The UK Trade & Industry department have launched a rather baffling film. From the BBC archives and multiple other sources they have spliced a collage of definitive and influential moments in British cultural and creative history to make six 8-minute films. These are about to roll out to embassies across the globe, principally in order to remind the rest of the world of the cultural leadership generously proffered by the UK.
As Lord Mervyn Davies, Minster for T&I, explained, the exhibition’s self-appointed role is to counter that British tendency of hiding our light under a bushel. Self-deprecation may be part of our national charm, but it’s not going to help us compete in the global market place, so the wisdom goes. Watching the film I did indeed feel a twinge of embarrassment, but I don’t think self-deprecation was the reason.
The criteria for inclusion – whether musicians, actors, directors, designers, architects, brands, advertising – were not explained, but it seemed to be a question of revenue generation rather than quality of output. In most categories I could think of examples of which I would be more proud to claim ownership, as a Brit. It was mostly boringly mainstream, and to the extent that some examples just shouldn’t have been included: do we really want to remind the rest of the world that we’re responsible for Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and the Spice Girls? Such things represent not culture but an absence of it. Or at the very least a culture of rampant consumerism and greed; creativity put to work for dubious ends.
This represents the a waste of an opportunity, as it is potentially a valuable initiative. British culture has been a major export for the last 50 years. Barbara Follett, in her opening speech, characterised the exhibition as ‘my conscious life on the wall’. For some reason, and maybe it’s just a colonial hangover, other nations do seem to want to know what’s going on inside our borders, to keep up. Maybe we really are innovative, avant-garde, ‘Cool’ (in spite of the damage that concept suffered at the hands of New Labour). At this pivotal moment, when the west’s confidence is faltering, in cultural and creative terms our output is strong, and we ought to recognise it. Unfortunately there was scant evidence of it in this film.
Even more galling is that the makers knew exactly who to ask for examples of good quality contemporary work. This film is the follow-up to a physical exhibition that had toured Asia, in which notable and interesting contemporary practitioners in the world of design, architecture, fashion, graphics, etc were represented. But for some reason very little of that content translated into this film.
Perhaps thankfully, the film will not be shown in the UK because of nightmarish copyright issues. The majority of practitioners from the creative and cultural industries will be none the wiser.