Former BFI governor’s appeal for public debate

A recent letter to Amanda Nevill from Ray Deahl, who was BFI member governor from 1996-2003, is posted below. The letter makes an impassioned appeal for public debate about the issues facing the BFI, and the direction taken by the present management. While it’s an expression of Ray Deahl’s personal opinions, many of the comments on the current situation and management style are perceptive and informed, and echo criticisms from other sources. The letter supports change, and recommends that the UKFC’s control of the institute be reconsidered.

June 30, 2007

Amanda Nevill
British Film Institute

Dear Amanda

Thank you for your letter of May 31 (received June 11). Sadly it only increases my fear that we are witnessing the BFI’s decline and fall.

First the money – agreed, we don’t have enough. The year-by-year standstill and effective cut in a grant that was inadequate in the first place is a national disgrace. The Archive is, of course, a special case, and I’m glad to see the urgent need for funding receive some much-needed publicity. Furthermore the whole question of the BFI’s status within the Arts needs reexamination – its placement inside the commercially-oriented Film Council proves that film is still not recognized as the equal of theatre, art and music. Surely, it is now time for a new campaign to get the BFI restored to its former autonomy with direct funding from the Arts budget.

But in the meantime it is vital that we stop squandering our limited funds on vanity projects, consultants and external agencies, and take a hard look at an expensive top-heavy administration. We need to start using the surviving in-house talent, and concentrate on the core activities that the BFI exists to support – the preservation of film and materials related to it (the Archive and the Library), the experience of film in its intended form, in an theatre projected on to a big screen (the NFT) and the knowledge and appreciation of the art (Education).

As a public body, it is hard to argue the case for any taxpayers’ money, let alone substantially more, unless we can demonstrate that we are still striving to fulfil our remit, and are managing our funds effectively.

Recent history serves to show the contrary. The Southbank space could easily have accommodated an NFT4, even NFTs 4 and 5, leading to a wider repertoire and increased revenue – ideas supported by the NFT management, staff and members but rejected by Stephen Street. There would still have been space for a mediatheque, store et al, and all this could have been achieved at a reasonable cost by much of the overall design and planning being done in-house. Instead, we have a large area of wasted space, an art gallery that has only a spurious connection to film, a studio with its technical facilities deliberately restricted to make it unsuitable for film presentation, and a pricey bar and restaurant of little benefit to moviegoers with limited time and money. The Filmstore disappoints with its limited range of publications and dvds, most of which can be bought more cheaply elsewhere. The mediatheque is the best part but unnecessarily cramped. And the much-trumpeted new front door is almost invisible – most people walk past. Publicity and a great deal of spin may have led to a successful launch and a favourable press, but it won’t last. Most members and dedicated moviegoers see it for what it is – a lost opportunity.

Even worse, the inadequate management of this entire project, with frequent changes in specification, led to a massive overrun and calamitous additional cost when the BFI is struggling to make ends meet. At the same time we have increased our running costs by bringing in extra staff in order to provide free services. This might be justified in the case of the mediatheque, even if we cannot really afford it, but what business have we employing a Head of Exhibitions?

And, when we’re short of money, it is clear that we have too many chiefs and not enough indians. The BFI was previously organized on the basis of its core activities with three divisions – the Archive, Exhibition and Education, plus an executive unit. I have never understood why we now need eight divisions (with eight highly-paid directors) and why the Archive and Education are relegated to second-tier activities within one of them, while cuts in the lower ranks are imposing unfair burdens upon those that remain. These staff are not well paid, and the gulf between top and bottom is a classic recipe for disharmony and low morale.

Yet we have been happy to pay the fees of consultants and other external agents, who do not understand the BFI and the nature of cinema. And what do we get? – expensive rebranding, an awful new logo celebrating lack of focus and irritating lens flare, the death of a world-famous acronym, a muddled and confusing new guide to replace the well designed programme booklet, and a new schedule that results in members getting the guide after the priority booking date!

