Margaret Thatcher swept to power in 1979 and immediately set about implementing her Conservative Party’s policies on the arts. Built on an intensely capitalist model, her policies saw the arts be treated like any other industry, with sales – or bums on seats, as we like to call it – becoming the defining measure of success for any aspiring film, art exhibition, theatre show or music release in the British Isles.
Funding to key British arts organizations such as the BFI, the RSC and the Arts Council was drastically slashed, putting the onus on productions to be economically successful with little outside support – predictably forcing many small, medium and large shows, organizations, films and projects into early closures and bankruptcy. On the other end of the industry, Thatcher dissolved Trade Unions which protected the rights of many workers not only in the mining and manufacturing industries, but in filmmaking as well.
However, were all of Thatcher’s policies a disaster for the film in the UK? And what legacy have the Thatcher years left on our movie industry?
In 1985 Margaret Thatcher scrapped the Eady Levy, which was essentially a tax break scheme to encourage filmmaking in the UK. Having been in effect since around 1957, the Eady levy saw a number of highly successful films made under British radar, including some of the early Bond films and Kubrik’s Lolita, Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange.
The levy also attracted European filmmakers to the UK such as Jean-Luc Godard and Roman Polanski and provided funding for the National Film and Television School. One would have thought that scrapping such a useful and enriching scheme would be a bad move from the Conservatives, but in fact by 1984 it was proven that much of the money the Eady Levy was meant to be injecting into the British film industry was actually ending up in the accounts of big American distribution companies and Studios, with a comparatively tiny effect on UK businesses. Maybe not such a bad decision after all.
Thatcher’s borderline pathological hatred of culture and the arts – means of dissent in her eyes – allowed for the creation of a backlash loaded with creativity, inventiveness, art and intellectualism. Her reign saw the rise of a number of landmark British filmmakers: Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Stephen Frears, to name but a few, who were inspired and even encouraged by the adversity they saw and faced. The tide change she created in the UK, the shift in social attitudes in politics, culture, people and the economy helped give birth to magnificent collaborations and works of art at the time, notably in music but also in film with the likes of My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and The Ploughman’s Lunch (1983).
It was also the Thatcher government that created Channel 4, which of course went on to create Film4 and the incredible list of films that came out of that institution.
Another perhaps forgotten by-product of the Thatcher era was the inexorable rise of video-rental services in the UK, which bolstered the feature film market in an entirely new way. Watching a movie was no longer a special occasion for going out, but something that could be done in the comfort of your own home – a significant step in creating the home-schooled film expert, which we consider one step below the independent filmmaker, and a class of people who changed the face of filmmaking and film distribution forever.
We can’t forget, however, that these happy by-products were almost never fully intentional. Artists in the film industry worked around the crushing system to create a new model for venting their creativity, and in the process gave rise to a new movement of independent and guerilla forms of expression and exhibition. The arts have a way of flourishing the best in the most adverse of circumstances, but this is not something Maggie necessarily knew when she tried to stifle them.
For Thatcher, the messages and themes the arts put out were dangerous and subversive. Hanif Kureishi – the writer of My Beautiful Laundrette – argues that it was actually Thatcher who started today’s Celebrity culture, promoting the merits and faults of who said something rather than what they said as a way of distracting attention from the original message.
Whatever your opinion on Thatcher, her legacy on the British film industry is arguably a good one, though not necessarily intentionally so. Her attitudes and policies encouraged exciting and interesting filmmaking on the independent scene, but at the same time made it almost impossibly hard to actually create something. Her hatred of culture created it’s own series culture and anti-culture movements, but also made us more superficial and distracted from the messages behind the art pieces.
RIP Margaret Thatcher.