“Generally, when I get sent British scripts – and this isn’t a generalisation – nine times out of 10 my heart sinks after about three pages.”
Said actor Toby Stephens during an interview for the BBC this month. Stephens is currently promoting SF thriller The Machine. He went on to say, in regards to The Machine:
“This script came through and it blew me away. It’s not about football violence, it’s not about gangsters, it’s not about some depressing estate.”
Reading the interview, I felt like Stephens (or the article’s editor) was criticising scriptwriters in the UK for apparently writing about the same things again and again – the football dramas, the gangster films, the kitchen sinks of our nation. Thing is, and I know this from many conversations I’ve had with other scriptwriters, and my few dealings with agents – SF scripts like The Machine are out there in the wild, in the UK. But…
These kinds of scripts, these kinds of films, rarely get as far along as being read by actual actors. Not necessarily because they are bad and poorly written, but because the gatekeepers of our film industry (the scriptwriters’ agents, actors’ agents, producers, production companies, etc, etc) are, historically, biased against SF. It’s why Doctor Who got the raw deal it did and often still does; it’s why some SF scripts I know of by established UK writers have never been made; it’s why (other than the money) we’ve yet to have a British comic book movie.
So of course Toby Stephens isn’t normally going to see a script like The Machine wind-up on his lap. The industry puts in a lot of effort to keep that kind of material away from the prying eyes of actors in the UK. The gatekeepers of British films, to me, really seem to shy away from SF productions. Meanwhile, Hollywood will happily bring over production for various bits of SF to the UK.
However, I do agree with Stephens sentiments that, generally speaking, British films can be samey in the way that Hollywood action films, comedies, and so on, can get a bit samey. And it’s infrequent that SF scripts that are thoughtful and provoking get an airing on the other side of the pond. You just have to look at the ratio of comic book movies to something like Robot & Frank and you’ll see that the situation isn’t ideal either. Of course it normally comes down to money – Avengers Assemble would have been considered far more bankable than Robot & Frank.
A few years ago, PM David Cameron called for funding for UK films to be more focused on films that have a higher chance of box office appeal. Annoyingly though, the kinds of British films that tend to do well at the international box office are films like The King’s Speech. Quite frankly, I can’t handle films about that kind of “Britishness” and I’m sure Stephens would also get tired of those kinds of roles too. What’s needed is more balance in the UK film industry.
We need producers and studios who feel like they could take a risk on something that is most certainly not the next Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or not the next Four Weddings and a Funeral. We also need gatekeepers who aren’t biased against SF, because they believe in various stereotypes around the genre. If the UK industry could get some more varied gatekeepers then there’s a good chance we would be able to produce a greater variety of films and not just more about gangsters and football violence and whatever the hell the royal family has gotten up to over the years.