Tax avoidance, and the secret of bad British film | Marina Hyde

The abysmal Britflick was one of the mysteries of the modern age. But the whole business may have been a clever wheeze

Is there a more perfect vignette in the recent career of our rapidly oxidising prime minister than his standing next to Aung San Suu Kyi but being quizzed about Gary Barlow? Over the years, many of us will have beheld certain politicians and wondered: "Do they have any idea what plonkers they are?" One hopes the knowledge eats at them in the silent watches of the night, but the suspicion is that everything from ministerial cars to American bilaterals fools them, and they never really put themselves into perspective.

Occasionally, though, the gods of staging chuck us a bone. And the experience of standing beside the Burmese pro-democracy paragon while reporters asked about his mate from Take That must have brought home to David Cameron his essential smallness. It was a moment made for the commentary of Spinal Tap's David St Hubbins. "That," he once remarked, "is too much fucking perspective."

Much has been said on Jimmy Carr's "terrible error of judgment", and we shall come later to the "terribly funny error of judgment" that saw Cameron pronounce on it. For now, thanks to the excellent Times investigation into tax avoidance, we can be grateful for two things. Gary Barlow only had a couple of days to enjoy his OBE before people were claiming he was a chiseller. And perhaps we finally have an explanation for the awfulness of British films.

Obviously, there are exceptions. But for every rare Britflick success, there must be 20 sensationally appalling duds. In a country so strong in all the other arts, it was one of the great mysteries of the modern cultural era. So what a lightbulb moment to read that, according to the Times, £150,000 invested in a film could generate £1m of tax relief – even if it flopped. The product is in effect irrelevant. Those British films that take three figures at the box office should clearly be trailed with the tagline: "From the accountants who brought you Love, Honour and the Rancid Potato Men".

Forgive the detour into esoterica, but have you seen Mad Cows? For some years now, my friend Matthew and I have nurtured a demented fixation with this 1999 British classic, watching it countless times, typically in drink, whilst howling: "HOW? How in the name of sanity did this get made?" I now wonder if it could be that the ever-perplexing sequence in which Rustie Lee is effectively interned in HMP Scrubsway, for merely being in a shop at the same time Anna Friel shoves some frozen peas down her bra to ease her nursing discomfort, is not an inexcusable plot hole after all, but an extraordinary act of cinematic accountancy that, every time it is watched, triggers an automatic payment of a hundred grand into some investor's bank account.

This, presumably, is how they create wealth in Bizarro World. Indeed, there is an even closer fictional precedent: The Producers, where two shysters hatch a plot to get rich by overselling shares in a Broadway flop. Jimmy Carr, and all the sadly unnamed non-celebs who decline the civic duty of paying proper tax in favour of avoiding it via film investment schemes and the like – they are the Bialystock to the accountants' Bloom.

But where The Producers' Bialystock and Bloom unintentionally produce a camp hit, this is not the fate of the Britflicks. Perhaps the genius of the parasite tax avoiders that use British film as a host organism is that even talent cannot derail the movies' journey toward turkeyville. Many of these films harness the immense gifts of some of our finest British actors – but they could have starred Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep and the outcome would have been the same. Retina-scarring for you and me, and paydirt for some footballers.

I do not pretend to understand the formula by which this alchemy takes place. It is as opaque as the plot of Mad Cows itself. But could it be harnessed to help the British economy, instead of shaft it? Could it be repurposed in a manner that could enrich the many and not the few? The answer, of course, is no. We need only look at the social and political breakdown that followed the collapse of the pyramid schemes once hailed as the saviour of Albania's economy to be reminded that such schemes are the grimmest of zero-sum games.

Yet, with the exception of financial services, there is no sector so routinely frotted by governments as the film industry. Politicians remain pathetically impressed by "movie people", as though we were talking about the golden age of MGM and not some amoral number-crunchers from Jersey. Since 1997, governments have fallen over themselves to give the industry tax breaks – the very ones being exploited by the avoiders – like nerds sucking up to the cool kids.

In fact, it is precisely this Blairite celebrity obsession that made David Cameron unable to resist giving his views on the personal tax arrangements of a comedian. One imagines that, by now, with questions rolling in on his own family fortune and every tax avoider he has ever befriended or made a government adviser, he is beginning to grasp what an imbecilic act of self-sabotage that was. Its fallout, however, might be something many of us can enjoy with a bucket of popcorn.


Marina Hyde

The GuardianTramp

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