CINEMA. 1962-1994

It was at Oxford that I first became keenly interested in Cinema and so I returned to Ampleforth keen to continue.  It was just at the time when Fr. Vincent Marron had begun the Ampleforth film society.  he went to St. Louis soon after and Fr Dominic took over but his appointment to St. Wilfrid’s brought the job to me.   However before this I had been asked to supervise the Cinema at Junior House since Fr. Geoffrey had been  made secretary to Abbot basil, .  Used to choose the films using Fr. Gervase Knowles notes because the 16mm films which we hired went first to Gilling Castle and then were brought over to us in the JH later in the evening.  We used to say that we had a pre-view of the films at Gilling before showing them in JH.  This system worked well for years until I was ill and then videos took over from 16mm.  I began this JH system when Fr. Peter was in charge of JH and after the film we used to come to his room for coffee and chat.   It was the time of the council and the changes, and he was a great anchor man for the old system.  He had not really changed hte way JH was run from the time when I had been in it in 1949-51.  By now Fr. Simon was second in command, and Fr. Alban Crossley was third having succeeded Fr. Geoffrey.  I remember little about the films we showed except that they were popular, and well supported and suited to the age group – there was problem of the ages because the 13 year olds in JH wanted rather more  adult movies than were suitable fore the 8 year olds at Gilling.  We did not always get the mixture right.  Our projector was a Debrie with an oil supply which needed adjusting – these projectors were used extensively by the forces, but the problem always came when the casing and the fan at the rear snagged.  We had one in the Science Lecture Room which I was responsible for in the Upper School following Fr. Oliver Ballinger.  I soon managed to get rid of that and bought an RCA  Hollywood.  This gave some trouble with its external belt system but there was a Mr. Robinson in Leeds who would come out to service it for me.   It was through him that I learn of  a dealer in 35mm Ross mechanism in Batley  from whom I later bought two mechs. for the Theatre projectors.

When I took over the AFS it had the subscription of 10/- a term and saw 3 16mm films. We soon increased this and had 35mm films.  As our audience got greater we had to compromise from the severe foreign film fare of the Marron days to a more up to date modern programme.   We had a film a fortnight and always during my time kept a membership of abut 150. Most of hte 6th form and 3rd year joined. And while for years they had to pay their house reps. the £2-£5 which the tickets cost, in the latter years it went on the bill and a huge relief was felt by me because here were always some representatives who were bad on getting either members or money.  We never had a subsidy from the school funds and we are probably the oldest continuous films society in any school.   I had an elected committee and secretary.  this was the only democratic election in the school though I largely chose the films myself with their suggestions.  But it was not easy to have secretaries who were both electable and knowledgeable.   Henry Fitzherbert (2004 Critic for the Sunday Express) was a startling exception.  The committee had little work to do.  Some secretaries were good at publicity others not.  For some years I got the big quad posters for the Big Passage, but their removal before the screening always irritated me but I never found a way of getting round this vandalism.

Fr. Dominic Milroy was he Secretary of he AFS for a year before I took over. in 1967.  I expanded the number of films and soon put them on to 35 mm where they stayed throughout my time.   We would have 6 films a year and the sub moved up to £5  over my 25 years.   There was always a balance to be made between popular films and the serous ones. I strove never to go down market though sometimes I regret the content of the film which I showed although its reviews were good.  I should most of the great masterpieces during my time but probably not enough of them.  IVAN THE TERRIBLE,   CITIZEN KANE,  THE SEVENTH SEAL.

In 1967 or so Fr. Augustine went onto the Missions and he handed over to me the ACK.  This involved running the Cinema Box and choosing films for the Staff and for the boys.   We met in Leeds one day and he took me round the distributors.  ACK was unique in the renting world since we had always – since hte Vanheems, Forbes and Jackson time, booked our films from the Distributors with their offices in Leeds – Wellington St. in the old days.  So I was introduced to Warner Bros.  to United Artist (in the Bond craze), to MGM and to  Rank – a Mr. manny Land who was succeeded by Doug Mackintosh.  Doug remained a friend throughout and we had a dinner together in 1994 when I finally left the AFS world.He was over 70 but had not yet retired.  Paramount had offices in Manchester, but I discovered the brother of an OA. (David Wood) who worked for Disney.  (It was Disney whom when they threatened to cut off product from us. Fr. Leonard wrote to Walt about it, and the answer came back that we were to have the produce and at a very reasonable price.

