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Last Day of the RSAs

Tomorrow is 1 April, and so today marks the day on which the contracts of the regional screen agencies run out. The regional screen agencies will be replaced by Creative England, but not until later this year. Tomorrow is also the day the BFI takes over from the UK Film Council.

The new website for Creative England is here, although there is very little in the way of actual information. The FAQS on the Creative England website are not informative. The first question – ‘Why does there need to be a new structure?’ – does not actually answer the question and provides only an overview of the government’s steps to abolish the UK Film Council. We are promised ‘a simpler, more efficient structure with an expanded remit to support the creative industries across England,’ but this is vague and commits the government to nothing. The rationale is actually given in the consultation document for 2011/12 in paragraphs 3.1.4 and 3.1.5, which emphasise that it is necessary to save money and that the presence of the nine RSAs had resulted in ‘duplication or unnecessary competition.’ The CE consultation document does not state what was duplicated or why this was a bad thing. Nor does it define what is meant by ‘unnecessary competition.’ Neither of these arguments is convincing at the present time because (i) we have not yet received any estimate of how much money will be saved by restructuring the RSAs and the costs of the restructuring the regional bodies have not been made clear, and (ii) the RSAs were organised to represent and support their regions and were responsible for implementing national film policy within geographically defined areas and were not – by definition – national bodies. The RSAs served their regions and had no remit beyond that – they provided the services that were necessary to their region irrespective of what services were provided elsewhere. The RSAs competed with one another to attract productions, and this took the form of developing the range and skills of the workforce, developing the range of facilities, supporting businesses so that they could compete not just at a regional level but also globally, and in many other ways. The introduction of the RSAs was a business-orientated decision (albeit with public funding) with competition at its heart – and in many respects has been successful in making the UK an attractive place for filmmakers to come to. What is ‘unnecessary’ about this? Does the (predominantly Conservative) government not think that competition is a good thing?

It is also clear from paragraph 3.1.8 of the consultation document that Creative England is not intended to be an institution to support the film industry, but will be expanded to cover the other creative industries as well:

… the broader ambition is to grow Creative England beyond the film agenda by developing an over-arching strategy for the development of the creative industries throughout the English regions.

This is a clear statement that, in England, only London will a have dedicated film body, while the rest of the UK will have three creative industries bodies that include film within their remit but are not specifically screen industry bodies. Given the domination of the UK film industry by London and the South East of England, the competitive relationship between the English regions was not with the capital but the other parts of the UK; and as the reform of the RSAs affects only England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be in a much stronger position to out-compete regions institutionally de-nuded regions such as Yorkshire and the East Midlands. I cannot find any assessment of the impact of restructuring on the relationships between the regions, and the relationship between the English regions and the non-English regions has not apparently been addressed.

If CE is to be a single body for all the creative industries, why has the Arts Council for England not been abolished along with the UK Film Council? What is the difference between ‘the arts’ and ‘creative industries’ that they should be treated differently?

For an interview with Sally Joynson, chief executive of Screen Yorkshire, published yesterday in The Yorkshire Post see here. As of today, Screen Yorkshire has made seven of its 21 members of staff redundant, with a further four switching from full-time to part-time. This low staffing level marks a return to the pre-2000 days of the screen commissions that was recognised as unable to effectively serve the film industry by the UK Film Council’s Film in England report (here). Screen Yorkshire will continue to operate at this staffing level for six months until Creative England formally commences operations in October 2011. This leaves a six month period in which the existing bodies must carry on the serve the indstry with reduced staff and funding before the new body becomes operational. The Creative England website states that

2011 will be a year of transition as the Regional Screen Agencies reform into Creative England. In the meantime, it will be ‘business as usual’ for the agencies.

This is a silly thing to say – especially since the business plan for Creative England will not be published until September 2011, and so we will not know its exact structure until that date.

Game Republic (their new site is here) will cease to receive funding from Yorkshire Forward via Screen Yorkshire, and will be funded by games developers and three universities (Sheffield Hallam, Bradford, and Leeds Metropolitan [see here and here]). University funding in the UK is also being cut back by the government as part of its deficit reduction programme, and there was considerable surprise when Leeds Met announced it was going to charge students up to £8,500 per year (here). This cannot be right – public funding for a body to support a media industry is being cut by the DCMS, but the same body will receive support from universities that have had their teaching budgets slashed. Universities obviously have an important economic role to play within a region, but supporting industry bodies whilst increasing tuition fees is not appropriate.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that the decision to reform the publicly funded institutions of the British film industry is wrong; only that you cannot be sure it is the right decision if it is as disorganised and as ill-informed as this. The decisions of the government may be right or wrong – but they are certainly bad decisions. You can access the report of the National Audit Office on the financial management of DCMS here, but it is worth quoting paragraph 2.55:

… the Department [of Culture, Media, and Sport] announced the closure of UK Film Council in July 2010, but it had not performed sufficient analysis of the financial implications of the decision. It announced the transfer of functions four months later, but still had no formal arrangements in place as to which Film Council staff would transfer to other bodies. It had also not calculated the expected costs of closure, although it had decided the transfer of functions would take place on 1 April 2011.

The Guardian (here) reported earlier this month that the wind-down cost of abolishing the UK Film Council is £11.3 million. We do not yet know how much cheaper the new BFI will be.

The Report of the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee on arts and heritage funding published on 22 March 2011 (here) was also very critical of the decision-making at DCMS, while recognising that there was scope for cost savings at the UK Film Council:

The abolition of the UK Film Council was handled very badly by the Government. We would not expect a decision with such significant implications for the film industry to be sprung on the UK Film Council with little discussion or consultation. It is extremely regrettable that a film-maker of the stature of Tim Bevan has, as a result, decided to take no further part in Government-sponsored initiatives.

If you want to read a really good debate on the government’s film policy and its recent decision-making then you should read the debate in the House of Lords from 7 March 2011 (column 1412 onwards). You can access Lords Hansard here, and by selecting the debates by date (on the left hand panel), then by ‘Debates and Oral Answers’ (below the calendar), and then by ‘Amendment 65A’ from the index you can read the full debate.


Regional shorts, 2007-2009

Back in 2009 I looked at the regional distribution of feature film production in the UK (here and here), but it is short films that account for a significant proportion of production (if not of actual cash). There are some parts of the UK where feature films are few and far between (mainly rural areas, but Herefordshire Shropshire in particular) and where short films are substantially more important. This post uses data from the Internet Movie Database to describe (roughly) the geographical distribution of British short film production in the UK from 2007 to 2009.


Getting data on short film production is difficult – there is no definitive register of short films produced in the UK and the UK Film Council does not track this type production. (In fact the UK Film Council does not track feature film production with budgets below £500,000). There is also no data collected on the geography of film production in the UK. To estimate the geographical distribution of short film production, I used the advanced search function of the Internet Movie Database to search for UK short films released or completed from 2007 to 2009 inclusive that were produced in specific geographical locations (e.g Essex, Yorkshire, Scotland, etc.) and then sorting these by government standard region (North West, East Midlands, Scotland, etc).

The presentation of the data is based on the same assumptions that I used in the earlier posts:

  • Where a film is produced in more than one region, then this counts as one connection to each region. As a film may be produced in more than one region, the total number of connections exceeds the total number of films.
  • A film has a single connection to region only, even if numerous locations within that region were used.
  • Production at a studio is classed as production activity in a region (e.g., production at Shepperton takes place in Surrey and so is classed as South East England).

Documentaries and music videos are not included, but animations are included.

Collecting data in this way has its limitations. First, it is not known how many films were produced but not listed on the Internet Movie Database, and so we cannot know the overall level of production. The figures presented here are therefore estimates only, and allow us look at the relative differences between different regions rather than the absolute differences. Second, we can only estimate the distribution of production and not the level of production – we do not know how much has been spent in each region. In other words, we can estimate the range but not the depth of short film production in the UK.

Given these caveats, I still think that this is a worthwhile exercise as I have not come across a similar survey of production for short films. (I am aware of the futility of this exercise given the proposed reorganisation of the film industry at the regional level).


These search criteria produced a data set of 1143 films, which accounted for a total of 1222 connections. These films range in duration from 1 minute to 40 minutes, and in budget (where stated) from £10 to £200,000.

Figure 1 presents the total number of productions in each region, and as we would expect it is dominated by London, which accounts for 47% of the total number of connections. The South East accounts for 12% of the total. If we take the three regions in south-eastern England together (ie London, the South East, and East), account for 64% of the total number of connections. The South West is third with 8% and Scotland fourth at 6%. The North East has the lowest level of production, and this reflects the low level of feature film production identified in the earlier post. Northern Ireland, the East Midlands, and the West Midlands also show low levels of production in both short and feature film production.

Figure 1 Number of UK short films produced in each region, 2007 to 2009

Table 1 presents a breakdown of the number of UK short films to shoot in each region by year.  London shows the greatest variation over this time period. The dominance of London accounts for the large change in the year on year totals. The number of short films produced in Wales doubles from 2007 to 2008, with a further small increase. Production in the South West also shows a large increase followed by a substantial decrease. Levels of production are relatively stable over the period 2007 to 2009 for the other regions.

Table 1 UK short film production by region and year

The changes in the relative performance of the different regions can be more clearly seen by looking at the year by year ranks of each region, and these are presented in Table 2. We can see that, in general, the rank of a region is stable over the time period covered. There are two notable changes in Table 2: Wales moves up the ranking from 10.5 in 2007 to 5 in 2009, and this reflects the sharp increase in the number of productions noted in Table 1; and the North West has slipped from 3 to 7, but as there is no large drop off in the number of films produced this may be due to the variation in the number of films produced in this and other regions. The large variation in the number of productions in the South West has not substantially changed its ranking.

Table 2 Yearly ranks of region for UK short film production

There is very little interaction between the regions, and of the films included in the survey only 65 were produced in more than one region and 7 were produced in three regions. Where these interactions did occur, they were predominantly between London and another region. The South East (29) and East (10) were the regions with greatest number of connections to London – but this is unsurprising as these are the regions that border London.

Death of Screen Yorkshire

On Tuesday 18 January 2011, Screen Yorkshire, the regional screen agency for the Yorkshire and Humber region, announced that it was entering into ‘a consultation process with a number of staff regarding the future of their posts as part of an ongoing review of the future of the organisation.’ The actual announcement can be read here.

Screen Yorkshire’s announcement followed from the previous night’s (17 January 2011) BBC Look North (Yorkshire) which led with the story that the agency had run out of money and was making staff redundant following the government’s decision to abolish the UK Film Council, the regional screen agencies, and the regional development agencies. A contract with Yorkshire Forward worth £10.2 million to promote the screen industries will end in March 2011. Since Screen Yorkshire is a regional screen agency jointly funded by the UK Film Council and Yorkshire Forward, the regional development agency, this was inevitable. The government has proposed that as part of its restructuring of the industry that three major production hubs should be established in the UK as part of ‘Creative England,’ and the one for the North (covering the North East, the North West, and Yorkshire and Humber) is to be located at Manchester.

BBC Look North (Yorkshire) announces that Screen Yorkshire has run out of funding (17/01/11)

According to reports, the ‘restructuring’ will see up to 15 of the agency’s 19 members of staff made redundant.

Screen Yorkshire’s situation is not unique:

  • Last December, North West Vision+Media announced that 25 posts were under review out of a total staffing of 35, and that it’s funding beyond March 2011 is also unclear. However, this is less of a problem due to the government’s decision to locate a Creative England hub in Manchester. Staff at Vision+Media are already working four-day weeks following 20% pay cuts in November 2010.
  • Screen East went into liquidation last year with debts of £4 million, and this is a region that is close to London and includes Leavesden Studios (where the Star Wars prequels were shot).

Screen Yorkshire has announced that it will continue to deliver its existing contracts over the next year, but it seems likely that it will not be able to function properly as a regional screen agency from April 1 until the creation of the ‘Creative England’ hub for the North. The due diligence process for replacing the UK Film Council with the ‘new BFI’ has not been completed, and no plans for ‘Creative England’ have been released by the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport. Although one round of consultations has apparently been completed on the ‘new BFI’ and Creative England, the next round has not yet begun, while the reality of the recession is overtaking the regional screen agencies. This is not an orderly transition from one policy regime to another, and the fact that we are seeing regional screen agencies running out of funding before the final decisions about the future of film institutions have been taken only reinforces the image of film policy at the DCMS under Jeremy Hunt and Ed Vaizey as incoherent, poorly planned, and incompetently executed.

