alternate sources of funding have amounted to little. Britain did finally agree to join Eurimages, the continental film fund of the Council of Europe, in 1993. Eurimages, which was established in 1989, supports the production, exhibition, distribution, and marketing of documentary films by providing interest-free loans to filmmakers.
When it was first established, Britain refused to join Eurimages. Industry pressure ultimately caused the government to change its original decision, and in 1993, Britain finally gave in and joined the fund. However, it abruptly withdrew from Eurimages in 1996: ‘...Britain’s membership of Eurimages was cancelled by a government apparently more concerned with saving the subscription than with its image throughout Europe’ (Christie 74).
There has some continuity offered by the European Union’s MEDIA programme, which was instituted in 1991. However, MEDIA funds are relatively small compared to other EU programs. In addition, their funds, meagre to begin with, are meant to complement other forms of funding such as Eurimages, and by themselves are insubstantial. This, as well as its stated interest in ‘developing the audio-visual industries’, does not make it seem like a very viable option for filmmakers in Britain today.
Unlike other European countries, such as France, which shows strong support for its filmmakers, the UK continues to provide little support for the film industry. Although as of 1995 contributions from the National Lottery have helped some, filmmakers still have to raise 50% of the film's budget in order to qualify. Considering all these factors, it appears that financial problems will remain an issue in British cinema.
Competition with the American film industry has always plagued British Cinema. In addition, there is the further insult of having British films categorised as non-European because of their funding. One of the criteria stipulated by MEDIA requires that a film obtain at least fifty percent of its funding from a member of the European Union. Therefore, since so many British films have been largely funded with American dollars, they end up being classified as ‘non-European’.
Among these ‘non-European’ productions are some very British films, including Sense and Sensibility (Ang Lee, 1996); Shadowlands (Richard Attenborough, 1993); The English Patient (Anthony Minghella, 1996); and The Full Monty (Peter Cattaneo, 1997). Thus, ‘the question of identity has acquired a new economic significance in the 90s, since deciding what counts as a “national” or a European film affects the availability of production funding and eligibility for quotas’ (Christie 75).
The support of Hollywood has been an important force in keeping the British film industry alive. Major Hollywood studios continue to play crucial roles in British cinema. In addition, it may be argued that assistance from the US was largely responsible for sustaining British cinema during the troubled years at the end of the century. However, Britain needs to develop and nurture a stable industry on its own. Failure to do so means that it will continue to rely on help from Hollywood, and that it will never be able to exist without its help. According to Neil Watson, ‘over-depencence on investment from the US ultimately makes British cinema vulnerable to the boom and bust cycle which has plagued the industry throughout the twentieth century’ (86).
This dependence on the US is matched by a sence of resentment; it is a very codependent relationship. Another aspect of the love-hate relationship between the UK and the US is the fact that the British film industry’s dependence on US funding leaves it impoverished, while at the same time enormous profits are reaped by the American ‘benefactors’. There are many who argue that the revenues earned from film-related industries should remain in the UK, asserting that in this way, the British film industry will eventually become a self-sustaining and fundamentally strong entity.
In addition, it is clear that the US still dominates when in comes to distribution and exhibition. In fact, many believe that distribution and exhibition issues, rather than production, are the most important hindrances in the development and growth of British cinema. According to Nick Roddick, ‘there is one overwhelming truth which has dominated the situation since the mid-1950s and is likely to go on doing so for the foreseeable future: the real crisis in British cinema is not in production but in distribution and exhibition’ (8).
According to Hill, the proportion of manual labourers in the British workforce has steadily declined since 1950. Along with this decline has been an increase in the proportion of workers who are either women or black. In this respect, asserts Hill, ‘the traditional idea of a predominantly white, male working class has become problematic and it is this changing situation that British films of the 1990s have struggled to come to terms with’ (186). As a result, there has been a need to re-instate and reinforce the image of the traditional working man, and this need is reflected in film.
However, in the process, another segment of the population is pushed aside: ‘there has been a tendency to marginalise, or underestimate, the experience of women and black and Asian workers’ asserts Hill (186). Indeed, it appears that the image of Britain as it appears on the cinematic screen is primarily white.
On another level, there is the issue of women and minorities within the film industry itself. ‘Channel Four’s Multicultural Department, initially hailed as an important intervention into Britain’s screen whiteness, did not succeed in stabilising independent black film production and served as a token that let the mainstream of the station carry on with business as ever’ (Miller 41).
British Cinema has a rocky, cyclical history. The struggle it has endured to stay afloat over the years is well known. The establishment of Channel 4, and subsequently of FilmFour LTD, have had an enormous impact on the direction that struggle has taken. From the earliest days of the 1980s, Channel 4 has been an integral part of the growth and development of one of the most dramatic periods in British film history.
For most of its history, except for brief respites, the British film industry has been continuously plagued with financial problems. Lacking any steady or substantial government support, it has basically had to fend for itself in terms of funding. This has often made survival a difficult, sometimes overwhelming task, especially for talented aspiring filmmakers who have no means to get started.
Though the cinematic climate began to change in the 1980s, this good fortune was short-lived. Issues that have adversely affected the industry include the downsizing of FilmFour LTD, changes in funding policy, and the exodus of talented young filmmakers and writers to American shores. The British government remains largely unsupportive, beyond the contributions from the Lottery.
However, although the financial future of British cinema remains uncertain, there undoubtedly remains a wealth of untapped talent waiting for its opportunity to flourish. As Nick Roddick has aptly pointed out, ‘The question, after all, is not whether there ought to be British films, but whether there can be’.
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