Whither the UK film industry? Some have reported it missing in action; others, unaware of its existence, demand to be told what it is and what it looks like. The thought of what, exactly, is up with UK film arises when looking at a list of British movies released last year, more than a few of which have made little-to-no impact on what might be called the public consciousness. Even the top three UK films at the box office last year – Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore; Belfast; Downton Abbey: A New Era – have an air of already-forgottenness about them. Other movies, such as the Colin Firth and Matthew MacFadyen-starring Operation Mincemeat, crept into the UK top ten practically unwatched by anybody, simply unheard of by the masses.
There exists a strange sense of an alternate reality about these films. How can a prestige picture like Joe Wright’s Cyrano de Bergerac have come and gone, essentially unseen by all, only to wash up in the landfill of the streaming services some time later, there to permeate public awareness even less? Something called The Phantom of the Open, a home-grown comedy telling the true story of the world’s worst professional golfer, starring Mark Rylance broke the UK top ten, but garnered a desultory box office performance, where once it would’ve played to a fine old gallery of mammies and pappies, and possibly scored big internationally with its tried-and-tested formula of heartwarming Little Englanders who attempt something and sort of succeed (The Full Monty, Calendar Girls and, to an extent, Eddie the Eagle). These films, it seems clear, are Not Connecting With Audiences, and possibly haven’t been for a while. On the face of it, this would appear to be a uniquely UK phenomenon, as a comparison with the French film industry might illustrate – of which, more later.
What is happening here? Covid, for one, the rise of streaming television and the dominance of known-IP franchises at the box office. The UK film industry flails severely when it comes to launching new material, always falling back on James Bond with an almost alarming desperation. But it’s striking that the UK system itself doesn’t appear to have the legs to launch films, keep them in the public realm and get them spoken of. Good Luck To You, Leo Grande, sold on the star persona of Emma Thompson and aimed at large audiences, seems to have fared decently and even won a few prizes, but in a fragmented media landscape it feels like it didn’t completely get through. How does the industry even sustain itself? Of course, general cinema audiences do seem to have tailed off in the last ten years across the board, with 2012’s box office top ten making a sizably bigger buck than 2022’s, but that doesn’t account for the UK’s seemingly vanishing portion of the pie.
One crucial factor is that the UK exists now as a training ground for greater fame across the Atlantic, where future stars are vetted before being launched to celebrity proper in a country that has the infrastructure (the chat shows, social media reach and smarts) to do so. Florence Pugh initially appeared in two esteemed UK films, The Falling and Lady Macbeth, in which she gave two quite thrillingly good performances, before becoming properly famous with her US-based work in Little Women and some Marvel nonsense. Matthew MacFadyen has kept hold of a low-level buzz here, but had to go to the US to break out as a proper star in Succession. Daniel Kaluuya, an actor whose talent was hardly hiding away, could only hit it big in the US after being stuck in perfectly amiable UK shows like Psychoville opposite the boys from the League of Gentlemen. The UK, perhaps because it shares a language with America, is all too often taken along for the US ride, thrilled that we’re nominated for Oscars rather than protecting ourselves and rewarding our own. The decision of Bafta to try to become about international awards, rather than reward the work of UK actors in UK films, has been significant. It inscribes the UK in a position of less-than.
Compare this with the French film industry. It’s still heavily subsidised, in a way that means it can exist independently of US acclaim. Dix Pour Cent, or Call My Agent!, became a runaway international hit a few years back when it landed on Netflix. Its British remake, Ten Percent, dropped on Amazon Prime to no fanfare at the end of April. It met with politely negative reviews – one critic called it ‘oddly toothless’ – and indeed the show has a strangely hollow tone to it, something a little misplaced, like talking to a grieving relative whose mind is elsewhere.
Ten Percent failed because it tries to ally the original show’s deeply French sensibility with a British viewpoint. But this can never work, because the French show, for all its delicious comedy, is deeply sincere and reverential about cinema; the UK has a much more, let us say, muddled attitude towards its national film industry. Call My Agent! is a beautiful paradox: a deeply modern and successful TV programme about the primacy of cinema as an art form. In it, it’s only towards the show’s end that the ascent of TV is even brought up: the agents spend their time trying to land movies for their clients, not a three-season TV show on Canal Plus. The programme’s guest stars (Juliette Binoche! Monica Bellucci!) are all movie stars. It plays precisely on the very oddness of seeing these stars of the silver screen on the box. Just as the agents themselves are forced to bow and scrape before their client overlords, so we too feel a disconnect in grandeur between these film stars, playing themselves in a format that they would never habitually set foot in. Witnessing Isabelle Huppert in a sitcom format is thrilling, because she doesn’t quite adapt to it, but somehow bends it to her will; her timing and presence are on point, but something about her aura does slow the show down a smidge. This is, after all, a woman who has hardly ever done television in a 40-odd year career. Other guest stars are similar: Sandrine Kiberlain, appearing in the doomed final season, has never been in a TV show; Béatrice Dalle, Binoche, Fabrice Luchini and Bellucci likewise have barely set foot on the small screen.
This is unimaginable in the UK, where the whole model of celebrity is of a completely different tenor. Here, television creates stars and arguably leads to a more fervent sort of adulation than film. Actors like Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, Colin Firth and Olivia Colman may be Oscar winners, but all are arguably just as famous or more famous for their roles on television. The small screen is what cements the nation’s affection for an actor and informs its iconography, from Firth’s lake-swimming to Maggie Smith’s barbed deliveries as the Dowager Countess of Grantham. This means that UK actors relate to UK audiences in a functionally different way to the way French actors and French audiences do, resting much more on being ‘approachable’ or ‘relatable’. Some exceptions notwithstanding (Michael Caine and Terence Stamp are movie stars; so are Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet, although they have both appeared on HBO), British stardom has a different complexion. The guest stars in Ten Percent are no exception to this rule, from Kelly Macdonald (State of Play, Line of Duty) to Emma Corrin (The Crown) via David Oyelowo (Spooks) and Helena Bonham Carter (The Crown, Burton & Taylor).
British television, while it may not enjoy an international profile on a par with prestige US TV, still feels in relatively good nick compared to UK film, with such recent successes as This Is Going to Hurt, The Capture or Time not only meeting with critical acclaim but also connecting with domestic audiences in a way that many films can only dream of.
British film stars – like Rylance and Firth – are unlikely to be able to launch a film based on name alone, because the pull they exert is associated with the comforts of home. Cinema is bound to suffer as a result. In an age where TV and film have started to blur, UK cinema has to stick up for itself in some way, fighting back against streaming in order to protect its singularity – and make what it does feel unique and valuable again.