Obituary: Tony Kirkhope

Click to follow
The Independent Online
For three decades Tony Kirkhope rode the tiger of independent film distribution, bringing films from all over the world to Britain and finding audiences for them.

He combined an intense commitment to cinema as a medium of ideas and a force for social change, with the entrepreneurial skills and instincts of a studio boss manque. But perhaps his greatest gift was for the business of living. There was no situation so grim, no cash-flow crisis so acute that it was not the material for a rolling sequence of jokes as Kirkhope reviewed the situation in relation to the current global balance of forces between left and right, the aesthetics of cinema and the sexual peccadilloes of his current creditor.

He was born in 1949. After a childhood in South Wales which left him a socialist of a kind in which in these Blairite days should probably be described as Neanderthal, Kirkhope took a degree in engineering at Nottingham University in the late Sixties before working in industry around Cardiff in a variety of junior managerial jobs. He also managed an unlikely spell as a physics teacher in a Dagenham school before the man and the hour were brought together when he joined the Other Cinema, as a part-time bookkeeper, in 1972.

The Other Cinema had been founded in an attempt to provide both exhibition and distribution for the global wave of alternative films produced in the aftermath of '68. With his typical financial acumen, Kirkhope set about splitting the distribution business from the cinema so that, when the cinema bit the dust, the distribution library from a new base in Little Newport Street continued to bring the work of film-makers like Jean-Luc Godard and Chantal Ackerman, Joris Ivens and Ousmane Sembene to the campuses and art cinemas of Britain. The Other Cinema quickly became what it was to remain: the main source of radical films in Britain. The daily bread of agitprop and avant-garde was occasionally supplemented with the cake of a hit as Themroc or Taxi zum Clo found surprisingly large audiences.

The Other Cinema was a genuine collective, but from early on Kirkhope was primus inter pares and this was confirmed when at the end of the Seventies he moved the cinema to the floors above an Ann Summers shop in Wardour Street. Here he was soon joined by Ben Gibson, a film graduate 10 years his junior, and together they set about persuading Ken Livingstone's GLC to subsidise a new cinema venture.

When the Metro opened in 1985, in Rupert Street, Soho, its first two features were Stephen Frears's My Beautiful Laundrette and Jean-Luc Godard's Hail Mary, and ever since then the Metro has been one of the crucial screens in London for anyone interested in the variety of British and world cinema. One of the most important of the many cultural projects that Kirkhope took on in the Eighties was the Latin American Film Festival, which he founded in 1989 with Eva Tarr, to whom he was married in 1994.

The offices in Wardour Street were, however, much more than a distribution company or a cinema. Kirkhope leased out tiny offices to a transient population of aspiring film producers or cultural organisations. From Derek Jarman and Isaac Julien to the Independent Film-Makers Association and the Miners' Video Project, Kirkhope played generous host to all those elements of the counter-culture which were one of the legacies of the Sixties.

In 1991, in the wake of Gibson's departure to BFI production, Kirkhope formed a partnership with Hamish McAlpine and the resultant Metro Tartan label bought the best of contemporary cinema and many classic titles into Britain's video shops. The partnership with McAlpine, a scion of a family whose name is more readily associated with building and the Conservative Party than the cultural industries was an unlikely one. However, they made a formidable team and as Metro Cinemas expanded, with a cinema at Henley the first of several planned, there were ambitious plans for moves into production and more mainstream distribution.

It can only be idle surmise as to how this unrepentant soixante-huitard would have carried his vision of a cinema of ideas and different into the next millennium. Kirkhope's ability to combine the hardest-nosed of business approaches with a genuine cultural and political commitment is a rare talent and it is difficult to see anybody picking up the torch which he has been forced to drop. British cinemagoers of the last quarter of a century owe much to a man determined to widen the range of images available to British audiences. The British film industry has lost one of its most important players.

Colin MacCabe

Anthony James Henry Kirkhope; film distributor: born Dumbarton 10 October 1949; married 1994 Eva Tarr; died London 29 May 1997.