The appearance of Richard Attenborough's "Gandhi," perhaps the most important British-backed movie in years, reflects a determined try by British filmakers to raise their industry's profil.

A substantial return on the movie is crucial to an ambitious future mapped out by Goldcrest Films and Television Ltd., the 5-year-old British production company that put up the largest share of Gandhi's $20 million budget in a fund-raising drive that came perilously close to collapse several times. With some of the most celebrated names in British film on its payroll -- including Attenborough; David Puttnam, producer of "Chariots of Fire"; and Derek Granger, who produced "Brideshead Revisited" for TV -- Goldcrest today is definitely blue chip.

The company is planning a variety of projects destined for theater and home viewing -- in Britain and elsewhere, of course, but most important in the United States, where entertainment money is spent on a scale unimaginable here and audiences are vast.

"Our formula," explained James Lee, the 40-year-old chief executive of Pearson Longman, a successful publishing conglomerate that is Goldcrest's parent, "is to take advantage of British skills, talents and enterprise and match them available to American outlets." With total capital of only about $40 million, Goldcrest is smaller than any of the American "majors" like 20th Century-Fox, Paramount or Columbia. But it is aiming high, and that alone is an important departure.

Three self-contained television films in a David Puttman-produced series called "First Love" already have been sold to U.S. cable outlets. A six-part dramatization of M.M. Kaye's novel "The Far Pavilions," the story of Anglo-Indian love affair during the heydey of the British raj, is a Goldcrest production with Home Box Office of the U.S. and independent television in Britain and Germany. The feature-length "Local Hero," another Puttnam production, directed by Scotland's Bill Forsyth, who scored a surprise hit recently with "Gregory's Girl," is scheduled for release next year.

What is distinctive about these and similar projects -- as well as "Gandhi" -- is that an aggressive British company is taking the lead in getting them made.

For more than a decade now, Britain's film industry, chockablock with creative and technical mastery, has been suffering a severe decline. American dominance in means and markets overwhelmed a financially undernourished home-grown industry. Increasingly, British studios were, in effect, rented out to U.S. companies for making such blockbusters as "Star Wars," "Superman" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

Several factors were responsible: A flourishing, comfortably underwritten, British television world drained off energy and enterprise from studios that once made such emphatically English films as "Kind Hearts and Coronets" or "The Lavender Hill Mob." And as television audiences grew, there were fewer filmgoers to support serious dramas like "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" (1962) or "Women in Love" (1969), let alone the endless string of good-natured horror movies ("The Curse of Frankenstein," "Horror of Dracula," "The Hound of the Baskervilles") from Hammer Studios.

MORE AND more, the British have been getting out of the habit of a night at the movies. As recently as 1978, about 126 million tickets were sold. The estimate for this year is 70 million tickets. At one time, rules required that 30 percent of all films shown in theaters be British. Then the figure was dropped to 15 percent and finally was abolished.

Meanwhile, the size of the U.S. market (50 percent of the global total for English-language movies) meant that unless a film was expected to succeed with American audiences, investors showed little interest. As the 1980s dawned, the last of the British production giants miscalculated mightily on U.S. tastes -- Lord Lew Grade with the instantly forgotten "Raise the Titanic" and EMI with a similarly disastrous "Honky Tonk Freeway," both of which lost millions .

To the financial crisis was added a crisis of self-doubt and lost prestige. Had British film really grown so dependent on American money, ideas, initiative and audiences that it would never again stand on its own? Would a country with a tradition of acting, writing and directing brilliance become essentially a U.S. colony when it came to making films of lasting quality?

As far as Goldcrest is concerned, the answer is no. "The fact is that film and television production is something the British are extremely good at," said Pearson Longman' Lee, adding that this ability can and should be exploited by British entepreneurs.

The aim is plainly not to drive Americans out of British studios, where they provide employment and resources for honing advanced technical skills. Nor does it make sense to demand that "British" funding back "British" films. Goldcrest, for example, supplied essential seed money for developing the "Chariots of Fire" script, but the bulk of support eventually came from Egyptian and American sources.

