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London Screen Studies Collection: bring London’s film heritage to light

Lead researcher: Professor Ian Christie

Funding: AHRB and Film London

The London Screen Studies Collection (LSSC) based in Birkbeck School of Arts has played the key role in centralising, cataloguing and publicising the historic creative moving image record of London in the twentieth century. With the support of funding from Film London and UK Film Council Digital Film Archive Fund, it made a significant contribution to Screen Heritage UK, the £25 million project managed by the British Film Institute. Its ongoing collaboration with Film London has resulted most recently in a successful bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund. In addition, it led to a new exhibition at London Film Museum and a new initiative with a significant collection of historic industrial films in East London.

LSSC started life as the London Project in 2004, a strand within the AHRB Centre for British Film and Television Studies (2000-2005), based at Birkbeck, University of London, under the leadership of Professor Ian Christie. It mapped and analysed how the new medium of film made its considerable impact upon the social and economic life of the city in the early twentieth century (1894-1914), shaping the cultural geography of London thereafter. Hitherto there was scattered research on pioneer filmmakers and on the history of cinema buildings in a number of London's boroughs, but this study involved fundamentally rethinking three areas of ‘film history’ (helped by a specialist seminar at the AHRB Research Centre, Birkbeck in 2003, ‘Film History in Question?’).

A major output of the London Project was its database of cinemas and film businesses in London, 1894-1914. This led to the creation of the London Screen Studies Collection (LSSC), an accessible reference library of viewing copies of moving image material made in or about London. This material is wide ranging and often otherwise inaccessible, covering everyday life and significant events in the 32 London boroughs from the 1930s to the present day.

The collection now numbers over 1300 films on DVD. As well as feature films and TV programmes, it includes a vast amount of footage from local authority archives: amateur films, home movies, film societies’ outputs, public information films and records of civic events. The database remains a work-in-progress. It continues to grow steadily, maintained by Angela English, under the guidance of Professor Christie, and has been supplemented by information sent by users worldwide via email, many of whom are engaged in family history research.

A major supporter and beneficiary of LSSC is London’s Screen Archives (LSA), a network of London-based archives, formed in 2006 and jointly funded by the regional screen agency Film London, Birkbeck, and (initially) Museums, Libraries and Archives (MLA) London. Under the auspices of LSA, Film London sponsored three projects which developed out of LSSC between 2006 and 2010 (Discovering London's Screen Archives, 2009-2010; London's Screen Archive: Network Development Phase 2, 2007-2009; The London Screen Archive, 2006).

A major priority of LSSC has been public engagement with archive films. This has included the following activities:

2007 to 2009: A touring exhibition about the beginnings of London filmmaking, Moving Pictures Come to London 1894-1914, which visited 10 London boroughs from, visiting local history archives and libraries, with over 15 accompanying talks and screenings of local film.

2008-2011: Two DVDs of archive film from London collections, the first Their Past Your Future: London in the 1940s (2008) for a national project commemorating the end of World War II; the second, London Rediscovered: A Panorama of London films from the 1950s (2011), a selection of films from the 1950s from public-sector archives. Funded by Film London and the UK Film Council Digital Film Archive Fund, over 500 copies of both DVDs have been distributed to London’s schools, libraries, local history societies and archives, and community agencies.

2009: London’s Screen Archives YouTube Channel, showcasing archive films, clips and shorts made from 1896 to the present day. By July 31 2013, there were 125 films with over 2000 subscribers and over 750,000 views.

2010-2011: Screening Our Memories, a programme of in-cinema archive screenings, reminiscence and intergenerational events in partnership with Picturehouse Cinemas. Funded by Film London it involved 14 organisations, including Age Concern and a number of arts organisations, and piloted training workshops at various venues in greater London for age care workers and film educators on using archive film to promote reminiscence among older people and people with dementia. A training toolkit (Jenny Davison and Angela English, 2011) is available online.

2011-12: a series of public screenings of London-related films sponsored by Film London and the British Film Institute (BFI), at Birkbeck Cinema, Bloomsbury, Stratford Picturehouse, and Dickens’ London Season at BFI Southbank.

2008 and 2012: a significant contribution to Screen Heritage UK (SHUK), a £25 million project managed by the BFI between to establish a coherent and sustainable framework for the cataloguing, preservation and digitisation of films in Britain’s national and regional film archive collections. BFI appointed Professor Christie as a board member for this project, and for its subsidiary, Revitalising the Regions.

Professor Christie has drawn on LSSC research to co-curate Covent Garden’s London Film Museum exhibition Lights Camera London in 2013. The research also provided the basis for a knowledge exchange partnership with New Media Networks in 2013 to pilot public engagement approaches to Tate & Lyle’s significant collection of historic industrial films in East London (World in the Cube Project).

Internationally, Professor Christie has talked about his research on London film history in Paris (Sorbonne and Forum des Images), in Udine, Canberra, Stockholm, Netherlands (Groningen and Amsterdam) and Lincoln, Nebraska. Finally, the methodology developed in the London Project for LSSC provided the basis for Cinetourist, a new website linking maps and film,.

LSSC is currently part of a major Film London three-year project supported by an HLF grant focused on the moving image history of 15 London outer boroughs. ‘London – A Bigger Picture’ is designed to engage local communities in the capital, to inspire interest and ownership in their local screen heritage.