British talent driving a cultural resurgence

By Mark Leftly

The build-up to the Queen's Jubilee was no time for those tired old British traits of reticence and self-deprecation.

Carling, which is rarely shy in reminding customers that it is the country's best-selling lager, captured the chest-beating mood with an advert wrapped around a newspaper, which asked: "What makes Britain so brilliant?"

The 60 answers - one for every year of the Queen's reign - included deep-fried Mars bars, driving on the left, allotments and a certain beer brand.

Even in jest, though, it was noticeable how many of the suggestions referred to Britain's rich history of creative talent, be they William Shakespeare, the Beatles, Sir David Attenborough, or the minds behind the Carry On films.

On top of those classic names, a slick new wave of the country's musicians, movie makers, video games designers and architects are in demand across the globe.

British television characters, formats and shows have been snapped up, copied or co-produced internationally since around the time David Brent announced in the pilot episode of The Office: "I'm a friend first, boss second.

Probably entertainer third."

A decade and a half on from when Tony Blair made the phrase "Cool Britannia" his own, the UK can boast tangible evidence to back up the suggestion of a creative and cultural resurgence.

This is big business: 10.6 per cent, nearly £9 billion ($18.2 billion), of Britain's services exports are generated by the creative industries, more than in education, health and agriculture services, according to the culture department's most recent figures, which are for 2009.

The term is clearly a mish-mash of sectors: creative industries also include advertising, designer fashion and fine art and antiques.

But this is no more so than in, for example, professional services, which incorporate lawyers, accountants and headhunters, as well as having its own influential Treasury-backed lobby group.

As varied as they may be, the creative industries are similar in that, for many years, they were largely domestically focused and were the products of pie-in-the-sky types who lacked real financial acumen.

When the UK's manufacturing base eroded in the 1980s and 1990s and globalisation took a firm grip in the form of the internet, clever financial engineers and bankers looked to grow British industries with a less mammonistic heritage.

The children's television character Peppa Pig and her army of supporting characters is one of the best recent examples of British born-and-bred creations achieving global acclaim and revenue. Its London-listed owner, Entertainment One, has seen the show become the number-one rated children's programme in Spain, Italy and Australia.

The international success of the £400 million-valued brand is one of the reasons E1 has the financial firepower and institutional shareholder backing to consider an estimated £190 million bid for Canada's Alliance Films, a 50 per cent stakeholder in the CSI: Crime Scene Investigation franchise.

"Peppa Pig is evergreen now," says chief executive Darren Throop of the five-minute-an-episode show that only started airing eight years ago. "It's very clever and it's the Queen's English, which means in the US they do nothing [such as adding subtitles or dubbing] to the show."

That's important, as the US remains the most lucrative potential market for British television and film.

Throop launched the show in the US last year as a half-an-hour batch of episodes on leading pre-school channel Nick Jr and it has been a huge ratings success, beating programmes on either side of its slot.

However, the real money in children's television is in the merchandise and licensing, which in Peppa's case has been reported at more than £200 million in the UK.

Throop explains that he is looking to "slowly release the toys so there is no fatigue" from overexposure eventually hurting sales, though this has not stopped him signing a deal with Toys R Us that will see Peppa exclusively in a window of every one of its stateside stores from later this year.

There's little doubt language helps UK artists and creative brains with their transatlantic cousins.

It's hard to imagine that north London singer Adele would have raked in US$17.2 million ($17.4 million) as the US's 10th-best-earning music act last year or that The King's Speech would have earned nearly US$140 million at the country's box office had the lyrics and dialogue been in French or German.

Other disciplines are more universal. With virtually all commercial building work outside London at a halt since the credit crunch struck, British architects have been winning huge contracts in Dubai, China and India, the places where the money has been for the past five to 10 years. In those countries UK architects have been welcomed for their mixture of modern skills and an alluring heritage.

Ken Shuttleworth, the founder of Make Architects and who is best known for designing the City's Gherkin tower argues: "About 30 per cent of our work now is in China. We have a sort of tradition and engineering that goes back to the Brunel days.

"There's a feeling [in overseas markets] that what we do here is quite special."

Although this British success might be enough to get the most ardently minded republican to wave the Union Flag at a jubilee street party, there is a problem that much of the talent and their creations are controlled by overseas companies.

DMA Design was founded in Dundee in 1988 and did well with the Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto video game franchises. However, as sales soared globally, it was bought by New York-based Rockstar Games in 2002, and is now a subsidiary of Nasdaq-listed Take-Two Interactive.

The GTA series is often hailed as a British gaming success story, having sold around 130 million copies since the first game in 1997 and the fourth entry grossing US$1 billion.

However, most of those revenues have not ended up in British pockets.

The culture department figures suggest that with nearly 220,000 creative businesses in the UK, there is a lack of scale to ensure the commercial strength to keep hold of the best.

Even EMI is poised to fall into the hands of Japan's Sony Music and France's Vivendi Universal, so there is little hope for a nascent computer games enterprise in London's "tech city" growing into a UK-based conglomerate.

British creative talent is on the up and a huge boost for business when other industries are stagnating at home and struggling to compete internationally. But hanging on to individuals and their companies is difficult as films, music, design and games catch the eye of wealthier overseas rivals.

- Independent

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