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Ian Christie: interview

Ian Christie on understanding film – from the father of British cinema, to a new language for new media

• Ian Christie

This article is published in British Academy Review No. 35 (Spring 2019).

The print version of this article can be downloaded as a PDF file.

Ian Christie is Anniversary Professor of Film and Media History at Birkbeck, University of London. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1994.

Is there anything in your background that might have suggested that you would end up working in film studies?

I grew up in Northern Ireland on the outskirts of Belfast. There wasn’t a lot to do socially or culturally, so as a youngster I gravitated towards the cinema: my main recreational activity was going to the Saturday matinee. Films loomed quite large in my life. When I was at the Belfast Royal Academy, I wrote a piece for the school magazine – I came across it recently – called ‘The Liveliest Art’, saying that film was the only art form that was alive and kicking, and the others were all a bit ossified. This would have been in 1962, when I was 17.

That same year, I went to Queen’s University Belfast, to read philosophy and English. I was surrounded by a remarkable range of writers – a generation that is now much discussed and researched. As the editor of Interest, the magazine that Stewart Parker had created, I felt I had to reject a couple of Seamus Heaney’s poems: he wrote some rather lame ones, as every young poet does. But we published some of the poems that appeared in his debut collection, Death of a Naturalist, along with work by Parker, Michael Longley, Bernard McLaverty and others less famous today.

Film was an important part of our culture. The Queen’s Film Society was very traditional, and showed Bergman and other approved classics of the period. The New Cinema Club was edgier, and showed less mainstream things. I was between the two. The first piece of writing I published at Queen’s was probably on Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. But I was also following other new developments, because there was a lot going on in many different quarters – not only the French New Wave, but cinéma verité, and in Eastern Europe too.

I abandoned English, but stuck with philosophy. We had a very inspiring young lecturer, François Bordet, who had come out of phenomenology and existentialism in France, before encountering the cold shock of ultra-analytic philosophy when he came to England. In his own way he had fused them, and I became a product of that. I went to the new Warwick University to do a PhD on the potential crossover between European and Anglo-American philosophy: it was conceived as ‘Merleau-Ponty meets J.L. Austin’, which I still think might be an interesting project.

I continued to do a lot of things connected with film. I was invited back to Queen’s to give a talk about film for the Extramural department; and it was in extramural departments and Workers Educational Association branches that a lot of early film education began. In those days, there was no organised study of film: we were all self-appointed experts, picking up information where we could, and above all developing our analytic skills by viewing and discussing wherever we could. In the mid-60s, with ‘new waves’ appearing everywhere, even in Britain, it seemed even more obvious that film was the only art actually communicating with significant numbers of people, and provoking real debate.

I never completed the philosophy doctorate because 1968 intervened. I became very active in cultural politics and political activities. From Warwick I would get on my motorbike and go to philosophy seminars in Oxford; but I also went to the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University, where I came to know Stuart Hall. My biggest inspiration at Warwick was the historian E.P. Thompson. Edward was an absolutely charismatic figure, and he got me into politics through a public meeting he held on campus on the morning after the Greek colonels’ coup in April 1967, at which he gave an impassioned speech about how we should all resist it. Through Edward and Stuart, I got involved in the May Day Manifesto; and for the 1968 Penguin Special version, edited by Raymond Williams, I contributed a section on ‘The Cold War moves outwards’, based on my research into the origins of the Greek coup. So there was an extremely lively political context in Warwick, and when 1968 took off in a big way I became very much caught up in it. Philosophy research retreated into the background, and after a motorbike accident that put me out of action for a while, the idea of getting the thesis done in a sensible timespan was pushed to one side.

How did you convert your interest in film into a more formal role?

Since my PhD grant had run out, I needed a job. The first paid teaching I got was at Lanchester College of Advanced Technology in Coventry, teaching communications studies. They needed somebody to explain Marshall McLuhan, who had published the hugely influential book Understanding Media in 1964 and was the flavour of the decade. I had been excited by his first highly original book, The Mechanical Bride (1951) – discovered by chance in the Queen’s library – and was continuing to follow him. McLuhan’s paradoxes were considered in those days to be really difficult to understand, and it was thought that somebody with a background in philosophy would be the right person to teach about him. His decoding of advertisements was fascinating, so I homed in on that for a couple of terms.

