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They Started Here

How British film giants began their careers - with the help of the BFI

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For nearly half a century, between the creation of the Experimental Film Fund in 1952 and the closure of the Production Board in 1999, the British Film Institute played a small but vital role in British film production - not least in supporting the early work, sometimes the very first films, of people who would go on to be ranked amongst British cinema's most important creative talents.

The BFI's first involvement with film production came with the Festival of Britain in 1951, when the Telekinema (the future National Film Theatre) was opened on the South Bank as a showcase for experimental films. The following year, the Experimental Film Fund was formally established, with the aim of both supporting technical research into such areas as colour and non-standard projection systems, and of providing creative opportunities for film-makers who might otherwise have difficulty finding support.

As the 1950s progressed, the Fund changed its emphasis from technological development to artistic innovation, with a particular focus on enabling promising new filmmakers to make their first films. Television director Tony Richardson, critic and NFT programmer Karel Reisz and cinematographer Walter Lassally made Momma Don't Allow (1956), an impressionistic short about teenagers at a north London jazz club, which was screened in the first Free Cinema programme at the National Film Theatre, as was Lorenza Mazzetti's Together (1956), completed under the supervision of Lindsay Anderson. The sixth and final Free Cinema programme included Enginemen (1959), the first film by the renowned documentarist Michael Grigsby - his second, Tomorrow's Saturday (1962), was also BFI-backed.

Outside the Free Cinema circle, former editor Jack Gold made The Visit (1959), a portrait of a middle-aged woman gradually realising the emptiness of her life, which showed a remarkably sensitive handling of both actors and emotional tone that he would go on to display in such outstanding productions as The Naked Civil Servant (ITV, 1975). Gala Day (1963), a documentary portrait of the Durham Miners' Gala, was made by John Irvin, who would have a distinguished television career (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, BBC, 1979) followed by a less successful spell in Hollywood.

The Fund also helped budding filmmakers complete promising amateur productions. Ken Russell's Amelia and the Angel (1958), Peter Watkins' The Forgotten Faces (1961) and Ridley Scott's Boy and Bicycle (1965) were among titles benefiting from this, an all three cases the finished films helped their creators find work at the BBC, where Russell and Watkins rapidly became major directing stars with Elgar (1962) and Culloden (1964) respectively.

In 1965, the Experimental Film Fund was replaced by the BFI Production Board, which aimed to offer more comprehensive support to new and uncommercial filmmakers. An early beneficiary was Stephen Frears, who had previously worked as an assistant to Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson, and whose ambitious apartheid allegory The Burning (1967) led him to a highly successful television and later feature film career on both sides of the Atlantic. The star of Boy and Bicycle, Tony Scott, made the shorts One of the Missing (1968) and Early One Morning (1969) and his debut feature Loving Memory (1970) with Production Board support, before he followed his older brother Ridley into a lucrative advertising and Hollywood career (Top Gun, 1986; True Romance, 1993). Bruce Beresford, future director of Best Picture Oscar-winner Driving Miss Daisy (US, 1989), headed the Production Board in the late 1960s before being invited back to his native Australia to help set up its own film industry. In the documentary sphere, the 23-year-old Nick Broomfield made Who Cares (1971) with Production Board funding while still a politics student at Essex University - his later Juvenile Liaison (co-d. Joan Churchill, 1975) led to the entire Board resigning in protest after it was threatened with censorship.

While these directors used their Production Board-backed films as a springboard for higher-profile projects, Bill Douglas and Terence Davies would produce most of their work for the BFI. Each began with an unusually intense trilogy of autobiographical films: Douglas' My Childhood (1972) setting the scene and tone for a brutally honest portrait of a child growing up in poverty in Scotland that would be continued in My Ain Folk (1973) and My Way Home (1978). Davies' trilogy commenced with Children (1976), was the first part of an equally lacerating portrait of a gay working-class Catholic Liverpudlian, whose relentlessly bleak life would be tracked through middle age in Madonna and Child (1980) and terminal illness in Death and Transfiguration (1983). Both directors would also make their debut features with Production Board backing - in Douglas' case, the three-hour Comrades (1986) turned out to be his last film before his premature death, though Davies' Distant Voices Still Lives (1988) would firmly cement his reputation as one of British cinema's most imaginative filmmakers.

Other major talents making their BFI-funded debuts in the 1970s included Mike Leigh, whose first feature Bleak Moments (1970) was also his last for eighteen years. Horace Ové's first feature Pressure (1975) was the first black British feature film. Prior to his breakthrough with The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle (1980), Julien Temple made a cinematic interpretation of a medieval poem in the short The Tunnyng of Elinour Rummyng (1976). Renowned film critics Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen co-directed their second collaboration Riddles of the Sphinx (1977) for the Board, which would also back the features Crystal Gazing (1982) and Wollen's solo project Friendship's Death (1987).