The future of bodies such as Screen Yorkshire may be in providing regional support outside of the major CE hubs, but this is a return to the days of the old screen commissions of the 1990s when bodies such as the Yorkshire Screen Commission, based in Sheffield, were the only source of contact for producers from both within and without. These commissions had low levels of staffing and were largely cut off from the other bodies responsible for film policy. The introduction of the regional screen agencies was, in part, supposed to remedy precisely this problem. As I have discussed elsewhere, part of the introduction of the regional screen agencies was a process of bureaucratization and professionalization that saw specialized staff hired to fulfil specific roles on a full-time basis in an organized manner. (See Redfern N 2005 Film in the English regions, International Journal of Regional and Local Studies 1 (2): 52-64). Under the government’s announced restructuring of film policy, Yorkshire will have no dedicated film body, with production/funding/distribution funding distributed from Manchester and Film London responsible for promoting locations. If Screen Yorkshire can survive in some form to fulfil this role then that will at least preserve some useful knowledge and key relationships at the regional level. If it cannot, then that bureaucratization and professionalization will be undone.

The impact will not only be felt in the film and television industries, but will also have severe consequences for video games developers in the region. Game Republic is a part of Screen Yorkshire, and the loss of funding to the regional screen agency will lead to the closure of the network unless funding can be secured from private sources.

This story has been followed up by (here), The Guardian (here and here), The Telegraph and Argus (here), Yorkshire Evening Post (here), The New Statesman (here), The Stage (here), The Drum (here), and Develop (here).

Death of the BFI

Ed Vaizey, the Minister for Culture and Creative Industries, announced on Monday the government’s pans for reforming the UK Film Council, the British Film Institute, and the Regional Screen Agencies. The full text of the speech can be accessed at the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) website here. Today, I will go through this speech piece by piece to give it some context and identify some problems and questions that need to be addressed.

Throughout I will include links to online papers of research on the British film industry as they are relevant to my discussion. Not every link will be to the full paper, and some papers will not be the final published version. Some general papers that are useful to read include:

Dickenson M and Harvey S 2005 Film policy in the United Kingdom: New Labour at the movies, Political Quarterly 76 (3): 420-429.

Magor M and Schlesinger P 2009 ‘For this relief much thanks:’ Taxation, film policy and the UK government, Screen 50 (3): 299-317. DOI:10.1093/screen/hjp017.

Redfern N 2007 Defining British cinema: transnational and territorial film policy in the UK, Journal of British Cinema and Television 4 (1): 150-164. DOI 10.3366/JBCTV.2007.4.1.150.

Other useful research articles can be accessed from my earlier collection of papers on the British film industry here.

The New BFI

It has been widely reported in the British press that the BFI has been given control of film policy and that the UK Film Council has been disbanded. This is not the case. What we call the BFI will cease to exist. What will replace it will be some new institution called the BFI that is the UK Film Council in all but name plus the old BFI. The BFI is dead. Long live the BFI.

The section that introduces the government’s major decision in restructuring the UK’s film institutions begins with the following assertion:

We need a new strategic body to oversee the future development of film in this country.

There is no justification given for this statement – it is simply asserted. The decision to disband the UK Film Council was (we were informed) part of a general cost-cutting exercise to reduce the size of the UK’s public debt. That was why the BFI lost £45 million of funding for the BFI Film Centre in June 2010. Now the game has changed, and the restructuring of the UK’s film institutions is part of a strategic plan (which no-one has seen) that is apparently so necessary it cannot wait. Is this decision the product of an economic or political process? It appeared to be one and now it’s the other – when did that change? If we need to cut costs in a recession then fair enough; but if we need a new approach to film policy then this is neither the responsible nor the democratic way to do it.

In fact, this plan is neither new nor cost-saving.

There is quite simply nothing original in the government’s decision to merge the UK Film Council and the BFI. Last year, the Labour government proposed giving control of the BFI to the UK Film Council. The DCMS press release for the proposed merger dated 20 August 2009 can be read in full here, but it is worth considering this quote from that press release in the context of Monday’s speech.

The overall remit of the BFI and UKFC will not be reduced. The proposal is for a streamlined organisation, which can spend more of its money on film and services and less on infrastructure, and in turn offer better support for Britain’s film culture and promotion of its film industry. Its remit would span securing investment across the sector, steering the industry through the transition to digital, championing the cultural importance of the UK’s film heritage and guaranteeing that the full diversity of film culture is available to all.

The announcement on Monday made it clear that the current government intends to do exactly the same thing, only they are going to call it the BFI instead of the UK Film Council. Nonetheless, Vaizey describes his speech as ‘an exciting new vision for the British film industry.’ Under Labour’s scheme the BFI would have retained a separate identity as a provider of educational and heritage services due to the fact that it is a registered charity and was established with a royal charter. The Conservative plan will simply create a single body responsible film policy, production investment, training, information gathering, heritage, and education.

This means the end of the BFI as we know it, and will require a new royal charter for the BFI along with a review of its status as a registered charity. This was acknowledged by Amanda Nevill, Director of the BFI, in 2009 when the merger of the UK Film Council and the BFI was originally proposed, as you can read in her letter here. A new royal charter will not be difficult to implement – they are renewed and updated as the law changes and (as far as I can recall) the current charter dates from 2000. The charitable status will probably prove to be more difficult to deal with: the ‘new BFI’ will now be responsible for directly providing funding to private corporations for commercial benefit, which is an interesting definition of ‘charity.’ Of course, this was always the case for Lottery funding for the film industry (which hardly meets the definition of ‘good cause’), but the UK Film Council was an arm’s-length government body and not a registered charity. I assume that the ‘new BFI’ will have similar status as a government-backed body and not as a charity.

The need to restructure was sold to the British public as a need to cut costs and improve accountability in a time of economic hardship, but it would appear that the money saved by this reorganisation is only £3 million. There was nothing in the speech about how much it is going to cost to implement these reforms. Furthermore, this money will be invested in film production (as it would have been under Labour) and will not be used to reduce the expense of quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations (QUANGOS) to the British taxpayer. Greg Dyke, the current Chairman of the BFI, was quoted in The Guardian as saying

We [the BFI] can certainly do it significantly cheaper … how much cheaper we don’t know yet. The UK Film Council carried quite a large overhead.

Surely the rationale for this restructuring is that it would be cheaper and it was known that it would be cheaper.* If the BFI don’t know how much cheaper it is going to be, what then is the basis for the projected saving of £3 million? Why wasn’t a proper audit conducted prior to the decision to abolish the UK Film Council? It is also important to remember that the BFI that will apparently be much cheaper is not the BFI as it exists now, but will be the ‘new BFI’ (i.e. the UK Film Council and the BFI merged together) and no-one knows how much overhead that will carry. If the decision has been made on the basis of the current BFI that will cease to exist next year, then this is stupidity of the highest order. With the transfer of the (potential) £3 million from administration costs to production investment the actual saving to the taxpayer in the short-term is zero, and this does not include the cost of the restructuring. Overall, this is an old plan originally proposed last year that has no basis in fact (as admitted by Dyke), and has been conducted at an indecent pace. In March 2010 (when the Labour government was pursuing its plan for restructuring), the saving was estimated by the Hollywood Reporter to be £10 million per year by 2012/2013 (here). Perhaps the new government’s plan will save this much by then – given that it is essentially the same plan as that of the previous government we should not be surprised if they make similar predictions and produce similar results. But has anyone seen any evidence that the current government’s decision to create a new BFI would be substantially cheaper than the Labour plan to hand control of the BFI to the UK Film Council? As the due diligence process is now beginning after the decision has been taken, does any evidence of substantial savings exist at all? If it does, why hasn’t it been made available to taxpayers?

Perhaps I’m being too hard. Perhaps there is something truly original in this speech that will fundamentally transform the British film industry. At one point Vaizey praises the BFI for its ability to reach many different audiences:

It has the breadth and depth to support excellence and high quality film, while also developing audiences for British films, through its distribution and exhibition arm, which already services more than 600 venues, from remote screenings in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland to the Imax in London.

Is the new BFI going to function as a state-funded distributor for British films as this sentence implies? Probably not – even though this would make a far larger difference to the British cinema.

Creative England

The nine English regional screen agencies (RSAs) are to be disbanded and replaced with a single organisation – Creative England – that will be organised around three production hubs based in the north, the midlands, and the south (though we don’t have any detail on where they will be).

The name ‘Creative England’ is vague and does not feature the words ‘film,’ ‘cinema,’ ‘media,’ ‘screen,’ ‘television,’ or ‘moving image.’ This body will replace not only the RSAs, but also their umbrella organisation Screen England. Why could this name not be retained so that the emphasis on the film/television/media/video game industries could be made explicit? ‘Creative England’ is precisely the sort of title that one would give to a general body responsible for the arts and/or creative industries in England if the decision were made to remove the Arts Council of England (ACE) from existence. Is the government creating a specifically film orientated set of institutions to replace the RSAs? Or is Creative England going to be a much larger organisation for all the creative industries? This is exactly what happened with Creative Scotland, which was created from the merger of Scottish Screen and the Scottish Arts Council, and focusses on the ‘arts, screen, and creative industries.’ The creation of Creative England would suggest that this will happen in the English regions (not including London, of course) – there will be one body that includes the screen industries but which is also responsible for areas of the arts and creative industries. This will inevitably harm the film industry outside London, and is a very bad thing indeed.

There are some parts of the country where levels of film production is very low – the North, the West Midlands, and the East Midlands. The South West, the North West, and Yorkshire and the Humber fare rather better. For data on the distribution of feature film production in the UK you can read my earlier posts here and here. The reduction of film production in England to four hubs – London, plus three others – will inevitably impoverish some parts of the UK. This will hit those parts of the UK where heavy industry has declined and in which new digital and media-based businesses have been expected to reinvigorate the local economy. A recent article in The Sunday Times by Rod Liddle looked at the example of Middlesbrough, and noted just such a development. These places will lose their regionally specific support, making economic recovery and regeneration that much harder. There does not appear to be any plan for maintaining local agglomeration effects with only a single hub between a group of regions.

Why does the south of England get another hub in addition to London? Presumably this hub will have to be based in the South West – the government region in the south furthest from London – as the East, South East, and London will be amply covered by Film London. This will create a situation where the midlands and the north of England (not to mention Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) are outgunned, and simply reintroduces the core-periphery model that the RSAs were intended to counterbalance.

On the role of networks and the presence of the BBC in a production market I recommend Gail Davies’ Ph.D. thesis from University College London: Davies G 1998 Networks of Nature: Stories of Natural History Filmmaking from the BBC, University College, London: unpublished Ph.D. thesis.

On clustering, cultural industries, and film and television in the UK see Turok I 2003 Cities, clusters, and creative industries: the case of film and television in Scotland, European Planning Studies 11 (5):  549-565.

The ‘new BFI’ will have to be an improvement on the old BFI in its relationship with the regions. The BFI was strongly criticised in the UK Film Council’s report Film in England in 2001 (read the report here). The main areas of criticism were that too great a proportion of funding was spent on activities in London at the expense of the regions, that the support for education programmes outside London was inconsistent and direct funding had been minimal, the failure to put into place a coherent planning framework for the regions, and the perception that the regions were simply delivery mechanisms for BFI products and services. The failure of the BFI was the reason the UK Film Council  and the Regional Screen Agencies were created. The BFI is simply not a body with a record of success in building and sustaining film policy in the UK and nothing has changed in the past decade to suggest that it will become such an institution – but then this won’t matter next year because the BFI that failed in the past will no longer exist. If the ‘old’ BFI attitude re-emerges then in ten years time we will simply have another restructuring that takes us back to where we are now.

This decision also raises the question of the government’s general economic policy with regard to the regions of the UK. The development of regional film policy in the UK since 2000 did not emerge in isolation, but was part of a wider Labour programme of economic development for the arts and the wider economy that sought to develop business clusters and agglomeration effects. It was largely inspired by the work of Michael Porter, as can be seen in this annex to a report from the Department of Trade and Industry from 2001. Regional film policy under New Labour should be interpreted in the context of this broader economic policy framework for the regions. What is the new policy framework for the regions and the film industry in the regions under the coalition government? Again, you have to wonder about the logic of this decision in the absence of a clear answer to this question.

