Tribute: Tony Kirkhope

By Marc Karlin

‘And now for myself: the story of one of my follies.

For a long time I boasted of owning all possible landscapes, and laughed at the celebrities of modern painting and poetry.

I loved idiotic pictures, fan-lights, stage scenery, mountebanks’ back-cloths, sign-boards, popular coloured prints, old-fashioned literature, Church Latin, ill-spelt erotic works, romances of the time of our grandfathers, fairy-tales, little books for children, old operas, silly refrains, ingenious rhythms.

I dreamed of crusades, voyages of discovery whose stories have never been told, unrecorded republics, religious wars that were nipped in the bud, revolutions in morals, displacements of races and continents. I believed in all enchantments.’

Rimbaud’s words from A Season in Hell could be written on a plaque in Leicester Square as a testament to Tony Kirkhope’s life.

A master creator of useful dreams, a great collector and for over 30 years he produced and created one long film, albeit a film without celluloid – The Shaman’s Ultimate Magic.

This film really began in the 1970s at the Other Cinema; when, recently employed as an accountant, Tony Kirkhope managed to stave off a whole queue of creditors waiting at the doors of the recently founded cinema in Scala Street.

A thesaurus would not do justice to the different meanings that Tony Kirkhope could give to that word ‘delay’. It was then, at the time of the closure of the near-bankrupt Other Cinema, that I understood the full meaning of running a war economy. The Board of the Other Cinema had, on the advice of lawyers, resigned en masse – faced as they were with the possibility of having all their possessions impounded. Left with only two board members to help him, Tony Kirkhope demonstrated the full panoply of his talents. He alchemised red columns into black (all strictly legal) so that they could support the ailing Cinema. A whirl of words, figures, passions, optimisms and adrenalin were let loose on what seemed to us to be a hopeless enterprise. During all this time he would never take no for an answer – even when faced with a resolute “NO” from the BFI. He never gave up, holding up the saving of the Other Cinema’s Distribution Library as the ultimate prize. This he achieved. It was this experience that made him highly suspicious of any orchestra that was willing to play while the ship was going down. Not for him the Left’s need for martyrdom, the equivalent for the Right of an MBE for thirty year’s ‘hard’ service in Local Government. He had learned a lesson that he was never tired of reciting to others: if different, illuminating cinema was to survive it had to splash itself like a rumbustious child in the market place. An objective that led Godard to call the Other Cinema the Same Cinema – an epithet that would have made Tony feel that at least one person had been willing to learn a lesson.

In 1985, the harsh times of Thatcher’s regime, he opened the Metro Cinema with the help of GLC funding and month after month developed, printed and protected his radical images. If Tony Kirkhope was a showman in the Damien Hirst tradition, there were certain huge differences. First he was not interested in playing cynical games with the establishment, who Janus-like, could on Monday morning shake with anger and sound cultural alarm bells and on Saturday collect at the endless ringing cash till. It’s a relationship now so enjoyed by the New British Artists who take their cue from Malcolm McLaren, the Diaghilev of the borstal boys. Secondly and more important, Tony Kirkhope deeply believed in the films that he showed and it was for them that he was always working and not for his personal glory. Stubborn he was, manipulative he could be, authoritarian certainly, but always for the Cinema.

The Metro quickly earned its reputation as a cinema with a difference by opening its doors to My Beautiful Launderette, Godard’s Hail Mary, Chinese action films for the nearby Chinese community, special film weeks, and the risking of showing documentaries. He and his wife, Eva Tarr, started the Latin American Film Festival, a unique occasion where one had the opportunity to decouple oneself from narrow national obsessions and unpeel jaded eyes, only to realise how much the 80s and 90s had narrowed our horizons, and how much, in this age of international communications, of world cinema we could not and did not see.

At this point in writing this obituary a painful image begins to arise. If Tony Kirkhope was known and sometimes regrettably patronised as a showman, goodtime liver and quirky ambassador of independent film making, there was also another side of him which he did his best to hide. This was the sheer cost of his work, the continuous worry that the chase gave him, the years of struggle to get these films shown. His increasing anger at the reluctance of television to buy films with subtitles, due to the navel-gazing meanness of the new bureaucracy who time after time turned him down, the increasing authoritarianism of administrations that painted their audience in increasingly dumb and pale colours. All this got to him. Sometimes it was really painful to see how disappointed he was to live in age when so many doors were closing. The memorial and testimonies that were given to him at the Lumiere Cinema just recently made for an extraordinary event. It was the last night of the Lumiere Cinema before its closure. The last image to be shown on that screen was of Algerian women ululating their insults at the French occupation forces, and then we were all there to commemorate Tony’s life. The death of another cinema, the death of a revolution, and the sudden absence of Tony were all very hard to bear. Writing this obituary makes it doubly so because one does not want to write “End” to this film that Tony Kirkhope spent so much of his time creating. Especially now, of all times, when British Cinema is showing at last that it can ride a few waves if enough wind is put in its sails. So, no to a convenient round up. No to ‘The End’. Tony Kirkhopes’s life and work should not have to wait for the cinematic equivalent of Proust’s madeleine in order for his work to be remembered and commemorated. The existence of the Metro and Metro-Tartan distribution, so well supported and directed by Sophie Tranchell and the Latin American Festival so imaginatively produced by Tony’s wife Eva are all alive and well. And all of us, filmmakers, distributors, exhibitors should help its potentially brilliant future.