Roger Michell, the British director behind Venice competition title “The Duke” and films such as “Notting Hill” and “Venus,” says he feels “great sympathy” for the BBC and its ongoing tensions with the U.K. government.
Speaking at a press conference for “The Duke” in Venice, alongside star Jim Broadbent (co-star Helen Mirren did not make the trip to Italy) and producer Nicky Bentham, Michell said the issue of who will foot the bill for TV license fees for people over 75 years old “feels like another attempt to curtail the power of BBC to make it less likely that its Charter will be renewed.”
The matter of the BBC’s license fee, a mandatory £157.50 ($207) annual payment that helps the public broadcaster fund its programs, is central to “The Duke,” which stars Broadbent as disabled pensioner Kempton Bunton, who stole a painting in 1961 in protest of an extravagant sum paid by the government to keep a Francisco Goya painting in the U.K. Bunton felt the spend flew in the face of hardships faced by seniors at the time, who couldn’t afford the BBC’s TV license fee.
The fee is mandatory for anyone who accesses the public broadcaster’s programs via linear or digital services across the country, but from 2000 until this summer, those over 75 did not have to pay. The government previously had responsibility for keeping the license fee free for the group, but the duty passed to the BBC, which was then tasked with deciding how to pay for it. Its decision to charge “over-75s,” as the demographic is called in the U.K., has been extremely controversial, and has received widespread political pushback, despite the government’s role in forcing the broadcaster’s hand.
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Separately, the government is also trying to decriminalize non-payment of the license fee. Currently, it is a crime not to pay the fee, and doing so can result in hefty fines. Some have also been jailed for failing to pay.
“I have great sympathy with BBC. They’re finding it hard to accept decriminalization of the failure to pay the license and the means testing of the over-75s. I can see the government’s point of view, but I think it’s a political act by them and therefore I distrust it,” said Michell.
“I believe passionately in the BBC, still, despite all the changes and cuts. I am a product of the BBC as much as the first things I did were for the BBC; I trained as a filmmaker for the BBC. The BBC is the great rainforest of the film business. I defend the BBC as an organization that will increasingly need defending.”
Elsewhere, asked by Variety how COVID-19 might impact the roles available for older actors under the new production protocols in place, Broadbent said the situation was very “worrying.”
“It’s going to cause a lot of difficulty for older actors and in getting insurance, and that will unfold in due time,” he said. “It’s a worrying time.”
“The Duke” bows in Venice on Friday.