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Thatcher's film legacy

A look back at how Thatcher-era policies impact the UK film industry of today, from the elimination of the Eady Levy to the founding of Channel 4 and British Screen. Geoffrey Macnab talks to the experts and re-examines the history.

The conventional wisdom is that former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (who died last week) had a disastrous effect on the British film industry.

Her government notoriously scrapped the Eady Levy, a long-running scheme through which British producers received a proportion of box-office receipts.

Thatcher had little interest in the arts in general or in cinema in particular. Her ignorance often astounded onlookers. When one of her writers took out the phrase “sick as a parrot” from a speech, Thatcher asked why. She was told that the phrase might be linked back to Monty Python. “Is Monty one of us?” she is reputed to have replied.

At a BSAC Conference in London last month, James Bond producer Michael G. Wilson explained that Cubby Broccoli had been drawn to the UK in the first place by the Eady Levy and that after its abolition the UK industry went into a “terrible decline” that was only offset with the establishment of sale and leaseback and then the setting up of the UK film tax credit.

“We came out with far less than we went in with,” producer Rebecca O’Brien of Sixteen Films reflects on Thatcher’s stretch at Prime Minister (1979 to 1990). “That (the Eady Levy) was a perfectly good system that had survived for some time and it looked as if it was removed at a whim. It was very damaging for the film industry at that point because there really wasn’t any support.”

O’Brien points to the plight of Ken Loach in the ’80s as evidence that the film industry was “on its knees” thanks to Thatcher. “It was pretty grim times. He (Loach) had to resort to working in advertising…what support was there was just removed.”

It was a surprise, therefore, to find Lord Puttnam writing in The New Statesman in October 2010, after the decision to abolish the UK Film Council, chiding the then Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt for having no sense of the role that his (Tory) party, “and Margaret Thatcher and John Major in particular, had in breathing new life” into a beleaguered industry.

“She (Thatcher) was pretty much a sink or swim character,” reflects producer Stephen Woolley, the former Palace Pictures boss who now runs Number 9 Films. “That kind of worked for us. We entered the business in the early ’80s as a distribution company and we were bringing commercial attitude toward the films we were making. We were armed with the possibility of maximising success and not merely with a begging bowl. We were very entrepreneurial in spirit.”

By consensus, the 1980s was a terrible period for British cinema. Audiences plummeted, reaching an all time low of 54 million in 1984. Investment in British films declined sharply over the Thatcher decade.

However, as Woolley’s remarks suggest, on one level at least, the Thatcher era was liberating.

The most distinctive British films of the period (many of them backed by Channel 4, which became lynchpin of the industry in the Thatcher years) - My Beautiful Launderette, Mona Lisa,The Ploughman’s Lunch, Letter To Brezhnez, Sammy And Rosie Get Laid, etc.  - were resolutely anti-Thatcher. At the same time, a new generation of independent producers led by companies like PolyGram, Palace and Working Title were beginning to embrace a more commercial approach to cinema.

“What we were able to do at Palace was incorporate within our company films by Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Derek Jarman. We were able to release their films alongside our own films but as a producer, I was very conscious of the market,” Woolley remembers. 

“This was England in the late ’80s and early ’90s.There was a certain type of film that was fundable,” says another prominent producer who emerged in the Thatcher era. “God forbid you try to do anything that was commercial. Nobody wanted that. It took Four Weddings and A Funeral (1994)to change everybody’s attitude.”

Thatcher’s government was known for its loathing of big, publicly owned companies and its distrust of anything that carried even the whiff of subsidy. It was little surprise, therefore, that as well as abolishing Eady, the Government closed the National Film Finance Corporation (NFFC).

Simon Perry, a producer of such films as 1984 and White Mischief in the 1980s, argues that at this point the Thatcher Government helped British cinema almost by accident.

“Most of what happens usefully in Britain, particularly in the arts and film, happens by a series of mistakes and blunders which sometimes produce unforeseen, perhaps unwanted but often useful consequences,” Perry states.

Thatcher wanted to privatise the British film industry. In the place of the NFFC, the Government set up British Screen Finance in 1986. Rank and EMI, both of which had benefitted from the abolition of the Eady Levy because they controlled 60% of British exhibition, were persuaded to support the new body. Both agreed to invest £250,000 per year for three years. Channel 4, set up in 1982, was the third of the private partners to back British Screen and eventually Granada also became a shareholder but the organisation needed - and eventually received - public support.

“As often happened in the privatisation phase, ideology would be applied manically and fervently until it didn’t seem to work - at which point they (the Government) would bung a grant at it,” Perry (who succeeded Simon Relph as Chief Executive of British Screen in 1991) recalls. “What they ended up with (at British Screen) was an accidentally interesting model of private/public partnership.”

The pivotal film-related event in the Thatcher era came close to the end of her time in office. This was the Downing Street film summit in the summer of 1990. Various film UK film industry potentates met with Thatcher and Universal boss Lew Wasserman for a seminar. Proposals were made that eventually led to the setting up of a £5 million co-production fund. Lines of communication were opened up between the industry and Government and as few years later in 1994 - as Puttnam wrote - “at the urging of Richard Attenborough, the then Prime Minister, John Major, agreed to National Lottery funds being used to support film production.”

With the beginning of Lottery funding, a chain of events was set in motion that led eventually to the setting up of the UK Film Council. Thatcher, Puttnam noted, had helped start the “British film industry’s long march back from the wilderness.” Before giving her too much credit, he also pointed out that her Government had been largely responsible for casting the industry into the wilderness in the first place.

Finnacier Paul Brett, a director of Prescience, observes that Thatcher had no sense at all of the power of the British film “brand” abroad. “Which is where the Labour years of Blair and Brown really turned things around. They knew what our brand meant abroad.”

For a producer like Woolley (whose credits in the Thatcher era included The Company Of Wolves, Mona Lisa, Absolute Beginners and Scandal), these were invigorating times. 

“Our sensibility was constantly informed by the market. That, in a way, was very much what Thatcher was preaching,” Woolley reflects today on the paradox of the Thatcher heritage. “The films we released, distributed and made were anti-Thatcher, (but) the philosophy behind how we had to operate would have been probably been blessed by Thatcher.”

Others counter that — as Rebecca O’Brien puts it — the boom in independent production was “ripe for happening anyway…I don’t think one should congratulate Margaret Thatcher for making that happen.”

Thatcher, O’Brien suggests, had no “overall strategic plan” for British cinema. If the industry did benefit on any level during her era, it wasn’t by her design. “She wasn’t interested. I don’t think it (the British film industry) was on her agenda…she didn’t want to be bothered by that.”

Readers' comments (2)

  • sandip mahal

    Also worth reading. Alexander Walker's books on 80's cinema.... Some gained, most lost

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  • sandip mahal

    The book is Icons on Fire:The Rise and Fall of Almost Everybody in the British Film Industry by Alexander Walker... Not so much about Thatcher but still an amazing read on the graveyard of broken companies that litter the eighties and all the more relevant considering Revolver's demise in much the same way as Goldcrest and Palace Pictures.... If more industry folk read this there's a chance of maintaining a more noble industry... I smiled as I wrote the last line

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