A last-minute business meeting in London last Monday meant a quick, if somewhat last minute, trip back from Limerick in Ireland and the chance to attend an Open Evening at the British Film Institute Library, which was held for BFI Champions (BFI Champions are people who've taken out a tier of membership just above the standard level). One of the benefits of BFI membership is access to the organisation's Library, just off Tottenham Court Road in central London.
The library is a treasure trove of delights for movie buffs, providing access to pretty much all back issues of the different movie magazines almost back to the dawn of the silent era, together with numerous books, scripts and other movie memorabilia. If I were to stay in London for my retirement I can see where I'd be happy to spend a lot of my spare time! Not all the BFI's archive material is stored at the London site, which doesn't have the strict environmental requirements needed for older, more fragile material, but it seems most can be viewed if pre-booked some time in advance. There are microfiche viewers for some of the older material (I had to chuckle at the choice on one of the displays: an apologetic letter from Louis B Mayer, over which the unfortunate recipient had written the word 'Bullshit' in rather large letters), together with computer screens with access to not just the BFI's own resources, but others related to film and television too.
It's even possible to arrange viewing of archived television footage (there is a charge for this, based on running time) and I suspect that part of the reason behind this open evening was because the excellent facilities the BFI is able to offer with its library and archive are currently under-utilised because many of us haven't paid much attention to the flyer we get when we join.
The staff at the open evening, almost out-numbering those of us who attended - very disappointing given the effort they'd put in but I guess a few thunderstorms put some potential attendees off - did a wonderful job of explaining what the BFI Library does: everything from the sort of stuff you'd expect, outlined above, to writing the extensive credit notes for Sight and Sound magazine's film reviews, putting together the showcase displays at BFI SouthBank and answering general queries from the public and members alike. Their enthusiasm was contagious and all were generous with their time and knowledge in answering questions or just listening to those of us wanting to have a rant about the loss of the Museum of the Moving Image, or the possible diversion of government funding from the BFI to The Olympics!
Some examples of the sort of thing available from the archives were laid out for our perusal, and it was fun to see a copy of the script for "Brighton Rock" with sidenotes by the book's author Graham Greene, Dirk Bogarde's personally bound film scripts with his doodles and notes alongside, the continuity editor's personal book of endless polaroids and notes from the making of Oh! What a Lovely War!, or the quite astonishing Derek Jarman book which resembled more a scrapbook of clippings, pressed flowers, convention passes, letters and thoughts than the script it purported to be. Old promotional material for the industry, with advice to cinema owners on how to maximise ticket sales, from the early days of cinema in the 30's contrasted rather sharply with the modern, lavishly glossy but somewhat more superficial equivalent for Die Hard 4.0 that was on display.
Glasses of wine (or soft drinks for those who preferred) and snacks were provided and the evening had a mixture of formal talks and informal chats that helped make for a very pleasant evening, and one that reminded me that there are many perks available for those who live in London which we tend to take for granted until we find ourselves elsewhere. The evening also proved a great piece of marketing in persuading some of us whose annual membership was up for renewal to switch our BFI Champion membership to an annual direct debit! One thing's for sure - I'll be making several return visits to the library when my sojourn to Ireland is over later this year. It's hard to believe this wonderful resource has been just round the corner from all the electronics shops near the Tottenham Court Road tube station for all these years and I've only just become aware of it!