Philip Jenkinson: Film writer and historian who presentedthe BBC's 'Late Night Line-Up'
Friday 23 March 2012
Philip Jenkinson was a film archivist and journalist who presented the television show Late Night Line-Up, in which he played viewers' requests for clips from old movies. He was particularly fond of the wildly imaginative musical routines staged by Busby Berkeley in films such as 42nd Street, Dames and Footlight Parade, and brought the breathtaking work of Berkeley (whom he insisted on pronouncing "Barkley") to a new generation. He conducted an acclaimed series of talks for the British Film Institute, where he served for a period as governor, on the history of the musical, as well as interviewing for television such legendary figures as Ramon Novarro, John Ford and Gloria Swanson. In 1977 his fame was such that he was one of seven BBC frontmen who performed "There is Nothing Like a Dame", dressed in sailor suits, on The Morecambe & Wise Show.
His personal archive of 16mm prints was so extensive that he had to rent garages to store it, and through his company Filmfinders he would research and provide clips for documentaries and advertisements, though his business suffered with the increasingly strict enforcement of copyright laws.
Born in 1935 in Sale, Cheshire, he won a talent competition as a child doing George Formby impersonations, which led to radio work in Manchester. He used the money for elocution lessons, as regional accents were considered a handicap in those days. Prone to asthma, he was frequently kept home from school, and a sympathetic family milkman gave him a 9.5mm projector, which started his interest in films. Given money by his mother to go swimming, he would instead go to the cinema.
His boyhood friend Alan Howden, who was later to become head of film purchasing at the BBC, also acquired a projector, and recalls that this meant they could screen films without interruption for reel changes. "We showed a 90-minute version of Metropolis to half our school class in my house."
On leaving school, Jenkinson worked as a projectionist before quitting to join the Library Theatre in Manchester where he hoped to become an actor, but found himself working primarily as a stage manager. There he met his future wife, Sally Jay, a scenic designer. Deciding he had little future as an actor, he took a job with Contemporary Pictures in London, rising from general assistant to a key position.
In 1967, while lecturing on vintage cinema at the St Martin's School of Art, he was seen by Mike Appleton, the producer of the BBC's Late Night Line-Up. This pioneering show was scheduled nightly at the end of programming, so it was open-ended. "I initially signed a contract for six months, which grew and grew," he recalled. "I ended up staying for five years. Film Night came out of Late Night Line-Up. It started with me and Tony Bilbow. Tony reviewed the new films while I related the new films to ones made earlier, linking them with either a director or a star or the style; something they had in common."
Jenkinson put together film sequences for programmes including The Old Grey Whistle Test, and wrote a column about the week's film schedule for the Radio Times, sometimes composing it in rhyming couplets, displaying a keen wit and imagination. His loquacious style and mannered delivery were parodied in Monty Python, with a sketch in which he was played by Eric Idle.
Jenkinson's 13 talks on the history of the film musical, given at the National Film Theatre in 1971 and accompanied by myriad extracts, was a great success. The same year, director Ken Russell hired him as a consultant on The Boy Friend, which included several pastiche Busby Berkeley numbers, complete with kaleidoscopic overhead shots.
Jenkinson had become part of a group of film lovers, which included Kevin Brownlow and William K Everson, intent on preserving movie heritage. He began to amass an impressive collection including Mack Sennett silents and early Laurel and Hardy, and he founded Filmfinders, locating footage and movie extracts for producers.
He was immensely generous with his precious film stock. Peter Armitage, the editor of Film magazine, had a 16mm projector in his house, and on weekends I would drive to his home in Orpington, making a detour to Phil's house in Blackheath, where he would entrust to me several cans of film usually containing two rare movies, which Peter would show to his family and friends.
Later, with the advent of VHS, Jenkinson would give friends gifts of tapes with an exhilarating selection of rare musical extracts. Barry Brown, producer of Film Night, described him as "generous to a fault" but also temperamental and exasperating in his effusive use of clichés and such sweeping statements as: "This is the most dramatic scene ever filmed." "But viewers loved him", said Brown, "and each week his postbag was enormous."
For Film Night, distributors provided clips to promote their new films, along with extracts from their older ones, so long as the programme was non-critical, but when Bilbow and Jenkinson started to criticise the films, permission was rescinded. In 1975, a new controller of BBC2, unhappy with the hosts, told Brown to fire them, and new, younger replacements were found. But the revised show was not a success and Film Night ended the following year.
In 1987 Jenkinson compiled a series of six programmes, The Great Trailer Show. Trailers, since they are for promotion, are not considered to be subject to copyright. Tyne Tees Television showed four of the shows, but Jenkinson withdrew the last two after being threatened with a massive lawsuit and then, dogged by ill health, he disappeared fairly rapidly and became somewhat reclusive.
Philip Jenkinson, film archivist and television presenter: born Sale, Cheshire 17 August 1935; married Sally Jay (deceased, two sons); died 11 March 2012.
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