Remember Goldcrest Films: Why David Cameron’s plans for the British Film Industry are flawed

January 11, 2012 by Simon Kinnear in Opinion with 2 Comments

So David Cameron wants the British film industry to chase Hollywood dollar by “incentivising UK producers to chase new markets both here and overseas.”  Hot on the heels of the terrible longlist of BAFTA 2012 nominations, it’s another attempt to nail shut the coffin of our revitalised film culture.

Goldcrest films like Chariots Of Fire provide a warning to David Cameron over plans for the British Film Industry

The sad thing is, we’ve been here before Flashback thirty years to the beginning of 1982, and Chariots Of Fire wins Best Picture and Colin Welland cries “the British are coming!” It’s the perfect salve for a nation undone by unemployment and rioting, and a chance to continue the feelgood factor in the wake of a high-profile Royal Wedding. Sound familiar?

So Chariots of Fire producer David Puttnam, with his company Goldcrest Films, started to pump out expensive, prestigious movies with commercial appeal. Finally, Britain would be free from the tyranny of low-budget mediocrity and would bring exactly the kind of flag-waving, entrepreneurial success that David Cameron is calling for now.

Initially, Goldcrest succeeded: Gandhi was a major hit and Oscar-hog. But David Puttnam’s chase for success then created a string of expensive flops: Revolution, so bad Al Pacino temporarily quit acting; Absolute Beginners, responsible for inflicting Patsy Kensit on the world; and Palme D’Or winner The Mission… which paradoxically proved that a good film is a good film regardless of its commercial prospects.

Meanwhile, the 1980s saw a boom in personal, idiosyncratic, “uncommercial” movies which achieved long-term success for a generation of directors and stars – Stephen Frears ‘ My Beautiful Laundrette, Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa, Mike Leigh’s High Hopes. These films were tough prospects in subject matter – homosexuality, prostitution, unemployment – but achieved international critical success, an award here and there, and enough cashflow to allow their creative talent to flourish long-term. Add to that Derek Jarman (directly responsible for grooming Tilda Swinton into one of our leading actresses) and Ken Loach (ghettoised for his politics during the 1980s, but on the verge of a comeback that would create one of British cinema’s defining bodies of work) and you have the bedrock of today’s generation of British filmmakers.

In contrast, Goldcrest’s directors – Hugh Hudson (Chariots Of Fire, Revolution), Roland Joffe (The Killing Fields, The Mission) and Julien Temple (Absolute Beginners) fell into obscurity, hack-work and experimental work respectively.  Puttnam, meanwhile, went to Hollywood, took charge of Columbia, and – as Wikipedia puts it with damning scorn – “was criticised…for not sufficiently exploiting the studio’s few box office hits.”  Even our most commercially-minded producers simply aren’t commercial enough for the bland rubbish that comprises Cameron’s film diet.

The simple truth is that you cannot guarantee success.  William Goldman famously said, “nobody knows anything,” and as Telegraph critic Robbie Collin wryly tweeted this morning, Slumdog Millionaire would never have been greenlit under the guidelines of Cameron’s big book of British film. 

There’s another element here, of course, in that the most radical and brave work in any medium tends to thrive on opposition to an unpopular status quo. Margaret Thatcher made most of Britain’s best films of the 1980s possible by providing something to fight against; Cameron’s government will be no different. So when he says he wants Lottery funds to be used to make commercial movies, what he’s really saying is that he’s scared of British cinema getting back its left-wing mojo and fighting the powers that be.

We’re already seeing it. Last year, films as diverse as Kill List, Tyrannosaur and Attack The Block all targeted this country’s social faultlines. And when you factor in Steve McQueen, (who has already tackled Thatcher in Hunger), Shane Meadows (ditto, in This Is England and its spin-offs), Andrea Arnold, Chris Moris and the old guard of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, then the moral is clear:

We don’t need another Goldcrest. The best thing Cameron can do to help British cinema is to run the rest of the country into the ground, and let the artists concentrate on creating great movies.

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  1. Ian RobinsonJan 11, 2012 at 3:00 pmReply

    I have to disagree slightly. While Cameron's comments could be alarmist, isn't there room in the UK film industry for better commercial films? I don't see anywhere where he's said the likes of Loach and Considine should stop making films – merely that those making commercial films should make them better.

    I know this is a tough ask (no-one sets out to make a bad movie) but how about all those interminable gangster and horror flicks, most of which star Danny Dyer? Could a bit more guidance (from, say, the BFI or a major distributor) help them find an audience?

    While the UK film industry does seem buoyant at the moment, I still think of the recent disastrous misfire "Grow Your Own" where what could have been a hit, loved, comedy became a tedious indulgent social drama because the makers felt that was what it ought to be. The result was something that appealed to no-one.

    Maybe I'm looking through rose-tinted glasses but a little more thought to the audience from certain sections of the UK film industry would be no bad thing. The good films always find a way through.

  2. Simon UnderwoodJan 12, 2012 at 11:39 amReply

    Good, relevant points, but a bit unfair to David Puttnam. Although, along with Richard Attenborough, he was their most recognisable board member, Goldcrest was never actually "his" company. Rather, he was on the board as consultant, and used Goldcrest to fund and produce films such as Local Hero, The Killing Fields and Cal through his own company, Enigma.

    The real decision making at Goldcrest was through the board and founding chief exec Jake Eberts, and following Eberts departure, CEO James Lee and Head of Production Sandy Lieberson. It was they and the board who greenlit the Revolution-Misson-Absolute Beginners program that led to disaster.

    Puttnam never cared for either Revolution or Absolute Beginners, and, as the cost overruns and bad planning of these films threatened his own production of The Mission, actively spoke out against them and the decision of Goldcrest to fund them.

    Whilst Goldcrest may have lost control chasing the international prestige market (Revolution is actually worth a second look, as it has a lot of fine qualities overlooked in 1985 – Hudson produced a revised version on DVD in 2010. Absolute Beginners has four good songs and nice production design, but is otherwise a complete mess. The Mission, oddly, is the hardest of the three films to sit through) it's unfair to place it all on Puttnam's shoulders.

    If you can find a copy, "My Indecision Is Final, The Rise and Fall of Goldcrest Pictures" by Jake Eberts and Terry Illiot, is a fascinating read and rich in detail of 80s filmmaking in the UK.

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