L19 – The Changing Face of UK Film and TV

Say what you like about the Leeds International Festival but they do get some amazing contributors.  Last night I attended my third L19 event this year, a discussion on The Changing Face of the UK Film and TV Industry hosted by the BBC presenter Terry Christian.

He can justifiably be named as one of those who did just what the title of the event said when he was the front man on The Word, a groundbreaking Channel 4 chat show first broadcast in 1990. It had the usual raft of film stars but was a million miles away from the Parkinson format, being cutting edge and controversial. The music guests were also breaking acts as well as established ones. He seems to have mellowed a bit over the years but is still not afraid to speak his mind and throw in the odd curveball.

The panel comprised a cross-section of the industry, with representatives from all its branches.  Adam Morse, writer, director and producer, had just flown back from Los Angeles and arrived straight from the airport after completing his film Lucid starring Billy Zane and Sadie Frost.  Nicci Topping, a Professional Casting Director and Howard Ella, Head of Production at Mammoth, completed the representatives who make the films and TV programmes happen, whilst the performing fraternity had their case voiced by two ‘seasoned’ performers in Nicole Barber-Lane, a mainstay of  Hollyoaks for the past thirteen years, and John Thompson, actor, writer, comedian and impressionist whose Cold Feet is having a phenomenally successful second stint on TV after a break of thirteen years.

Thirteen seems to be a theme here.  The final panellist was Sade Malone, a young actress in the transformation from a child star on CBBC’s 4 O’Clock Club to adult roles.  Each of the above brought their own insight to the rapidly changing face of the profession. The proceedings were conducted in an informal manner, with each panellist chipping in as they felt appropriate, rather than as a series of presentations.

The obvious change in recent years has been the rise in the number of platforms for both films and TV, with Netflix and Amazon entering the fray, and downloadable content on demand.  Nicci Topping put forward the paradox that even though there are lots more programmes being made, there are still too many actors for the parts available. It has become more the case that the competition has prompted programme and filmmakers to insist on top-flight stars in their productions to capture a large share of the audience, with aspiring newcomers being overlooked.

Howard Ella highlighted a further anomaly, in that the increased amount of work has led to a shortage of technical staff, such as camera operators and sound recordists.  He said that anyone contemplating a career in the back room would be advised to start as a runner and work their way up.  He had a lot of useful information to impart on most of the topics.  Being Head of Production at Mammoth, the biggest film production company in the country – think Victoria, Endeavour, Poldark, Vanity Fair and Wuthering Heights, along with the annual Christmas Agatha Christie dramas, he obviously knows what he is talking about.  He was also honest enough to admit during the question and answer session which followed the main discussion, that he always has to have one eye on what the audience wants and, although he would love to make cutting edge programmes, the method of funding and distribution does not lend itself to that anymore.

Adam Morse imparted the latest thinking on the ‘high content’ films being made – that’s action hero stuff to you and me.  He said that science fiction of his youth has now become science fact, thus allowing other avenues to be explored. Lucid is Adam’s first feature film and so you might not be aware that he suffered the sudden loss of his sight about ten years ago.  He had always dreamed of becoming a filmmaker and so was not prepared to let that stand in his way.  He said that the perceived wisdom of the effect the loss of one sense leading to the enhancement of the others is certainly true, but his physical blindness has led to a kind of mental sight, whereby he senses things going on around him without actually seeing them. His memory has also improved greatly as he needs to be aware of how to get from A to B from experience and also, more importantly, how to make sure that he picks up the right drink from the table at parties.  He has used this heightening awareness as the basis for Lucid, which would have been considered a bit far fetched a few years ago, but technology has enabled him to translate it better to film.

All contributors were of the opinion that action hero films were here for a while yet, as they now don’t just rely on special effects but have developed into films with real stories to carry them.  There is also the need for escapism in the strange times in which we find ourselves.