It would appear that the government intends to have no regional film policy.

On the subject of regional film policy in the UK, you can access Jack Newsinger’s Ph.D. thesis at Nottingham University: Newsinger J 2009 From the Grassroots: Regional Film Policy and Practice in England, University of Nottingham, unpublished Ph.D. thesis.

Film London

Film London will not be included as a part of Creative England, and will take on an international rather than a regional role. Film London is to be handed responsibility for promoting the UK to international producers as a whole. In and of itself not a major change in policy, though it is disappointing that this could not be given a name to reflect the whole nation. From the perspective of the English regions little will probably change – they are already dominated by London and will remain so. Of more concern is what will happen to Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. In my essay I noted that Scotland and Northern Ireland had some connections with the global film industry independent of London. By making Film London responsible for promoting the UK as whole, this will force filmmakers in these regions to go through London where previously they may have been able to work directly with producers from outside the UK. It will be necessary to follow-up my research in five years time to see if there has been any loss of autonomy. Again, this will only entrench a core-periphery model that we were supposed to have seen consigned to the past.

I looked the relationship between the regions and London in my paper ‘Connecting the regional and the global in the UK film industry,’ a draft version of which can be accessed here. My essay was published in Transnational Cinemas last week, and as of Monday’s speech is now out of date! Redfern N 2010 Connecting the regional and the global in the UK film industry, Transnational Cinemas 1 (2) 2010: 145-160. DOI: 10.1386/trac.1.2.145_1.

Supporting British Film

In his speech, Vaizey also took the time to commend Odeon cinemas who have introduced a new scheme to promote British films to audiences. Odeon Premiere Card holders will be rewarded with extra points if they go to see a British film. The Odeon website will promote British films, and will recommend a ‘British film of the Month.’ Odeon will consider giving guaranteed support to a ‘British film of the month.’

Can there be anything more depressing than the fact that support for the British films on cinema screens has been reduced to a loyalty card? The Eady Levy may not have worked, but at least it was not an insult to the intelligence. Odeon’s other commitments are pathetic. Would Odeon – or any other exhibitor – screen any film that it did not promote on its website? They would have a truly unique approach to marketing if they did. Odeon has not even committed to screening one British film a month – they are only considering it. They have not defined what British means in this context – Vaizey cites Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part 1 as a successful British film, but surely Odeon’s commitment to promoting British cannot be limited to such studio films they would have shown anyway. We are promised a wider choice of British film, but they don’t define what they mean by this either. (There are no details on the Odeon website). Nonetheless, Vaizey praises Odeon in his speech for supporting British film ‘as much as they can.’ It’s just that this turns out to be not very much at all.

The UK and Hollywood

The contradictory nature of UK film policy in this speech can be identified in the statements regarding the British national cinema and Hollywood. On the one hand we have the ever-elusive goal of what Vaizey refers to as a ‘sustainable, independent British film industry;’ while on the other we have the rejection of the opinion that the growth of the British film industry must come at the expense of US production in the UK. Vaizey refers to ‘some people’ – he does not say who – who belive these aims are contradictory.

I do not see this as necessarily being a problem. I think that it is important to maintain a distinction between ‘British national cinema,’ which is that part of our film culture and film industry that is specifically British (however you wish to go about defining that); and the ‘UK film industry,’ which is the totality of film production, distribution, and exhibition activity within the United kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland including British national cinema. (See my 2007 paper on defining British cinema for how this can work – the link is at the head of this post). It is possible for film policy to seek to develop both ‘British national cinema’ and the ‘UK film industry.’ Indeed, it is desirable that it should do so. Attempts to create a ‘sustainable, independent British cinema’ are not inimical to the goal of positioning the UK film industry in the world as a production hub, and it is foolish to argue otherwise. Almost certainly, one will not survive with the other.

There is nothing remotely controversial about Vaizey’s statement that the film industries of the UK and the US are intimately connected and this connection should be maintained. It would suicide to behave in any other manner. It’s just that if he wants to create a ‘sustainable, independent British film industry’ while maintaining American investment, then he has to say how this is going to be achieved. It would help if he defined what was meant by ‘sustainable,’ ‘independent,’ and ‘British’ in this context. A film industry that relies of government subsidy, that requires government intervention to create and fund a body to lobby for a film industry that could not do this for itself, and that is overwhelmingly dependent on investment from another country doe not sound very sustainable, independent, or British. This is of course the great problem of British film policy that every government has so far failed to deal with, and so it is unfair to berate this government as being especially incapable. But there is nothing innovative in this ‘exciting new vision for the British film industry’ that suggests they will be any more successful than anyone else.

Tax Incentives and subsidies

The one good thing to be made clear by this speech is that the tax incentive for production will be maintained and (one hopes) not subject to the sort of endless interfering witnessed prior to 2006. This financial measure is by far the most important for film production in the UK to be competitive in a global market, and the fact that it will continue uninterrupted is more important than rearranging the management structure of the BFI.

Increased investment from the BBC and Channel 4 are also referenced, but as the BBC’s funding from the licence fee is cut and the television advertising market is in the toilet this is not a long-term strategy. (There was an interesting piece in the Guardian on Monday about declining DVD sales and what this will mean for BBC Worldwide – read it here). Vaizey notes that Sky does not invest significantly in film production and hopes that this will change in the future. This is as close to criticism of a Rupert Murdoch-owned media outlet as a Conservative MP has ever come.

We are also told that the Lottery money available for investment in British film will rise from £27 million per year to £43 million by 2014. This is apparently is evidence of the government’s ‘commitment to film’ but turns out to be the money that would have been available anyway had it not been diverted to pay for the 2012 Olympic games. Vaizey is very keen to stress the ‘commitment to film,’ as the Conservatives have a poor record of dealing with the industry going back to the 1980s; but he is taking credit for this ‘increase’ in funding without actually doing anything. This does, of course, raise a number of questions about what sort of state the British film industry would be in had the money not been spent on the Olympics , and no doubt we will have some research to provide the answers in due course.

What is missing from the speech?

Originality, logic, daring, creativity, policy, basic accountancy, a detailed description of what will actually happen – take your pick.

Three issues do stand out.

First, the statement issued by Tim Cagney (here), Managing Director of the UK Film Council, included the following paragraph:

A number of important areas of film activity which are currently funded by the UK Film Council – including film exports, research, statistics and market intelligence, work on intellectual property and combating film theft, co-production support and diversity initiatives – have not been mentioned in the DCMS announcement today.

As the ‘new BFI’ will essentially be the UK Film Council in all but name with responsibility for the National Film Archive and BFI Southbank, I assume that these functions will be transferred to the new body (though I wouldn’t be too hopeful for the diversity initiatives). These areas are, however, much easier to dispose of than core activities such as distributing lottery funding and will be at some risk for cost-cutting. I’m not convinced that research and market intelligence are within the government’s remit – the former lies within the scope of academia and both are also the province of the film sector itself. We should not see a downturn in either, although accessing relevant material may become harder and/or more expensive. If public money (i.e. tax incentives and Lottery funding) is to be spent on the film industry, then statistics must be collected so that public can understand and assess how its money is spent.

Although there is some discussion of the UK film industry’s place in the world, this is framed entirely in terms of its relationship to the United States. Europe and India are not mentioned at all. As I showed in my post on UK film production and the world last month (here), the number of US films with budgets of £500,000 of greater to be produced in the UK has been relatively stable over the period 2003 to 2009, whereas there has been a substantial decline in the number of connections to other important production partners (i.e. France, Germany, Canada, Spain, Italy, Ireland) following the introduction of the cultural test in 2005. The US is the most important source of production investment in the UK and the UK film industry has benefitted from the favourable exchange rate of the past couple of years; but as the economic situation changes, this advantage will disappear and without a diverse production base the UK will not be able to make up the loss from the UK with production investment from elsewhere. Over the past few years the British film industry has become increasingly one-dimensional, and this will not change unless a broader international perspective is taken. Confusing the ‘global film industry’ with the ‘American film industry’ is a foolish approach to film policy.

Perhaps most importantly, there is no mention of distribution in this speech. There is money for production, and Odeon cinemagoers will get a loyalty card so that takes care of exhibition; but the film industry is distribution-led and the UK does not have a distribution policy. It has not had one since the quota was (rightly) abolished in the 1985, and we have no prospect of one in the future. The section on the UK and Hollywood did not address the fundamental problem with making British films successful – the distribution market is dominated by global media empires (but which have as US bias) that put rubbish like The Bucket List and Rocky Balboa on hundreds of screens but have no incentive to distribute British films. Certainly there are a lot of very poor British films – the worst film ever made is 24 Hours in London – but there is way too much American crap backed powerful distributors clogging up too many multiplex screens that could be put to far better use. There is no point producing British films if they do not get an opportunity to earn any money through well-funded marketing campaigns and sufficiently wide releases. If the object of government policy is to create a sustainable, independent British film industry then this must include distribution.


So what did we learn on Monday?

  • The government does not have any original ideas for film policy, and has simply implemented Labour’s plan from last year with a different name.
  • There is a lack of detail about the justification for the reform of the UK’s film institutions.
  • The UK Film Council and the BFI will not exist by this time next year. An institution called the ‘British Film Institute’ will exist, but it will be completely different to the one we have now.
  • The savings to be made by reconstituting the BFI in the manner proposed are small (if any) and will not be passed on to the taxpayer, despite the fact that this was the ostensible purpose behind the abolition of the UK Film Council.
  • The government is apparently abandoning film policy at the regional level.
  • The English regions will probably end up with no dedicated film body, and will be subject to a general arts and creative industries funding body. Only London it seems will retain a dedicated film body, and this will serve the whole country even though the ‘new BFI’ will be the national body.
  • The core-periphery model of the film industry is to be entrenched in favour of London (and to a lesser extent the south of England in general) at the expense of the rest of the country.
  • There are no serious policies for getting British films onto British cinema screens.
  • ‘International’ is apparently the same as ‘America,’ and other important global relationships are not mentioned.
  • Film policy in the UK remains focussed on production in a distribution-led industry.

The goal of a sustainable, independent British film industry will remain as elusive as ever.

* In tribute to Leslie Nielsen, I should as this point ask that you don’t call me Shirley.

Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996)

Adapted from Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same name (Welsh 1994), Trainspotting follows the lives of a group of friends in Edinburgh: the heroin addicts Renton, Spud, Sick Boy, Tommy, and the violent Begbie. Trainspotting has been held up as an example of a ‘new Scottish cinema,’ which leaves behind the stereotypes of tartanry and kailyardism imposed by filmmakers from outside the region, embraces urban and contemporary Scotland, and is the product of a definitively Scottish film industry. However, Trainspotting presents a number of challenges to the ideal of a Scottish cinema and the Scottishness that it represents that have been proposed by critics such as Martin McLoone (2001) and Colin McArthur (1982). In Ewa Mazierska and Laura Rascaroli’s opinion, Trainspotting ‘not only breaks with many traits typical of earlier cinematic representations of Scotland, but also demonstrates the difficulties of constructing a discourse conveying a new Scottish identity, which is meant to replace the old Tartan and Kailyard stereotypes’ (2003: 186). In this post I argue that these difficulties are overcome by Renton’s acceptance of a British identity that does not eradicate his Scottishness.

Though the film principally follows Renton’s attempts to quit heroin and to escape the negative influence of his ‘friends,’ it also tracks Tommy, Spud, and Sick Boy and links the characters through interweaving storylines. In allowing different versions the same story to be told the film shifts narrators: for example, in the telling of the different versions of the fight at the pool hall the film shifts between Renton’s narration of life among the group, Begbie’s self-serving recollection, and Tommy’s own memory. Diane also takes on a narrative role as a letter writer. The night-club sequence in Edinburgh crosscuts between Tommy and Spud’s, and Lizzie and Gail’s differing versions of the same conversations, and at the end of the night the syuzhet splits to follow three couples (Renton and Diane, Tommy and Lizzie, Spud and Gail) as they embark on their ill-fated sexual adventures. Unlike the other films discussed here, the group is shown as highly fragmented, leaving the unifying space of the night-club as they go their separate ways, and this highlights Renton’s alienation from his own surroundings. In the night-club he is shown standing to one side of the room while his friends mix on the dance floor, and the highly conscious use of Renton as narrator emphasises his distance from his peers:

The situation was becoming serious. Young Renton noticed the haste with which the successful in the sexual sphere, as in all others, segregated themselves from the failures. Heroin had robbed Renton of his sex drive but now it returned with a vengeance. And as the impotence of those days faded into memory, grim desperation took a hold in his sex-crazed mind. His post-junk libido fuelled buy alcohol and amphetamine taunted him remorselessly with his own unsatisfied desire – dot, dot, dot.