Then in 1969 I got a job at Derby College of Art, teaching complementary studies. I think the assumption was that I would mainly teach elementary philosophy to the students. But I started introducing film, which seemed logical and appealing in an art school. We installed some projectors, turned a studio into a kind of cinema, and taught film under the rubric of complementary studies. There was no curriculum that forced you to go in one direction; it could be anything you wanted. And film seemed to work very well – for fashion students, for future fine artists, and particularly for Derby’s very ambitious photography students.

We invited a lot of part-timers to come and teach film – one of whom was Laura Mulvey, now also a Fellow of the British Academy, and hugely influential in launching film theory. Derby was one of the few places in the country in the mid-1970s that was teaching film in an organised way. This was still well before film studies became something that you could actually get a qualification in, except at the Slade. The British Film Institute (BFI) was seed-funding fixed-term lectureships at Warwick, Keele and Essex as an experiment to see if film could be injected into universities. So there was a sense in which film studies was bubbling up, just becoming visible above the parapet.

In 1976, you went to work at the BFI. How did that come about?

I was headhunted by somebody I knew who was working at the BFI, at least partly because I was ‘not one of the London mafia’. My job was to organise the programming of the regional film theatres that the BFI was supporting – it eventually had over 40 venues that it was involved with. The battle cry of the period was: ‘Don’t show films just because they’re new and highly praised by the London critics. Let’s have “structured programming”, with a cultural purpose.’ I have to admit this was sometimes interpreted as ‘showing people films that are good for them.’

We were very interested in neglected, then inaccessible areas in the history of cinema. For example, many knew about the founding moment of Italian neorealism in the late 1940s, because of Rome, Open City and Bicycle Thieves. The key figure, Roberto Rossellini, was still alive, but he was now making dramatized films about the great philosophers – such as Socrates, Descartes, Blaise Pascal – creating a kind of audio-visual encyclopaedia. They were wonderful films, but they were totally inaccessible and nobody knew anything about them. Remember, this was before video. So we made it our job to bring Rossellini’s films into distribution; and to create awareness of them, the BFI published a parallel series of informal publications – here my magazine-editing background proved useful. I also brought unknown Soviet films into distribution, to ‘refresh’ the old Film Society canon.

Later, when it became clear that the days of 16 mm film were numbered, I launched the BFI’s video publishing activity. We became the most avant-garde publishers of video in Britain, helped by an alliance with the great French producer Anatole Dauman, who gave us access to his catalogue of modern classics such as Hiroshima mon amour, Last Year at Marienbad and Wings of Desire. We issued a box set of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s monumental Hitler: A Film from Germany – eight hours long – and in the same month a box set of Lanzmann’s Shoah, because nobody else wanted to take a risk on these huge, seemingly uncommercial works.

What sort of audiences were going to see the films in the BFI’s programme?

They included people who would later become film makers, film teachers, and workers in the evolving structure of the regional arts associations – what it became fashionable to call ‘film culture’ was beginning to emerge, and posts were starting to appear across the country.

But many were the traditional audience of film societies, dedicated to the art and history of cinema. I think film societies continue to be a major cultural resource in this country. I still enjoy going to film societies and introducing an evening of film, giving a talk, or even teaching a day school. Many of these are on Russian cinema, because there is interest in both Soviet and post-Soviet cinema that is not being catered for anywhere else. I try to enlarge people’s understanding that Soviet cinema was more than just Eisenstein, although I continue to work on Eisenstein too, as he is revealed to be so different from the old stereotype of a calculating propagandist by the writings and especially drawings that are now available.

I must say I feel a strong sense of continuity. What I was doing in the mid-1970s, then at the BFI in the 1980s, and what I do today are not that very different – although addressed to successive generations whose relationship to film and media continues to change.

You also had the opportunity to promote awareness of the British film makers Powell and Pressburger at the BFI.

