Ken Wlaschin: Film historian and festival organiser who brought the best of world cinema to London

 

As programme director of the National Film Theatre and organiser of the London Film Festival for more than 15 years, the American Ken Wlaschin became a highly influential figure in British cinema.

Not only did he help put London on the map as a serious film festival venue but he was the man who, according to his peers, brought world cinema to Britain by setting his sights away from the UK or Hollywood and screening movies from around the globe. Thus did the influx of foreign films to UK cinemas begin, a tradition of which Britain has remained in the vanguard in large part due to Wlaschin's vision.

Of course there were the French films, the Scandinavian and the sexually explicit ones the National Film Theatre was able to screen, much to the disgust of moral decency campaigner Mary Whitehouse, because it was a "membership only" cinema. But then came the South American movies, others from Eastern Europe, Croatia, Israel, Asia, mostly low-budget and often by unknown directors, which Wlaschin first brought to British, and therefore eventually, worldwide audiences. He organised the first African Film Festival as part of the LFF and was the first to screen what were considered at the time "underground" US movies previously snubbed by Hollywood.

Inspired by the Zagreb school of animation, he organised a Croatian Film Season in 1971 when that country was still part of Tito's communist Yugoslavia, a visionary move that would lead in this century to the "Closer Croatia" Film Festival in Hammersmith. He also launched the popular all-night shows and debates with the audience at the LFT on the south side of Waterloo Bridge and introduced the idea of retrospectives on subjects from Hitchcock to Metro Goldwyn Mayer.

Wlaschin had been an arts columnist on the Daily Sketch newspaper in London and was an editor at London Weekend Television in 1968 when he was hired to organise the LFF by the man who had founded the festival, the then British Film Institute Controller Leslie Hardcastle. He would run the festival, and the NFT, until 1984.

On hearing of Wlaschin's death in California at the age of 75, Hardcastle, still a governor of the BFI, said: "Ken turned the National Film Theatre [now known as BFI Southbank] into a pioneering organisation, and the London Film Festival from a very small venue into a globally respected and much copied celebration of the film industry. When I hired him in 1968, the movie industry was dominated by American screen. British people were to a large extent ignorant of movies from elsewhere. Ken literally gave Britain world cinema. He also brought us serious subjects, showed us the artistic side of cinema. He was the best programme officer, or director the NFT ever had, and the longest-serving. He gave us, and himself, international standing."

After leaving the NFT and LFF in 1984, Wlaschin, of Romanian origin on his paternal side, went back to his native US to do a similar job for the American Film Institute (AFI). He took over as interim director of their struggling festival, Filmex (the Los Angeles Film Exposition), and helped replace it with the now highly-respected AFI FEST (Los Angeles International Film Festival) which he ran from 1984 to 1993, again changing the emphasis away from Hollywood and towards small, independent productions from around the globe. During those years, he also directed the National Film Theater at the Kennedy Center in Washington. For the subsequent decade, until his retirement in 2003, he remained the AFI's Director of Creative Affairs and Vice-Chairman of the National Center for Film and Video Preservation.

A film buff all his life, Wlaschin became equally known among his peers as the author of around 20 books, mostly about movies and several considered classics of the genre, notably The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the World's Great Movie Stars and Their Films, written in 1979 during his time in London. Others included Encyclopedia of Opera on Screen (2004), Silent Mystery and Detective Movies (2009), Bluff Your Way in the Cinema (1974) and The Silent Cinema in Song (2008), the latter explaining that most "silent movies" at the start of the 20th Century relied heavily on live music.

As a film historian, he was in constant demand in the US media and also wrote novels, poetry, travel articles and film reviews, once describing the American actress Jane Wyman, Ronald Reagan's first wife, as "tearful, noble and plucky, with a face like a worried baby squirrel."

In 1970, a year after the appearance of the classic Michael Caine movie The Italian Job, he wrote a "novelisation" of the film whose screenplay had been written by his brother-in-law, Troy Kennedy Martin, the Scots-born creator of the Z Cars TV series who died in September. Wlaschin changed the ending from the famous "cliff-hanger" in the film, which Kennedy-Martin admitted was not his idea, to the one in the latter's original script.

Kenneth Wlaschin was born in 1934 in Bradish, Nebraska, which later became a ghost town and is now buried under cornfields. He attended high school in nearby Scottsbluff, where he did his first writing for the Scottsbluff Star-Herald newspaper. He won a scholarship to the prestigious Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, the smallest college of the Ivy League, graduating with a BA in English. He went on to get an MA in English at University College, Dublin, where, in 1956, he met his future wife and lifetime love, the Glasgow-born Scots-Irish Maureen Kennedy-Martin. (She always used the hyphen whereas her brother Troy dropped it).

Wlaschin served in the US army's Counter-Intelligence Corps from 1958-61, training at Ford Holabird, Maryland, and serving mainly in Poitiers, France, where he also studied French at the University of Poitiers. He and his wife lived in England for a while, where their son Scott was born in Guildford in 1961, before moving to Italy, first in the northern city of Vercelli and later in Rome.

As art critic of the Eternal City's English-language newspaper, the Rome Daily American, Wlaschin found himself at a party alongside Martin Luther King in the home of the renowned American singer, dancer and socialite Ada "Bricktop" Smith. After meeting the film director Albert Band, he got a small part as a bartender in the "spaghetti western" The Tramplers, starring Joseph Cotton, in 1966.

His wife Maureen, better known as Mo, became a highly respected folk singer in London in the late 1960s and '70s, mostly as lead singer and guitarist with The Tinkers, who became known for their versions of Irish songs such as The Rifles of the IRA.

Wlaschin received an MBE from the newly-wed Prince Charles and Princess Diana in the bar of the National Film Theatre in London in 1981. He is survived by his wife and son.

Kenneth Wlaschin, film festival organiser, author and cinema historian; born Bradish, Nebraska 12 July 1934; married 1961 Maureen Kennedy-Martin (one son); died Palm Springs, California 10 November 2009.

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