Why the Olympics make me fear for the future of British film

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I suggested a Blackadder sketch but Tony Robinson turned it down…

It’s all over bar the shouting (and the Paralympics; actually, it’s probably only half over, isn’t it). Yes, after seven years of hope and expectation – the latter mainly that, like most things British, it would be more a Fawlty Towers writ large than a testament to organisational efficiency – the Olympics have come and gone in a flash, with the triumphs and tears still close enough to touch, but soon everything will fade into memory and Rio will come round much sooner than you think.

You might think that I’ve found all of these sporting events an irritating distraction to my normal hobby,  but on the three occasions I got to the cinema during the Games there were a fair selection of people there, not full houses by any means but far from empty. I did pick two occasions when British medal hopes were unlikely, and that proved to be a safe assumption. But other than that, I’ve been wrapped up utterly in the drama of the Games, every single medal and event proving as exciting as the last.

But actually my love affair with the Olympics goes back much further; I was fascinated by them as a child, to the point where when I had to give a talk for my GCSE English Language on a subject of my choice, the Olympics was the most obvious selection (and I got top marks for it, too). I even saw an episode of Mastermind once where the contestant had selected it as a specialist subject, and I had outscored him; if only the general knowledge questions hadn’t been quite so fiendish, and if someone hadn’t just stolen my potential specialised subject, I could have been in there.

There’s something compelling about the Olympian ideal as encapsulated by their modern founder, Pierre de Coubertin, that it’s not the triumph but the struggle that’s important, not necessarily to have conquered your opponent but to have fought well. It appealed to me as a youngster to the extent I managed to get bottom marks for achievement and top marks for effort at my grammar school’s Physical Education lessons, before I was eventually relegated to the role of scorer. It didn’t win me any prizes, but still gave a certain sense of self-satisfaction. That sense can still be seen in the likes of Hamdou Issaka, trailing in three minutes behind the rest of the field in a six minute race during Eton Downey’s rowing events, but for many the pressure is much greater, carrying what they believe to be the hopes of a nation and unable to control their emotions when only able to deliver silver or bronze when they thought nothing less than gold would do.

It’s that sense of golden glory that has actually come to define these Games for Britain. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t change a second of it, but I struggle to believe that we’d have seen these Games as quite the success had we taken home the seven gold medals that Australia did, rather than the twenty-nine that our athletes so thrillingly made their own. That success has allowed the nation to revel in the sense of being a major power for the first time since the fall of an empire, and doesn’t a little power feel good? I don’t think anyone would begrudge Britain its moment of glory, as unless something miraculous happens we’ll drop down the medals table next time like every other host that’s then lost its home advantage.

But that gold rush has also allowed us to market ourselves as a nation to the world, and the politicians of the nation have all been out in force, looking to capitalise on some of that good will. David Cameron has already made a commitment to elite sport, confirming that £125 million, the current annual budget for that elite sport, will now be guaranteed for the next four years, rather than the next two. It’s wonderful to see, but without the investment in sport in our primary schools and sport at a grass roots level in this country, there’s a risk that the supply line just won’t be there.

The other triumph in many eyes of the past two and a bit weeks has been the opening ceremony, which did much to highlight to the world just what we think makes Britain great. The arts have sat comfortably next to sport for the duration of the Games, and as well as highlighting Britain’s great musical heritage, the Games have also shown us as a nation how much film means to us, from James Bond and the Queen’s parachute display team to the Bean-influenced Chariots of Fire skit (and the music from that film playing over 300 times during the festivities, until everyone I spoke to was pretty sick of it, so ingrained in the British sporting and cultural psyche it’s become), and even the sight of Gregory’s Girl projected onto the side of a house that later flew into the air to reveal the creator of the world wide web underneath, the Olympics was like a stick of rock with the letters “FILM” running all the way through it.

My fear though, and I can only hope it’s unfounded, is that the same pressure and funding ethos being brought to bear on British sport is what we’ve already seen applied to the British film industry. On the 11th January this year, just prior to a review published on government funding for the film industry, the Prime Minister stated that the film industry should primarily be supporting “commercially successful pictures”, a view that was widely decried at the time, but one that seems scarily similar to the elite prioritisation being applied to Games funding. It’s the gold medals, and the gold statues, that bring prosperity to the economy, but what risks getting lost in the rush to glory is that without the likes of Danny Boyle and smaller British films like his debut Shallow Grave, there’d be no-one to go on and make Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire or his Olympic opening ceremony.

Already there are too many British films getting lost in the mix and struggling to find distribution or funding, and with a country in recession and sport likely to claim a larger proportion of a diminishing pot for the next few years, it’s going to be just that little bit harder for those trying to keep the British film industry going. Let’s encourage British film makers to their craft without feeling that they need to be striving for box office success or Oscar glory every time they turn on a camera, and that they do their best in their own endeavours, and let’s just hope they don’t have to put up too much of a fight to continue to make British film the success that helped to put it at the heart of one of the most uplifting two weeks that this country has ever seen.

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