A Country without a Story?
The two most important recommendations of the recent UK Film report, according to its author, are (1) that producers should be free to use the money generated by success to invest further – as opposed, I presume, to returning money to public bodies which have funded them – and (2) that producers should work with distributors right from the outset to tailor their film to audiences. All this is in the interest of greater commercial success – but not necessarily mainstream films, the term used by Prime Minister David Cameron and quickly “corrected”.
Now the UK Government says it is willing to consider tax incentives.
Thus the assumption is always that there is an appetite for “British” product. But we are just too small a film economy to compete with the big players.
Is this accurate, let alone the right way to look at things?
We live in a global world. A country, like its artists, needs to have something to say. Some of its traditions, some of its norms, will prove interesting to others, some will not.
You could call an issue of cultural capital.
I have reported before on the success of recent Danish drama on TV. Now we have another success, called Borgen. It is minority viewing but it is very successful. Following an election, a coalition government has to be formed. After extended negotiation, well told, a prime minister emerges and becomes the main protagonist. The various stories that make up the series revolve around the PM’s family, the tensions within the coalition, and the various characters, mainly journalists, that make up the environment within which the Government works.
Novelty and Familiarity
Our company, Attentional, takes stories seriously. We have done lots of research, some on our own, some with scientists, to understand why humans pay attention to stories. We are pretty sure that our appetite for stories is driven by instincts acquired in our evolutionary past. The “objective” of a story needs to matter in evolutionary terms.
One thing that does matter is leaders (or protagonists) who can surmount challenges, one of which is the challenge of getting humans to cooperate, to work together – always a challenge, for humans have evolved to compete with one another. (Cooperative behaviour arrived quite late in evolutionary terms.) Our instinctive interest is probably driven by the fact that leadership skills are useful knowledge.
Another thing we look for is novelty, but it needs to be relevant novelty. Different people can handle different amounts of novelty.
A New Narrative Space
A key reason for the success of Borgen is that it has found a narrative space, previously unoccupied, which is in fact a norm for most of the countries of Europe. Most of the countries in the European Union are ruled by coalitions and have been for some time. In other words it has found a body if truth to work with, a truth offering space for original fiction. It combines novelty and familiarity.
Countries have cultural capital, sometimes undiscovered, sometimes well-established. Harry Potter comes out of an established British tradition and J.K. Rowling showed it was still alive.
But the UK has failed to make films and series about more contemporary assets, about the City of London, for instance, one of the aspects of Britain that is truly outstanding and different, a real piece of potential cultural capital. (A long time ago there was series called Capital City: overseas buyers went for it right away but ITV did not stick with it).
Many of the British films and series that have succeeded exploit key pieces of cultural capital – the monarchy, still, you could say, the leading one of its type. But we have to be careful that we are not running out of these residual “assets”. They get worn out.
Today Britain feels like a country without a story. A small country like Denmark has defined the way it lives in a series of works, some print, some film, some TV. A small country, part of network of others (the European Union), where government is conducted by rivals in coalitions, has provided writers and artists with opportunities to tell new stories that are different, relevant and topical.
Refreshing Cultural Capital
Is there a contemporary British story that is relevant and interesting? OK, most successful stories stick to fundamentals. We try to understand them. They apply everywhere. But to attract interest from elsewhere a country’s writers have to find some new and relevant cultural capital.