The help and advice of those who have the experience of doing the job is rejected. Consultation, if it takes place at all, seems to consist of telling staff of management decisions and regarding dissent as a negative attitude that can lead to dismissal. The views of members are totally ignored.

A matter of major concern is the film programme, which has been slowly deteriorating over the last decade, and has become increasingly subjective. The richest period of cinema, the studio years of the twenties through to the fifties, is massively under-represented, major directors and actors are neglected, and key genres like the musical noticeably absent while a limited selection of extremely familiar titles are forever recycled. And programming is effectively restricted to two auditoria by extended runs, which have no place in a national cinematheque, especially in the case of new pictures that also play at other venues.

We may have had worthwhile seasons (Hawks, Cukor, Lombard) but they’re becoming rarer. Now the alarm bells are ringing out – a multitude of itty-bitty slots including The Flipside (mostly trash) and the pointless LGBT screenings as well as music events and artists’ videos that are better suited to the ICA or Tate Modern. In fact, there now seems to be a not-so-hidden agenda to turn BFI Southbank into an amalgam of those two institutions. This is not what the BFI is given public money to do.

Just look at the August guide. We begin two-month seasons of Laurence Olivier and Andy Warhol. One might think that Olivier, one of this country’s greatest actors, deserves a major retrospective – instead we get about one third of his screen work. Yet, for Warhol, it’s the complete works. This is reflected on the front page of the guide – Andy Warhol headlined in big print, Laurence Olivier in small type underneath – if only he’d had the genius to shoot five hours of Hamlet asleep!

To top it all, page 39 of this same guide has to be seen to be disbelieved and makes it unfit for anywhere but a licensed sex shop. Bad enough that it has already been sent to members (isn’t it an offence to send this sort of material through the post?) – it must not be placed on open display at the BFI Southbank and other venues.

No wonder worldwide respect for the BFI continues to evaporate, and longstanding members desert us. The monthly members’ forums were terminated at the end of last year, and, when Southbank staff are briefed that the BFI “is not interested in the current membership”, it can only get worse. There is a badly-flawed notion here that in order to attract every singly minority group and cater to the youth market we need to dumb down, and it would appear that this is being used as a convenient excuse by management to pursue its own non-film interests. But it just isn’t true that the young won’t come to old movies, and in any event it is the role of the BFI to proselytize. It is significant for example that, while the NFT has reduced its screening of silent pictures, the Barbican now lays claim to being the home of silent cinema, and is selling out these performances in advance, and to as many youngsters as old-timers.

Respect for cinema, and objective and imaginative programming will get the defectors back and improve attendances. Marketing that shows an understanding of the purpose of the BFI and a knowledge of cinema and of film history will build audiences and increase revenue.

I’ve dwelt at some length on the problems of the Southbank because it is only on the big screen that the creative art of the motion picture has its true fulfilment, but of course continuing preservation and restoration of film by our own and other archives is vital and needs massive funding. Which is why I believe it needs the exposure of public debate.

Related to this is the fate of the BFI Library. This is a vital reference and research facility for old and young both in academia and the industry, and never forget that this is not just about its collections but the invaluable knowledge and expertise of its staff. It must remain in the BFI and in a central London location.

I am not against change, and there is much in the BFI that needs changing, but it must be achieved without losing sight of why we exist. In fact, much of what the BFI is now doing would appear to contravene its Royal Charter, and jeopardize its future. On the other hand, if we are true to the cause and win back the respect we have lost, then we can stand on the rooftop and shout for the money.

We have loyal and dedicated staff. Talk to them and listen to them. They will tell you what needs to be done, and what works and what doesn’t.

You ask for our support, and have said that you value the contribution made by former governors during our time on the Board. Regrettably you do not seek our advice. I still endeavour to promote the BFI and encourage people to join, but am finding it almost impossible to defend its policies to disaffected existing and former members – and I’m not just talking about those of my age, sex or ethnic grouping. My heartfelt letter of November 16, 2005 which I addressed to the entire Board expressed my concern at the direction in which the BFI was headed. Yet, even as a former governor with seven years’ service, I was not afforded the courtesy of a reply nor even sent an acknowledgement of receipt. You subsequently cancelled our meeting scheduled for December 15, 2005. For the last eighteen months I have tried in vain to get a new date.

