Before TV became my career and even for some time after preserving its output (and therefore advocating for its quality) became my professional focus, the cinema was my first love and main passion. At the height of my obsession, in the seventies and eighties, I would visit a cinema three or four times a week and could not forsee a time at which such activity would not remain a regular part of my life. But nowadays, though I remain engaged with the world of films, I rarely watch any outside my own home. The change was gradual and came about for many reasons: here’s how and why it happened – and why I am inspired to write about it at this particular moment.
Though I had been a regular filmgoer since childhood, it was at University that I became interested in it as an art form rather than just an entertainment. I joined the University Film Society (OUFS) and was a regular visitor to the wonderful Moulin Rouge Cinema in Headington (now, alas, long gone) as well as the screens in the centre of the city. This was the era of Clockwork Orange, The Godfather, Death in Venice and the highly impactful (on me) first re-release of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Towards the end of my undergrad years, I started to take notice of European “art” cinema, which would later come to dominate my viewing.
During my time of training and early employment as a librarian in the mid to late 70s, new cinematic vistas opened. In both public and specialist libraries, evening shifts meant afternoons off in lieu and, being in central London, afforded plenty of opportunity to take in films both old and new. My regular destinations tended to be the repertory and arthouse theatres which proliferated at that time – The Electric (especially on Thursday afternoons for the Bergman double-bills), Everyman, Gate, Paris Pullman (where I caught up with the works of Werner Herzog and Hans-Jurgen Syberberg), Academy Oxford Street and, above all, the National Film Theatre. Like the true nerd and completist I was (and still am), I kept a diary of the films I saw and worked out what I still needed to see from the works of the directors I liked the best.
The month of November was particularly important to me at this time, because that’s when the London Film Festival was. I always ensured I had plenty of annual leave left, so that I could attend screenings in the daytime – this was the best way to make sure of getting tickets for the films I really wanted, which were likely to be over-subscribed for their evening showings. 1977 was a particularly memorable year – I vividly remember rushing downstairs to pick up my self-addressed envelope and ripping it open to find that I had tickets for everything I had asked for, including new films by Wenders (The American Friend) and Herzog (Stroszek), Wajda’s Man of Marble, Bertolucci’s 1900 (which turned out to be something of a disappointment) and, above all, Syberberg’s Hitler: A Film From Germany (which turned out to be something of a revelation). The day after the screening of Hitler, I attended a two-hour discussion with the director at the South Bank, which was a wonderful supplement to the film.
Throughout the seventies and eighties I gradually caught up with large swathes of the history of world cinema as well as keeping up with contemporary releases, something which would be much more difficult for somebody setting out to do the same today: not because of lack of availability – the home video market makes that easier than ever – but simply because of the scale of the task. At the same time, my professional responsibilities began to demand intensive television viewing, though I already had a pretty good grounding in the history of the medium, having been an avid viewer since the late fifties.
When I left the BBC and joined the BFI in 1988 I found myself in a somewhat awkward position – I was advocating for television in an organisation which was devoted to film and where outright hostility to TV was not uncommon. I’m not saying that this turned me against film – far from it – but it did make me question my previous devotion just at a time when the regular flow of masterpieces seemed to be slowing down. This of course was probably as much to do with me as with the respective qualities of film and TV at that time, but the shift in the balance of quality, both in terms of content and delivery systems, was not far away. The BFI has always strongly advocated for the importance of seeing films in a cinema – the mantra being that you can’t beat the quality of seeing the image on a large screen, in the dark and with a crowd of strangers. I have always gone along with the first two of these points but have never been keen on the crowd of strangers. I have always headed, whenever possible, for the front row of the auditorium for three reasons – the absence of anybody in front of me to spoil my view, the legroom and the fact that (especially in sparsely populated afternoon shows) the nearest people, who may be prone to chat, will likely be several rows back.
The biggest changes to the regularity of my cinemagoing came at the turn of the century. I married in 1997, our daughter was born in 1999 and the BFI moved me from central London to our Berkhamsted Conservation Centre in 2000, so I had a whole new lifestyle which could not easily accommodate my previous activities – I chose the films I saw in the cinema carefully, now. At the same time digital developments in television – particularly widescreen, then high definition, DVD (later Blu-ray) and home cinema systems with great sound – not only made watching films at home a better proposition but also started the process whereby television production began to approach and eventually surpass the aesthetic possibilities of cinema. It also reversed the previous complaint that films shown on TV were regularly subject to unacceptable alterations to their aspect ratios – in the era of widescreen television it has been archival TV which has been likely to suffer the most.
In the first decade of the new century, I still resolved to make sure I saw the films which I thought needed to be seen on the big screen at a cinema – new works by Terrence Malick for example. However, another problem arrived to make even this a difficulty. I first noticed it when I went to see Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and asked if there was going to be an interval. There wasn’t – and it was over three hours long! This was part of a trend and it came just as I was reaching that age when an enlarged prostate required more regular bathroom visits. I couldn’t even make it through The Tree of Life without a brief exit and, being the completist that I am (I have always stayed in my seat to the very end of the credits, often to the annoyance of cinema cleaning staff), this was not acceptable. Viewing at home, with pause and resume, was the answer.
I have still attended the occasional cinema screening in recent years, especially at the marvellous Rex cinema in Berkhamsted, or archival restorations to which I have been invited, but my main consumption is on Blu-ray and DVD, plus streaming services like Netflix and Amazon. The short timespan which now exists between theatrical and home video release makes it easy to keep up with contemporary work, while the growing market for restored classics has allowed me to supplement my collection, which embraces much of the history of cinema I first began to explore in the seventies. A quick count showed that I have around 500 films which I first saw in the cinema and retirement affords me the time to revisit them.
But the event which inspired this nostalgic trawl through my life as a film-goer was this year’s London Film Festival, which finished last Sunday. The peculiar circumstances of the year meant that much of the festival’s programme was to be made available on-line, so this event which I once cherished so much was now coming to me, rather than me having to go to it. I booked my tickets with as much anticipation as before, set up my large i-mac with surround sound, and logged in at the appropriate time – I even turned out the lights to make it as much like the LFF of old as possible. Everything was there, just like it always had been – the usual Festival showreel and trailers, followed by the film. I was even able to watch an on-line hour-long discussion with David Byrne the day after the festival screening of Spike Lee’s wonderful film version of his American Utopia show. For me it was the ultimate home cinema experience.
The BFI announced today that this year’s festival set a new record for attendance figures, including the on-line viewers. This is hardly surprising, but you must also remember that the number of films was considerably smaller than for most LFFs of recent years due to the pandemic’s disruption of production. But does this presage a change in approach, or will the festival be back to “business as usual” next year? Much will depend on the effect of the pandemic on the future shape of cinema exhibition in general, though it is likely that the widely predicted decline would actually be a boost to the BFI, which is committed to maintaining the cinema experience and may find itself offering a more unique service. A mixture of simultaneous theatrical and ticketed on-line exhibition for one-off screenings would seem to make economic sense to all concerned. I hope to be back again next year.