- Cultural Strategies: Publishing at the British Film Institute
The British Film Institute was founded in the early 1930s, its ostensible purpose being “to encourage the art of the film.” This was always going to be an uphill struggle in a country that has traditionally valued other cultural forms such as theatre and literature above the cinema. What was needed was a strategy that would attempt to challenge these entrenched social and cultural prejudices against cinema. Of necessity, the BFI would have to be oppositional to much of the cultural establishment, even though its position as a recipient of government money placed it in the mainstream of public life and accountability.
By the late-1960s there were several solid achievements. A world-class archive had been assembled, the National Film Theatre was a showcase for world cinema, and there was an influential magazine (Sight & Sound). But British society remained obstinately resistant to the notion of film culture. This was the problem facing an increasingly restless and articulate group of film intellectuals who had been gathered in the BFI’s Education Department under the leadership of Paddy Whannel.
Paddy’s view was that if cinema in Britain was to achieve a status and prestige similar to that enjoyed by theatre or literature, painting or music, then it would have to develop a body of scholarship that could attest to its seriousness, its claim to be more than mere entertainment. At the time we are writing about, very few substantial critical works on film had been published in the English language. Perhaps [End Page 135] Robin Wood’s pioneering work Hitchcock’s Films, first published in 1965 and whose opening words are “Why should we take Hitchcock seriously?” was a sign that things were about to change. Though Wood’s book appeared under the imprint of a small independent company, the BFI’s Education Department recognized that publishing was one of the keys to building up the intellectual status of cinema.
Publishing, therefore, formed one of the twin arms of a strategy to develop film studies. The second arm required the BFI to devise ways of getting film taken up by the academy. If all parts of the BFI existed to educate people about cinema, in the broadest sense, traditionally the Education Department had oriented itself towards teachers in secondary education, trying to encourage the study of film in schools through the provision of materials and ideas. But increasingly the Department’s view was that significant advances would never be made in the education sector until film had assembled a substantial body of historical, critical, and theoretical work. Given the exigencies of their working situation, it was asking a lot of schoolteachers to undertake this task. What it required was the time and space afforded by a university department. Since at that time there was hardly any university teaching of film in Britain, the BFI’s Education Department set out to fill the gap.
Essentially the BFI’s work was to be pump-priming. The Education Department gave its members time and encouragement to generate a serious critical and theoretical discourse about cinema, it afforded the facilities to publish such work, and once this body of work had achieved a critical mass it would facilitate the adoption of film studies into the higher education curriculum. As is perhaps well enough known, those in charge at the BFI soon grew alarmed at such developments. Many of the governors, who were responsible for formulating policy objectives, were representatives of the film and television industries, not noted for their receptiveness to intellectual ideas. And inevitably the Young Turks at the BFI were ruffling the feathers of the staid and stuffy critical establishment. Eventually, when working conditions became impossible, Paddy Whannel and several others felt obliged to resign.
It was just at this moment that the Society for Education in Film and Television, an organization representing film teachers, mainly from the secondary sector, found itself placed on a more secure financial footing by the BFI. This enabled it to function with a high degree of autonomy and with more staff. SEFT’s policy had much in common with that of...