First shown on Tuesday 20 February, 1973, as part of the BBC’s Tuesday’s Documentary strand, The Big Screen is a fascinating snapshot of the ailing British film industry at the dawn of the seventies. Directors John Schlesinger and Gerald Thomas offer an insider’s perspective on the problems of film financing and production, while film sequences trace the life of a typical movie project from inception to premiere, drawing on material shot during the making of contemporary movies including The Final Programme, the David Hemmings-directed The 14, and criminally forgotten Peter Sellers vehicle The Optimists (aka The Optimists of Nine Elms).
At the time the documentary was made, the British film business was in steep decline, with studio space being disposed of as frozen food storage, and admissions down over a decade from 420 to 180 million (compare that to 2016’s admission figures of 168m). Meantime, box office takings had remained static at around £60 million per annum. On top of all that, the economic climate of the nation was one of relentless gloom, and under these testing conditions, film makers still had to go out and pitch their ideas to financiers. Against that background, it’s interesting to reflect on the fates of the productions featured in the programme.
There were high hopes for Robert Fuest’s The Final Programme, with plans for a projected series of movies featuring Michael Moorcock’s character Jerry Cornelius (tipped as a Bond for the new age of permissiveness and computers). It all worked out rather differently, and The Final Programme, now regarded as a cult movie, failed to do the business at the box office and was (according to Moorcock) ultimately relegated to second feature status against the Confessions movie that had started out as its support. (As a wry footnote, the documentary’s editor was one Terry Cornelius…)
Meanwhile, The Fourteen, based on a true story, and directed by David Hemmings, proved that integrity may win you awards (the film received a Silver Bear at that year’s Berlin International Film Festival) but it doesn’t necessarily fill cinema seats. For that, we must turn to the guaranteed box office draw, then as now, of the Bond franchise, and the documentary includes some unique scenes of Live and Let Die in production at Pinewood. Former Bond Sean Connery is also glimpsed at the January 1973 premiere of Sidney Lumet’s uncompromising The Offence, a film described as leaving audiences ‘shaken, but not stirred’.
The Optimists of Nine Elms was a project that had been in development for a long time, with high hopes of its being a starring vehicle for Buster Keaton then, latterly, John Mills and Danny Kaye. In the end, it was Peter Sellers who took the starring role, but he was scarcely recognisable in a false nose, and the movie has been largely forgotten.
On a technical level, film-making today is barely recognisable from the hands-on, analogue processes in use forty-five years ago, although the stages in production remain more or less the same, from pitching the script right through to the star-studded premiere. Interestingly, the commentary suggests that, by 1973, the premiere was being thought of as an ‘outmoded device’. For genuinely outmoded devices, check out the moviola on which David Hemmings and his crew are editing The Fourteen, and the desk of magic markers being employed in the name of poster design. Computers still belonged firmly in the realm of the imagination (and the plot of The Final Programme).
Despite the gloomy outlook, the British Film industry managed to struggle through, though the seventies and eighties would be tough times, and some of the studio buildings glimpsed in the film are long gone, lost to the likes of supermarkets and car parks. But The Big Screen is more than just a historical artefact: it’s a genuinely revealing look at what really goes into getting any movie project on screen.
The British Film returns to Network later in the year.