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Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer). She referred to Oakworth. I had the honour to live in Oakworth for some 16 years. I have fond recollections of the Worth valley railway and of the hon. Lady's late husband in connection with the film industry. My family's claim to fame is that we supplied extras to "Yanks", which was also filmed there. My late uncle Bob ate successive bowls of rice pudding to act as a backdrop to one of the Rank charm school films.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) on obtaining the debate. He was a distinguished Minister for the film industry. He spoke at great length of the needs of the industry, but he left out something which I know--he is a great enthusiast for films and the media. He made only one mistake and it was a fatal one. He succumbed to the curse of the Cannes film festival, which as hon. Members may know is as fatal--perhaps the Minister will understand this--to the interests of British film Ministers as the Tutankhamun curse is to those who wish to dig up ancient Egyptians.

The right hon. Gentleman demonstrated characteristic courage in the debate. Today is virtually the anniversary of "A Bigger Picture", a publication which laid out the Government's action plan. For most of the right hon. Gentleman's excellent speech, he was doing the monitoring for the Government. There are certain things that we want to know have happened. On page 6 of the document, the various recommendations are listed. It is a matter of regret that the first of the so-called radical plans--the all-industry fund--disappeared without much lament in November last year. The fund was described as the linchpin of the British film revival. Without that linchpin, many of the other items in the 12-point plan have come to naught.

The right hon. Members for Coatbridge and Chryston and for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) both referred to the July 1997 Budget, the first to be presented by the Government, which introduced the 100 per cent. write-off for films with a value of less than £15 million. I am not aware of one film that has benefited from that, although, if I am wrong, I shall be happy for the Minister to correct me on that point. Perhaps the reason is that it has taken 18 months for the regulations to be prepared. The Government might want to make amends--possibly next week--and they could do so by lifting that £15 million cap. There are still strong reasons for the measure, because it was introduced to protect our studios and our skills base and to attract to our economy inward investment that would otherwise have been directed elsewhere--notably to Ireland.

However, it is true that there has been something of a boom in current production. I have the honour to be chairman of the all-party group on film; recently the noted film critic Barry Norman appeared before the working group. He told us that in the early 1980s he and Lord Puttnam speculated on the future of the British film industry in the 1980s and the early 1990s. They confidently predicted that cinemas would virtually disappear, except from our major cities. Barry Norman said with pleasure that they had been proved entirely wrong.

There has been a huge growth of multiplex cinemas and, most interestingly, that growth has been almost wholly supply driven. The more cinema screens there are,

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the more people are prepared to go to the cinema. Perhaps, to misquote Kevin Costner in "Field of Dreams", "If you build them, they will come".

I deliberately quoted an American film because we are sometimes in danger of being too nationalist about the British film industry, and of adopting the more restrictive views of the French. As the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross pointed out, we have enjoyed the growth of English language films largely because of America. The more people go to the cinema and get into the habit of seeing films, the more they will see British films. As has correctly been pointed out, there is a steady growth in the number of English language films available and great enthusiasm for them in central Europe and the far east. That has nothing to do with the British film industry, but is related to the culture of Coca Cola, McDonald's and MTV.

As has been said, other things make this a good time to be involved in film production, especially the growth of video and the deregulation of terrestrial television--first in western Europe and then in central and eastern Europe--which offer many new channels for the use of film. If we add to that the growth in satellite television, digital television and digital video disc, we see that there are many ways in which those engaged in film production can receive additional returns on their money.

There are two particular factors that will help the British film industry. The first is the marketability of commercial, well put together English-language films. Hon. Members have referred to "The Full Monty"; that film grossed $35 million in the United States, and "Trainspotting" grossed $16.5 million. All the successful films of the past few years--"Four Weddings and a Funeral", "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Secrets and Lies"--were produced with budgets of less than £3 million.