This voice-over heightens Renton’s isolation by having him refer to himself in the third person, and also its literary quality, with the emphasis placed on the spoken ellipsis, signals his dual role as both a participant in the narrative action and as an observer looking in from the outside. The duration of this sequence is clearly indicated, moving from the night-club to the next morning, but in general Trainspotting lacks a defined time frame. For example, we do not know what the duration of the fabula is, how long Renton has been in London, or the amount of time that passes between Tommy experimenting with heroin and his death. Though the syuzhet is basically linear, with some flashbacks and some flashforwards, the structure of the film is episodic. The pool hall sequence, for example, jumps from the present to Begbie’s version of the past, to the future in which Tommy gives his version of events, and back to the present without specifying how much time has passed between the three elements of this sequence.

Like the hybrid films Sarah Street (1997) identifies as being ‘British’ in the 1980s, Trainspotting also cuts across genres mixing realism with fantasy, offering the characters what Murray Smith describes as ‘the redemption of material impoverishment through aesthetic transformation.’ In Smith’s view, the film ‘depicts poverty realistically, but in a way that encompasses the possibility of escape as well as entrapment,’ and in exploiting the aesthetics of film draws ‘a kind of vitality from grinding poverty’ (2002: 33). However, this redemption through aesthetics is not achievable in Scotland and is only fulfilled in the film’s London sequences. The episode in ‘the worst toilet in Scotland’ exposes the distance between Renton’s fantasy and his reality. Entering the rear of the betting shop he imagines a ‘massive pristine convenience. Brilliant gold taps, virginal white marble, a seat carved from ebony, a cistern full of Chanel No. 5, and a flunky handing me pieces of raw silk toilet roll.’ What he actually finds is far from this ideal image, and the sheer ugliness of the toilet is contrasted with the lagoon Renton enters into to recover his opium suppositories. Later, the film uses this distinction between the real and the unreal to represent the horror of Renton’s withdrawal. In Scotland fantasy is related to the use of heroin as a means of transforming the dullness of the real world into heightened sensory experience, but what redemption may be achieved is only temporary, and can be equally euphoric or traumatic. In London this heightened sensory experience is manifest in the depiction of the city as an ideal space, and with its fast cutting, pumping soundtrack, bright colours, and excess of information made available to the viewer the film provides the sensory overload that has previously been associated with heroin. Unlike heroin, the redemption offered by London is permanent and without drawbacks.

Scottishness is not displayed in an ostentatious way, and it has been noted that Trainspotting fails to display the tourist attractions of Edinburgh on screen (Street 1997: 197-199). Instead, Scottishness is portrayed as something that is banal. Michael Billig has developed the idea of banal nationalism to,

cover the ideological habits which enable the established nations of the West to be reproduced. … these habits are not removed from everyday life, as some observers have supposed. Daily, the nation is indicated, or ‘flagged,’ in the lives of its citizenry. Nationalism, far from being an intermittent mood in established nations, is the endemic condition (Billig 1995: 6).

Billig argues that in established nations, the ‘metonymic image of banal nationalism is not a flag which is being consciously waved with a fervent passion; it is the flag hanging unnoticed on the public building’ (Billig 1995: 8). In Trainspotting it is the regional identity of Scotland that is represented as being banal, and this stands in stark contrast to the hot nationalism – ‘an extraordinary, emotional mood striking at extraordinary times’ (Billig 1995: 44) – of Britishness that is evident in the exhibitionist display of London later in the film.

The regional specificity of the film is established through the Scottish accents of the characters and the subtle use of mise-en-scène. The characters converse in Scottish accents and Scottish slang, and in the night-club sequence in Scotland Spud and Tommy’s conversation is subtitled, emphasising its distinctiveness and the difficulty non-Scottish audiences have in understanding Scottish accents. When Tommy describes Lizzie’s anger at him forgetting her birthday, he states that she was upset ‘big time, absolutely fuckin’ raj,’ but this is subtitled as ‘very.’ The five-a-side game at the beginning of the film sees Renton and Begbie wearing green and white shirts in homage to one of the Edinburgh teams, Hibernian, and as Renton endures his horrific withdrawal Hibs pennants and rosettes adorn the walls of his bedroom. This clearly indicates that the characters share their allegiance with a particular part of Edinburgh and that they are a part of the city’s catholic community, but the value of this allegiance is doubtful. The shabby state of their kit echoes their economic marginalisation and low-rent lifestyle, and this is juxtaposed with the considerably more talented and more organised opposition in their blue kit. Significantly, Begbie’s Hibs shirt is a replica in the style of the 1960s, and in reflecting the mid-1990s craze for ‘classic’ football shirts this links him to a nostalgic vision of the past. The childish nature of Renton’s room, being at his parent’s home with its train-patterned wallpaper, indicates that Renton is stuck in his youth. Taken together this suggests that Scottishness is holding Renton back. Smith (2002: 24) notes that Renton’s replacement of Tommy’s sex tape with a football video links the passion for football with sexual ecstasy, but Renton’s observation that he has not felt that good since Archie Gemmill scored against Holland in the 1978 World Cup suggests that Scottish glories lie in the past. Renton, Begbie, et al. cannot escape the Scottishness that is a part of their everyday existence, but that Scottishness is represented as economically poor, infantalising, and trapped in a nostalgic discourse of popular culture in Scotland. Heroin represents an escape from this life: it is Renton’s forced withdrawal that returns him to his childhood bedroom, and, as he states, there is no need to worry about ‘some football team that never fuckin’ wins’ when you’ve got heroin. Heroin represents an escape from Scotland, and unlike most of the films here, the source of Renton’s alienation is not London but is the idea of Scottishness itself in the 1980s. In fact, Renton’s observation that the ‘downside of coming off junk was I knew I would have to mix with my friends again, in a state of full consciousness,’ and his decision to take one final hit on the way to the big drug deal in the company of Spud, Sick Boy, and Begbie suggests that heroin is the only way with which he can cope with Scottishness.

The idea of a Scottish national identity is challenged throughout the film. The ‘official’ tourist ideal of Scotland is removed from the everyday experiences of the characters, and Renton expresses the rejection of ‘official’ Scotland in the film’s most famous sequence as he, Tommy, Spud, and Sick Boy visit the highlands. Gesturing to the mountain, Tommy appeals to their sense of national pride (Figure 1):

Tommy: Doesn’t it make you proud to be Scottish?

Renton: It’s shite being Scottish. We’re the lowest of the low; the scum o’ the fuckin’ earth. The most wretched, miserable, servile, pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilisation. Some people hate the English – I don’t, they’re just wankers. We on the other hand were colonised by wankers; can’t even find a decent culture to be colonised by. We’re ruled by effete arseholes; it’s a shite state of affairs to be in, Tommy, and all the fresh air in the world won’t make any fuckin’ difference.

In Edinburgh the addicts typically walk from one place to another, but to reach the highlands they take a train and this shows that it is a part of Scotland that is physically removed from their lives and that an exceptional effort has to be made. The strangeness of this environment is evident in Sick Boy’s demands for instruction on arrival (‘Now What?’), and his shock at Tommy’s suggestion they go for a walk (‘Are you serious?’). The silence and tranquillity of the Scottish mountains is a feature of advertising campaigns to attract tourists to Scotland, and in this context represents ‘hot’ nationalism masquerading as the everyday. However, Spud’s observation that the landscape is ‘not natural’ signals the remoteness of this idea of Scotland from the housing scheme the characters inhabit in Edinburgh, and points to the fact that ‘Scotland’ is a construction that marginalises many Scots. In one sequence an American tourist enters a pub, and asks to use the toilet and simply assumes their compliance without waiting for a reply. Once in the toilet he is repeatedly assaulted and robbed, and the value of tourism to the Scottish economy is to be found, as far as Renton and Begbie are concerned, in the opportunity for crime to fuel their addictions.

Figure 1 ‘Doesn’t it make you proud to be Scottish?’ The tourist vision of Scotland that is rejected by Renton

As Renton and Spud run through the streets of Edinburgh having shoplifted from John Menzies they pass in front of the National Gallery of Scotland. By dividing the screen aesthetically, a long shot represents the relationship between the life of the Renton and Spud, and of ‘official’ Scotland as being distinct and separate: the gallery stands impassive in the background, static and oblivious to the action before it, while the two addicts sprint across the foreground. The vertical columns of the gallery echo the vertical lines of the title shot, of the flats as Renton walks to the betting shop, and of the group as tourists in the Highlands and the mountain itself. In all these sequences the horizontal cuts across the vertical, indicating that Renton’s life is on a different axis, and the static, frontal camera further suggests that this state of affairs will not (can not?) change.

Whether it is the heroin addicts, Begbie’s pursuit of violence for its own sake, or Renton’s mother, whose use of valium renders her a ‘socially acceptable’ addict, everyone in Trainspotting is addicted to something. It is something that is endemic to Scotland, and Scottishness itself may be interpreted as an addiction, which like heroin affords a means of escaping the reality of the council estates, underemployment, and social exclusion. The un-naturalness of the highlands is one example of how the ‘real’ problems of Scotland may be elided through an unquestioned belief in an image of Scotland. The addictive quality of Scottishness is also evident in Sick Boy’s obsession with Sean Connery as James Bond, which as Renton observes is hardly a substitute for the former’s lack of moral fibre. At one point, Sick Boy plays the role of heroin addict as secret agent with his works concealed in the heel of his shoe. Connery, as a signifier of Scottishness, is shown to be inherently corrupt, and in Sick Boy’s opinion is not to be viewed as inherently better to the rest of Edinburgh but as a part of the same world. He rejects the hypothesis that Ursula Andress represents Connery’s superiority, arguing that ‘if she’s shagged one punter from Edinburgh, she shagged the whole fucking lot of us.’ Sick Boy venerates Connery but it doing so he debases Connery’s iconic power by reducing him to just another ‘punter’ from Edinburgh.

Renton’s ultimate escape from heroin and from Scottishness lies in London. The representation of London is stylistically excessive: where there is an absence of images of Edinburgh we are treated to a deluge of images of London. The capital is represented through a series of tourist images (Tower Bridge, Carnaby Street, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square), and the use of the familiar signifiers of Britishness (black cabs, London buses). The representation of London is not constructed along the lines of the vertical and the horizontal that we have become used to in representing Edinburgh: Big Ben and Nelson’s Column jut in from the side of the screen at unusual angles, and rather than remaining static the camera twists and move around these well-known landmarks so that they are at once familiar and exotic (Figure 2). Unlike the relentless gloom of Edinburgh, London is shown in bright daylight; and where the former is dominated by a grey and brown colour scheme the latter is dominated by the vivid of red of the buses or the doorman’s coat and the metallic shine of the Lloyd’s building. This sequence represents an image of a British city that is marked by its multiculturalism, and includes shots Pearly Kings and Queens, tourists, a group of bikers, and of a black man playing a steel drum. This last shot implies that in modern Britain issues of colonisation can be overcome to create an inclusive community that inhabits a single space. Similarly, there is also a place for distinctive subcultures (the bikers), and the shots of the Pearly King and Queen places them on a London bus indicating that the distinctive regional cultures of the UK can be accommodated within the nation. Whereas Edinburgh is marked by its cultural homogeneity – all the Scottish characters are of the same ethnic and class grouping, and all hail from the same council estate on the margins of the city, London is a hybrid city. It is also a unified city – in the absence shots of the city from the air or panoramic views from the city’s highpoints Trainspotting does not define the overall space of Edinburgh, whereas the map that dominates the wall of the estate agents gives us a sense of the size and scale of London as a single entity.

