Hard Times For Writers In British Film

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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

10 comments on “Hard Times For Writers In British Film”

  1. Vivienne says:

    The Knack, A Taste of Honey.

  2. Ken Mann says:

    Now you’ve got me mentally casting the 1950’s Bryant and May films. At least it distracts me from casting Carry On Stargate.

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    Isn’t the new B&M coming out in March?

  4. snowy says:

    Most, but not all of the films listed were made while the Eady Levy was still in place.

  5. Lee says:

    What’s needed is a savvy production company to push forward quality visions/scripts similar to those of the early Handmade Films to emerge. Idiosyncratically from the UK but not pandering to some conception of what the “World-Wide market” (nay, USA) wants.

    A good list of UK films, though I may need to re-appraise A Fish Called Wanda as it didn’t turn me on originally – though you have spurned me to purchase the “London Collection” dvd boxset which has been sitting in my wishlist for a year or five.

    I’d add a few more UK sublime films but it’s past my bedtime.

  6. Lee says:

    Addendum – in my neck of the woods, a production of one of admin’s UK fine film choices is opening soon. http://stratfordeast.com/oh-what-a-lovely-war

    We’ve booked numerous performances from Royal Stratford East and it’s neighbour Stratford Circus in the past without the hassle of the “London Sellout” craze experienced by Christopher. Not sure about Caroline Quentin, though…

  7. admin says:

    Yes, Dan, The Bleeding Heart arrives on March 26th. Snowy, I talk about the Eady levy in Film Freak. Reading the latest issue of Sight & Sound is like listening to film programmers on the Titanic, very sad.

  8. snowy says:

    I know that you know :-)

    But anyone that doesn’t is missing a key part of the history of British film. Buy the book folks! 8-)

  9. Normandy Helmer says:

    “The Kindle Store on Amazon.co.uk is for UK customers only. To shop for titles available for your country, please visit Amazon.com.” Which doesn’t carry Film Freak or a number of your other titles. I spent two weeks in Scotland last fall, and ended up lugging a very heavy suitcase home because I found so many great books I couldn’t readily get outside the UK. Sure wish Amazon US would just automatically acquire the Amazon UK Kindle titles too. Really, WHO benefits from making books harder to purchase? Many of us here in the US would be only too happy to support UK writers (and film producers) if it was easier.

    Thanks for the list of titles, a few I had missed but will now have to track down. We make our kids watch them too, and then they go and infect their friends with our viewing habits, so we are doing our best to shape the future properly. This is the Self-Preservation Society.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    When they say “is for UK customers only” I presume they’re talking about electronic books. There is no problem buying real books from Amazon.uk.

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