British Film Institute research project

The British Film Institute (BFI) is one of the oldest and most distinguished government supported cultural institutions in the world. Founded on a shoestring budget in 1933, it grew rapidly after the War to encompass a wide range of film-related activities including archiving, distribution, exhibition in London and the English regions, film education and criticism and (at first on a small scale) film production.

Among current activities it houses and manages the world’s largest film archive (traditionally called the National Film Archive), runs three specialist film theatres and an IMAX cinema on London’s South Bank and publishes the prestigious film magazine Sight and Sound. The first of the South Bank theatres opened in 1952 under the name National Film Theatre, with a second being added in 1970. The third theatre was opened in 1988.

In the 1960s and 70s the BFI pioneered film studies in schools and universities and from the mid-1970s onwards it became a major force in independent film production in Britain. This was cemented by a groundbreaking deal with Channel Four television in 1981. By the late 1990s BFI turnover was approaching £30m – a far cry from the £5000 with which it started in 1933. In 2000 its production and regional support activities were removed from it and put in the hands of the UK Film Council, but the abolition of the Council in 2010 means that they have been reacquired by the BFI which is now the distributor of a further £30m worth of National Lottery funding for film.

Despite the BFI’s importance in cultural life, little attention has been paid to its history. This project, funded by the AHRC and hosted by the School of History at QMUL, aims to remedy this gap in historical knowledge. The first task of the project team, consisting of Professor Geoffrey Nowell-Smith as Principal Investigator, Dr Christophe Dupin as Research Assistant and research student Lorraine Blakemore, was to put in order the BFI’s own records which, for an organisation so proud of its film archiving, were in a surprisingly sorry state.

A catalogue of the BFI’s own records, 1933-2008, has been prepared under Dr Dupin’s supervision and is now available for consultation in the Special Collections section of the BFI National Library. Thanks to a further grant from the AHRC Knowledge Transfer scheme, Dr Dupin was also able to digitise the key documents held in these records and incorporate them into an asset-management system in anticipation of their being put on line by the BFI in the near future.

Meanwhile, members of the project team, assisted by Richard Paterson, Head of Research and Scholarship at the BFI itself, have conducted a series of interviews with key past and present BFI personnel, starting with Sir Denis Forman (BFI director 1949-55 and chairman 1971-3) and continuing with a number of politicians, civil servants, BFI governors and senior and junior staff. Since much of the material acquired in this way is ‘off the record’, only selected video and audio recordings of interviews are currently available for consultation.

Early in the project a small research group was formed, comprising established and aspirant scholars working in fields associated with the history of the BFI. Three members of this group – Dr Terry Bolas, Dr Richard MacDonald and Dr Melanie Selfe  have contributed to the book issuing from the project and edited by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and Christophe Dupin, with additional contributions by Richard Paterson and Lorraine Blakemore.

The book is entitled The British Film Institute, the government and film culture, 1933-2000 

For further information about the project contact g.s.nowell-smith@qmul.ac.uk