By Rob King
From Metrograph Vol. 22, Fall 2019.
An archive, rather than a recollection, of early formative
Essays like this are often exercises in cinephile nostalgia, but I’m a film historian by trade and meant to be opposed to such vagaries. Fortunately, online archives give me the tools to try to fortify my own fond screen memories with the steel of empirical facts, pinpointing the wheres and whens with an exactitude that fond memories lack. It’s a game we can all play, not cinephilia but a kind of cinefactualism.
As an illustration, here are five viewing experiences that I’ve come to think of as the formative moments in my relation to film. I won’t speak much about what they mean to me personally, because I’m more interested in using the archival record to recover what I never remembered and resituate my experiences outside of my own recollections. Here’s what I found out. (I’m a displaced Brit, by the way, which should explain the cultural references.)
#1: miscellaneous barely remembered films
Location: Roses Theatre, Sun Street, Tewkesbury, UK
This is cinephilia’s primordial soup. My mother often took me to the Roses when I was around four or five, but all it left me with are smudgy memories of a shadowy auditorium and a few unlocatable images. A rerun of Disney’s Pinocchio, for sure, but the others, who knows? Oddly, I now learn that the auditorium where my memories were first being made would be the place where one of my favorite comedian’s ended. In 1984, Eric Morecambe—of the duo Morecambe and Wise—suffered a fatal heart attack as he left the Roses’ stage following a charity performance, just beside the screen where I once saw Pinocchio inside a whale.
#2: Flash Gordon (1980, dir. Hodges)
Date/time: ca. January/February 1981
Location: Welfare Hall, Ravenhill Road, Fforestfach, Swansea, UK
The Welsh mining town of Fforestfach—near the Rhondda Valley, where my grandfather worked as a coal miner—made it into The New York Times for the first time last year, when a local Labor politician argued for a second referendum on Brexit. (Wales was pro-Brexit in the 2016 referendum, but has since wavered toward Remain.) The Welfare Hall, though, belongs to a different history. It was founded in 1928 with assistance from the Miners’ Welfare Fund when the coal mining industry was still strong.
Over 50 years later—when Flash Gordon screened at the Welfare—things were changing. The British miners’ strike of 1984-85 was just around the corner and, by the time it was done, pit closures had stripped many communities in South Wales of their main source of income. But that was all Thatcher’s doing. There was no recourse to blame the European Union or immigration back then. Nobody was arguing for Brexit. Not even the singer/actor who played Princess Aurora, Ornella Muti, currently facing jail time for cancelling tour dates to have dinner with Vladimir Putin.
#3: Great Expectations (1946, dir. Lean) on BBC2
Date/time: Friday, April 13, 1984, 5:40-7:35
Location: my home, Heightington Place, Stourport-on-Severn, UK
Given the 5:40 start time, this would have been immediately after the children’s block on BBC1, which means my viewing of Great Expectations—my first really riveting memory of a black-and-white movie—was immediately preceded by Captain Zep: Space Detective, which I have entirely forgotten. What I have never forgotten was the moment in Great Expectations when Miss Havisham burns to death thanks to an errant lump of coal. That moment would have been around 7:04pm. Later that day, BBC2 screened another black-and-white film, Jacques Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi, which I wouldn’t see until 13 years later, in the first semester of my MA in Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick.
Coal was in the news as well as on my TV that day. “Miners expected to change the rules to get all-out strike” was the headline in the London Times, following the government’s decision to close twenty collieries, announced March 6.
#4: Sherlock Holmes: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939, dir. Lanfield) on BBC2
Date/time: Monday, September 2, 1985, 6:10-7:25
Location: same as #3
This was the fifth day of the sixth and final cricket Test match between England and Australia, at the Oval. England had already won the Ashes by that point in the series. Still, a residual triumphalism seems to have been in the air: later that evening, BBC2 screened a teaser for the 13-part show The Triumph of the West, which detailed “the impact that one civilization, Western civilization, made on the rest of the world.”
I’m not sure I necessarily saw The Hound of the Baskervilles that night, by the way. But Hound marked the beginning of a 14-week series of the Rathbone-Bruce Sherlock Holmes films on BBC2, and at some point I became hooked. If I did, though, it would have been after Cartoon Time with another favorite funny man of my youth, Rolf Harris, who’s now a convicted pedophile.
#5: Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy (1962, dir. Lloyd) on BBC2
Date/time: Saturday, October 5, 1985, 5:20-6:55
Location: same as #3
I tend to describe this as my foundational memory of youthful spectatorship, which is a convenient origin story since much of my work has been on American film slapstick. But I now see that the memory’s far later than I believed.
In another timeline, I might instead have been watching episode five of the kids sci-fi series The Tripods, which was playing on BBC1. Actually, I wonder why I wasn’t. I had read all the Tripod books by John Christopher, but remember finding the TV adaptation dull. Maybe I had been watching The Tripods after all and switched channels. My scholarly origin story would thus actually be the story of my frustration with a sci-fi TV show about three-legged robots. Assuming that to be the case, I can time my first enduring memory of American slapstick to some point between 5:20 and 5:45 that evening, which is when The Tripods was playing.
Incidentally, the miner’s strike was six months over by that point, demoted to the second lead article on the Times’ October 5 front page, which quoted the chairman of the National Coal Board boasting a “new era” now that the union had been broken. And so it turns out that the time it took for me to become a young cinephile correlated in political terms with the time it took to destroy the UK coal industry. Neither explains the other, of course. But perhaps that is because cinephilia doesn't really belong to history after all, only in memory. History is how you find things like Captain Zep: Space Detective, but a child's memory prefers the good stuff. •
My main historical resources for this essay are cinematreasures.org, the Radio Times Genome Project, and the digital archives of various newspapers.
Rob King teaches film history at Columbia University.