In 1978 I fought to put on a big retrospective at the National Film Theatre of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, our greatest, but then neglected film makers. To accompany it, I produced a small book for the BFI in my own time. The retrospective was repeated all over the world, and the book circulated widely. Then in 1985, to mark Michael Powell’s 80th birthday, I wrote another book about Powell and Pressburger, entitled Arrows of Desire, an account of their partnership as The Archers. I managed to persuade Martin Scorsese to write a foreword for it – he was passionate about their work – and that led to Powell suggesting I assemble interviews with Scorsese into a book.

At this point, you were clearly doing a lot of things of an academic nature, but you were not actually in an academic post.

I had been teaching a London University extramural course, and was being asked to give visiting lectures; I also had a year out at the Art Institute of Chicago, which allowed me to teach Russian art history. And for the CNAA, the body that validated polytechnics’ degrees, I was on the Art History panel, with responsibility for film studies – as it was becoming an academic subject. Through that I got to know a lot of art historians and people in media and communications studies. In a sense, I had an advantage over them, in that I was in a position to make things happen. I could get films into distribution, or into the London Film Festival; we could publish things.

So I was edging closer to academia, but still essentially working at the cultural end of the film industry, as well as becoming involved with the EU’s MEDIA programme. Then, when my great friend and mentor at the BFI, Tony Smith, left to become President of Magdalen College, Oxford, through him I had the opportunity to become Oxford University’s first lecturer in film, and a supernumerary fellow of Magdalen. The post was funded by John Paul Getty, who loved film and was a wonderful benefactor for the BFI.

More or less simultaneously, I got a letter in the post saying that I had been elected as a Fellow of the British Academy. I remember my first reaction was ‘What on earth is this? A scam?’ The relevant Section of the Academy’s Fellowship had just changed its scope to cover ‘Modern Languages, Literatures and other media’ in 1994, and so I think they needed some ‘other media’ people. It was quite strange and daunting, to put it mildly. But I saw it as a further opportunity to get film onto the agenda and taken more seriously – which is really what I’ve spent most of my life doing.

You have indeed done a lot with the British Academy. For example, there is an article by you in the British Academy Review, arising from the conference you co organised in 2001 on ‘Lantern Projections’.

That conference had some excellent contributions on the history of the magic lantern, from art historians as well as lanternists. I still have copies of that issue, and refer to it. Subjects such as this, outside of conventional film, are very important to me, as part of what I call the ‘long history’ of projected images – of which cinema is only one phase in the last 100 years.

I talk to students at film schools and universities whenever I can about the meteoric rise of the stereoscope in the mid-19th century, still little appreciated, and the magic lantern. They need to know about these, especially because it’s all coming full circle. Students today are really interested in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), and this takes us right back to the 1890s. That was the moment when ‘extended reality’ first became a practical possibility through combinations of the magic lantern, the stereoscope and moving pictures. Moving pictures were actually the disappointing part of it, because they were not in 3D. The cinema took off unexpectedly as a ‘flat’ spectacle, and was of course vastly successful, but it temporarily killed some of the other forms that had been current in optical media.

Today, we are living in a new kind of digital multiplatform era, when all of these experiences are back on the agenda. When I show students a stereograph of people looking into a stereoscope, they instantly say that it looks like VR glasses. This was a hugely popular parlour activity in Victorian times; Queen Victoria herself was a stereo enthusiast. Now we can see how relevant it might be for the current debate about whether VR will ‘happen’. Naysayers claim that nobody wants to wear a headset. But in the Victorian era they had no problem at all with using stereoscopes. So this is a very interesting area for speculation.

Your own current focus of interest is the early British film maker, Robert Paul. What do we need to know about him?

In the mid-1990s, for the ‘Centenary of Cinema’, I wrote and co-produced a television series for the BFI called The Last Machine, about ‘early cinema and the birth of the modern world’. Terry Gilliam fronted it, so it got a remarkably good slot on BBC 2 – on Saturday evenings at 8 o’clock. I also wrote a book to accompany it.

While making that series, I realised that we knew very little about the person who was obviously the key British pioneer, Robert Paul. We just had a few of his films. So I thought I should do some proper research on him. That is finally coming to fruition this year: 2019 is the 150th anniversary of his birth.

