Vertigo Café: Friends of the BFI

By Julian Petley

The dossier on the British Film Institute in the last issue of Vertigo neatly coincided with an excellent article on the same subject by David Robinson in The Guardian, thereby demonstrating just how widespread is concern over the current state of the BFI. Both Vertigo and the Guardian received such an excellent response to their articles (some of it from within the BFI itself, albeit in secret, for obvious reasons) that it seemed a good opportunity to try and put this dissatisfaction to positive and practical use. Thus David Robinson, Michael Chanan, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and Julian Petley were among a small steering group who earlier this year, formed the Friends of the BFI, but also making it clear, as we put it, that 'our intention is wholly benign. We want to see the Institute thriving and internationally admired as it formerly was, and not the subject from critical assault from so many sides'. We concluded by urging the BFI and Department of Media, Culture and Sport radically re-examine the Institute's aims and asked both to engage in open and constructive debate with the constituencies which the BFI is intended to serve. We then sent out our statement to a number of people in these various constituencies and asked them to sign it, thereby becoming Friends of the BFI.

The result was gratifying. So far we've received around 70 signatures (and a lot of responses along the lines of 'I'd love to, but...', which says something about the atmosphere of fear and complicity which is discussed elsewhere in this issue of Vertigo.)

These included Geoff Andrew, Geoff Brown, Stanley Forman, Keith Griffiths, Gillies MacKinnon, Mike Leigh, Kevin Brownlow, Karl Francis, Alexander Walker, Stephan Woolley, John Ellis, Karel Reisz, Romaine Hart, Judith Williamson and John Wyver. There was silence from the BFI until Alexander Walker wrote about our concerns (while adding a few of his own, admittedly!) in the Evening Standard. At this point Wilf Stevenson accused us all of being 'a few malcontents whose ideas have been rejected by the Board of Governors' and who were using 'their privileged positions close to the media to peddle their tired agendas'. This all too clearly illustrated one of the main reasons why we formed the Friends in the first place – namely the impossibility of having a constructive debate with the BFI in its present self-enclosed, siege-mentality mode. (In all fairness, however, we should point out that Wilf did accept Vertigo's offer of an interview to discuss the issues raised in our dossier – and then promptly announced his resignation, making the exercise an entirely pointless one! However, one of the first letters on the new Director's desk will be an offer of an interview with us).

Wilf Stevenson's resignation and the appointment of a new Chairman of the Governors makes discussion of the issues raised by the Friends all the more urgent. In particular we would like to discuss these, in public or private, with Alan Parker, the new Chairman, before Wilf's successor is appointed. We have written to ask for a meeting, but so far have received no reply.