Figure 2 Big Ben juts into the screen at an unusual angle

The image of Britishness that we are presented with is one that is open to all forms of identity, even Scottishness – Renton simply moves to London and gets a job with apparently no trouble at all. Despite his Scottish accent, he has no trouble in being understood. Renton takes a job as an estate agent, and this has two significant aspects. First, he is engaged in the selling of space. Unlike Edinburgh, where Renton’s experience of interior spaces is through squalor, drug use, faeces, boredom, and terror, as an estate agent he emphasises the positive aspects of London spaces and the opportunities they offer. Even his name, Renton, implies an intimate connection with the appropriation of space as aspirational. Second, he is shown to be participating and benefiting from the 1980s property boom. Trainspotting is thus perhaps only the second British film, alongside Chariots of Fire (Hugh Hudson, 1981), to present a favourable image of the United Kingdom in the Thatcher era. Renton’s experiences as a drug addict are even beneficial to him in London: he describes addiction as a ‘full-time business,’ though this business consists of breaking into cars, stealing televisions for elderly care homes, shoplifting, and mugging tourists, and one of the attractions of life in London is that it requires the same skills of cheating and scamming. In presenting an image of London that is very different to the idea that Scotland is ruled by ‘effete arseholes,’ the narrow view of Scottish nationalism is revealed to be based on a misconception of the English, whose openness contradicts their colonising image. This openness is founded on the recognition of diversity and the possibility of integrating this diverse community into a wider identity of Britishness.

The backward provincialism of Scottishness is evident once Sick Boy and Begbie arrive at Renton’s flat in London. They represent the dead-end vision of Scotland that Renton is trying to escape. The presence of Begbie restricts Renton’s ability to ‘choose life:’ ‘The guy’s a psycho, but it’s true – he’s a mate and all, so what can you do.’ Sick Boy sells Renton’s television, the symbol of his decision to choose life. The tribal identification of the group of addicts has become a hindrance and prevents Renton from improving his life. The film plays on the cliché of the provincial boy (Begbie) arriving in the big city, picking up a beautiful woman, only to find to his disgust that ‘she’ turns out to be a transvestite. Unlike Begbie, who remains trapped in the ‘glorious’ past of Archie Gemmill’s Scotland, Renton has moved on and recognises the exciting possibilities of living in a city that his home to a fluid, hybrid, and multicultural community. He states that, ‘the world is changing. Music is changing. Drugs are changing. Even men and women are changing. One thousand years from now they’ll be no guys and no girls – just wankers. Sounds great to me.’ The observation that in the future they will be ‘just wankers’ raises the issue of his ‘shite being Scottish’ rant. The earlier sequence has been interpreted as a wholesale rejection of both Scottishness and Englishness, but Renton’s observation that such a future sounds great sees him reject Englishness as a force of colonialism and accept the multicultural Britishness of London.

Renton’s decision at the end of the film to rip off his ‘friends’ marks his final acceptance of Britishness. He initially tries to isolate himself from the world, again returning to the interior world of the heroin addict, and claims that there ‘was no such thing as society, and even if there was I most certainly had nothing to do with it,’ but he is soon becoming integrated into London life. Sick Boy asks Renton if he wants to sell his passport, which the latter immediately refuses and feels sufficiently threatened by to place his passport in a storage locker. In protecting his passport he protects his British identity and his means of escaping the Scotland Sick Boy and Begbie represent. Renton’s use of heroin to escape Scotland is thus replaced with his acceptance of Britishness. At the end of the film, London is presented in the early morning haze as Renton flees his friends for the last time, and this shot gives an impressionistic view of the capital that recalls Claude Monet’s paintings of Charing Cross Bridge. Prior to this, subjective shots have been associated with heroin, as in Renton’s overdose and withdrawal, and though this is a shot that shows Renton the use of the voice-over clearly indicates that this reflects his new approach to life. He walks away from his previous life in Scotland for the final time, but he cannot abandon his Scottishness, and his decision to enter into the community, to ‘choose life’ and to ‘be like you’ is announced in a Scottish accent. Smith writes that the ending to Trainspotting is ambivalent: ‘No wonder Renton is smiling: he wins on all fronts, being both decent (sensitive and compassionate) and ‘bad’ (smart, hip and self-assertive) – that is, good and thus admirable to both mainstream and countercultural criteria’ (Smith 2002: 51). He argues that Renton is an ‘anti-hero’ whose heroism is derived from rejecting a ‘false’ set of values (Smith 2002: 46). In this section I have argued that Renton rejects the ‘false’ values of an isolating Scottish identity symbolised by the irrelevance of ‘official’ Scotland and the self-destructive provincialism of Begbie without losing his natural Scottishness. Renton chooses to reinterpret the banality of his Scottish identity in the context of ‘hot’ Britishness nationalism, and as he walks across the Thames in the morning sun he emerges from the darkness Scotland into the light of Britishness as both a Scot and Briton.


Billig M 1995 Banal Nationalism. London: Sage.

Mazierska E and Rascaroli L 2003 From Moscow to Madrid: Postmodern Cities, European Cinema. London and New York: I.B. Tauris.

McArthur C 1982 Scotland and cinema: the iniquity of the fathers, in C McArthur (ed.) Scotch Reels: Scotland in Cinema and Television. London: BFI: 40-69.

McLoone M 2002 Challenging colonial traditions: British cinema in the Celtic fringe, Cineaste 26 (4): 51-54.

Smith M 2002 Trainspotting. London: BFI.

Street S 1997 British National Cinema. London: Routledge.

Welsh I 2004 Trainspotting. London: Minerva.

The geographies of cinema

This week some interesting papers on the subject of the geography of cinema, which covers a wide range of topic from the political economy of film industries to the representation of space in cinema. As ever, this list is not comprehensive, but has a selection of interesting papers I have come across.

For each paper I give the reference of the published version, but the version linked to may be a pre-print, a web version, working paper, or a technical report and so page references, formatting, etc., may be different and this should be kept in mind if you want to quote from this research. Most of the files are pdfs.

You can access my papers on British film and geography here (on Manchester in 24 Hour Party People) and here (on London in Notting Hill and South West 9). Other references are given on the page about me.

Alanen A 2008 The structure of Finnish film production at the enterprise level, Tieto & Trendit Journal of Statistics Finland 3/2008.

Alanen A 2008 In Hollywood or in the backwood?, Tieto & Trendit Journal of Statistics Finland 5/2008.

Arrowsmith C, Verhoeven D, and Davidson A (n.d.) A method for detecting geographical cinema circuits using Markov Chains.

Curti GH 2008 The ghost in the city and a landscape of life: a reading of difference in Shirow and Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, Environment and Planning D 28: 87-106.

Dell’agnese E 2005 The US–Mexico border in American movies: a political geography perspective, Geopolitics 10: 204-221.

Escher A 2006 The geography of cinema – a cinematic world, Erdkunde 60 (4): 307-314.

Eliashberg J, Elberse A, and Leendera MAAM (2006) The motion picture industry: critical issues in practice,current research, and new research directions, Marketing Science 25 (6): 638-661. [The link to this article appears to have been broken, and so it has been removed].

Falicov TL 2002 Film policy under MERCOSUR: the case of Uruguay, Canadian Journal of Communication 27 (1).

Gamir A and Manuel C 2007 Cinema and geography: geographic space, landscape and territory in the film industry, Boletin de la asociacion de geografos españoles 45: 407-410.

Lorenzen M 2008 Creativity at Work: On the Globalization of the Film Industry, Creative Encounters Working Papers 8.

Lukinbeal C 2002 Teaching historical geographies of American film production, Journal of Geography 101: 250-260.

Lukinbeal C 2004 The map that precedes the territory: an introduction to essays in cinematic geography, GeoJournal 59 (4): 247-251.

Lukinbeal C 2005 Cinematic landscapes, Journal of Cultural Geography 23 (1): 3-22.

Lukinbeal C 2006 Runaway Hollywood: Cold Mountain, Romania, Erkunde 60 (4): 337-345.

Lukinbeal C and Zimmermann S 2006 Film geography: a new subfield, Erkunde 60 (4): 315-326.

Mezias JM and Mezias SJ 2000 Resource partioning, the founding of specialist firms, and innovation: the American feature film industry, 1912-1929, Organization Science 11 (3): 306-322.

Mould O 2008 Moving images: world cities, connections and projects in Sydney’s TV production industry, Global Networks 8 (4): 474-495.

Richardson S 2005 Welcome to the cheap seats: cinemas, sex and landscape, Industrial Archaeology Review 27: 145-152.

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Connecting the regional and the global in the UK film industry

UPDATE: 22 November 2010 – this artilce has now been published as Connecting the Regional and the Global in the UK Film Industry, Transnational Cinemas 1 (2) 2010: 145-160. DOI: 10.1386/trac.1.2.145_1.

This weeks post is a draft of an article that I started writing a awhile ago and has driven me up the wall for several months, as most of it has been finished for quite some time but I never could quite get it done. The piece is about regional film production in the UK, and the ways in which this production is connected within the UK and beyond. It represents an attempt to enumerate the different types of films produced in the UK’s regions in the absence of any official statistics on the geography of film production in the UK. The abstract is presented below and the pdf can be down loaded here: Nick Redfern – Connecting the regional and the global in the UK film industry.


Film policy in the United Kingdom is comprised of two complementary strands: the development of regional production clusters and the positioning of the UK as a film hub in the global film industry. Thus article examines the relationship between the regional, national, and global scales in feature film production in three UK regions – Northern Ireland, Scotland, and the South West of England – from 2004 to 2006. The results indicate that connections between the regions of the UK and the global film industry are limited; and that where they do exist these connections are either directly to or mediated through London, which functions as the dominant centre of distribution and finance – and therefore decision-making – in the UK film industry. Northern Ireland, by virtue of its cultural and economic relationship to the Republic of Ireland, stands out as a region in which its connections to other major decision-making centres are as important as its connections to London. The results suggest that while UK film policy has sought to redistribute the productive capacity of the industry, the autonomy of regional production centres remains limited.

Brassed Off

This piece is a slightly re-written version of a paper I gave on regional identity in Brassed Off in March 2007. I am including it here because I think that it is a good example of how the study of British cinema very quickly achieves a critical orthodoxy about some films, and the way in which several film scholars immediately lapsed into the stereotype of the North of England as the ‘land of the working class’ that has been with us since the nineteenth century (see the reference to Rob Shields) suggests a lack of critical imagination. I think that there is more to be said about the changing status of the community in Brassed Off, and that this film provides an excellent opportunity to explore the relationship between economy and culture, and class and region. The one dimensional critical approach of various scholars of British cinema have, I think, missed something interesting about how this film seeks to express identity. They are all to obsessed with class and gender to attend properly to the question of social space in the film, but it is the film itself that suggests we need to go beyond old conceptions of the North (based on economy and class) and to consider the new (based on culture and space).


In this paper I argue that in Brassed Off it is the cultural utopianism represented by the Grimley Colliery Brass Band that overcomes the alienation and economic decline of a Yorkshire mining community. The film is typically approached as a narrative about class and gender; albeit one that problematises those categories with the advent of post-industrial society in the United Kingdom. As such, the film is defined as a portrayal of ‘working class life’ (Hallam 2000: 261) and ‘Old Labour collectivism’ (Monk 2000: 277) that draws upon the ‘iconography of working-class realism’ (Leach 2004: 63-64) in presenting ‘a last throw of the dice for a powerful element in the construction of the identity of large parts of the industrial north of England’ (Blandford 2007: 28). This ‘crisis of post-industrialism’ is cast as ‘the crisis of masculinity’ in late twentieth century Britain (Marris 2001: 47), evident in ‘its treatment of the alternately dying, impoverished, and isolated male body’ (Luckett 2000: 95), and its ‘certain level of nostalgia for a fading masculinity’ (Blandford 2007: 29). Crisis is, however, overcome with ‘a certain utopianism about the possibility of collective action’ (Hill 2000: 183). Brassed Off, then, is seen to play out ‘a drama in which male social and emotional bonds once associated with the workplace and the working man’s club are threatened, mourned, struggled for, and finally restored’ (Monk 2000: 282).

