Philip Mottram: Film-maker and inspiring teacher whose generosity of spirit made him the London Film School’s guiding light

Mike Leigh and Michael Mann both appreciated Mottram’s contribution to their education in film

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Around the world there are hundreds, if not thousands, of former film school students who carry with them the fondest memories of either a couple of dingy, structurally unsound rooms above a Brixton greengrocer, a magnificent, decaying Georgian house in Charlotte Street or a pigeon-infested wreck of a banana warehouse in Covent Garden, these being in turn the homes of the former London School of Film Technique, London Film School and London International Film School, each evolving from the last.

Along with those memories of place will go even fonder memories of one of those schools’ most gifted, wise and inspiring of teachers, Phil Mottram.

His career at these schools involved teaching those still wet-behind-the-ears youngsters Mike Leigh and Michael Mann their business, and I know from personal accounts just how deeply both appreciated Phil’s contribution to their film education. But the sheer number of students who passed through his hands and are now working, or have been working, all over the world, testify to his influence having a truly global reach.

My own obsession with film, at far too early an age, meant that I must only narrowly have missed meeting him when, dressed in a school mackintosh, I ascended the uncertain staircase at Charlotte Street to be confronted by a posse of intimidating, cigar-smoking, Latino gunslingers, sprawled across the cramped floor. I fled. And the “film school by correspondence course” I subsequently enrolled on was nothing more than notes cribbed from Mottram’s classes by an enterprising student, hoping to recoup some tuition fees, I later learned. It was typical of his generosity that he did nothing about this, except to request in the most reasonable tones a small acknowledgment.

He was born to primary schoolteachers in Rusholme, Manchester in 1931. He had a passion for natural history which led to a zoology course at Manchester University, but his dislike of how the subject was treated impelled him to abandon the course. He married soon afterwards, began a lifetime affair with The Goon Show and joined the RAF for eight years, becoming a Flight Lieutenant navigator/instructor.

His taste for directing Shakespeare in the service, coupled with a growing interest in film, prompted a career change. Conspicuous among his many fine qualities was his rapid adaptability, and the transition to the completely different atmosphere of the London School of Film Technique, where he enrolled on its film-making course in 1959, was achieved seamlessly.

He rose rapidly to become an outstanding documentary film cameraman (and sometimes film editor), often for the BBC. He also found time to invent, along with a partner, the “Tycho” brand of magnetic film track reader – the kind that went neither hiss nor pop nor picked up radio taxis – which went on to become standard equipment in cutting rooms.

But his love of teaching drew him back to what was now the London Film School, where he gave an extensive series of lectures as well as supervising much of the student film-making. Unfortunately, the end of the Vietnam war resulted in the rapid return to the US of many draft dodgers, a significant number of whom were studying at the LFS or were preparing to do so. This precipitated a financial crisis leading to bankruptcy and, finally, closure in the mid-1970s.

A number of staff and students banded together to press for its continuation, Mottram playing a major role in this effort, which led to the formation of the London International Film School. There would not be a film school in Covent Garden today (it was rebranded as the London Film School from 2000) were it not for the enormous efforts of this dedicated band.

I eventually met Mottram in 1977, when I was teaching at the LIFS for 18 months or so. We got to know one another much better in 1983, when I returned there as Principal. About two years in, the then Administrator left abruptly and Mottram was the obvious choice to replace her, although he continued to deliver his familiar range of lectures.

Then, on looking into matters, he was obliged to make a timely intervention in order to prevent a looming financial crisis from erupting into full-blown bankruptcy. This was an approaching circumstance of which the then Board of Governors, apparently under the influence of the former Administrator’s wicked spell and capable of understanding only Martian, seemed almost wholly unaware. Sadly, this linguistic deficit persisted down the years, to our great frustration, until our synchronous departure from the School in 2000.

My most vivid memories of Mottram at the LIFS are around those many things he willingly undertook that were above and beyond the call of duty, things he zealously embraced for the greater benefit of the school community. Taking selected groups of students on geological discovery walks was an early example; putting up homeless students at his house was another. Given the intense liveliness of student politics in the early 1980s, and particularly at the LIFS, where students were company shareholders, I remain deeply grateful for Mottram’s calm and measured contributions to the often incendiary company meetings. An incisive mind, a quick wit and an unfailing bullshit detector often helped ensure that something faintly resembling order returned to the place.

In truth, I can say that it would have been quite impossible for me to have run the LIFS for the 17 years I did without Mottram’s untiring support, first as Administrator and then, in his final year there, as a Governor. So, farewell then, Phil, and thank you for all that humour, forbearance, enthusiasm and seemingly unlimited energy. I shall miss your great humanity and kindness deeply, as will many others.

Philip Sydney Henry Mottram, film-maker and film school administrator: born Manchester 18 October 1931; married Laura (three daughters, one son); died 28 May 2014.