Larry Elliott Monday August 7, 2000
Here's the theory. Britain can never hope to challenge the United States as top dog in the world economy, but it has the potential to play Athens to America's Rome. The blossoming of our cultural industries will civilise the hard-nosed form of enterprise coming across the Atlantic.
Tate Modern is the symbol of a renaissance that will essentially write off the 20th century as a hundred wasted years. A new economic phoenix will emerge from the ashes of all those obsolete car factories and shut- down steel plants, taking Brit art, Brit pop, Brit software, Brit TV and Brit fashion to every corner of the globe.
The reasoning goes like this. Britain is not very good at manufacturing. Lots of people make money out of making ads, designing software, running record companies and so on. Therefore, the future is with the filmmaker who can turn out the next Full Monty and the entrepreneur who can discover the next Oasis, rather than people who are making tangible products.
This is a false syllogism. Britain's recent performance in manufacturing has indeed been poor (not least because of dreadful macro-economic errors) but the idea that the creative industries are so dynamic and unstoppable that they can plug the hole in the balance of payments is fanciful in the extreme.
Two-thirds of British films are never seen because they are so uncommercial; British television is awash with repeats, cheap fly-on- the-wall docu-soaps and American imports; British pop music is at its lowest ebb since the days of Cliff and the Shadows in the early 60s. When the best that last night's TV can manage is the umpteenth re-run of Fawlty Towers and David Bowie is still the headline act at Glastonbury, it is hard to take some of the claims made for the cultural industries seriously.
The figures do not lie. We run a massive balance of payments deficit in film, a smaller deficit in TV and our share of the world music market is falling.
There could be the simplest of explanations. The end of ideology, the idea that class no longer matters, the scrabbling for the centre ground, the homogeneity implicit in the triumph of Americana have led us into a cultural cul-de-sac, where mediocrity rules and there are no causes left worth fighting for.
Conflict is good for creativity, blandness deadens it. Seen from this perspective, the appeal of programmes such as Big Brother - in which contestants are cooped up in a house and battle against each in the hope that they will be the last to be turfed out by a TV audience - is the modern version of the Colosseum and illustrative of the same sort of moral decay that led to Rome's demise.
But, for the sake of argument, let's assume that this is not the case, or even if it is that the forces of globalisation will result in the rejuvenation of western culture rather than a creeping homogeneity. Are there any factors that will limit the rise of the cultural industries?
Two immediately spring to mind. One is the British cult of amateurism, normally dressed up as spontaneity or creativity. Our ideal hero is the chap who is persuaded to step in at the last minute for a cricket match on the village green, borrows a pair of flannels and a bat held together with sticky tape, then goes in and scores a brilliant century. But real life is not like that.
It is no accident that the United States has been the dominant force in world cinema for the past century, because whereas Hollywood has always been consumer rather than producer driven, Europe's filmmakers have never had much truck with market reseach.
As Finola Kerrigan and Nigel Culkin of the Univesity of Hertfordshire concluded in a study of cinema: "Historically, the structural problems which are seen to dog the European industry emanate from the organisation of the industry itself combined with a reluctance on the part of the Europeans to adopt industrial and marketing tactics readily embraced by Hollywood.
"The European industries are very heavily production led and continue to ignore the importance of distribution, which results in their failure to secure a greater share of the global film market."
So, if we want our cultural industries to thrive, lesson one is to treat them as an industry, with proper regard given to those elements - investment, research and development - that make firms successful in competitive markets.
Make do and mend - a philosophy tested to destruction in parts of manufacturing - will not do if we are to alter a situation in which British films capture 1% of the American market and US films take 70% of the British market.
The average budget for American productions in Britain is £18m, against £3m for British films. Alan Parker, who is chairing the film council, set up by the Department of Culture Media and Sport, wants Britain to concentrate on making fewer vanity films and more blockbusters.
Some might not like this approach, arguing that Hollywood is about the lowest common denominator, dumbing down and formula movie-making. Given that America has given us Scorsese, Coppola and Altman, while we have given them the Carry On series and Hammer Horror, this is not an especially strong case. Parker's approach is the right one, and applies to TV as well as film, where the demand for programmes triggered by the satellite and cable revolution has outstripped the ability of programme makers to supply quality products. Greg Dyke's plans for two new BBC TV channels are fine in principle, but will only succeed if the money is there to make quality programmes.
Lesson number two is that there should be less emphasis on high culture and more on mass culture. This is brought home in an excellent pamphlet by James Heartfield in which he argues that leisure has been captured by the rich. The amount of leisure time per person has not increased much since the start of the 60s, but more and more of it is being captured by the better off.
"We need to distinguish between mass cultural consumption and the more leisurely and reflective cultivation of pleasure at the other end of the scale. The first is characterised by greater technological productivity, accessing the same two-hour slot between the evening meal and going to bed. Media directed towards that time-slot is frenetic, demanding a short attention span, offering the utmost in sensational impact.
"The second is characterised by craft production values and an open- ended time-scale. These cultural products are marked by ambiguity, irony and obscenity as well as being heavily coded to limit entry."
There is no doubt the elite does very well for itself out of the cultural industries and calls most of the shots. Vast dollops of public cash subsidise opera and ballet, for example. "By minimising their unpaid labour, Britain's wealthy professionals have succeeded in expanding their appreciation of minority culture, pointedly reasserting their monopoly over society's leisure time," Heartfield says. "Britain's leisure society is strongly weighted towards its leisure class."
Does this matter? Well, not if we see culture as the icing on the cake, the bit of the economy that celebrates the human spirit and adds texture to life. But it does if we think that we can make a living out of cultural industries, because the market for mass culture in Britain is far bigger than that for minority culture.
Unfortunately, culture is one of the bulwarks of British snobbery; high culture is seen as quality culture, pop culture as low-grade culture. A glance at some of the "high culture" on display at Tate Modern is a quick-working antidote for this way of thinking.
In the end, the choice is between being a niche player or going for a mass market. The glamorous end of the fashion industry is designing haute couture for Paris and Milan; the real money is made in the high street. Britain's economic history is full of missed opportunities. It would be a shame to see the cultural industries go the same way.
Great Expectations; James Heartfield; £7.50 from Design Agenda
-- James Heartfield
Great Expectations: the creative industries in the New Economy is available from Design Agenda, 4.27 The Beaux Arts Building, 10-18 Manor Gardens, London, N7 6JT Price 7.50 GBP + 1GBP p&p