Nicole Barber-Lane announced that after her stint in Hollyoaks she has decided to call it a day and move on to fresh fields, but is finding it difficult to get more mature roles.  She bemoaned the fact that she was told that she wasn’t young and pretty enough.  This was shocking to me as the reason she gave for moving on was that in soap operas you get told to just speak the lines, there being no time for artistic input from the actors, which is the reason actors act. Again, honesty was revealed in that her original plan was to take the part for a couple of years to earn enough money to tide her over until she could get different parts.  As it turned out, she was cajoled into remaining but is now adamant that enough is enough.  I cannot understand the ageist attitude towards women as I find that the distaff side gets more interesting with age.  I wish her the best of luck.  Once again, Nicci said that it was not the shortage of roles so much as everyone wanting Maggie Smith, Judy Dench or Helen Mirren.

Sticking with the problems faced by women actors, Sade, who is from Guiseley, said that even though in her early twenties, and now having been to RADA, she still gets offers to play fourteen-year-olds because that is what she has become known for.  This theme was broadened by John Thompson, who said that working as an actor nowadays is all about profile and if yours slips then so do the offers.  He said that he was as amazed as anyone that Cold Feet’s revival had been so well received, but added that this is the twenty-fifth anniversary of The Fast Show’s first airing, but when Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson went to the BBC with the idea of producing a Christmas Anniversary Special and costed the whole production, it was turned down as being too expensive.  John said that the cost for the finished programme was less than Gary Lineker is paid for doing a Saturday job.

Another consensus was that there is a lack of middle budget productions.  Blockbusters are thriving and the availability of cheap, good quality tech has meant that low budget works can be made in the same way as Arctic Monkeys made their first album themselves on a shoestring.  The hit and miss nature of the middle priced product means that no one is prepared to take a chance on investment.  In the past, production companies would be given a chunk of money by the BBC as the budget for the year’s programmes, but now they are mainly financed by individual backers who stand to lose as well as gain.

I enjoyed the discussion very much and learned a lot, but the most startling opinion came from Howard Ella, who said that he didn’t rate Netflix’s chances of lasting very long because they are dedicated programme-makers and broadcasters, so have no fallback position.  Amazon, Apple, and Disney have other income streams, so will be the ones who survive the longest.  The latter two have not yet entered the battle but are poised imminently to do so.

Before I finish I would like to comment on the Leeds International Festival itself.  I thoroughly enjoyed the three events I attended and was very impressed by the organisation and its execution, which was down to both the office holders and volunteers.  My only gripe was the behaviour of the audiences.  I was shocked at the way people treated the performance of John Cooper Clark so casually, by leaving their seats and going to the toilet or to top up their drinks, some leaving the Cube altogether and bringing drinks back from the Tetley.  I suppose that having cut his teeth in folk and punk clubs, Dr Clarke is used to such behaviour and it is probably me who is out of step.

One occasion where I am totally convinced I am not being too picky was during last night’s discussion.  I always sit as far back as possible when I go to events for two reasons: firstly, to give the paying customers the best seats, and secondly, so that I can gauge the reaction of the punters.  I was seated on the end of the back row enjoying the views of the panel when three people utilised some empty seats a couple of rows in front of me.  There were two men, one of whom was wearing a pink lanyard signifying his involvement with the Festival, with a similarly lanyarded woman in the middle of the trio.  The chap sporting the pass immediately struck up a conversation with the woman, much to the annoyance of the couple sitting in front of him, who kept flashing him dirty looks but to no avail.  The woman in the trio soon left the party but, blow me, this numpty carried on the, now quite animated, conversation with the other chap across an empty chair and whose embarrassment was palpable.  I was there to review the event and so did not intervene, but had I not been a guest I would have made my feelings known to the miscreant in no uncertain terms.

I would urge anyone on the organising committee who reads this to please do so on my behalf and point out the correct standard of behaviour expected from audience members, no matter what their involvement.  Hint – he was wearing a red and blue lumberjack shirt.

All photographs by Ben Bentley and provided by Chapter 81.


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