Last night, Jason and I (plus Jason’s friend Helen) went to an invitation screening of extracts from four films funded in part or in total by money from the National Lottery (either via the Film Council or the Arts Council for England). The screening is to become part of a future edition of ITV1’s current affairs programme, Tonight with Trevor McDonald, currently scheduled for Friday 19 November.
If any evidence was needed for the atrocious dumbing down of the ITV network’s current affairs output, last night provided more than enough. I have never witnessed such a brazenly manipulative attempt to wring the desired answer out of a group of volunteers masquerading as honest journalism.
We were given a large card ‘thumb’ each with which to vote after seeing the first 15 minutes of each film. Our voting was, we were directed, to be conducted along the following lines:
* **Thumbs up** if we would like to see more of the film, **and** we thought it deserved Lottery funding.
* **Thumbs down** if we didn’t want to see more of the film, **and** we thought it didn’t deserve funding.
As you can see, two distinct and unrelated opinions were being deliberately conflated. The only way you can justify doing so is if you take it as read that the only films deserving funding are ones that you yourself would enjoy. That’s not necessarily true. A number of us said so in various ways during the Q&A sessions after each film clip, but it will be interesting to see how much remains in the edited programme.
If I sound sceptical about the production team’s editing, it’s not without cause, I fear. After the second of the four films (Scottish Walter Mitty/Amelie wannabe, _Janice Beard_), presenter Jonathan Maitland asked for volunteers from the audience to talk about the film — requesting two people who had voted thumbs up, and two who had given the thumbs down. After recording two positive comments and one negative one, the team moved on to a woman in the front row who had voted negatively. She gave the quite reasonable comment that it wasn’t the sort of film that did anything for her, and quite possibly wouldn’t have gone to see it at the cinema. However, she said, she didn’t have any objection to it receiving Lottery funding, because it would encourage diversity and experience within the British film-making industry.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Maitland answered her comments with a brusque, “Thanks. Anybody else who voted ‘thumbs down’ want to say anything?” The implication was clear: that wasn’t the sort of reasonable comment they were looking for.
The third film received a unanimous thumbs-up from the audience; hardly surprising, since it was the critical and commercial success, _Touching The Void_. Maitland expressed surprise that the UK Film Council only funded that film to the tune of £350,000 when, say, _Sex Lives of the Potato Men_ got £1 million. That, to my mind, betrays his lack of understanding of several points:
* documentaries – even those with dramatic reconstructions, such as _Touching the Void_ – will have fewer overheads than a film which by its nature requires a larger cast, multiple locations, and all the ancillary costs that go with a full-scale drama;
* _Touching the Void_ had its funding ‘topped up’ by the UK Film Council after arranging funding from third parties (Film Four);
* when this film was in the planning and funding stage, documentary feature films were not enjoying the resurgence they’ve seen recently (and of which _Touching the Void_ has been a part) — meaning that any funding would have been considered a potentially greater risk.
There are always questions to ask about state subsidy of the arts, whether directly from Government coffers or via revenue generated by the National Lottery. However, I get the distinct impression that _Tonight with Trevor McDonald_ won’t be asking them.
Out of interest, the National Lottery has distributed [£16 billion of funding](http://www.national-lottery.co.uk/player/p/goodcauses/goodCausesLanding.jsp) over the last 10 years through its various endowment bodies. In contrast, the UK Film Council has an estimated spend of just [£60 million (PDF)](http://www.ukfilmcouncil.org.uk/usr/downloads/strategic%20plan%20for%20web02.pdf) each year. Just a small portion of that (£17m) is invested directly in feature film production (counting the Development Fund, Premiere Fund and the New Cinema Fund).
It will be interesting to see if _Tonight_ mentions that its report is concerned with just 1% of annual Lottery spending. From what I’ve experienced, though, I doubt it.
Out of interest, the four films from which we were shown footage were:
* [_Sex Lives of the Potato Men_](http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00022EFGQ/thislitheunoffig)
* [_Janice Beard 45wpm_](http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/B000051YI7/thislitheunoffig)
* [_Touching the Void_](http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/B0001B3ZI2/thislitheunoffig)
* [_Body Song_](http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00015N4NO/thislitheunoffig)
Body Song is also available in an [interactive form online](http://www.channel4.com/culture/microsites/B/bodysong/bodysong.html) (requires Shockwave).