Peter Greenaway, then working as an editor for the Central Office of Information, had made a number of unclassifiable self-funded shorts before the Production Board backed his mini-feature A Walk Through H (1978). Greenaway's relationship with the BFI would continue through his first three features, The Falls (1980), The Draughtsman's Contract (1982) and A Zed and Two Noughts (1985), which saw him make the transition from obscure avant-garde experimentalist to one of British cinema's best-known arthouse exports. Less renowned but often equally idiosyncratic, former film critic Chris Petit made his first feature, Radio On (1979), and his third, Flight to Berlin (1983), with the backing of the Board. The BFI also supported a number of animators, including Phil Mulloy, Vera Neubauer and the Philadelphia-born brothers Stephen and Timothy Quay, whose first completed short film Nocturna Artificialia (1979) was a remarkably confident glimpse into a dark and shadowy universe that the Quays would make their own in subsequent films such as Street of Crocodiles (1986).

The 1980s saw the Production Board funding a greater number of feature films. In addition to the Davies, Douglas and Greenaway titles already mentioned, Sally Potter's The Gold Diggers (1983) underscored its feminist credentials by having an all-female cast and crew, then an almost unique undertaking in an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry. Derek Jarman and Isaac Julien were already well established as filmmakers, though The Angelic Conversation (1985) and Caravaggio (1986) helped rescue Jarman's career after a spell in the doldrums (Caravaggio in particular was a long-cherished project), while Young Soul Rebels (1991) was Julien's first and only mainstream fiction feature.

In addition to these feature-length projects, initiatives like the 1989 New Directors short-film strand turned up two highly original talents in Gurinder Chadha (I'm British But...) and Patrick Keiller (The Clouds). Chadha would go on to direct some of British cinema's biggest recent hits in Bhaji on the Beach (1992) and Bend It Like Beckham (2002), while architect-turned-film essayist Keiller would continue to work with the BFI on his first two features, London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1997). The 1993 Summer Shorts initiative began an association with Andrew Kötting (Smart Alek) which would continue with the 1994 short La-Bas and his 1997 feature debut Gallivant. More recently, the BFI sponsored Shane Meadows' hour-long Smalltime (1996), Lynne Ramsay's first professional short Kill the Day (1997), and video artist John Maybury's move into dramatic features (Man to Man, 1992; Love is the Devil, 1998).

In 1999, the BFI Production Board was closed down, and its responsibilities taken over by the UK Film Council.

Michael Brooke

Related Films and TV programmes

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Early amateur short by Ken Russell that kick-started his career

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Derek Jarman's very personal take on Shakespeare's sonnets

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Mike Leigh's debut, about a lonely girl caring for her learning-disabled sister

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Ridley Scott's first film as director: a day in the life of a schoolboy truant

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Early short film by Stephen Frears set in apartheid South Africa

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The first part of the Terence Davies Trilogy

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Patrick Keiller's film-poem about a journey through England's North

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Peter Greenaway's typically idiosyncratic breakthrough film

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Manchester railway workers discuss the end of the steam age.

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Documentary portrait of the 1962 Durham Miners' Gala

Thumbnail image of Gallivant (1996)Gallivant (1996)

Typically idiosyncratic voyage round Britain with Andrew Kötting and family

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Sally Potter's debut feature, a feminist reinterpretation of cinema history

Thumbnail image of I'm British But... (1989)I'm British But... (1989)

Gurinder Chadha's documentary about Bhangra music and Asian identity

Thumbnail image of Kill the Day (1997)Kill the Day (1997)

Bleak Lynne Ramsay short in which a former junkie reflects on his past

Thumbnail image of London (1994)London (1994)

Patrick Keiller's first feature, an idiosyncratic look at the British capital

Thumbnail image of Love Is the Devil (1998)Love Is the Devil (1998)

Innovative feature-length biopic of the controversial painter Francis Bacon

Thumbnail image of Momma Don't Allow (1956)Momma Don't Allow (1956)

Free Cinema short following teenagers at a jazz club.

Thumbnail image of My Childhood (1972)My Childhood (1972)

Bill Douglas' debut, about 8-year-old Jamie and a German POW

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Debut Brothers Quay: nocturnal puppet animation about dreams and trams

Thumbnail image of One of the Missing (1968)One of the Missing (1968)

Tense short film directed by future Hollywood giant Tony Scott

Thumbnail image of Pressure (1975)Pressure (1975)

Britain's first black feature: a powerful portrait of inter-generational tensions

Thumbnail image of Radio On (1979)Radio On (1979)

Cult existential road movie with a vivid rock soundtrack

Thumbnail image of Riddles of the Sphinx (1977)Riddles of the Sphinx (1977)

Influential avant-garde exploration of female experience

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Nottingham-set working-class comedy; Shane Meadows' feature debut

Thumbnail image of Smart Alek (1993)Smart Alek (1993)

A family goes on its summer holiday and finds its world disintegrating

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Short film about a woman's gradual realisation of her life's emptiness

Thumbnail image of Walk Through H, A (1978)Walk Through H, A (1978)

Peter Greenaway's journey through maps of an imaginary landscape

Thumbnail image of Who Cares (1971)Who Cares (1971)

Early Nick Broomfield doc about clearing Liverpool's slums

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Isaac Julien's debut feature about two black DJs in London, 1977

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