The Goldcrest strategy is to make Britain once again a spearhead as well as a spearcarrier for film production as the possibilities expand in the video revolution. A historical spectacle like "Gandhi" -- if it becomes a blockbuster, and there are doubts -- can enhance the credibility Goldcrest already has developed through the success of "Chariots of Fire" and other ventures. But it can do something that is ultimately more important to the company -- help in raising cash.

"It is very, very difficult to raise money for films in Britain," said Jake Eberts, a Canadian and long-time British resident who is the chief executive of Goldcrest. "In spite of high visibility, a good reputation and prominent people, investors are hard to find."

LAST MARCH, Goldcrest set out on a major capitalization campaign with a goal of 12 million ($17 million). When the effort ended in July, it was 2.5 million short and as Eberts acknowledged, few new investors had come forward. "To make movies," he said, "takes imagination and hard work, which we and Americans have. It also takes capital. And that's where Britain, hurt by an economic recession and instinctive caution, falls short."

The "Gandhi" saga illustrates the problem vividly. As Eberts tells it, Goldcrest acquired the rights to the film from producer Joe Levine in April 1980 and set about raising the budget of $22 million (fluctuating exchange rates eventually brought the figure down to $20 million).

About $750,000 was put up by Goldcrest and a New York partnership, International Film Investors, that Eberts had helped found. The Indian government went in for about $6 million. Eberts counted on getting the rest from one of the American majors, but failed. Goldcrest upped its commitment to about $2 million, as did the New York company.

Next, Barclay's Bank in Britain agreed to a complex tax-leasing plan, but that fell through after filming had already begun. Goldcrest went back for another $3.5 million. The final $4 million was all but promised by a group of Indian investors, but that plan collapsed, too.

Attenborough and others involved with the film agreed to defer any salary, saving $1.5 million. Finally, faced with no other alternative, Pearson Longman rescued its subsidiary with another $4 million. And that, says Ebert, exhausted with the telling, is how "Gandhi" became so heavy an investment.

Yet one critical step remained: finding an American theatrical distributor prepared to put up millions for advertising and promotion. Columbia Pictures eventually agreed and is in for $12 million. "What all this says," Eberts said, "is that making a British film is a hair-raising enterprise."

To alleviate that strain as much as possible, Goldcrest is seeking to "pre-sell" its productions as much as possible. That means combining television sales in the U.S. and Britain, videocassette production and, in some cases, theater release as well.

The first in Puttnam's TV series, "First Love," for instance, has been sold to United Artist Classics for theater release, to United Artists-MGM for home video and to the cable company Showtime.

In practice, all this means Goldcrest has put up about $9 million of the cost of seven major films and series for television, while the companies that will put them on the air in various countries have come up with about $17 million. The same sort of collaboration works in feature films.

Instrumental in this new multi-media approach is the appearance of Channel 4 in Britain, the country's first new television channel in 18 years. Unlike the BBC's two channels and Britain's other independent, commercial channel, Channel 4 commissions original films for theater as part of its mandate. As much as a third of the funding can come from Channel 4, with the producers raising the rest.

Anthony Smith, director of the British Film Institute and a member of Channel 4's board, said scores of medium-budget films by British filmmakers that would not have been made in recent years now have a chance because of the support independent producers can expect. He predicted that as many as 60 feature-length films will be made in Britain this year, more than twice as many as last year. And most will start on television.

A good example is Goldcrest's "The Far Pavilions," now shooting in India. It will be shown first as a series on Channel 4, on HBO and on a German channel, then will be recut to theater length. Lee estimates that three-fourths of "Far Pavilions' " revenue will come from television and a quarter from movie sales. (To top it off nicely, Penguin Books, another Pearson Longman company, has produced the paperback.)

In a sense, Attenborough's "Gandhi" is Goldcrest's flagship, an epic film that represents a still young production company's best shot for a big financial return. But for the forseeable future, British filmmaking will probably work on a smaller scale, producing good televison and good movies at modest cost with the burden spread around. For an old country like this one, Eberts said, there still are great new challenges in the video age.