The second factor is that there is now more openness and friendliness from the US majors. That is not for wholly altruistic reasons; it is because there is a degree of nervousness about the creative process in Hollywood and a need to alleviate production costs. The growth of markets, the appetite for well-produced, low-budget films and the openness of the major companies make this a good time to be engaged in the British film industry.

There are, however, a number of problems, including the decline of the independents, referred to by the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. Most of the risks for independent film makers are passed on to distributors; the distributors' share, from which they take acquisition and marketing costs, is only about 27 per cent. of ticket sales and there has been an enormous decline in the number of those companies. Perhaps that is why the number of films produced in Britain has fallen: in 1996--only a few years ago--128 films were produced here, but now only 91 films are in production.

The world is starting to open up for the British film industry, but whether we refer to film as a cultural or an educational experience, we should recall the words of John Ford to the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was undoubtedly one of the greatest geniuses in the film industry in the 20th century, but he told the committee that his name was John Ford and he made westerns. That was an enormous understatement. What he meant was that no matter how artistic or educational a film might be, the strand running through all

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films that make it--from those of the Lumiere brothers, through those of David Lean and John Ford and"Star Wars"--is that they entertain and have a good narrative. I believe that the British film industry now has a good narrative and I am sure that all Members of the House wish it success.

12.7 pm

Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) on securing the debate and, as other hon. Members have done, on the work that he has done over the years to develop policy to support and encourage the British film industry. I am sure that his all-embracing and trenchant analysis this morning will be taken to heart far beyond the rather small audience in this place. I also declare my own interest--which is in the register--as a trustee of Lighthouse Media Training, a company based in Brighton which trains the new generation of film makers to whose importance hon. Members have referred.

Hon. Members will be aware of the part played by Brighton--the area which I represent--in the history of the British film industry. If things had been slightly different in about 1906, we might now be referring to Brighton rather than Hollywood as the centre of world's film industry. History moves on, but Brighton has retained that vital connection with the film industry over the years. Only a few weeks ago, some of us had the pleasure of joining Lord Attenborough for the 50th celebration of the first showing of "Brighton Rock". The image of Brighton that has developed through the cinema has helped to make the town the tourist attraction it is. If hon. Members want to explore that early film history, I draw their attention to the excellent southern regional film archive, supervised by Frank Gray, and the exhibitions at Hove museum.

I do not want to dwell on the past; I want dwell on the present and the future. This morning, although my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) alluded to it, we have not heard much about the importance of our film industry to our regional economies. I come from the south-east region--the Government office of the south-east region--which includes Pinewood and Bray studios and we are fortunate that the southern screen commission is based in our region. The commission is one of the network of 24 regional film commissions, based on the model developed by the New York film commission shortly after the second world war, to co-ordinate the industry in their areas and to attract location shooting. Gerard Rosenberg, the screen commissioner based in Brighton, estimates that in the first year of its existence--1996-97--the commission succeeded in attracting about £6.5 million in additional production spending to the region.

Many people who work in the media live in the Brighton area. Some figures suggest that Los Angeles is the only place in the world where a higher proportion of the population are employed in the media. While I cannot vouch for the reliability of those figures, a great difference is that media workers in Los Angeles, by and large, do not have to leave Los Angeles unless they are working on location. However, media workers who live in the Brighton and Hove area must often go elsewhere to work as film or television technicians. It seems to me that the

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network of regional film commissions can play a vital role in attracting location filming to the country's regions--my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley estimated the knock-on benefits to the local economy, including the spin-offs in terms of attracting tourists.

The authors of "A Bigger Picture", which has been referred to many times this morning, set out a specific role for the regional film commissions, referring to them as sources of up-to-date information about the industry and for the industry. The document talks about working with the industry in the regions and about the role that regional film commissions can play in training the next generation of film makers. The document also contains the important statement:


I conclude my brief contribution by asking the Minister to describe what she believes to be the future of regional film commissions--particularly working in conjunction with regional development agencies. Perhaps she will comment specifically on the promise, which I believe is made in "A Bigger Picture", of Government support for the film commissions.


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