Cultural exports: Great return on investment in tough times

British film is reaping the glittering harvest of state-funded arts – and NZ politicians should be paying attention

Splendid though it was, Slumdog Millionaire slightly lost me when Jamal shouted “Lakita”, over and over, like a wimpy audition for Streetcar Named Desire. Hard to argue, though, that the film didn’t deserve its seven gongs – from eleven nominations – at the Baftas last night. And it seems destined to repeat the feat at the Oscars.

The film’s director, Danny Boyle, is fast becoming a great. Like so many of his compatriots that have widened Hollywood’s eyes, he owes a debt to British theatre. In accepting his Best Director at the Royal Opera House, Boyle paid tribute to London’s Royal Court Theatre, where he worked with the revered Max Stafford-Clark in the 80s. Boyle quoted from a play he directed during his time at Sloane Square, Howard Barker’s Victory; “There is nowhere to go in the end, but where you come from.”

It was a delicious speech by Boyle (neatly deconstructed here, along with the rest of the evening’s oratory), but it points to the crucial reservoir, or at very least paddling pool, of British film exports: its state-funded theatre (and tv, and film). As a number of critics have pointed out – among them Mark Lawson and Lyn Gardner – Boyle is far from unique in having benefited thus. Analysing the Oscar nominations at the end of last month, Lawson observed:

"Five of the 10 nominations in the original and adapted screenplay categories have gone to British writers (Simon Beaufoy, David Hare, Mike Leigh, Martin McDonagh, Peter Morgan), while, through Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire and Stephen Daldry's The Reader, the UK has 40% of the Best Director and Best Picture categories - an impressive double double for Britain. To highlight these statistics is not simple jingoism - this success results from our cultural structures. The British writing and directing nominees all emerged through theatre and television here, where the tradition of subsidy (via the licence fee and the Arts Council) permits an experimental and relatively protected apprenticeship.”

It’s not the only argument for state funding of the arts, but it’s a good tub-thumper. It underlines the case for the arts, alongside sport (from which I’d not pinch a penny), as a patriotic cause. There seems to be political consensus in New Zealand that funding for culture is valid – I just trust that John Key’s reported embrace of ballet confirms he'll give short shrift to any effort to put culture on the budget chopping board as the recession bites.

Here in the UK, or the US for that matter, a New Ziland accent is these days more likely to let you bask in the reflected glory of the Might of the Conchords than sheep, All Blacks or kiwifruit. They may have been stupidly overlooked by NZ telly, but their path to Edinburgh and their (state-funded) BBC radio series and beyond included a few early steps at Wellington’s small but perfectly-formed (and state-funded) Bats Theatre.

For small countries especially, the arts are as potent as anything in selling the place. Money well spent. Here’s Peter Carey, in the Guardian on Saturday, on the threat to Australian literature posed by parallel importation:

“Perhaps not everyone has noticed how many Australian writers there are. Our writers get more column inches in the United States than even the most craven of our prime ministers, and represent us as a sophisticated nation in every corner of the world.”