It has been a difficult subject to research, because Robert Paul left no personal papers and there is no traceable family. Only recently did I discover that he actually had three children, who all died in early infancy. A Paul Mellon senior research fellowship gave me a year to do some archival research, which has also taken me to Australia and Canada, where his films were widely shown in the 1890s. But I had to accept that there were many things I was never going to know about him because they seem to be unrecorded, and then write the book anyway. Even so, it is going to be a very big book. Disappointingly, it was hard to find a publisher. Even though I had previously produced best-selling film books such as Scorsese on Scorsese, British publishers all said ‘Robert who?’, and declined to take a chance on it, which I think is a shame. However, the University of Chicago Press were happy to take the book, and even to wait nearly 20 years for delivery!

My aim in 2019 is to show that cinema as we know it actually started in Britain – not in America or France, as we are accustomed to believe. The Lumière brothers invented a form of moving pictures with their Cinématographe that was influential and spread all over the world; but these were essentially ‘views’, and could hardly be considered cinema. Quite soon after he started in 1895, Robert Paul had a very clear vision. In 1898 he placed an advertisement saying that the public was weary of watching trains, trams and buses on screen. ‘The capacity of animated pictures for producing breathless sensation, laughter and tears has hardly been realised’, he declared. The advertisement went on to announce that ‘A staff of Artists and Photographers have been at work in North London, with the object of producing a series of animated Photographs (Eighty in Number), each of which tells a tale, whether Comic, Pathetic or Dramatic … with such clearness, brilliancy and telling effect that the attention of the beholders should be riveted.’

In February 2019, as a Visiting Professor at Gresham College, I gave a lecture on ‘Taking London to the World: Robert Paul Shows his Native City in Motion’, which can be seen on the Gresham College website. In it I talked about one of the humorous little films that Robert Paul released in autumn 1898: ‘Come Along, Do!’ This is actually the world’s first two-shot film – an exterior scene followed by an interior – even if, unfortunately, the second shot is lost. But Paul also invented the illustrated film catalogue, and in one of these we have two images from that second shot, so we have an idea of what was in it. I have persuaded my son, who is an animator, to use these images as the basis for a digital reconstruction and tinting – so that we can show what the world’s first two-shot film looked like.

From April to July 2019, there will be an exhibition about Robert Paul at Bruce Castle in Tottenham: that’s in the London Borough of Haringey, which also includes Muswell Hill, where he built his studio.

And as well as the large academic book, I have scripted a graphic novel on Robert Paul, covering the beginnings of his career, titled Time Traveller: Robert Paul and the Invention of Cinema. It shows the story of how Paul made the first film in Britain, in Barnet in February 1895. For many years, people in Britain believed that the true inventor of cinema was William Friese-Greene, who still has a tomb declaring this in Highgate Cemetery. The 1951 film The Magic Box showed Friese-Greene demonstrating his first success to a patrolling policeman, played by Laurence Olivier, who enters the workshop and sees the first moving pictures on the screen. Robert Donat plays Friese-Greene, and declares tearfully, ‘I’m not saying it’s perfect – far from it – but it works!’ The film was based on a popular biography that was widely accepted up until 1960, when the photo-historian Brian Coe demonstrated that Friese-Greene had not done any of the things claimed on his behalf. However, the truth is that what we see in this climactic scene of The Magic Box did happen – but to Robert Paul. When Friese-Greene died in miserable circumstances in 1921, the story got transposed to his memory. And in fact, new revisionist research on Friese-Greene by Peter Domankiewicz demonstrates that he did successfully shoot a number of frames of film of Kings Road in London, even though he had little chance of showing them.

I feel it’s really important to get this botched history straight, to put Robert Paul where he belongs, along with his early collaborator Birt Acres – and indeed to vindicate Friese-Greene. Paul was in many ways as important as Edison. And his achievements up to 1900 certainly shaped the beginnings of our film industry. He was popularly known as ‘Daddy Paul’ by the pioneers of British cinema, because he was the man who led them up to 1908. But somehow, Britain forgot about him. Yet people today need to know that the international cinema industry did start here, which conveys an important message for a truer sense of British history.

Looking to the future, in the discipline of film studies, what do you think are the potentially new, exciting directions of travel?

