It’s an institution, in the best possible sense of the word. And nowadays it’s impossible to think of “the Beeb” without thinking of its filmmaking arm.
This week BBC Films celebrated its 25th birthday, a quarter of a century of British independent filmmaking during which it has developed and produced over 250 films. The anniversary comes just a month after it won the Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema award at the BAFTAs. From its first film, Anthony Minghella’s “Truly Madly Deeply” in 1990, just a smattering of the back catalogue reflects the quality of its output, much by directors nurtured at the start of their filmmaking careers: “Jude” (Michael Winterbottom), “Twenty Four Seven” (Shane Meadows), “Billy Elliot” (Stephen Daldry), “Last Resort” and “My Summer of Love” (Pawel Pawlikowski), “Eastern Promises” (David Cronenberg), “The Duchess” (Saul Dibb), “An Education” (Lone Scherfig), “In the Loop” (Armando Iannucci), “Coriolanus” (Ralph Fiennes), “The History Boys” (Nicholas Hytner), “Dirty Pretty Things” and “Philomena” (Stephen Frears), “Mrs. Brown” (John Madden), “Fish Tank” (Andrea Arnold), “We Need To Talk About Kevin” (Lynne Ramsay), “Pride” (Matthew Warchus), “Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa” (Declan Lowney).
As Kenneth Branagh told a star-studded bash at Broadcasting House on Wednesday: “The results have enriched lives, regularly, and in some cases have totally changed them.” Branagh’s first job as an actor was for BBC Television. Later, when he was struggling to put the budget together for his directorial debut, “Hamlet” (David Puttnam told me, ‘This film will definitely collapse’”), the BBC came to the rescue even before it had its formal film operation. His last Oscar nomination was for his performance in “My Year With Marilyn” – produced by BBC Films. “BBC Films make the difference, by being constant,” he said. “It brings confidence to others.”
When I asked Head of BBC Films Christine Langan why the Corporation needed a film arm, she said: “I think the BBC is invested in creative talent and our talent needs films. And our audiences need to see films that tell British stories. So at a very modest cost, we’re able to nurture individuals when they want to grow into a new field, whether it’s TV talent, theatre talent, literary talent. And we’re there to create something that we can be proud of in this country, which works for domestic audiences and can also travel.”
With such a diverse list of titles, one wonders what unites them. “I think our purchase on the story is in an authenticity and a sincerity to the way that it’s done,” she said. “Films like ‘Billy Elliot,’ ‘Pride,’ and ‘Philomena’ really encapsulate what we’re about. They have a cultural specificity, but one that translates into a very compelling universal story.”
Helena Bonham Carter pointed out to me that with 70-odd films under her belt she couldn’t remember just how many had the BBC imprint: “When making a low-budget, independent film, however much you may feel it’s a dream project, you can’t always be sure of reaching a big audience on a theatrical release,” she said. “But the BBC ensures that after it’s been in cinemas the film will appear on TV, where it can reach millions. It’s so comforting to know that. At the same time, as a mum you have to have a good reason to take yourself away from the kids. For me it’s got to be a good script. And with the BBC you know you’re going to get that.”
Juliet Stevenson, who starred in “Truly Madly Deeply” alongside Alan Rickman, reminded me that when they started shooting it was intended as a television film, only for BBC executives to realize its theatrical potential: “They were very enlightened. And they were proved right when this little film made for no money in England enjoyed a very successful international release. It showed that we could think much bigger than we had been thinking, and that a film without huge Hollywood stars could create its own heat.”
BBC Films has 15 releases this year. And at the party Langan announced a new slate that includes an adaptation of Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize winner “The Sense of An Ending” (directed by “The Lunchbox”’s Ritesh Batra), an adaptation of the Arthur Ransome children’s classic “Swallows and Amazons,” a new film by Ricky Gervais featuring his “Office” creation David Brent, a documentary on Grace Jones by Sophie Fiennes, an adaptation of “David Copperfield” by Armando Iannucci, and James Marsh’s account of the tragic sailor Donald Crowhurst, starring Colin Firth.
All on an annual budget of just over £10 million ($74 million), though it’s estimated that every £1 attracts five more from co-producers and others. “We can never solely finance,” said Langan. “We initiate projects and can be cornerstone financiers. But even though £10 million doesn’t look like much money, it’s tremendous leverage to get a lot of films going. We do punch above our weight.”