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When Margaret Thatcher tried to reboot the British film industry

Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher - Credit: Knippertz/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Thirty years on, RICHARD LUCK looks back at a Downing Street summit to revive British cinema, and the curious films that followed.

It’s one of those nights everyone remembers – that summer’s evening when Noel Gallagher, Kevin Spacey, Eddie Izzard and Ross Kemp rocked up at Number 10 for drinks and nibbles with Tony and Cherie. The zenith/nadir of Cool Britannia, the 1997 Downing Street love-in is right up there with Geri Halliwell’s Union Jack dress as far as 1990s naffness is concerned.

Seven years earlier, a group of people both greater and gooder than the Blairs’ party guests made a similar pilgrimage to Number 10. At least, the location was the same. The reasons for future Lords Richard Attenborough’s and David Puttnam’s visit were rather different, however.

Yes, on June 15, 1990, the Oscar-winning producer-director of Gandhi and the Academy Award-winning producer of Chariots of Fire arrived at Downing Street at the invitation of Margaret Thatcher; the movie-makers and the prime minister having been encouraged to catch-up by Lord Palumbo and/or Lord McAlpine – as with so many aspects of the summit, the details are hazy and largely dependent upon whomever you happen to be talking to.

The great men of British film had been summoned to discuss the future of their industry with the PM and then-trade secretary Nicholas Ridley. And the results were… well, we’ll get to that later.

Their lordships didn’t arrive in Whitehall alone; rather they were the public face of a deputation that also included esteemed one-man film factory John Boorman (Point Blank, Deliverance, Excalibur); Jeremy Thomas, the widely-respected independent producer who’d received the 1987 Best Picture Oscar for The Last Emperor, and Bruce Robinson, the writer-director of Withnail & I and BAFTA-winning author of The Killing Fields’ screenplay who was as well known for a loathing of Margaret Thatcher as for loving a drink or five.

At the behest of the prime minister, legendary Hollywood heavyweight Lew Wasserman was also on hand, his presence viewed with suspicion by men well aware that one of the main threats to British film lay in Los Angeles.
What with Puttnam, Attenborough and Thomas having picked up Oscars in the decade running up to the Downing Street shindig, you could be forgiven for thinking that the national cinema was in the rudest of health in 1990.

In fact, the 12 months prior to the summit had seen fewer films produced in the UK than at any time since the early 1970s – a piddling 30.

Of those pictures, many were financed by big American studios rather than local production companies. Furthermore, while many of the world’s hottest directors hailed from these shores, Adrian Lyne, Alan Parker and the Scott brothers Ridley and Tony were all based in America.

With the cinemas themselves in decline and American product accounting for the bulk of video sales and rentals, British film was the sort of under-performing industry Thatcher was infamous for dismantling.

As he explains in his landmark work Stairways To Heaven: Rebuilding The British Film Industry, Geoffrey Macnab points out that cinema enjoyed one huge advantage over steel and coal – the Iron Lady loved a good movie.

From Fred and Ginger to patriotic pictures of Alexander Korda, the young Margaret Hilda Roberts was a regular fixture at Grantham’s movie palace. True, she was only allowed to see films that her father believed to have class or merit, but as Macnab remarks, the PM was quick to cite pictures such as The Young Mr Pitt and Korda’s production of The Scarlet Pimpernel whenever she was asked what had inspired her to pursue a career in politics.

So profound was her passion of the moving picture, her first words on being introduced to Lord Attenborough were “Why didn’t you come years ago?” “Because I wasn’t asked, darling,” Dickie replied.

Trade secretary Ridley was far less enthusiastic about the film lobby’s arrival. Still, he managed to impress BFI director Wilf Stevenson who was surprised that the famed Eurosceptic was so quick to understand the problems facing the industry regarding distribution. It was a point of view, David Puttnam didn’t share. As he told Macnab, “In Ridley, we have a secretary of state… who gives the impression that he would regard it as his greatest success… if he could close the British film industry down.”

Puttnam’s long-time collaborator Bruce Robinson was of the same opinion. Asked what he thought was the best thing the government could do for British film, the writer-director remarked that their resignation would be a good start.

Likewise, Jeremy Thomas argues that the Downing Street shindig was one of those events where everything appeared to have been decided upon before the guests even arrived. Speaking of the decisions that had already been reached, Thomas – like his fellow producers Simon Relph and John Brabourne – believed it easy to detect the hand of Lew Wasserman.

‘The Last Mogul’ – as the head of Universal MCA was often referred to – had long been close to Ronald Reagan. His friendship with Thatcher, on the other hand, blossomed during the lengthy period he spent trying to sell the prime minister on the creation of a new studio complex in the Essex Marshes.