The uniformity of critical opinion regarding Brassed Off reflects the north of England’s ‘intensified “sense of place,”’ which, as Rob Shields (1991: 208-230) had demonstarted, has adpoted a ‘consistent form since the nineteenth century in the popular imagination as the “land of the working class.”’ However, in the contemporary era this sense of place is challenged, as the north as ‘land of the working class’ is made problematic by the decline of industry and the transformation of labour. Consequently, the significance of a Yorkshire regional identity in the film has been overlooked, and here I argue that Brassed Off narrates a transformation in the basis for social identity in the town of Grimley from a solidarity based on social class to one based on identification with a regional identity. The ‘social and emotional bonds’ of working class, male culture are mourned, but are not, in the final scenes of the film, restored. As this regional identity is identified with a brass band, it is equally a shift from economy to culture. The identification with the region is located within the nation, and the film represents the affirmation of a British national identity through the expression of a regional, Yorkshire identity.

Brassed Off

The issue of regional identity emerged in a number of British films released between 1992 and 2002, including The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain (Christopher Monger, 1995), Blue Juice (Carl Prechezer, 1995), and 24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002) (Redfern 2005a, 2005b, 2007), but no British film released during this period exemplifies the alienation of the regions from the centre, the transformation of work, and the demand to see regional cultures validated in the life of the nation better than Brassed Off.

Alienation most obviously features in the film in the decision to close the Grimley colliery. The report produced by Gloria that demonstrates the pit’s profitability goes unread by the management as it is revealed that the decision to close the pit was taken some two years before the miners voted for redundancy. Gloria’s belief that she could make a difference, that her work would enable both the management and the miners to make an informed decision is shown to be hopelessly naïve, suggesting that ‘down south’ they are unaware of the realities of life in the north. Though the miners vote for redundancy it is clear that it is merely a formality, a means for the management to retain control over the community’s future but to transfer responsibility on to the miners. The colliery manager, McKenzie, is shown to be different from the miners: he does not have a Yorkshire accent, he never shares the same space as the miners, does not try to cash in on the kudos the band brings to the colliery, and his office is spacious with wood panelled walls in contrast to the drab grey interiors of the spaces inhabited by the miners (e.g., the pub, Phil’s home). Andy, the youngest miner and band member, accurately predicts the outcome of the ballot will go four to one in favour of redundancy, because he is aware that although the miners want to keep the pit open they know that they have no real choice in the matter. Here the management are represented as gangsters: McKenzie’s seclusion in his office, his assistants hanging on his every word, and Gloria’s observation that he made the miners ‘an offer they couldn’t refuse’ link him generically to Don Corleone in The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972). The alienation of the miners from this decision making process is evident in one sequence where the band’s performance of Rodrigo’s ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’ is heard over shots of a meeting between the management and the union leadership. The miners are excluded from this meeting but the use of music to obscure the negotiations makes the spectator aware of their absence and their lack of a voice in deciding their future. It is only through music that they are able to express themselves. The ease with which the miners are overlooked is revealed early in the film, as we see Ida and Vera, the wives of two of the band members, talking over the backwall of their terraced houses. The handling of space in a series of shot/reverse shot draws on the stereotypes of gossiping Northern women (e.g., from Coronation Street [Granada, 1961– ] and the paintings of Beryl Cook) and implies that they live in adjacent terrace houses. A wide shot then reveals to us that Ida and Vera do not live side by side but are divided by a backyard in which a former miner sits smoking and reading the paper.

As the narrative of Brassed Off centres on the closure of the colliery the economic aspect of the film is particularly strong. The loss of the pit simply means the absence of work and beyond coal mining there is no employment for the men of Grimley. For example, Simmo appears to have no job at all and appears to survive solely on what he can hustle playing pool, even referring to Andy as his ‘main source of income.’ The main focus of this part of the narrative is Phil and Sandra. Burdened by debt acquired during the 1984 miners’ strike, they are unable to keep the bailiffs from the door and eventually their possessions are seized. The bailiffs and the creditors they represent are symbolic of the Thatcher government, being insensitive and ignorant of the struggles of Grimley, and profit from their parasitic relationship to the miners. In order to raise extra money Phil is forced to perform as a clown, Mr. Chuckles. The birthday party at which he performs takes place in a middle class home, and the film contrasts this space (nicely decorated, carpeted, bright) with Phil’s house with its carpet and furniture stripped out. This house is also more modern than Phil’s 1930s dreary council housing and is unattainable to him, and this emphasises the relegation of heavy industry to the past. As McKenzie comments: ‘coal is history.’ On exiting, the mother is surprised to hear that he is a miner, to which he responds: ‘You remember ’em love. Dinosaurs, dodos, miners.’ This sequence is cross-cut with Sandra unable to pay for the family shopping, and relying on the charity of Vera, who, as the cashier, slips her a five pound note from the till. An exhibitionist shot of the table laid out with the birthday cake and other foods exposes a bounty that the miner’s lack. The one time we see one of the miners eat is when Andy takes Gloria to the fish and chip shop, which represents his idea of going ‘posh.’ (Other than this the men of Grimley appear to survive purely, and specifically, on bitter). Gloria comments sarcastically that if she knew they going to go this posh she would have got dressed up, and here the film notes the cultural and economic difference between the Grimley idea of ‘posh’ and that of someone who has just returned from the south of England. Phil’s other engagement as Mr. Chuckles takes place at a harvest festival, again contrasting the bounty of the middle class mothers and their children with the desperation of the miners.

The closure of Grimley colliery forces a shift in the conception of Yorkshire from one that is defined primarily in terms of economic activity to a definition that is culturally based. Moya Luckett argues that Brassed Off ‘ultimately exposes the Marxist truism that culture has no value without an economic infrastructure’ (Luckett, 2000: 96), but the film seeks to demonstrate that in the era of mass pit closures the colliery band is now more essential to the community of Grimley than ever before representing, pride, continuity, and unity. Originally founded in 1881, Danny states that through two world wars, three disasters, seven strikes, and one ‘bloody big depression’ the band ‘played on every flamin’ time.’ The continuity of the band is also evident in the continuity from one generation to the next: Danny’s son Phil is a trombone player, and Gloria turns out to be from Grimley and the granddaughter of the best bandsman and bravest miner Danny ever knew. She even has her grandfather’s flugel horn, and is accepted into the band by virtue of this historical and familial link. The final shot of the film focuses on Danny, who we know to be terminally ill, and a title tells us that, ‘Since 1984 there have been 140 pit closures in Great Britain at the cost of nearly a quarter of a million jobs.’ Brassed Off does not offer any solution to these problems and there are no miracle cures or last minute rescue packages, but the film is utopian in its representation of collective action through the band. Though Danny will die the memory of him will persist through the continuity of the band, and his picture will adorn the practise hall wall alongside Gloria’s grandfather.

Throughout the film there is a division of labour between the men and the women of Grimley, and this is reflected in the way in which social space is divided along gender lines. The men are associated with the pit, the pub, and the practise hall, while the women are shown in domestic situations (e.g., pegging out the washing, caring for children) or in service jobs (e.g., as a waitress, a pub landlady, a cashier, or nurses). Men and women are rarely shown together to occupy the same space: Harry and Rita pass one another outside their house, barely acknowledging each other’s existence; and, unable to cope, Sandra leaves Phil. The economic struggles of Grimley bring families to the point of collapse but through the band they are able to come together. At the Albert Hall the men and women of Grimley are reunited within a single space. Rita and Sandra are in the audience, where previously they have been scornful of their husbands’ interest in the band. With the men on stage and the women in the audience a division of labour remains in place at the end of the film. However, Gloria’s presence in the band suggests that it may be overcome. Gloria is the only female member of the band, and her arrival in Grimley prompts Vera and Ida to take an interest in their husbands’ activities. Gloria’s presence in the band also suggests that class differences may be overcome: it is Gloria who provides the money for the band to travel to London, thereby cleansing herself of the stain of being part of the management and readmitting her to the band. Hill argues that the film projects the image of a ‘populist alliance in which middle-class characters into the community represented by the working-class characters’ (2000: 184); but this alliance is not predicated on gender or class. With the colliery gone it is no longer a pre-requisite of band membership that the musicians be miners, and the grounds for membership is shifted to being from Grimley and this opens the way for a middle-class woman to become a member of the band. In his defiant speech at the Albert Hall, Danny reminds us that it is not music that matters but people. However, in stressing the pride, continuity, and unity the band has to offer Grimley following its economic decline, Brassed Off makes the case that music does matter because it represents the community.

Mike Wayne places Brassed Off into a category he describes as ‘anti-national national films.’

The films in this category are defined by their critique of the myth of community which underpins national identity; the myth that is of the deep horizontal comradeship which overlays the actual relations of a divided and fractured society. The myth of unity and shared interests is a powerful means of legitimising the social order. These films are national insofar as they display an acute attunement to the specific social, political, and cultural dynamics within the defined territory of the nation, but they are anti-national insofar as the that territory is seen as a conflicted zone of unequal relations of power (2002: 25).

It is certainly the case that in representing a mining community in Yorkshire, Brassed Off articulates the social, economic, and cultural dynamics of the UK as a ‘conflicted zone of unequal relations of power.’ The alienation and economic decline of the residents of Grimley is derived from these inequalities. However, the closing scene of the film does not critique the myth of a ‘deep horizontal comradeship’ but appeals to precisely that myth. On leaving the Albert Hall the band is seen riding on an open-top bus past the Houses of Parliament, and, like many films, the red London bus and Big Ben are used in Brassed Off to represent Britishness. By placing the band aboard the bus, the film symbolically places Yorkshire within the nation. It is in this sequence that the band plays Sir Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance No. 1, or as Danny refers to it (with grudging respect): ‘Land of Hope and Bloody Glory.’ The film thus appeals to the ‘deep horizontal comradeship’ of a British national identity whilst at the same time asserting the regional identity of Yorkshire, and the importance of that regional identity in the nation. Brassed Off may be read as an appeal to the nation not to forget that communities such as Grimley are a part of the nation, and though the traditional image of the North as an industrial heartland may no longer be applicable the intensity of identification with the North has not diminished.


Brassed Off is a British film – but its nationality is articulated through the representation of the regional in a harmonious relationship with the national. The alienation of a regional community can be overcome through the unification of the regional and the national, and in representing the Yorkshire region the films make the case for importance of the regional in the UK. Brassed Off dramatises the shift from traditional heavy industries to cultural industries and make the case that the rest of the UK needs to recognise this shift and reorient their ‘mental maps’ of the region. It also emphasises the vitality of a regional subculture; and that the nation should respect the uniqueness of Yorkshire, and recognise its contribution to the cultural life of the nation. In contrast to the anti-Thatcherite state of the nation films of the 1980s that questioned the validity of a national identity (e.g., The Ploughman’s Lunch [Richard Eyre, 1983]), Brassed Off has a positive outlook on the value of regional cultures, a British national identity, and the possibility of negotiating a more sympathetic relationship between the regional and the national.

Works Cited

Blandford, S. (2007) Film, Drama, and the Break-up of Britain. Bristol: Intellect.

Hallam, J. (2000) Film, class, and national identity: reimagining communities in the age of devolution, in J. Ashby and A. Higson (eds.) British Cinema, Past and Present. London and New York: Routledge: 261-273.

Hill, J. (2000) Failure and utopianism: representations of the working class in British cinema of the 1990s, in R. Murphy (ed.) British Cinema of the 90s. London: BFI: 178-187.

Leach, J. (2004) British Cinema. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Luckett, M. (2000) Image and nation in the 1990s, in R. Murphy (ed.) British Cinema in the 90s. London: BFI: 88-99.

Marris, P. (2001) Northern realism: an exhausted tradition?, Cineaste 26 (4): 47-50.

Monk, C. (2000) Underbelly UK: The 1990s underclass film, masculinity, and the ideologies of “New Britain,” in J. Ashby and A. Higson (eds.) British Cinema, Past and Present. London and New York: Routledge: 274-287.

Shields, R. (1991) Places on the Margin: Alternative Geographies of Modernity. London: Routledge.

Redfern, N. (2005a) Regionalism and the Cinema in the United Kingdom, 1992 to 2002. Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, Manchester Metropolitan University.

Redfern, N. (2005b) ‘We do things differently here:’ Manchester as a cultural region in 24 Hour Party People, EnterText 5 (2): 286-306.

Redfern, N. (2007) Making Wales possible: regional identity and the geographical imagination in The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain, Cyfrwmg: Media Wales Journal 4: 57-70.

Wayne, M. (2002) The Politics of Contemporary European Cinema: Histories, Borders, Diasporas. Bristol: Intellect Books.

