If you want to feel old, think back to the last time a serving prime minister publicly explained what they saw as the point of British film. It was 17 November 2010 and David Cameron was answering questions in the Commons after his recent election win. At one point, he offered what he called a “tip” for British film-makers. They should, he said, take their cue from the Harry Potter franchise. British cinema must “encourage people to come and visit our country”. Tip given, he moved on, welcoming the Saga insurance group to their new head office in East Sussex.
International tourism has had better times than the last 12 months. By the Cameron metric, British film should have just shut up shop until Heathrow thronged again. But the films have kept coming. This weekend, a handful will even compete at the Baftas. And for all the happy clarity of the 2010 guidance, you find that old questions still nag among them. Is British film really only an income driver for open-top bus tours, or is it meant for British audiences too? Should it entertain in the pure popcorn sense, or grandly hold up a mirror to the nation? Good luck with that in 2021.
This year was meant to be easier. Last time round, just as Covid reached the UK, the Baftas set the virus a high bar for unpopularity. With the nominations so white and male – dear God, all that Joker – they felt like trollery. Not so 2021. Now the entire nomination process has been overhauled, the voting pool refreshed. The results brought loud relief among grandees. Shortlists brimmed with modern, inclusive films fit for a modern, inclusive country. Kudos to those who saved Bafta’s skin. This would be the year of Rocks, Saint Maud and Riz Ahmed. Finally, Bafta had caught up with Britain.
But which Britain? Like every part of national life, recent Baftas have taken place against a noises-off rumble of division. This year we are in a new phase of pick-a-side – subject to a culture war, declared from the top down. And awards shows in wartime are a risk.
Bafta is not quite the BBC, so energetically loathed on the right. But the awards have long been an establishment neighbour (not least for being televised on BBC One). In 2021, both feel like holdovers from an older Britain, before it split in two. Now much of the old Bafta demographic are radically enraged by symbols of anti-Britishness such as Meghan Markle or masks in classrooms. And egging them on is Downing Street.
Witness the release last week of the Sewell report, aimed at delighting that faction of Britain. With no small expertise, it was offered as a bomb under exactly the kind of progress Bafta has made. For the report’s promoters, the backstory to this weekend’s awards – a modest series of careful, evaluated steps towards improving racial diversity – wouldn’t just be unnecessary. It would be everything hateful and wrong with the country.
And yet the films are so much better now. Among this year’s candidates for outstanding British film, you find at least two future classics – the much-loved Rocks and underrated His House. For what it might be worth, each is also a model of intersectionality. Their stories are savvy about how race, class and gender play out in Britain. Their creative teams bring first-hand experience. Would Bafta have found room for them in the past? You suspect it depends how many films Tom Hooper made that year. Yet whatever the point of British film – reflecting Britain back at itself or making crowd-pleasers that pop enough for Netflix – they both meet each brief beautifully.
It would be a shame if the whole country couldn’t celebrate a film as good as His House, a refugee ghost story of Kubrickian verve. After all, nothing else is excluded by it. Another British nominee this year is The Dig, the portrait of a 1939 Suffolk excavation whose key ingredients – emotionally vulnerable posh people, artless rustic wisdom, Carey Mulligan – would fit with generations of Bafta tradition. The film even passes David Cameron’s tourist test. In any other year, it would have set the tills ablaze in the National Trust cafe at Sutton Hoo.
But labelling The Dig as film of the year for people who send angry tweets to Naga Munchetty would be unfair. (Slightly.) It also risks missing the point. If the question is what kind of film would be championed by the British culture war, the answer might be surprising. Boris Johnson is sometimes asked to name his favourite movie. Wading through the many droll replies, the closest you get to a straight answer is Dodgeball, the 2004 sports comedy in which Vince Vaughn hits other characters in the nuts and is in turn hit in the nuts himself.
The choice says many things. Not least that films may not feature much at all in the Johnson hinterland. But the love of Hollywood product over anything British is striking for a man so steeped in patriotism.
Then again, such is the strange nationalism of this culture war. For all the tallying of union jacks in BBC annual reports, actual British talent is often cut from the top table. Netflix is held up as everything the BBC should aspire to. And in film, the closest thing to a government tsar is the chair of the BFI, a job Downing Street recently gave to Tim Richards, Canadian CEO of Vue cinemas, its parent companies two Canadian pension funds. Behind the scenes, the flag is for the punters. The money flows elsewhere.
In the end, culture wars and award ceremonies are not so different. Both are exercises in theatricality, organised on high. They can also affect individual lives: the young Black woman who might see Rocks win a Bafta and decide to make films; the racist for who the Sewell report is licence to say out loud what they once confined to Facebook. But despite the clout we credit them with, film awards are less able than prime ministers to shape a whole country. Only government can tell the Britain the Baftas have only just acknowledged that it isn’t really Britain at all.