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  • The British Film Institute
  • Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (bio)


Founded in 1933, the British Film Institute (BFI) celebrates its seventy-fifth anniversary in 2008, making it the most long-standing government-sponsored arts organization in Britain. It is also the oldest film-related institution of its type in the world. It is not only the oldest but also unique, since nowhere else does one find so many functions synthesized and indeed synergized into a single organization.

The BFI started small. In its first year its government grant was £4,500—equivalent perhaps to £100,000 ($200,000) today, but still not very much. But it grew. It took over an educational magazine called Sight & Sound. It began to collect books and other printed materials, film stills, and actual films. In 1935 it created the National Film Library, consisting on the one hand of films to be preserved for posterity and on the other hand of a lending collection of must-see films for colleges and film societies. During the war its premises were bombed but the [End Page 126] collections survived. Then, after the war, its dynamic new director, Denis Forman, persuaded the government to provide premises on London’s South Bank for a National Film Theatre (NFT) where archive and other films could be shown. Karel Reisz was hired as programmer. Gavin Lambert, soon joined by Lindsay Anderson, was brought in to turn around Sight & Sound and make it a spearhead of combative film criticism. A film appreciation department was set up (later renamed education). A small fund was established to aid experimental film production. The lending collection was hived off from the rest of the National Film Library and the Library (renamed National Film Archive in 1955) concentrated increasingly on preservation and on building up a small cache of restricted access viewing prints.

Although it had vastly expanded its public reach, the BFI remained poorly funded throughout the long period of Conservative rule from 1951 to 1964. The NFT’s premises were rent-free, but it received no revenue funding and was expected to break even on its running costs—though it rarely did so. The Archive could collect and store films but had very little money to spend on active conservation. The lending collection, which might have been a money-spinner, was ineffectively managed, though it did at least send films out to the provinces, in other respects badly served by the BFI. In 1961, the BFI made a policy decision to include television under its remit, but it was some while before it could really commit any serious resources to TV-related activity.

The return of a Labour government in 1964 provided welcome relief. Between 1965 and 1969 government funding increased nearly threefold, with some of the new money being devoted to expanding the education service but most of it going into supporting a network of so-called Regional Film Theatres spread across the country. More money was made available to the BFI Production Board (successor to the Experimental Film Fund). It also became possible to put an end to the fiction of a totally self-supporting NFT, which in 1971 acquired a second screen and was hard put to cover its costs. Then in 1974, a catastrophic explosion at a chemical plant near the village of Flixborough in Humberside, which killed twenty-seven people, alerted the government’s attention to the dangers of many sorts of chemicals, including nitrate film. Since nitrate is not only highly flammable but also liable to decay, this tragedy was a godsend to the archive, which was able to embark on a program of duplicating all its nitrate holdings onto acetate, making numbers of viewing copies in the process.

Meanwhile the BFI was riven by ideological disputes. Under the leadership of Paddy Whannel, the Education Department turned itself in the late 1960s into a powerhouse for new ideas on film, which put in question the “art cinema” culture expressed in the pages of Sight & Sound and in NFT programming. In 1970, a group of BFI members calling themselves the Members Action Committee (I was one of them) challenged the BFI’s priorities and practices, notably the rather ineffectual Regional Film...


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