Arbiters of Taste: The Iron Lady and the UK Film Council

There is no such thing as society.

– Margaret Thatcher

Six years ago I went to see The Constant Gardener at the Showroom here in Sheffield, then the largest independent cinema outside of the country’s capital. Directed by Fernando Meirelles and starring Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz and the late great Pete Postlethwaite, it was an incredibly brave story of governmental and corporate corruption, exploitation of Africa and its people, and integrity and love. The film was based on the book by John le Carré, who claimed that, “by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard.” In short, the project raked some muck, and raised some questions.

A year later, I watched an excellent film that challenged my own views, again at the Showroom: The Wind That Shakes the Barley, starring Cillian Murphy and directed by Ken Loach, who I had the chance to meet at the Showroom just a few years earlier. It was an intelligent drama made with Ken’s courage to carefully look at the events that led to the creation of the IRA, a story seldom told. Yet again, film did what art is supposed to do, by provoking thought.

A couple of years on, I immensely enjoyed In The Loop, Armando Ianucci’s political satire on the illegal invasion of Iraq. I hadn’t seen Ianucci’s successful series The Thick of It at the time, and it was this film that made me aware of the brilliance of both his work and the actors he utilises to offer a humorous insight into the dark and twisted minefield of British politics. It was the dark humour British productions were once known for.

And just over a year ago, I saw Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, starring Colin Firth as King George VI. This film, for me, exhibited the inhumane nature of a system of monarchy in forcing people into positions they didn’t seek, and thus subsequently struggle with. The movie – having cost £8 million but gained a box office revenue of £250 million – won no less than four Oscars, reported on as a massive triumph for British film.

The Constant Gardener, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, In The Loop, The King’s Speech: these films – along with such productions as This is England and Gosford Park – were all funded by the UK Film Council.

The UK Film Council was formed by the Labour government in the year 2000 to attempt to stop the haemorrhage of British film creativity. At the time, the heyday of Pinewood Studios epics and Ealing Studios comedies was as passed as the late British filmmaking icon David Lean himself. In turn, Ken Loach and others like him received more homegrown opportunities to create thought-provoking pictures. David Puttnam – who had himself produced such major movies as Midnight Express, Chariots of Fire, and Bugsy Malonecalled the UK Film Council “a layer of strategic glue that’s helped bind the many parts of our disparate industry together.” The films usually generated far more in revenue than they cost to produce, raised questions, and shed light on many issues. The UK Film Council was a cultural and financial success.

On July 26th, 2010, mere weeks after taking power, the Conservative-LibDem coalition abolished it.

Now, sure, David Puttnam is now a Labour Lord, and progressive actors like Pete Postlethwaite, Colin Firth, Emily Blunt, Timothy Spall, Ian Holm and even American Clint Eastwood campaigned against the closure of the UK Film Council while pompous posh right-wingers like Julian Fellowes (himself a Conservative) and Michael Winner – who gave us such ingenious life-changing gems as the privately-financed Death Wish – publicly supported the decision. So, sure enough, it looked like Labour’s baby was becoming a party political issue. But why?

It’s simple. Progressives love to challenge the status quo; their opponents conserve it – that’s why they’re called Conservatives. The closure of the UK Film Council was ideological, just like all cuts made by the Tories. This is further evidenced by the fact that the Council cost around £3 million a year to run, yet tearing it down cost nearly four times that amount.

What does the British film industry have left now, under the Tories? Enter The Iron Lady.

The Iron Lady, if you hadn’t guessed, is a supposedly moving tale of 1980s Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s struggle with success and, later, dementia. None less than the great Meryl Streep portrays her today as the Tories hold power in Britain. Yes, in 2012, buses with fares rising about as fast as unemployment roll along roads across the country bearing the image of Streep as Thatcher to promote the movie; no expense spared by the likes of Rupert Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox, who bankrolled its distribution.

Thatcher, of course, is one of the most despised leaders in British history, being the Social Darwinist who ruthlessly decimated Northern England’s industries because they dared to be unionised, condemned millions of people to years of psychological and economic depression as a result, deregulated the media for Rupert Murdoch to swallow up, deregulated the financial sector for the bankers to run amok and eventually cause the crisis of the last several years, and befriended Chile’s dictator General Augusto Pinochet, who tortured and murdered thousands. She did all this while Labour were sheepishly laying as low as the voter turnouts and the rest were waving Union Jacks in British nationalism thanks to her lovely little war in the Falklands that she cleverly manipulated by – according to her own biographer in “Margaret Thatcher: The Iron Lady” – almost inviting Argentina to invade the islands, later costing 255 British soldiers their lives.

Unsurprisingly, then, there have been protests at cinemas screening The Iron Lady. We have to remember that people are still suffering to this day as a result of Thatcher’s actions. Those lives she destroyed, go on. Sure, there was Downfall, Germany’s first major movie about Adolf Hitler and his last days in the bunker. But though it (rightly) humanised him, it stopped short of being a warm portrayal of the Fuhrer. Pinochet’s many victims would not have been happy with a film celebrating his successes and his life, either; it would have been considered in bad taste. So it’s not that easy to overstate the offence caused to so many good people in Britain upon the release of The Iron Lady.

Soon, The Iron Lady will be dead. Thatcher, who like no other championed the ethos of putting a price-tag on everything for private corporate interests, will have her funeral paid for not by those companies, but by the state itself. That is the reason people will no doubt protest at her funeral as well. However, you can bet that Murdoch will summon all his media gods and the power of the dark arts to portray the picketers as sick people acting in poor taste. Despite that, the real bad taste is The Iron Lady itself, with protesters of Thatcher to gain publicity only when those in power get to be the arbiters of taste through their media machinations.

With the abolition of the UK Film Council – and with it films like The Constant Gardener, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, In The Loop and The King’s Speech – and the rise of The Iron Lady, the arbiters of taste have made their agenda clear yet again: the individual is more important than the many, who will be condemned by the system and its media whenever they protest.


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