Roughly speaking, I think there are three directions – or corrections to where we are.

First of all, we need to get audio-visual media more firmly integrated into the traditional narrative of modern history. It is depressing that the average historical monograph dealing with aspects of the 19th to the 21st centuries, is still quite primitive in its understanding of the role of cinema in society. The same few examples are trotted out, and they are usually wrongly described. There seems to be a limited grasp by most historians of the way that film has shaped people’s perceptions.

As an example, I have just written again about Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, after many previous commentaries and studies, arguing that the film is really valuable for understanding austerity Britain in 1948. It offered audiences a vision of many things that they could aspire to: the luxury of colour and high fashion, travel to the south of France, and the cosmopolitan world of ballet. But it did so in a climate where the heroine’s ultimate crime is that she goes out to work, because the taboo against women having a career in 1948 was absolutely ferocious.

More generally, I believe the way we conceive of lives today is very much influenced by film. For the British Academy centenary volume Mapping Lives: The Uses of Biography, edited by Peter France FBA and William St Clair FBA, I wrote a chapter called ‘A Life on Film’, in which I give many examples of how film both contributed to, and drew on, the revolution in biography in the early 20th century.

What is your second ‘new direction’?

We need to broaden the scope of film studies as an academic subject to include both pre-cinema and post cinema visual media.

I believe that we are living in a post-cinema age. Although of course there are still cinemas, seeing films in this context is only a small part of the continuum of everyday audiovisual experience. I took part in some research on multi-platform viewing for the BFI back in 2011, which showed that only 6 per cent of film viewings happened in a cinema. Clearly, if we are mainly watching films on home screens, on mobiles or on iPads, we are living in a post-cinema era. It does not mean that such viewing is somehow inferior; it just means it’s different, and in significant ways We need to have a much better understanding of the whole sweep of engagement in mediated worlds that goes from at least the 18th century, or even further back, through the magic lantern and all the optical excitement of the 19th century, into cinema in the 20th century, and then into post-cinema and the on-line world of the 21st century.

And it’s not just about films. It’s can be about intergenerational exchanging of video messages. If I am watching messages from my daughter in Edinburgh about my grandchildren, that is audio-visual mediation in a new register. You can relate it to the history of amateur film, but it doesn’t really belong there. It is a new ‘communication space’ that we are living in, as the distinguished French scholar Roger Odin terms it. In a recent book that I co-edited, Stories: Screen narrative in the digital era, Odin asks what language can be used to analyse the semiotics of live video messaging through Skype. He believes we cannot just use the old terminology of film – shot, reverse shot, tracking shot – we need a new one. We are living in an exciting world that offers us lots of opportunities and challenges, yet film studies as a discipline seems too often to be carrying on as it did last century.

And your third?

We need to have much more interplay between film academics like me and people working in neuroscience and cognitive psychology.

One of my colleagues at Birkbeck, University of London, Tim Smith, is an experimental psychologist who does a lot of work using eye-tracking and other physiological measurement techniques. We have done some presentations together, and I do think there is a lot to learn about the perceptual structures that enable us to assimilate ever more complex representations, especially in new media. If film studies as a subject fails to get involved in experimentation in vision science, it is missing an important source of insights. There needs to be much more interchange across disciplinary boundaries.

If I could free up enough time and space, I would definitely get involved in a research project into what MRI scanning, eye-tracking and techniques like that can tell us about the way we consume images and how we multi-task with images. Indeed, I’m hoping my current work on screen ‘space and place’ will benefit from cognitive science data.

Understanding how we consume images presumably helps our understanding of their impact on us?

Yes, and it connects with my first point. If historians looked more deeply at the impact of visual and audiovisual media, we would understand more about how so much of the 20th century – and indeed the 19th century too – was shaped by it.

We have had the recent example of ‘£350 million’ on the side of a bus. It is not just painting that on the bus; it is reduplicating that image, amplifying it, recycling it and returning to it. It is the quotation, re-quotation and multiplication of images that is hugely influential.

