The relationship between art and politics has always been precarious. Often, the discussion of culture in the House of Commons crops up in formulaic declarations of appreciation, or is crow-barred in, in the form of cringe-inducing anecdotes. Figures in the arts have always been wary of the country’s culture being at the mercy of those who, for all their apparent good intentions and economic acumen, don’t fully understand the nature of the business. All knew that widespread cuts were imminent, but when Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt announced that the UK Film Council was to be abolished, the reaction was, quite rightly, one of dismay. British cinema’s recent casualty, the scrapping of £45m funding for a BFI film centre on the South Bank was regrettable but – however reluctantly accepted – sensible… at least for the time being. On the other hand, the more the decision to axe the UKFC is interrogated, the more misguided, damaging and frankly, pointless it appears to be.
The council is invaluable not only to the British film industry, but to the British people. Most recognisably it assists those at the top, funding film production itself, having backed numerous titles to be proud of from The Constant Gardener to In The Loop. Since its creation under Labour in 2000, it has not only invested millions of lottery funding into more than 900 films but also caused a UK box office revenue increase of an astonishing 62%. Today, it is key in supporting our cinema internationally, and enabling the UK to move forward into the digital age of cinema, funding its first 3D film and equipping many cinemas with digital projection technology, allowing smaller films to gain a wider release. But the UKFC has not forgotten the little people. It has supported hundreds of film societies and independent regional venues: Nottingham’s own indispensible Broadway cinema is one such benefactor, allowing the public to have an exceptional moviegoing experience outside of the multiplex. And crucially, the council also helps nurture the future of cinema, giving over 20,000 young people the opportunity to get involved in filmmaking.
A list of achievements is all very well, but their nature reveals how Hunt’s decision transpires to be particularly damaging. It is essentially nothing but a short term solution, little more than a move to make up numbers. The UKFC will apparently be entirely closed down by 2012, but so far Hunt has been entirely vague on how future funding will be distributed, only mentioning it will continue through ‘other bodies.’ But the plural is enough. Other bodies? Why needlessly take apart a cohesive organisation, a one-stop shop that keeps the fragmented film industry working smoothly and replace it with ‘other bodies’?
It is obvious how vital the UKFC is culturally: it is directly responsible for shaping the canon of contemporary British cinema. As well as continuing to back stalwarts like Mike Leigh, it also invested in the potential of rising stars like Shane Meadows and Andrea Arnold. But this has not occurred overnight. The council’s axing will undo a decade of hard work. Just looking at its website, one cannot help but swell with pride and excitement at the sheer amount of opportunity it offers. Reputation is a delicate thing to build, but the UKFC is now a respected part of the British film industry. Its proposed abolition is undermining the integrity of one of the country’s best cultural resources.
But it is not film alone that suffers. Always, especially in an economic context, art can be seen as superfluous, and sadly, in the eyes of some, a waste. When money needs to be saved, the arts are an easy target because we don’t officially need them. They’re not actually fundamental. We aren’t going to perish without them. In that case, I would like to know how on earth those previously employed in the arts (and elsewhere) will be expected to fill their time (or raise their spirits) when the quality arc of British culture starts to plummet as a result of highly damaging cuts.
Whilst all organisations funded by the DMCS will lose 3% of their budget by next year, Arts Council England will lose 4% – the cuts don’t seem like a lot, until you realise that they signify a loss of £5m. The axing of the UKFC itself will not save the government the annual £25m it invests in it, as the significant revenue the council creates will be markedly affected. Each year the country’s film industry contributes over £4.5 billion of its £6.8 billion turnover to UK GDP, returning more than £1.2 billion to the Exchequer and supporting – directly and indirectly – 100,000 jobs. The UK Film Council plays an integral part in this, and in the long run, its loss may be far more harmful than many are expecting.