In 1967 the price per programme was £3 -10 -0 and we usually manage to have a Look at Life series.  The Movietone News had ceased as TV news made these newsreels redundant.  Look at Life was an excellently produced scries which first class sound.  In my time there was always trouble with the sound – the theatre was ideal of string quartets, but too resonant for cinema.  We had an enormous monster behind the perforated screen with horns instead of tweeters and huge woofers.  It ran on a field coil which needed a separate supply from eh amplifier and so was a complex item.  But it never satisfied people with the audibility f hte sound except with the Look at Life.  I spent all my time wondering how to improve the sound – even to hanging blankets over the banisters – this was before everyone became fire conscious and the chairs had to be linked and exist signs posted.

In 1980 I wrote the following for FILM – the journal of the Film Society movement.

It was as early as 1922 that the monastic community appreciated the new invention and there were occasional 35mm shows of locally produced shorts mostly of school matches.  The Ampleforth Journal of 1922  has this entry

“A Cinema (sic), the gift of the Ampleforth Society and Father Abbot has been acquired by the school.  Though occasionally frivolous, it is primarily for educational purposes, and has already helped out several School societies. The machine is a Kamm projector with a patent slotted shutter. Almost the last word in cinema projectors, it produces a very steady pricture, but it cannot be used to full advantage in the theatre until electricity has been installed.  But for purposes of lecturing, limelight has this advantage that by using a absorption tank the film can be stopped at any time.. It is hoped that we shall be able to acquire a “library of film”.  One of our first possessions is the match against Stonyhurst.”  (A sad note to conclude this item – when Abbot Basil Hume was appointed Archbishop of Westminster this Stonyhurst film was requested by one of the TV companies to use in a programme, but when the technicians discovered it was a nitrate film they refused to touch it and it was destroyed.).

The present projectors are  Ross GC3s, bought secondhand in 1955 with Kalee arcs and  the sound system is based on an early solar cell designed and fitted by one of the boy Chief Projectionists, Mike Rambaut who also built an amplifier to suit our rather ideosyncratic loudspeakers. Other chiefs included the Rigby brothers, grandsons of the founder of Premier Equipment, Robert Rigby whose firm is still in business as Philip Rigby.   The firm has provided for  our accessory needs and been a source of support and wise advice.

When I assumed responsibility for the Cinema Box I discovered its  educational value;  namely the training and dedication which are needed for screening 35mm films especially with  carbon arcs, changeovers and the creative playing of non-sync; and also the demanding standards that dictate that in projection only a perfect showing is  acceptable

During the 1930s the frequency of entertainment features increased until by 1939 there was a film every week on the Wednesday half day.  These films represented the standard fare of the day and it was on the basis of this strong film tradition that in 1965 the Film Society was started by Fr. Vincent Marron. His chairing of the society was short but he was succeeded by Fr.. Dominic Milroy who later became Headmaster and in 1992 Chairman of the Headmaster’s Conference.  I succeeded in 1967 having been awakened to fine cinema by The Seventh Seal in my Oxford days and have continued to been in the hot seat ever since.  From 1969 to 1977 I was also choosing the films for the weekly ACK  (Ampleforth College Kinema)as well as for the AFS (Ampleforth Film Society) and thus responsible for some 45 titles a year.

My predecessors rented  their films from the major distributors and established such a close rapport with the local branches in Leeds that this contact has been maintained  even though the Leeds offices are now closed and most of the Majors book from London.  It is one of the local legends that in 1939 when the current head of the ACK was having difficulty obtaining product from Disney, he wrote to Walt, and Walt replied personally to guarantee that the ACK would always have his films at favourable rates.

