Britain's film heritage at risk after £2.5m budget cut, say campaigners

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The Independent Online

Britain's vast heritage of film and television archives is under threat of "irreparable devastation", according to an alliance of film historians, curators and directors.

Britain's vast heritage of film and television archives is under threat of "irreparable devastation", according to an alliance of film historians, curators and directors.

The new lobbying force, called the Curatori Lucis (treasures of light) Group, claims that Britain's rich tradition of films and television programmes is at risk as a result of threatened cuts to the National Film and Television Archive (NFTVA).

The group, which remains mostly anonymous but is known to include Mike Hodges, the director of Get Carter, claims that an internal report that has not been made public proposes axing up to 30 curatorial staff and cutting the budget, which was £4.5m in 1998, to £2m. The group also says that the focus in future would be on more selective conservation, focusing on saving what is regarded as "culturally significant".

The model of duplicating films as part of the preservation process would be dropped under the proposals, even though, opponents claim, two of the world's most advanced film archives, the Library of Congress and the UCLA library in America, are currently building conservation centres on exactly that model.

The British Film Institute (BFI), which runs the archive, is looking for a new "partner" in higher education to run the archive's extensive library, which the objectors fear will lead to reduced public access.

David Robinson, an eminent film historian with strong ties to the BFI, said he was backing the campaign. "It is the oldest and certainly one of the greatest archives and people have got to recognise that this collection of film is a piece of the national heritage. It's like the National Gallery or the British Library," he said yesterday.

"If you find you can't afford to preserve it, you've got to find the money. That's what their job is. The other problem is this idiotic notion that you can select films on the strength of their cultural importance. These proposals are really ill-informed."

The emphasis on "cultural significance" has particularly incensed the Curatori Lucis Group. On its website (www.filmarchiveaction.org), the group says: "It is a truism that many films (or other art or documentary products), totally disregarded or even reviled on their appearance 20, 40 or 80 years ago, are now recognised as of primary importance in interpreting the culture or history of their times."

Fifty years ago, for example, the negatives of Mancunian Films, regional producers of populist comedies, were rejected as culturally unworthy, with the consequence that a whole generation of regional music-hall artists are not represented in the archive.

Further criticism came from the union Bectu, which represents archive employees. It said the review "shows little understanding of the purpose of a national collection and contempt for NFTVA staff. It underlines a disturbing lack of knowledge about current practices at the NFTVA, other archives and commercial companies."

The British Film Institute insisted yesterday that its opponents were mistaken. A spokesman said budgets were set to rise, not fall. Expenditure on the archive was to be increased by £8m over the next five years, meaning an extra £1.4m this year on top of an original budget of £3.2m.

But there will be job cuts. The BFI has already saidstaffing levels are to be cut by nearly a fifth by 2007 from the current level of just under 500, and the archive will take its share of redundancies. The institute also says it is considering how to prioritise the conservation efforts on the basis of cultural significance.

Anthony Minghella, the BFI's chairman, has stressed the importance of the archive. "This is the most pungent record we've ever had for understanding our history," he said.

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