Sunday, November 22, 2009

In The Thick Of It Again

And so to Westminster again to prostrate myself before politicians in the name of animation. After my trip to the House of Lords it was off to the DCMS this time to lend my voice to the outstanding campaign being waged by the indefatigable Oli Hyatt of Blue Zoo Productions to secure for our UK animation industry the type of support that governments give in just about every other country where animation is practiced.

Oli had secured a meeting with Sion (pronounced 'shorn') Simon MP - the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Creative Industries - to get his support for a tax break, such as is enjoyed by the film industry in the UK.

In the animation corner myself, Oli, other distinguished producers and a representative from the BBC and Mark Field MP (City of London and Westminster) who set the meeting up as it was of direct concern to his Soho media constituents.

It was impossible not to think about 'The Thick Of It', Armando Iannucci's brilliant satire on Westminster, as I walked into the DCMS building on Cockspur Street. I had done a little research on Simon and found this amongst other things - I have to be honest, my hopes for a successful outcome to the meeting were not high.

Sure enough, once we were ushered into the right honourable's office it didn't take long before it all got a bit Tucker-esque.

After what Tucker's fixer Jamie (great character, what's happened to him in this series?) would call the 'public-school niceties' i.e. we said 'Hello', it was down to business. It was like being in the ring with a pumped-up boxer who had leaped over the ropes and started throwing punches everywhere, even though the fight hadn't started, just to make sure everyone knew he meant business - the referee, the waterboy, the trainers, even the nice girl carrying the announcement cards would have run shrieking to the corner to avoid his be-gloved hand flailing around their heads.

Basically he started off by making it very clear that he wasn't there to listen to a bunch of middle class, designer-bespectacled meeja types (i.e. me) whine about how hard it was to make a living when we had a brilliant tax break in place for films WHICH INCLUDED ANIMATED FILMS and we were to understand that he would bite anyone's ear off who tried to tell him otherwise.

Once we were all clear about that (and we were) and once he was satisfied that we knew we were dealing with was a take-no-prisoners-street-fighter (which we did) we got down to the serious business of talking about the parlous state of the kids animation business in the UK.

Oli, unflustered, said his piece and it makes sobering listening. Essentially the animation industries of Ireland, France, Canada, Luxembourg, Belgium, Spain, Hungary, Canada, Korea, China, Australia, Germany (and even Wales and Scotland) all enjoy some form of Government support in the form of subsidies, tax breaks and protective quotas and we in England do not (OK, except for films).

In the cases of France and Canada the support is substantial as is the level of quota protection. Ireland offers its producers a 28% tax break against production spend in the Republic and it's killing the industry in the UK and in England in particular. According to Screen Digest the proportion of UK produced shows on British television has declined from 84% in 2004 to 28% in 2009.

The UK punches well above its weight (sorry about the boxing metaphor again but I like it) in the international animation marketplace. Shows like 'Bob The Builder', 'The Teletubbies', 'Postman Pat', 'Shaun The Sheep', 'Wallace & Gromit', 'Timmy Time', 'Thomas The Tank Engine', 'Roary The Racing Car' are global franchises that earn millions of pounds for the UK.

If all subsidies, tax breaks and quotas could be abolished everywhere at a stroke it would be massively to the advantage of the UK - our shows are very highly respected and travel extremely well - our competitors would be left for dead.

However, that's not going to happen. And so we need to level the playing field in a different way, by giving the same sort of support to UK producers that our international colleagues enjoy. The UK film tax credit (18% of UK spend returned to producers in the form of a tax credit) has been hugely beneficial to the film industry and to the UK economy - some estimates put the increase in film production in the UK attributable to the tax credit at 75%. That's 75% more jobs, expenditure, VAT, tax and NI receipts and it has to be profitable for the Treasury.

It looks like the tax break is going to be extended to the computer games industry (another UK powerhouse) and, we argued, it would be easy and ultimately profitable for the Government to extend the courtesy to the UK TV animation industry too.

And a strange but wonderful thing happened. The snarling subsided, the prize fighter realised that the opponent wasn't yet in the ring, he settled in his corner, he let his trainers fan him with a towel and talk him through the fight ahead.

He got it.

Because no matter how much we (OK, I) might want to believe otherwise, you hardly ever get to be a Parliamentary Under Secretary if you're a moron and when someone talks about something as cuddly and intellectually compelling as the possible extinction of the kids TV animation business in the UK you have to listen, especially with an election on the horizon. If you don't listen you know that the opposition will and they will leap in if for an instant they thought they could pin something as heinous as Noddy's death on the Government.

I hope that when the bell does finally ring and the big fight gets underway sometime in or before May, some of Sion's haymakers really connect and that he gets to follow through the ideas that he talked about last week. I have met a few politicians from all sides over recent months and have found something to admire in them all, despite my preconceptions. But Sion Simon struck me as the one who might actually have the fight to get something done - even if he does blacken a few friendly eyes in the process.

But I think we should go and see Jeremy Hunt (Shadow Minister for the DCMS) just in case ... I hear he's got a mean left jab.

Hats off to Oli Hyatt. Because I'm from Aardman I sometimes get the press as I did after I signed Oli's letter to the Torygraph. But this is Oli's campaign and I really, really hope it works. It needs to.