The principles which I find myself operating in the AFS are a combination of  benevolent dicatorship with a democratic ear.  Society elections do not usually produce film buffs because there is a complete turnover of our 150 members every two years  so the elected secretary is rarely  one who has both a memory of significant films older than 6 months, and  the chance to have seen them.  Visits to viewing sessions in term time have not been attempted.  In my programme therefore I aim to show a wide range of features but with always a concern for quality.  I need 2 strong and well-known films to  sell our £5 tickets (for 6 films) and when I have the members I am able to launch into unknown and the foreign titles.  I regard it as important to bring into the experience of serious cinema the many “middling” members who might otherwise never know what they are missing.  I have shown most of  Sidney Lumet’s films (having been delighted by his early Twelve Angry Men), most of Bergman’s black and white oeuvre,  Tarkowski’s Solaris and Andrei Rublev, and assortment of  Bunuel’s  work,  most of Woody Allen, but his recent films have not been as popular as Annie Hall in its day. I emptied the entire theatre with the Nureyev-Fontein Swan Lake, and an Iranian film called The Cow.  I have always shown most of Costa Gavras’ work. We have had Welles’ Citizen Kane, The Trial and Chimes at Midnight; we have tackled Battleship Potemkin,Ivan the Terrible, Alexander Nevski  and Metropolis. We have been exposed to the exposes: Blow up, La Dolce Vita, and The Damned.   Lindsay Anderson has been a personal favourite: This Sporting Life,  If, and my favourite. O Lucky Man.(Why did he do the throw away National Health ?) Bo Widerberg’s Elvira Madigan, Adalen 31,Stubby: :Kjell Grede’s Hugo and Josephin and Bille August’s Pele the Conqueror represented the non Bergman Swedish offerings.The Orient gave us Rashomon, The Burmese Harp,  Woman of the Dunes, and several Satyajit Ray including- Pather Pachali,and Days and Nights in the forest. I have also found myself visiting the films of the book:  One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, The Chosen,  The Fixer, The Pawnbroker – what great themes the Jewish tradition brings to us !

In 1977 Nina Hibbin then Yorkshire Arts Film representative brought over Lyuti a Russian film along with the star, Suymenkul Choklmorov and a KGB minder.  It was a  a chapter of disasters.  First of all I brought two extra large heavy cricket sweaters as a gift thinking that Russian ladies were of  shot putter proportions – she wasn’t !.  The sprocket holes of Russian 35 mm stock seem to be slightly smaller than ours and so in the middle of an image of wolf cubs the frame did a burnout.  The KGB lady was doing an on the spot translation of the soundtrack and the microphone was on the blink.  I only hope Nina had better luck with other venues.

The strong drama seems in the 1980s to have rather overriden the more sensitive continental product of the 1970s maybe due to the influence of  the video, and a much greater demand for instant, often mindless gratification in teenage entertainment. So we have had Robocop,The Fly, The Hitcher, Saigon and Q  A, but also Therese, Carravaggio, Revolution, Ran, Gallileo,  The Shooting Party, Au Revoir Les Enfants, Cinema Paradiso ,Salvador and  Chronicle of a Death Foretold with our ex member Rupert Everett.       Another ex member and secretary,  Chris Petit introduced his  An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and also Chinese Boxes. on one of our rare guest evenings.  Other ex-members – Redmond Morris ( producer:  Comrades, Assistant Director: The Crying Game)   and  Mark Burns (Actor, Charge of the Light Brigade) have also shared their experiences. The Society sponsored Paul Collard’s teenage movie Mateo Falcone.

Stories from the files so to speak tell of a great Ampleforth monk headmaster leaving the theatre having experienced a Western for the first time saying in great distress “The boys are watching people killing each other.” Another of my predecessors  when the boys started to catcall in the 1950s during a newsreel of a certain controversial though victorious English general, stopped the film and gave a furious protest about lack of  appreciation to one who helped win the war.  As far as I know none of my predecessors instructed the projectionists to insert paper markers into the reels, and even if they had done I suspect the  boys would have discovered that they had accidentally fallen out.  I myself only dropped the visor once,  having warned the audience, because of the unsuitable torture images in Costa Gavras’ State of Siege (1973).

