I once had a film industry this big… Tony Blair at Tate Modern. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/AFP
It seems like a very long time since a senior politician described Britain as a “creative” country, the way Tony Blair did in his Tate Modern speech. It took me back 10 years to when New Labour’s then arts minister Chris Smith published his earnest book Creative Britain, which sought to tap into the Cool Britannia zeitgeist exemplified by the Spice Girls and the film Trainspotting. These were phenomena which first flourished under Conservative arts minister Virginia Bottomley.
Look closely at those famous press pictures showing Blair cosying up to Noel Gallagher at No 10 after coming to power and you will see the smiling figure of Anthony Minghella in the background. Cinema, with its associations of dynamism and Anglo-American glamour, was always important to Blair’s administration. He invited film-makers such as Minghella and documentarist Molly Dineen to make party political broadcasts.
There’s absolutely no doubt that Blair’s government has not merely taken the arts seriously, but taken cinema seriously as a vital constituent of the arts, and was able to channel large amounts of lottery dosh to make more of our movies happen, though with a sometimes controversially elastic concept of what constitutes a British film. The result has been, arguably, an awful lot more ropey films – but if you increase productivity, you increase the number of duds coming off the assembly line, and hopefully also the (smaller) number of gems. At least we had something which for the first time really did start to look like it might be an actual industry.
This isn’t to say that the movie world bows with gratitude at the mention of this government. There are still hard feelings about Gordon Brown’s move in 2004 to tighten up on tax relief for film investors, a pre-budget announcement which tipped production on almost 40 films into uncertainty and sank imminent plans to film Deborah Moggach’s novel Tulip Fever.
Many professionals nonetheless genuinely do feel grateful to this administration for caring about movies. Paul Greengrass, the British director of United 93 and The Bourne Ultimatum, is known to wax lyrical about the chancellor, whose Treasury has made it possible to make many more movies in the UK.
It is an odd paradox. Disillusionment and disenchantment with Blair’s Britain are just as much an article of faith in the movie world’s product as they are in the rest of the media. We’ve seen a new resurgence in political documentary and these films are always antipathetic to the Blair/Bush power axis; arthouse movies for the educated classes are naturally sceptical and popular movies are indifferent to politics. Trainspotting was hardly pro-Labour or pro-Tory, but it did seem in tune with a boisterous new political mood.
There’s absolutely nothing like that now, and certainly no-one in the movies is prepared to give an endorsement to any political leader, comparable to the extraordinary ones that Noel Gallagher was giving Blair 10 years ago.
And yet I feel that the actual professionals themselves, looking back over the last decade, probably feel that the prime minister has been good for the British cinema industry, and my guess is that they are probably right to feel that.
Along with peace in Northern Ireland, achievements in the arts and modest advances in re-establishing a native cinema industry might yet be something that Blair will be allowed to claim as part of his much-yearned-for legacy.