James Quinn: Cultured, committed BFI director

James Quinn joined the British Film Institute (BFI) in 1955 as its Director, following the departure of the brilliant and flamboyant Denis Forman, who had wrought the organisation from its humble beginnings and laid the foundations for its future development.

Quinn was quiet, even self-effacing, when first encountered, a classicist and graduate in modern languages, educated at Shrewsbury, Trinity Dublin and Christ Church, Oxford. His commitment to the BFI, his sincerity and honesty, earned him the respect and loyalty of those he gathered around him. All of us knew that whatever trouble our activities might provoke he would defend us to the last, as long as he was assured of our commitment to the art of the film and the pursuit of excellence.

The period of his tenure, 1955-64, was a troublesome time. The Cold War was at its height, the ghosts of Suez, Profumo, the Cuban missile crisis and the threat of atomic war remained. The Conservative government provided too small a grant to cover even the basic BFI services but most damaging of all, the commercial film trade was suspicious of the BFI, unfriendly, uncooperative and in some quarters openly hostile.

Despite all these factors Quinn and the talented and dedicated team he had gathered around him at all levels attained an astonishing array of high-profile and lasting cultural achievements under his directorship.

He established the London Film Festival, the first of which, in 1957, was sponsored by the Sunday Times. But from then on he placed his faith, against advice to the contrary, in the BFI membership, which had risen to 40,000, to fund the festival through ticket sales. Likewise Quinn ignored the advice of the Treasury and went ahead with plans for a permanent home for the National Film Theatre under Waterloo Bridge. He moved the BFI headquarters into larger premises, with an enlarged Information Department and easy access to its library for BFI members. He established a Chair of Film Studies at the Slade and joined with Goldsmiths College to stage a major international film conference. The first television festival in the UK was held in 1963, supported by UK television companies, and the National Film Archive started to collect television material. The BFI's Experimental Film Fund supported the Free Cinema movement. The NFT1 auditorium was opened in 1957 by Princess Margaret, with Akira Kurosawa, René Clair, John Ford, Gina Lollobrigida, Vittorio De Sica, Laurence Olivier and Lord Hailsham in attendance. Lindsay Anderson and Derek Prouse were the masters of ceremony.

During the Second World War Quinn had served as a Major in the Intelligence Unit of the Irish Guards in North Africa, Italy and northern European campaigns. In 1946 he was Town Major of Paris. This probably put him in good stead to solve the rift that existed between the BFI and Henri Langlois, the legendary master of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, bringing it to such a successful conclusion that Langlois lent part of his famous collection in 1956 for display in "Sixty Years of Cinema", the first major film exhibition to be held in Great Britain.

Quinn visited India to advise on the creation of a state film archive, met Nehru and presented rare Indian film material from the National Film Archive to the nation. He was a member of the Cannes and Venice film festival juries in 1956 and chaired the Berlin Film Festival jury in 1961. He welcomed to the National Film Theatre many film-makers and stars – Joan Crawford, Luis Buñuel, Jean Renoir, James Cagney, Satyajit Ray, Harold Lloyd, François Truffaut, to name a few – and put a visit to the British Film Institute/National Film Theatre on the itinerary of film-makers whenever they came to London.

It was probably my department, the National Film Theatre, that caused Quinn the most grief for, as we expanded our range of world cinemas, we frequently visited countries or considered subjects that were not politically welcome in some quarters of the establishment: for example, a major retrospective of Chinese cinema, the first in Europe, arranged before China had been accepted into the United Nations; and a provocative East German DEFA film season at a time when the western nations did not accept the existence of East Germany as a state. Examination of Fascist and Communist cinema, or how Hollywood handled the question of homosexuality in American cinema all ignited criticism and in some cases questions were asked in Parliament. Quinn steadfastly supported NFT programmers when it would have been easier for him to do otherwise. There is a file in the National Archive at Kew which contains a report querying whether Quinn had been subject to Communist influence.

James Quinn was the second longest-serving BFI director. When he left he produced two films, Herostratus (1966), and Overlord (1975, a record of the D-Day landings). He opened the Paris Pullman cinema in South Kensington, with Charles Cooper of Contemporary Films, and later became involved with the Minema Cinema in Knightsbridge. He also carried out a major review for the BFI on the establishment of regional theatres.

Although he was born an Ulsterman, James Quinn's very English charm, and cultured manner won great support for the institute. A complex man, he was as happy projecting a 35mm film as reading Greek.

Leslie Hardcastle

James Charles Frederick Quinn, film producer and exhibitor: born Belfast 23 August 1919; staff, Courtaulds 1949-55; director, British Film Institute 1955-64; chairman, International Short Film Conference 1971-78, life president 1979; chairman, National Panel for Film Festivals 1974-83; chairman, The Minema 1984-94; married 1942 Hannah Gwynn (died 2002; one son, one daughter); died Brighton, East Sussex 11 February 2008.

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