I  end with a personal gripe.  There is a gap between the ordinary 6 former and his  material for History or English and nearly all available film study material which soares far above his head.  The unsuitability of  the old MFB and now Sight and Sound for this age group makes me think that someone somewhere must be able to write comprehensible analysis of the themes and concepts in the best of our cinema and can avoid the sterility of pure specificity. I came across one such in a revew of The Unforgiven in the Month by a  Daniel McKevitt. Semiology has done no service to school teachers or their pupils in my experience. In the 1970s I used to depend on the masterly reviews and comments of the late Miss Marjorie Bilbow in Screen International when doing the first run through of the possibilities for my next season. I protested when she was cavalierly sacked.

The A level in film studies from the Welsh board is a very challenging prospect, it could even be called herculean, so I have run non-examination General studies courses which do a quick revew of world cinema.  The films studied are usually O Lucky Man, The Seventh Seal, Citizen Kane, Battleship Potemkin, Stagecoach. Viridiana.

Looking back over the years and the Film Society programmes I remain astonished at the range of titles, the classic, the sleepers  and the ephemeral, which altogether the members of the Society have experienced, and I hope that they have  passed on an appreciation of this great Twentieth Century art form to their sons and daughters.

I inherited a Box which was well run and had a high moral. It was separate from the greenroom and the tension between the two kept the identity firm.  They had tea and jam and toast after the afternoon performance and then had the second showing at 6.30. After this there was Box supper in the Upper building which was cereals and boiled eggs and toast.  These two eating privileges gave the box a great presence and the best Chiefs wee able to instill good discipline.  Ben Rambaut, Alex Rattrie, (His father had been a very well down Catholic doctor in Workington who was killed in a car smash – Fr. John Macauley wrote  a fine article on him in the Ampelforth Journal) Martin Rigby (know as the general, he was son of John who had supplied hte Elf projectors for JH and the upper school and worked in the family firm until it was sold by the family Martin went int the city),  Robert Rigby were outstanding figures. The Rigby family had begun the best manufacturing business in cinema equipment in the early part o the century based in London. Both John and Peter had been int he school in the 1940s  – for further information see below) the projects were Ross GC3s with Kalee arclamps.  They had been acquired in 1955 second hand by Fr Leonard and with improvements were running sweetly in 1996.  The arcs had to be kept adjusted which meant that single handed showing was dodgy. In later years without curtains and non sync music, the pattern of the showing became very mundane, but at its height with lowering of the main lights, starting the sound, lowering the side lights, projecting the picture onto the curtain as the curtain rose to reveal a screen well masked with black cloth there was a style and professionalism which was a joy to see.  Mike Rambaut had been the best chief in the history of the Box, he had stripped down the projectors and rebuilt them, and when he left he went to Ferranti’s and in his spare moments he designed an built an amplifier for us and also built solar cells, before these were thought of for projectors and installed them – they were still functioning in the 1990s.  I had to get to know how the projectors worked and how the sound and electrical system operated.  Fr. Michael would always be on hand if anything went wrong and I learnt a lot from him.  there were always problems somewhere so life was never dull.

When I began there was a Wednesday film for the school, a staff film on Saturday nights and later an AFS.  The staff film died shortly after I arrived probably killed by TV. And soon the half holiday went to Saturday.   apart from running the box hte there was always the audience problems to be kept in mind.  I was always insistent on no noise from the audience, but this was more and more difficult as the time went on.  The other difficulty was the exit at the end of hte performance to avoid a rush to the doors – School monitors were helpful in making sure thsi was orderly.   We had to have fire signs and joined chairs during my time and as the stage crept forward  the available seating got less.  As this coincided with the development of video it did not cause many problems.   Video brought the number of films in the ACK to 6 per term and these were charged for to the boys in the 1980s by which time I had gone to JH and only managed the AFS.