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obituaries: John Gillett

John Gillett was one of the best-known personalities on the world's film festival circuit both as a critic/programmer and as a friend to countless film- makers, established or unknown, who regarded him with awe because of his extraordinary knowledge of world cinema. Gillett was a walking encyclopaedia of film knowledge, whether it be the correct spelling of the cameraman's name in the Albanian/Soviet co-production Skanderberg or the name of an actor in a lesser Japanese feature.

Gillett was born in Ealing, west London, in 1925. After business college he worked on a local newspaper until his deep interest in film secured him a job at the British Film Academy in the days of Roger Manvell. It was Manvell who in November 1952 introduced him to the British Film Institute - where he remained for over 44 years.

Even in those early days staff and visitors alike relied on Gillett's film knowledge to assist them in their research. He became a regular contributor to National Film Theatre programming. In December 1967 he reintroduced Buster Keaton to British audiences, and swiftly followed with retrospectives on the work of such film-makers as Billy Wilder, John Ford and Satyajit Ray. He became a regular collaborator on numerous seasons, respected for his accuracy - for which his name was a byword. "Has this text been checked with John?" became a routine question.

John Gillett will be remembered best for his passion for Japanese cinema, reflected in season upon season at the NFT since 1982. In June 1995 he received the double honours of appointment as MBE and the Japanese order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold Rays with Rosette, an award offered to few foreigners. It was Gillett who had been largely responsible for creating an awareness of Japanese film history in Britain. His championing of the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu was crucial to his obtaining funding for his films in Japan at a critical time in his career.

But Gillett's interest in world cinema showed itself in many other areas of special knowledge: early Russian and Georgian cinema, Hungarian cinema and the work of Hollywood giants of the 1930s and 1940s were other areas of special interest.

Gillett left no living relations and few worldly goods. This was not because he couldn't afford them, but rather that they would get in the way of getting to the cinema or his other love, the concert hall. The NFT and the library of the BFI were his home and his world-wide family - critics, film- makers, writers - was of his own creation.

Gillett was not only intent on ensuring that film information was correct, but he was equally intent in ensuring that films were shown at the right speed, at the right sound level and always in focus. He was the scourge of faulty film projectionists. The last words he spoke to me at the charming and friendly Silent Film Festival at Pordenone, in Italy, where he was taken ill, were: "I thought the live accompaniment to Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera was a trifle loud and that the focus of the Henry King silent feature was not good."

Lesley Hardcastle

John Gillett, film critic, programmer and historian: born 28 September 1925; MBE 1995; died London 7 December 1995.