Northern Ireland in Divorcing Jack and Wild About Harry

[Update: a longer of version of this paper has now been published as Northern Ireland and the problem of identity in Divorcing Jack (1998) and Wild About Harry (2000), Journal of Eurpoean Popular Culture 1 (2) 2010: 135-149. DOI: 10.1386/jpec.1.2.135_1].

This paper was presented today at the Manchester Centre for Regional History’s Projecting the Region’s Conference at Manchester Metropolitan University.

‘It’s chaos out there …:’ Northern Ireland and the problem of identity in Divorcing Jack (1998) and Wild About Harry (2000)

Hybridity has become a key concept in cultural geography as an interpretive framework for understanding narratives and identities that are resistant to essentialist and essentialising notions of politics and culture (Mitchell 2005). In the study of contemporary British cinema in particular, hybridity has become the central concept in understanding the proliferation of class, racial and ethnic, and gendered and sexual identities and their interaction with British national identity. In this paper I argue that the multiplicity of identities in contemporary British cinema has been accommodated within a discourse of hybridity that defines British national cinema in dynamic terms. However, this concept of a hybrid British cinema has not included Northern Ireland. As in the rest of the UK, multiple identities are a feature of the cinema in Northern Ireland but there are key differences. These issues are explored through looking at two films produced in Northern Ireland at the end of the twentieth century – Divorcing Jack (1998) and Wild About Harry (2000). I argue that in these films the problem of identity in Northern Ireland is represented as the confusion that arises from multiple identities and that no inclusive framework to cope with such multiplicity has yet emerged.

Hybridity and identity in contemporary British cinema

The dominant narrative of hybridisation in contemporary British cinema has been set out by John Hill (1992, 1999), who has argued that the concept of a national cinema should be seen as dynamic and subject to change. Consequently, national cinemas cannot be regarded as being straightforwardly pure, but are necessarily hybrid in that they reflect the diverse nature of the nation itself. For Hill, it is only since the 1980s that a cinema in Britain has emerged that is capable of capturing this diversity. Although this means that the myth of the nation of earlier British films are no longer asserted with confidence, the hybrid cinema that emerged is more British for its diversity. A hybrid British cinema has emerged as a result of the ways in which the British cinema ‘became involved in a cultural politics of “identity” and “difference” and, in doing so, sought to negotiate the complex terrain of class, gender, sexual orientation, “race,” and nationality’ since the 1980s (Hill 1999: xii). It is a cinema that ‘deals with the evolution of a myriad of fluid, complex and sometimes conflicting identities,’ and is comprised of films that are ‘multilayered and complex films, not only in terms of narrative, but also in terms of genre, style, and film form’ (Malik 1996: 211-214). It is a cinema that ‘generates the pleasure of hybridisation in the cinematic form’ by filmmakers who have ‘refused to be bound by a rigid national boundary or a singular (cultural, ethnic or national) identity’ (Malik 1996: 212, 214). It is a cinema in which questions of identity are being played out in ‘the complex post-colonial hybridity of contemporary Britain’ (Brundson 2000: 168); and where those identities are ‘often complex, hybrid and contradictory,’ and the meanings generated tend ‘to be pluralistic, fragmentary and often contradictory rather than ideologically cohesive’ (Monk 2000: 156-157).

Madgwick and Rose write that to ‘understand the United Kingdom in its entirety we must therefore understand its parts – England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland’ (1982: 1), and a regional approach to the nature of identity in the UK has become particularly relevant over the past decade with the re-emergence of the regional agenda in British politics in the late-1980s and the commitment of New Labour to a programme of devolution and regionalization after 1997. The regional has been one of the hottest topics of British politics over the twenty years, and this has begun to be reflected in British cinema studies. A concern with the geography of the cinema in the UK can be seen in the increasing level of interest in the representation of different parts of the UK in British cinema (see, for example, Berry 1994, Dave 2006, Hill 2006, Petrie 2000); the representation of, and attachment to, specific places – the cities (Brundson 2007, Mazierska and Rascaroli 2003: 161-234, Redfern 2005) and landscapes (Redfern 2007a) of the UK; the social and cultural geography of cinema-going (Jancovich et al. 2003); and the regionalisation of film policy (Redfern 2007b). The hybrid figures in this work in the multiple representations of the UK, in the diverse experiences that these representations facilitate, and in the negotiation of multiple identities in British spaces so that the cinematic representation of the UK in contemporary British cinema offers both hybrid experiences of social space and experiences of hybrid social spaces (Malik 2009, Redfern 2006).

The multiple geographies of Northern Ireland

The history of the conflict in Northern Ireland has its roots in the long and complicated political relationship between the British and Irish and Protestants and Catholics, but has been redefined in recent decades by sociologists and psychologists in terms as a cultural conflict involving a clash of national and religious identities (see O’Dowd 2005). Sociological studies have identified a bewildering range of different identities, including (but not limited to) British/Northern Irish, British/Protestant, Catholic/Irish, Catholic/Northern Irish, Irish/Catholic, Irish/Nationalist, Irish/Northern Irish, Northern Irish/British, Northern Irish/Catholic, Northern Irish/Irish, Northern Irish/Protestant, Protestant/British, and Protestant/Northern Irish (Benson and Trew 1995). Such categories make self-identification possible (Lyon 1997), and serve to ‘simplify the environment’ and make it more ‘understandable’ (Bull 2006) – they serve to answer the questions ‘who am I?’ and ‘who are you?’ Equally, they function negatively and are explicitly used to reject a particular set of identities. It is as important for Catholics in Northern Ireland to view themselves as not British as it is to identify themselves as Irish and for Protestants to be British and not Irish (although there are exceptions for both groups).

Brian Graham writes that ‘this dissonance of identity – ultimately the principle impediment to political negotiations on the future of Ireland – reflects the plethora of places and utter lack of consensus that Northern Ireland has become’ (1997: 209). This ‘plethora of places’ is evident in the differing perspectives on the same place and the intensified parochialism of Northern Ireland in which ethnic differences are spatialised. Reid (2004: 103) writes that ‘although it exists on the island of Ireland and many of its landscapes conform to the Irish ideal … Northern Ireland’s place-identity is confused, fitting neatly into neither Britain nor Ireland, both of which find their own dominant place-identities increasingly challenged.’ The ‘authentic’ image of Ireland has been located in the rural west, distancing the people and their places from the industrialised cities of the British, and explicitly excluding the Protestant community from its image of and idealised Gaelic, Catholic Ireland. At a more local level this confusion produces a mosaic of social spaces that are culturally and physically separate from one another: for example, Derry/Londonderry as a single city experienced from multiple social viewpoints by largely segregated communities, within which smaller enclaves continue to exist (Kuusisto-Arponen 2003). This multiplicity is not limited to the distinction between Protestant and Catholic communities, and Graham (1998) has argued that Protestants in Northern Ireland lack an agreed representation of place and do, in fact, support a set of mutually conflicting set of such representations. Furthermore, this multiplicity is overlaid by Northern Ireland’s position in the European Union (in which it is a designated ‘region’) and the wider world.

The multiple geographies of Northern Ireland lack the framework of hybridity that has emerged in the rest of the UK. This is partly due to the fact that the concept of multiculturalism in the UK is premised on discourses of gender, sexuality, disability, and, primarily, race; and, while these forms of identity are not irrelevant to Northern Ireland, they have been of less significance than the historical ethnic division between Catholic and Protestant. Consequently, the multiple nature of identity in Northern Ireland has not been promoted as a positive attribute but has been, and remains, largely a source of fear and tension, so that while we may think of Northern Ireland as a ‘hybrid, borderland area,’ this has resulted in the fossilisation of ‘identity and difference’ rather than the promotion of the acceptance and celebration diversity (Reid 2004: 109).

Multiple identities in the cinema of Northern Ireland

It is these problems of multiple and confusing identities that are the key themes in two films set in Northern Ireland and written by Colin Bateman – Divorcing Jack (1998) and Wild About Harry (2000). Aaron Kelly writes that Bateman’s novels ‘serve as a reminder that Northern Ireland is always at least two places: a problematic, forestalling entity for both Irish and British Nationalist teleologies’ (2004: 80), and places Bateman’s novels in the genre of the thriller. It is perhaps more useful to place these films in the sub-genre of the noir thriller, as Bateman draws upon this genre to create a darkly comic world in which the identities of key characters are hidden and/or fragmentary and the past, thought to be long buried, erupts in the present day (see Pratt 2001). Bateman uses all of these strategies, but adapts them to his satirical exploration of the problems of multiple identities in late-1990s Northern Ireland.

Divorcing Jack

The narrative of Divorcing Jack follows the investigate-deconstructive pattern of the noir-thriller, as tabloid journalist Dan Starkey becomes entangled in a double murder that implicates politicians, loyalist paramilitaries, and nationalist terrorists, and that threatens to wreck the political process in Northern Ireland. The main thrust of the narrative follows the revelations about a politician, Michael Brinn, whose confession to a terrorist past as Micky O’Brinn, has been recorded on tape and threatens to derail his opportunity to become the first elected leader of a new, independent Northern Ireland.

Starkey is a hopeless investigator and his problems arise from the fact that he consistently fails to recognise anyone. This causes difficulties in the domestic sphere – answering the phone he cannot tell if he is speaking to Patricia, his wife, or Margaret, with whom he is having an affair, and this leads to his eviction from the marital home. More importantly it gets Starkey into trouble in the public sphere, and it is his inability to recognise to who he is speaking and what they are saying that is the driving force behind the narrative. He does not recognise Margaret as the daughter of a prominent political figure and the girlfriend of a well-known gangster, Keegan, he will later mistake for a waiter. Starkey’s misrecognition also has fatal consequences when he inadvertently kills Margaret’s mother in a darkened staircase – a murder he succeeds in getting away with. The macguffin on which the story depends is another example of Starkey’s misrecognition: he thinks Margaret’s dying words are ‘Divorce Jack’ rather than ‘Dvorak’ and so fails to understand the significance of a tape containing Brinn’s confession.

Misrecognition is a central theme of the plot, and is unavoidable given the multiplicity of identities with which we are presented. Where the narrative of film noir typically revolves around a single character whose identity is doubled and whose past re-emerges to disrupt the present, Divorcing Jack takes this to such extremes that every character is either misrecognised, in disguise, or has a second life. Lee, whose dramatic arrival rescues Starkey on two separate occasions from both Loyalists and Republicans, is the most perplexing. We first encounter her dressed as a nun but she turns out to be a stripper. The next time we encounter he she is dressed as a nurse. Like most of the characters she has multiple social roles, or as she phrases it ‘Nun-O-Gram by night, nurse by day.’ This is also true for the minor characters: Margaret’s friend, Jack, is both a civil servant and a stand-up comedian by the name of Giblet O’Gibber. Even Starkey himself puts on a wig in a (futile) attempt at a disguise. Brinn has attempted to forge a new identity as a politician and a man of the people, but his change of name is not an attempt to establish his identity – rather it is intended to obscure his identity but hiding the past. It is the eruption of this past, long thought hidden, that sets in motion the events of the narrative.

The representation of social space in Divorcing Jack shows includes a variety of social places. Donnelly (2005) has noted that the Belfast we see in this film does not exploit the traditional images of the city but displays a tourist version of the city that explicitly avoids references to sectarianism. Belfast is a city of open public spaces (the Botanic Gardens) and attractive and spacious apartments, of new public buildings (the Waterfront Concert Hall) and social spaces (the Crown Bar). It is Donnelly, writes, an image of the city as a tourist destination. In contrast to the modern space of urban Belfast, we have the rundown Catholic township of Cross-my-heart – a gray, monotonous place under the thumb of the local gangster where everyone lives in fear behind the bars on the windows. It is, in essence, a frontier town, and every bit as lawless as one in the Wild West. These two spaces are presented as false. The new modern Belfast is a vision of urban planners, and, as Starkey notes, depends upon the people of Northern Ireland giving up their heritage – it is a space unattached to any particular identity. Cross-my-heart was created as a response to the troubles, moving a community out of Belfast into its own officially-designated place – it is a space of a community in exile. In both cases the relationship between space and identity is compromised. We also find a rural Northern Ireland, and it is in the country that the climax of the film takes place. The image of an ‘authentic’ Ireland has been based upon the rural landscape, and it is in this environment that the truth is revealed at the film’s climax. Brinn reveals himself to be the former terrorist who has misled the public as a politician; Keegan reveals that he was responsible for framing Brinn; and both are killed.

