Hard Times For Writers In British Film
It’s official; the British film industry is in the toilet again. In my career I’ve heard this maybe two dozen times, but something has really gone wrong in this decade.
It turns out that only 7% of British films have made any kind of a profit in the past ten years and the number in production is around a quarter of what it was fifty years ago. We have become what we most feared; a rental talent pool for Hollywood.
It doesn’t help that the few indigenous films we make with any success are destined for the festival circuit. No matter how much directors like Ken Loach bleat about an inclusive socialist utopia, the fact remains that only middle-class arthouse audiences attend such films. What breaks my heart is that there are so many astonishingly good British writers out there who will never see movies made of their work. Any agent will tell you that only subjects with a proven track record can be produced now.
I’ve just been reading ‘The Summer Isles’, an enthralling novel by Ian R MacLeod about an assassination attempt taking place in an England that lost the war. It’s brilliantly cinematic, intelligent and exciting – but who cares? It doesn’t have Sherlock Holmes in it. Equally, each of Graham Joyce’s novels is unique and filled with marvels – but they tend not to have Dr Who in, so no-one will film them. This, I know, is an old, old lament. I regularly bump into a writer friend who tells me he’s about to get his first film made. He’s been saying this for 25 years and is now grey-haired.
The crazy thing is just how many great British films there are. In terms of quality, the strike rate is quite amazing.If I was picking a handful of perverse personal favourites from the sizeable pool of British movies made in my lifetime, I’d be able to name these without even needing to go to my shelves:
The Yellow Balloon, Billy Liar, Topsy-Turvy, The Charge Of The Light Brigade, A Handful of Dust, Witchfinder General, An Education, The Draughtsman’s Contract, Oh What A Lovely War!, The Glass Man, Blue Murder At St Trinian’s, The Boyfriend, Skeletons, Quatermass And The Pit, Kill List, Smashing Time, Theatre Of Death, A Fish Called Wanda, Howard’s End, Life of Brian, Withnail & I, Help!, Black Pond, The Wicker Man, Get Carter, The Early Bird, Franklyn, High Hopes, Entertaining Mr Sloane, Don’t Look Now, The Abominable Dr Phibes, Elizabeth, The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, The Ruling Class and The Italian Job. That’s excluding the output of Hammer, Ealing, and about a thousand other favourites.
British films once had scope and confidence. They were surreal (How I Won The War, The Bed-Sitting Room), angry (If…. A Clockwork Orange), charming (The Missionary, Four Weddings & A Funeral), courageous (A Day In The Death of Joe Egg, Beautiful Thing). Now they’re shrunken and timid.
It’s down to simple economics; if homegrown films don’t export well (even a crowdpleaser like ‘The Italian Job’ failed in the US) they must recoup their costs domestically, and our small market can’t do that. I’ve set my first haunted house thriller, ‘Nyctophobia’, in Spain because of its subject matter, but I might have set it in the UK if I thought there was a chance that the film rights would be picked up.. In earlier times the Bryant & May novels would have had a healthy chance of being made into films, but not now, in this very conservative. painfully uncreative climate, all we can do is keep on writing, and hope to get our work out in printed form.
The paperback of ‘Film Freak’ is out mid-February and now available on Kindle