Whisper it quietly, in case the French laugh, but Britain seems to have become a nation of, well, cinephiles. Or maybe it’s just that we know how to tell market researchers from the British Film Institute what they want to hear.
The BFI published a curious report last week, entitled Opening Our Eyes: How Film Contributes to the Culture of the UK. The report claimed that the British public regards film as more important than, in diminishing order: world news, restaurants, the countryside, pop and rock music, literature, politics, museums, pubs and clubs, watching and playing sport, theatre, art, celebrities and religion.
In fact, 84% of people interviewed by the BFI’s researchers said they were interested in film, beaten only by television and UK news.
And that’s not just because we love our dumb Hollywood blockbusters; at 88%, the approval rating for British films is even higher. According to the BFI, a surprisingly healthy 78% support the use of lottery money to fund UK production, while 95% of us think British films are “well made” and 94% say they are “well acted”.
The other 5% were presumably those who saw The Boat That Rocked.
The research, which polled over 2,000 people, was carried out last February, when the nation was gripped by The King’s Speech, which might offer a clue as to why the response was quite so enthusiastically patriotic, and so positive about the lottery.
Unsurprisingly, Tom Hooper’s Oscar winner was the title most people mentioned when asked which film, British or not, had the greatest personal effect upon them. It was followed by Schindler’s List, Avatar, Slumdog Millionaire, Titanic and The Shawshank Redemption.
Yet some of the poll results are so quirky, it’s hard to know what to make of them. Asked which British films had a significant effect on society or attitudes in the UK, the most frequent answer was … Trainspotting.
To which the only possible response is: “Huh?” Because it made us all want to move to Edinburgh and take heroin? Because it convinced us to Choose Life? Because it bequeathed Ewan McGregor to the nation?
The rest of the top 10 is slightly less baffling, dominated by working class social dramas with a couple of notable exceptions: The Full Monty, East Is East, Billy Elliot, The King’s Speech (of course), This Is England, Cathy Come Home, Brassed Off, Slumdog Millionaire (interesting) and Kidulthood.
The poll suggests 65% of the public are keen to see more British films that are “true to life”. We also want more regional stories, and 34% of us think there are too many films about rich and privileged people living in London (that King’s Speech effect again?).
The UK film industry will certainly be gratified to learn how highly its work is now valued. Only a few years ago, the received wisdom was that Britishness was nothing to shout about. Critics such as the late and legendary Alexander Walker spent their reviews deriding the misuse of lottery money. Producers backed by the BBC fought to keep its logo off their films for fear it might put the audience off. Even Four Weddings and a Funeral was marketed in the UK with the strapline: “America’s number one comedy.” British cinema was sunk in a collective national diffidence.
How that has changed. Despite the low blow earlier at Richard Curtis, he deserves much of the credit. Even more so, Harry Potter. A whole generation of impressionable filmgoers has grown up with the idea that a blockbuster can speak in a British accent.
For the first time anyone can remember, the top three films at the UK box office in 2011 are all homemade: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, The King’s Speech and The Inbetweeners Movie. Each film as smart, in its different way, as Transformers is dumb. Last weekend’s strong opening for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy confirmed the trend for intelligent populism in British film-making.
Some will object that the Potter movies were financed by an American studio. But from a cultural point of view, so what? The BFI research makes clear that the general public sees cast and story as the most important factors that define whether a film is British.
In any case, Warner Bros can hardly be accused of repatriating its profits and giving nothing back. Even excluding Potter, Warners has been the single biggest investor in British film over the past decade, if not longer. When it reopens Leavesden next spring (at a cost of £120m), it will become the only Hollywood major with a permanent UK production base.
BFI chief executive Amanda Nevill was clearly delighted by her report. “Opening Our Eyes helps us better understand our society, our history, our place in the world, our humanity and, ultimately, ourselves,” she said. Steady on there. But it does offer some heartening, if sometimes questionable, insights.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010