In spite of the desperate tone of this letter, ever the optimist I like to believe that it is still not too late to save the day, and ask you to accept my comments in the spirit of friendly advice. I really want to help, but with the clock at one minute to midnight there isn’t much time.

Most sincerely

Ray Deahl

copies to Anthony Minghella
Lizzie Francke
Leslie Hardcastle
Stephen Frears

6 thoughts on “Former BFI governor’s appeal for public debate

  1. While I respect Mr. Deahl’s institutional expertise, it is hard to take seriously a letter that uses a racist slur, bases its rationale on aesthetic judgements that are openly homophobic,, and can conceive of no place at the BFI for experimental cinema and film-related arts.

  2. BFIwatch does not support racism, homophobia or any form of social exclusion. We do believe in open discussion, transparency and participation, and the rights of stakeholders, institute staff and anyone else with an interest in the future of the BFI to have their views heard and respected — a position evidently not shared by present BFI management.

  3. Though Ray’s blatant homophobia should certainly be noted, we shouldn’t censor or ignore what Ray has to say, and indeed everyone should participate in the debate. This is my contribution to the debate:Ray Deahl, whether he’s on the inside pissing in, or on the outside pissing in, doesn’t represent any kind of way forward for the BFI, because he’s a blinkered, self-interested fogey and a hypocrite.I don’t remember Ray standing up against any of the disastrous decisions that were made during his tenure as a governor. I don’t recall him saying anything about the “invaluable knowledge and expertise of [BFI] staff” during any of our pay disputes with management, or indeed making any expression of solidarity with staff during any of the restructures and tranches of redundancies of the early 2000s. Criticism of the BFI’s current position from so recent an ex-governor can’t really be looked at without addressing the issue of complicity.But if Ray’s personal credibility isn’t an issue, what about what he actually has to say? His points about mismanagement and the South Bank aren’t original, and a good half of his letter is just a predictable extended whinge about the nature of the NFT programme. And in his ‘impassioned appeal’ to Amanda, at a moment of acute crisis for the BFI, he, er, doesn’t mention publishing, which has just been brutally excised from the BFI’s programme of activities.Now is a good moment for critics of the BFI’s current management to join forces in some sort of concerted effort to stave off complete disaster. But that’s about as far as I’d go in any sort of alliance with Ray Deahl concerning a vision of the BFI or even film in general.

  4. Wouldn’t it be great if we all felt the same way about everything. Then there’d be no need for democracy.The roots of the present BFI crisis go back decades, so if complicity (unwitting or otherwise) is an issue, it involves many people, both inside and outside the institute — and not just senior management.So far, it seems that not much thought has been given to working out what kind of productive alliances (as opposed to the rather dog-eared public/private partnership mantra) might be made to avert the disaster facing the BFI. The union Amicus put forward a useful strategy mobilising their political contacts, and the public forum on screen heritage at Roehampton University on 22 September is looking to find common ground between participants. How successful these initiatives are depends on the support they receive.

  5. I’m all for alliances — we need all the help we can get. But what do we actually want? Personally, I will stand shoulder-to-shoulder without reservation or issue with anyone who agrees with the following four demands:1) The immediate resignation of Amanda Nevill as director2) All redundancies and TUPE plans to be rescinded3) Emergency funding from the Film Council to maintain current BFI activities4) Meaningful negotiation with the relevant trades unions on all future aspects of restructuringand that includes Ray Deahl.

  6. Deahl’s comments might carry more weight if he offered some constructive way forward instead of just attacking Nevill and current plans. As for his attacks on the programme just because it isn’t his vision of what should be shown doesn’t mean that it appeals to new and younger audiences. There’s a place for Olivier, Warhol and LGBT programmes to reach to all audiences.

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