And it has been thus for a long time. Winston Churchill’s favourite film was Lady Hamilton, almost certainly the one he watched more than any other, and made in Hollywood by Alexander Korda to try to bring America into the war in 1940. Churchill absolutely loved it, and probably had a hand in scripting it. There is a wonderful account by the travel writer H.V. Morton, part of his staff during the war, about Churchill watching it for the umpteenth time on a battleship while crossing the Atlantic. For me, this story connects the world of propaganda, the use of romanticised history in real political situations, and the way that films work on the individual and collective psyche, embedding images that remain important to people.

You have talked a lot about the need to raise awareness of film. Do we in this country have a particular problem with taking it seriously?

In 1996, I participated in a British Academy discussion about ‘The English Suspicion of Cinema’. My fellow speaker, Professor John Carey FBA, pointed me towards The Lost Girl, one of D.H. Lawrence’s great diatribes against cinema, which Lawrence absolutely hated. A year earlier, I had written quite a big piece for the Times Literary Supplement on British prejudice against – and resistance to – film. The gist was that we mistrust it, feel it is always lying or misrepresenting, in ways that are more coercive than the routine misrepresentation of literary historical fiction. And, perhaps as a result, we doubt that it deserves any serious state support.

Of course, in France cinema is famously taken very seriously. As it is in America too: the year I spent in Chicago, where you could have real discussions about movies with academic heavyweights, was an eye-opener.

And within academic film studies, there can also be an elitist a view of cinema, which limits the potential impact of our discipline. In November 2018 I wrote a piece for Sight & Sound about Peter Jackson’s colourisation of the First World War footage, They Shall Not Grow Old, because I was irritated by silent film aficionados saying that he shouldn’t have tampered with archive film. Of course he wasn’t tampering with it: he was enhancing it in a novel and effective way. I watched it in a cinema, surrounded by an audience that was riveted and moved. Perhaps Jackson was too bombastic in his claims, but I think this was an example of experts disliking the fact that their niche subject had been made too mainstream.

I continue to be fascinated by Edwardian figures such as Rudyard Kipling, and H.G. Wells, who both understood the importance of film very early. Wells never forgot an early meeting he had with Robert Paul, to discuss creating a ‘time machine’ experience. J.M. Barrie also wanted to get involved in film much more than he was able to. He made lots of amateur films, and even wrote a script for Peter Pan – which was rejected by Hollywood. The more you know about Barrie, you realise that film really was the guiding dream that he wanted to follow, if only he could have found a way into it professionally. And indeed Hitchcock, who had to leave Britain to realise his full potential, had a lifelong desire to film Barrie’s Mary Rose.

One of the reasons why I have been promoting Robert Paul’s 150th anniversary is that I want to say to the British, and especially young people, ‘Don’t you realise that Britain was actually in at the beginning, before there was any American film industry at all? We had a film industry, but we let it all slip through our fingers. And we have continued to dissipate our talent, through dereliction and, at certain levels, due to a kind of distaste.’

Ian Christie was interviewed by James Rivington.

Further reading and viewing

Some of Ian Christie’s books etc. mentioned in the interview.

1985 book: Arrows of Desire: The films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Second edition 1994.

1989 book, co-edited with David Thompson: Scorsese on Scorsese. Third edition 2003.

1994 book: The Last Machine: Early Cinema and the Birth of the Modern World.

1995 television series, written and co-produced: The Last Machine

1995 article: ‘“Has the Cinema a Career?” Pictures and prejudice: the origins of British resistance to film’, Times Literary Supplement (17 November 1995).

2001 article: ‘Through a Glass Brightly: The Magic Lantern in History’, British Academy Review, [5] (January–July 2001), 21–3.

2002 book chapter: ‘A Life on Film’, in Mapping Lives: The Uses of Biography, edited by Peter France and William St Clair (British Academy Centenary Monograph). Paperback edition 2004.

2018 book, co-edited with Annie van den Oever: Stories: Screen narrative in the digital era (The Key Debates: Mutations and Appropriations in European Film Studies).

November 2018, article: ‘They Shall Not Grow Old review: Peter Jackson brings controversial colour to WWI footage’, Sight & Sound.

February 2019 lecture: ‘Taking London to the World: Robert Paul Shows his Native City in Motion’, Gresham College Lecture.

2019 (forthcoming) book: Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema.