Wednesday, 19 March 2014

"Not quite what I had in mind"

The 15th annual de Ferrieres lecture took place tonight, at the Bacon Theatre here in Cheltenham. Kevin Brownlow, the film buff's film buff, was - for me - an inspired choice, but alas didn't draw the crowd he richly deserved. Whereas the Film Society attracted its habitual near-capacity audience to a showing of the little-known German film Barbara last night, a mere hundred or so turned out for "Not quite what I had in mind": Brownlow's talk was all about his failed ambition to become the second Orson Welles.

Failure though he might deem himself, he succeeded brilliantly in giving us glimpses of what turned him onto film as a young man, and turned him into an Oscar-winning film historian. One of his breaks was getting alongside the American actor and director Al Parker. Parker, who knew everyone in the Silents and that Brownlow was anxious to meet people from that era, would ring up: "Kevin. King Vidor. Hyde Park Hotel. Tell him I sent you."

From an early age, Brownlow was passionate about film, or rather "Film" - "I am a Film maker, capital F" as he recalled telling someone offering him work in television ("an ulcer-producing activity" - he quoted Jeremy Isaacs). And he clearly lived by the saying of Abel Gance, "It's impossible to make a great film without enthusiasm."

We were treated to a dozen or so film clips - some possibly a little protracted, though not the excerpt from Brownlow's own documentary on the last Glasgow tram: magical. Another clip included an interview with the great Gance: a chief debt of the film world to Brownlow is for his restoration of the silent epic Napoléon vu par Abel Gance after a 20-year struggle. With a further clip, Brownlow let us into the secret of "the hanging miniature" which Fred Niblo used to create the crowd scenes in his 1925 Ben-Hur. And in a clip about the making of Brownlow's own 1975 film Winstanley, we could observe at first hand the rigorous directing of the lecturer himself - perhaps too much of a perfectionist to achieve the commercial success he craved.

In what was a modest, gracious and witty two-hour performance, Brownlow reserved almost his only word of criticism for Charlie Chaplin. Having come across a roomful of outtakes, he concluded that at times Chaplin "didn't know what he was doing, and that's the worst thing you can say on a film set."

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