A Nation Of Creative Shopkeepers

Observatory

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“L’Angleterre est une nation de boutiquiers.”

—Napoleon I
I always thought that perhaps Napoleon was right. Certainly, finishing JB Priestley’s marvellous London novel ‘Angel Pavement’, you get the feeling that it’s not just what we did best but what we most enjoyed. The book is peppered with individual characters thinking and behaving like shopkeepers. One of our funniest films, ‘Passport To Pimlico’, goes further to suggest that what we really want is to be cut off from international freedom and turn ourselves back into a series of self-serving village high streets.
The popularity of Nigel Farage’s UKIP party attests to this – I have nothing against the man, who at least presents a kinder face for this type of doomed, inward-turning attitude than the one many of us were forced to grow up with, the grisly National Front, but I’m not very good at the Little Englander mentality and ‘Englishness’ for its own sake still sits uncomfortably with me.
However, every nation has its strength; China with productivity, the US with organisation, Britain with ideas. This subject comes up because of, naturally enough, an argument in a pub about what constitutes a British film, with my opponent insisting that both ‘Gravity’ and ’12 Years A Slave’ are British because they were made with British talent.
My argument was ‘Follow the money’. Who supplied it, and where does it go? Suddenly you get a true picture of the so-called British film boom, and see that we are in effect shopkeepers once more, selling our talents to those with cash. And if you finally accept that this is true, there’s nothing wrong with it.
In the latest issue of ‘Sight & Sound’ editor Nick James complains that no-one is making films about the NHS. Of course they’re not – who would fund them? The old model – a British company financing and making whatever it wants – has vanished in the new international marketplace. There WAS a very funny, powerful film by Peter Nichols about the NHS called ‘The National Health’, and another called ‘Britannia Hospital’, but those come from a time predating the new world market. Now British films must sell internationally if they’re to be funded at home.
But why have the hassle of finding finance at all? ‘A nation of shopkeepers’ implied that we were mere purveyors, but it can be turned around to mean that we are creators. Creativity is a much valued commodity in London. Why not make a creative product that can be sold, and leave the hardest part of the job to the bean-counters? Why not accept that our SFX companies made ‘Gravity’ a hit instead of arguing about the nationality of its director?
As we’re no longer strong enough to finance, all we can do now is sell to other bigger owners. And it seems that everyone I know is doing just that. In fact, I hardly know anyone who isn’t. I sell books. My brother sells engineering products to the world. My building manager sells his own greetings cards. My neighbour sells her spiced nuts to supermarkets. Is there anyone out there who isn’t selling something in this country right now?
The BBC partly funds its own product (it co-produces a lot), but is a nationalised industry. Perhaps – heresy! – it’s time to denationalise it and let it do something more interesting than make Dr Who and Sherlock Holmes.
We no longer ‘own’ large parts of the world – and who would want to anymore? It seems obvious that we should play to our strength and create for other buyers. Perhaps Napoleon’s intended slur is a badge we should once more wear with pride.
NB The photo shows a very British shop – in Paris, of course.