When not flirting outrageously with the prime minister, Wasserman busied himself ensuring the preservation of the preferential taxation rates then available to American studios producing pictures in the UK.

If he was considered a malign influence by many, the exec the New York Times described as “the most powerful film titan in the four decades after World War 2” did at least add some weight to the argument being made by the British film contingent that the movie industry ought to be revived.

To this end, he cited the two occasions Hollywood had called on Washington to intervene on its behalf – the passing of the laws in 1970 to prevent the studios from fully diversifying into television, then, a decade later, a tax credit system ensuring studios received relief on all monies invested in film production. This scheme’s importance was something Wasserman was determined to stress during his visit to Downing Street. As he told the summit attendees, “Without [that], Hollywood would not be anything like it is today.”

It was with regard to another wheezing behemoth – British automobile manufacturing – that the BFI’s Wilf Stevenson explained that a healthy film industry wouldn’t merely benefit cinema. “Look, you don’t just make cars – cars are made up of components from lots of different supply chains. If you’re going to support the industry of car making, you have to support all the things that lead to it.”

If you’ve even half an idea of what the Thatcher government did to the British car industry, you could be forgiven for thinking the British film was done and dusted the moment the last summit guest pulled out of Downing Street.
This being so, how much can the movie industry’s ability to survive and later thrive be attributed to the ideas discussed and the decisions reached at the meeting?

The summit’s fruits didn’t all ripen at once. That said, it was within a year of the conference that the European Co-production Fund was up-and-running.

This hands-across-the-Channel venture would help some 20-odd movies get made. And in some cases, these were very odd movies indeed – certainly not the sort of pictures you can imagine a Conservative government having signed off on.
Take Orlando (1992), Sally Potter’s audacious adaptation of the Virginia Woolf story about an immortal who spans both time and gender. Then there’s The Hour Of The Pig (1993) where Colin Firth’s medieval advocate defends a young porker put on trial for witchcraft; the grubby football hooliganism drama I.D. (1995); and Ken Loach’s Land And Freedom (1995), which charts the involvement of a young British communist in the Spanish Civil War.

And then there was Damage (1992). Damage caught the eye for any number of reasons. Adapted by David Hare from Josephine Hart’s novel, it was directed by Louis Malle, the Oscar-nominated auteur responsible for Au revoir les enfants, Le souffle au coeur, Lacombe, Lucien and Atlantic City.

It also didn’t hurt that leading man Jeremy Irons had received a Best Actor Academy Award a couple of years earlier – for Reversal of Fortune – and his co-stars read like a Who’s Who of the day’s finest European actors.

Juliette Binoche, Miranda Richardson, Rupert Graves, David Thewlis – it was quite a thing to see these thrusting young talents rubbing shoulders with such greats of yesteryear as Leslie Caron and Ian Bannen.

But while it has quality running all the way through it, the remarkable thing about Damage in any way owing anything to the Downing Street summit is its subject matter.

For Malle’s movie is the account of a highly erotic, shockingly graphic affair that Irons’ character – a married cabinet minister, no less – conducts with Binoche, as the fiancée of said minister’s son. Knowing what we know of the Tory cabinets of the 1980s and 1990s, one can but imagine how some MPs might have felt as they attended the premiere. Perhaps the carpet wasn’t the only thing that was bright red that evening.

As tempting as it might be to write off the Downing Street summit, the British film industry did enjoy brighter days in the years that followed. The extent to which the revival in fortunes can be traced back to that summer soirée in Downing Street is, of course, subject to interpretation.

There were certainly other factors to consider and other characters – not present at the meeting – who would play significant parts in what was to come. Yet the gathering did represent a growing realisation in government of the importance to the UK of its film industry, and the role it could play in the cultural and economic life of the country. The next big step came six years later, with the launch of the National Lottery which meant a vast reservoir of cash was made available to producers and production companies.

Of course, by then, both Margaret Thatcher and Nicholas Ridley had long since left office – the PM was forced out five months after the film summit, while Ridley had gone within just a month of the meeting, having made some controversial remarks in a Spectator interview, suggesting the proposed Economic and Monetary Union was a “German racket”.

The substantial shortcomings of many of those films that followed from lottery investment is undeniable. Still, a year-on-year increase in the number of movies being made in the UK was the sort of achievement even the most cynical old so-and-so would find impossible to applaud.

And by the same token, it’s hard to deny that the good that followed the British film drought of 1989 had at least a little to do with the day Margaret Thatcher took tea with the writer-director of Withnail & I. No mention of cake and the finest wines known to humanity, mind you…

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