John Huntley

Film historian and lecturer on the art of cinema
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The Independent Online

John Frederick Huntley, film historian: born Kew, Surrey 18 July 1921; married 1960 Diana Furley (two daughters; marriage dissolved); died London 7 August 2003.

Long before film history was taught at universities, John Huntley was a one-man degree course, travelling Britain for the British Film Institute and independently, and enthralling audiences with his lectures. He never went to a university but he taught himself a great deal not only about the cinema, but about music, about steam and road transport and Britain's mechanical past. He would lecture anywhere and must have visited every town and village in the land.

He found his métier during the Second World War. He had been mad on films as a boy, going to the cinema several times a week and, after a boring couple of years as a junior clerk in insurance, landed a job as a teaboy at Denham Studios in north-west London. He could hardly have found a more congenial place to begin a career. Under Alex Korda, Denham was a magnet for talent.

But war broke out after he had been there a mere 18 months and the majority of Denham was closed down. Huntley said:

I had just begun to do a sort of music career in September 1939. I was at the Royal College of Music for about a month - and when war broke out I joined the RAF. It was staggeringly boring. Out of utter boredom I used to go to the camp cinemas and began to listen to the soundtracks. That's how my interest in film music started.

By 1944, he was in air-sea rescue with Coastal Command. And the RAF gave him the chance to give educational film shows and to talk about the cinema in the way that would make him so well known for the next 50 years. He also wrote occasional film reviews for RAF magazines, for the BFI's journal, Sight and Sound, and for the Penguin Film Reviews. He was taken on as British correspondent for the American Film Music Bulletin. Out of all this came his first book, British Film Music (1947). He also wrote British Technicolor Films, published in l949.

After the war, he returned to the film industry, working at Denham and Pinewood as third music assistant to Muir Mathieson, the most famous conductor of British film scores, on such pictures as Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948) and David Lean's Oliver Twist (1948). Huntley recalled,

I was the boy in the office with Muir, and my job was basically to help with the timings, put the cutting copy on the bench and time all the sections where the music was going to be, using Lean's notes. Then take them down to Arnold Bax, and Bax really hating the whole thing. He used to sit there with a stop-

watch and a metronome, and in the end it was very much Muir Mathieson who carried it all through because Muir, with great tact and skill, would guide him into hitting the right points. And when it came to the actual recording sessions, Muir went flat out - especially when Bax missed the timings by a mile.

Huntley was dismayed to find that British film technicians seldom talked about their work.

By pretending I was a publicist, I could ask anybody anything, so I could go up to a cameraman like Freddie Young and say, "How do you do it and how does it work? I'm writing this for Cinema Studio." It was really just a device to learn what the movies were all about.

When the Rank organisation broke up, Huntley joined the technical team for the Telekinema, which was part of the 1951 Festival of Britain. He worked on the sound tracks of the 3D films. The Telekinema would eventually be transformed into the National Film Theatre.

Huntley joined the British Film Institute in 1952, working in the information department. In 1955, he became Distribution Officer, purchasing films for the BFI library. He served on the Programme Committee, choosing the films for the National Film Theatre. He was in charge of the NFT for three years; here he met Diana Furley, an usherette from Australia, and they were married in 1960. She went with him when he gave his first lectures on the art of cinema, which ran, one night a week, for 24 weeks.

The lecture series was organised by the BFI for London University Extra-Mural Studies. "I always remember John behind a 16mm projector," said Leslie Hardcastle, who took over from him as head of the NFT,

speaking with enormous authority and enthusiasm. He may not have been academically correct, but by God, he aroused enthusiasm for the cinema. And his audiences loved him for it. I remember, for one of his railway lectures, we had a hundred bishops at the NFT. He also did marvellous lectures for children. He stood on the stage of the NFT with a roll of 35mm film, and he cut it into strips that the kids could take home.

He became head of the Regional Unit and helped to take the BFI into the regions; 35 regional theatres opened as a result.

To me, as a fledgling collector, John Huntley was among the most accessible people at the Institute. While the curator, Ernest Lindgren, had to satisfy the industry and refuse to deal with private collectors, Huntley had little patience with obstructive bureaucracy.

In his office at Royalty House, in Dean Street, Soho, surrounded by such treasures as early motion picture cameras and even a pair of First World War cameraman's boots, you and your problems would be received with sympathy. He could be incredibly generous. When I heard that he had found (on an ostrich farm in South Africa!) a rare silent film that I desperately wanted, he found a way of letting me have it - having copied it for the BFI first.

Downstairs was the Kinematograph Renters Society, who were fuming over Huntley's swashbuckling way with copyright titles.I learned to my horror that their policy was to destroy films seized from private collectors. They had an intelligence officer, a Mr Wilkins, whom I regarded as a sort of Captain Ahab, with Huntley as Moby Dick. I remember Mr Wilkins at his window staring up the stairwell at Huntley's office, a few floors above, declaiming theatrically about how he was going to end his activities.

John Huntley was able to get things done that were liable to take months if you went through the proper channels. In 1962, I heard that the Glasgow trams were about to be scrapped. As a great admirer of John Krish's classic documentary about the last London tram, The Elephant Will Never Forget (1952), I wanted to make a film about these last trams in Britain. But how was I to find the money for the film stock? The BFI's Experimental Film Fund had taken months before rejecting my feature film It Happened Here. Fortunately, Huntley was not only a transport enthusiast - he was on the fund's selection committee. Although neither of us could make much of a case for this being "experimental", he gave me the go-ahead on a single trip to his office. The film was shot in a weekend. Huntley put it in the BFI's distribution library and included it in many of his shows.

It was inevitable that the BFI and John Huntley would part company, as they did in 1974, but he had so many other things to do, it scarcely mattered. Mischievously, he stood as BFI Members' Governor - and won the highest vote ever recorded - but the BFI would not allow him to take his seat. He became a theatrical agent with Richard Jackson. He wrote three more books. He appeared frequently on television in such programmes as Clapperboard, for Granada, Bioscope Bygones for Anglia and Attic Archives for the BBC. More recently, he was a regular voice on Back Row on Radio 4, and he narrated The History of the British Film Studios for Radio 4.

In 1985 Huntley and his daughter Amanda set up the Huntley Film Archives. Researchers would arrive at a Victorian house in Newington Green in north London and find behind the front door a vast glass structure, a former lace factory, exactly like a silent film studio. John Huntley set up a remarkable museum here, and beneath it were the vaults of film, the results of decades of collecting. The operation has now moved to Soho.

The last time I saw Huntley was on his 80th birthday, when his family hired a steam train and provided a celebratory meal on the Watercress Line. At the front of the locomotive, expertly made, was a sign; "JOHN HUNTLEY SPECIAL".

Graham Murray, who worked for Granada TV, knew him for 30 years.

When we were doing Schools History we were dependent on archive film but could never get a foot of film out of the BFI. They were not prepared to co-operate and the archive charges made it impossible anyway. Only John, God bless him, pulled the strings which enabled it to happen.

He did many shows at Fairfield Hall, Croydon, and over a 30-year period built up a tremendous following. At the last one, in March, he knew he only had a few months to live. There was a tremendous atmosphere, it was packed to the doors. People were offering bribes to get in. He showed the highlights of the last 30 years. It was a wonderful send-off. The warmth, you could measure it. It was like a music hall star's farewell performance, bringing all the fans out.

Kevin Brownlow

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