The confusion of identities and space is also evident in the use of names as labels. The problem of multiple naming is explained by Starkey to Parker, the American journalist, when he outlines the many names for: where Parker uses Ireland in an indiscriminate manner, Starkey points to the use of Northern Ireland, Ulster (if you are a protestant), the six counties of the north of Ireland (if you are catholic), or the province (if you are the British government).

At the climax of the film, Starkey launches into a sustained verbal attack on all sides – Protestant and Catholic, Loyalist and Nationalist. This speech has criticised as striking a false note in the film’s darkly comic vision of Northern Ireland – a ‘sudden dive into sententiousness’ (Kemp 1998: 42) – but it is of direct relevance to the film’s exploration of the nature of identity in Northern Ireland. Starkey rejects the idea of a clash of national and religious identities for failing to recognise the people of Northern Ireland as people.  He accuses of Keegan and Brinn of ‘dehumanising’ Northern Ireland:

Starkey: I’m an individual. You’re an individual. Dougal off the Magic Roundabout’s a fucking individual. You’re both the same. We’re going straight back to the civil war here because you two don’t give a flying fuck about individuals …

Ultimately, the ending of the film leaves the political situation unresolved. There is no simple, happy ending for Northern Ireland – nothing in the film (beyond Starkey’s marriage) is resolved. Lee (in her role as nurse) tells Starkey that it is ‘chaos out there.’ Chaos is the natural state of affairs, and one that Starkey revels in. Divorcing Jack takes a comic view of the multiple nature of space and identity that are a source of terror; but at the same time it positively endorses the multiplicity of a community of individuals.

Wild About Harry

Like Divorcing Jack, Wild About Harry takes up the question of identity in contemporary Northern Ireland, but approaches it from a different angle. Where Divorcing Jack presented us with a world in which everyone had multiple identities and secret lives resulting from a labyrinthine political situation, Wild About Harry primarily deals with the confused identity of a single character – television presenter Harry McKee – and the manipulation of that identity. Following an assault at a late night garage, Harry has a breakdown live on air before collapsing into a coma at his divorce hearing. He awakes to find that the last twenty-five years of his memory missing and his must come to terms with celebrity, identity, and the present.

Multiple and confusing identities are evident in this film as they are in Divorcing Jack. As he breaks down live on air, Harry exposes Walter Adair, a local MP campaigning on a family values platform, as a bisexual. After an unsuccessful suicide attempt, Adair vows to get his revenge on Harry and at the film’s denouement, he arrives at the television studio to confront his tormentor dressed as a woman. In one clip we find an Irish identity pushed to an extreme, as Harry watches himself on a special St. Patrick’s Day broadcast from Downpatrick interviewing a man named Patrick Fitzpatrick, with a father and a son of the same name and a wife called Patricia Fitzpatrick. Of course, this might be dismissed as simple ‘paddywackery,’ but it does highlight the problems of naming and identity in an amusing way. Nonetheless, it is Harry and the curious nature of his identity that is the central focus of the narrative.

Harry’s situation is a curious one, as he occupies a unique position as a celebrity without an identity. On the one hand, Harry is the presenter of a popular television show with a dedicated audience of (mostly) elderly ladies; and a public disgrace who’s sexual and alcoholic proclivities are in the press on a seemingly daily basis. Even here there is a discrepancy between Harry as the housewives’ favourite of daytime television and the debauched Harry of the tabloids. At the same time, people repeatedly fail to recognise Harry. At the petrol station Harry tries to play on his celebrity as a guarantee for a cheque having forgotten his card – ‘My face is my cheque card’ – but the shop assistant simply stares back at him blankly, blissfully unaware of the celebrity before him. Similarly, Ronnie, the security guard at the television studio, has no idea who Harry is at all and insists on checking the identification of the biggest star at the studio. Celebrity and fame, then, do not equal recognition and Harry’s identity is fragile even before his loses his memory. Indeed, in one scene this lack of identity is exposed as a facet of celebrity, as we are presented with Harry’s replacement on ‘What’s Cooking,’ who, it turns out, is almost identical to Harry in every way. Harry, of course, has lost his memory and completely fails to recognise the stand-in as a version of him.

If other people are confused about his identity, then so is Harry. Seeing Ruth as a mature rather than a younger woman, Harry is forced to come to terms with the present and is shocked by the middle-aged man in his reflection, and the film presents us with numerous shots of Harry looking at his reflection or at his own image but unsure of the face that looks back at him. He is unsure what he food he likes, if he drinks and smokes, where he works, and in a near-fatal incident discovers he cannot swim. The film focuses on these day-to-day aspects of identity, the myriad little details that make us who we are, rather than the broad statements of political and social identity (e.g. race, class, sexuality) that are the common currency of contemporary hybrid British cinema. Leaving the hospital, Harry can be heard to gleefully declare, ‘I’m a new man.’ Later, whilst on a date with Ruth, Harry rejects the past twenty-five years of his life by deliberately separating his amnesiac-self from his debauched-self: he declares of the womanising and drinking that ‘That was someone else.’

Identity is not fixed, but is something malleable. Quite who Harry is in the present is hard for him to discover as he is being manipulated by those around him. This occurs most obviously after his has lost his memory: Harry’s lack of personal tastes is the result of Ruth’s intervention when she tells him that he does not smoke or drink, and that he eats healthily; while his near-death incident in the pool occurs when his son takes him swimming to test if his amnesia is just an act. On air he is constantly prompted to speak or act by his producer, who it turns out is also responsible for setting Harry on the path to celebrity and infamy that leads to his eventual downfall. The manipulation of Harry’s sense of self is a negative thing, resulting in Harry’s loss of his sense of self – ‘What did I become?,’ he reflects – and his inability to determine his own actions compromises his sense of self.

Wild About Harry does not address the politics of contemporary Northern Ireland directly, but the influence of recent history can still be felt. That Harry should lose his memory of the last quarter of the twentieth century takes him back to the early 1970s, before what are euphemistically called ‘the troubles’ began in earnest, and by investing him with a sense of youthful optimism removes the inevitability of recent political history. The ending of the film, which could be described as romantic and cautiously optimistic rather than happy, presents Harry and Ruth with a possible future if they are willing to work for it. The film does not see the past as determining future relationships, and, although the past can never be forgotten, it can be overcome. For Harry this requires a reassessment of his identity in his own eyes and a renegotiation of his relationship to the people in his life. Harry’s ability to re-create his own sense of self thus holds out the possibility of a happy ending – Harry will win Ruth’s heart a second time if he can be himself.


Kelly (2004: 80) describes Northern Ireland as a ‘lived, ambivalent contradiction,’ and he cites Hughes’s assessment of the relationship between culture and politics in Northern Ireland as a ‘richly ambiguous statement of the always-at-least-dual nature of the Northern Irish and their cultures’ (1991: 10, quoted in Kelly 2004: 81). Contemporary cinema in Northern Ireland is as concerned with the multiple nature of identity as the rest of the United Kingdom, and arguably more so. The dominant concept of a hybrid national cinema in the UK is dependent upon the relative stability of different forms of identity depicted in British films (race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, class, region), and represents an attempt to come to terms with those different forms of identity. This is not possible in films such as Divorcing Jack and Wild About Harry which lack precisely that stability that would make any attempt to contain the multiplicity of identities a realistic possibility. The multiple, mistaken, and confused identities of Bateman’s Northern Ireland are a source of chaos that cannot be contained.


Divorcing Jack (Scala Productions, 1998) prod. Robert Cooper, dir. David Caffrey, wr. Colin Bateman, novel Colin Bateman, ph. James Welland, ed. Nick Moore, m. Adrian Johnston, Cast: David Thewlis (Dan Starkey), Rachel Griffiths (Lee Cooper), Jason Isaacs (Cow Pat Keegan), Laura Fraser (Margret), Richard Gant (Charles Parker), Laine Megaw (Patricia Starkey), Bronagh Gallagher (Taxi driver), Kitty Aldridge (Agnes Brinn), Robert Lindsay (Michael Brinn).

Wild About Harry (Scala Films, 2000) prod. Robert Cooper, Laurie Borg, dir. Declan Lowney, wr. Colin Bateman, ph. Ron Forunato, ed. Tim Waddell, m. Murray Gold, Cast: Brendan Gleeson (Harry McKee), Amanda Donahoe (Ruth McKee), James Nesbitt (Walter Adair), Adrain Dunbar (JJ MacMahon), Bronagh Gallagher (Miss Boyle), Doon Mackichan (Tara Adair), Paul Barber (Professor Simmington), George Wendt (Frankie), Henry Deazley (Billy McKee), Tara Lynn O’Neill (Claire McKee), Billy Donnelly (Brendan).


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Regional film production in the UK II

A few weeks ago I looked at the distribution of feature film production in the United Kingdom at the regional level, and I introduced the concept of regionally autonomous production – that is, a film which was produced in a single UK region only, irrespective of any production activity that may have taken place outside the UK (e.g. in the home country of a co-production partner). This is a negative way of defining the regional distribution of film production. A positive measure is to look at how different regions of the UK interact through their common productions.

Using the same sample of films from the UK film Council (n = 358), Table 1 presents the number of films, which being produced in one region, have connections to the other UK regions. For example, My Summer of Love (Pawel Pawlikovski, 2003) was filmed in the Government Office of Regions of Yorkshire and the Humber and the North West. This film connects these two regions in its production.

(I will not address connections between regions at the levels of distribution and exhibition, although, as I noted before, this is important given the London’s domination of these sectors of the UK film industry).

Table 1 Regional interaction in UK feature film production, 2003-2007


From Table 1 we can see that:

  • Scotland has a broad spread of common productions with other regions throughout the UK, although, as would be expected, the greatest number of links are to London (the commercial and artistic centre of the UK film industry) and the South East (the location of the major studios at Shepperton and Pinewood).
  • Northern Ireland has common productions only with London. As I noted before, Northern Ireland appears to be a distinct entity within the UK film industry, with links to the Republic of Ireland being of more importance. The links to London are inevitably the result of London’s position as the dominant force in the UK film industry and as a global city.
  • Wales has numerous common productions with the major production centres in England (East, South East, and London) and also the South West, but very few links to the rest of the UK. Proximity is not then an important issue in regional interaction: Wales has links to the neighbouring region of the South West, but not to the North West, for example.

The Celtic fringe of the UK (excluding Cornwall) does not show an overall pattern of linkages within the UK film industry, and each region interacts with the rest of the UK in a unique way.

Turning to the English regions, we find that:

  • The limited number of connections in the North East refelct the very low levels of film production in that region.
  • Yorkshiore and the Humber has a lot of features in common with other regions, refelcting its relatively low level of autnonomy (30%). Films produced in this region are rarely produced only in this region, but as such research on film production at the regional level in the UK is so slight that why this should be the case is not known. The high number of common features with the East Midlands is worth investigating further in particular.
  • The North West, by contrast, has a much higher level of autonomy (63.64%), and few common features with the rest of the UK than Yorkshire and the Humber. This may, in part, be due to Manchester’s status as an important production centre for television – the region has a (relatively) large number of firms in the audio-visual industries and so producers are able to access resources without having to leave the region (see Coe and Johns 2004 for a discussion of Manchester as production centre).
  • The two midlands regions are similar in their linkages: both are dominated by the main south east England production centre (E, SE, and LO), with only the East Midlands higher than expected links to YH and SW standing out from the pattern.
  • The South West also folllows this pattern: domination by the south eastern core, with relatively few links beyond.
  • East and South East England include the major British studios (Shepperton, Pinewood, Leavesden), and so the high level of common features with other regions tends to reflect the overall pattern of UK feature film production. The very high number of common features between SE and London is a good indicator that UK feature film production is very much concentrated in these areas: a large number of British films are produced in studios in the Sout East and film their exteriors/locations in London.

The position of London, of course, needs no comment – it dominates as one would expect the commercial and creative base of the industry to do.


Coe, N.M., and Johns, J. (2004) Beyond production clusters: towards a critical political economy of networks in the film and television industries, in Power, D. and Scott, A.J. (eds) The Cultural Industries and the Production of Culture. London: Routledge: 188-204.