The BFI Southbank: In Glorious Technicolor

It’s Hallowe’en Eve and I am waddling along the South Bank in killer heels. With all the finesse of a giraffe, I weave through teenage witches, ghouls and monsters. All laughing, cajoling and hyper, they congregate around the London Eye like a gathering of horror movie nightmares.

I’m on a quest tonight to delve deep into the audiovisual Aladdin’s cave that is the BFI Southbank, now in its seventieth year as a registered charity.

As a former university librarian and film undergraduate, I feel like the proverbial kid in a candy store, excited at delving into the British Film Institute’s archives, gorging on the visual feast of stills, posters, scripts and plasma screens. Gothic cinema, film noir, documentaries. I love them all.

The BFI’s “Mediatheque” houses a national archive of 2,500 film and television titles from 1895 to the present day. I am told by Monica, Mediatheque’s visitor experience officer, that I can spend two hours free every day with headphones in a slick grey booth choosing titles from a database on my very own private screen. Great, I think, as I scroll down wide-eyed at the roll-call of cult classics, documentaries and comedies. I can rewind, fast-forward or pause frames. If only real life were that simple!

I am here to seek inspiration, away from the small print of dusty television books piled up around dog-eared, illegible university notes. Essay number two for Television: History and Future is looming large. This entails contrasting and comparing fictional and real families through reality TV and soap land. I need to stop thinking about pantomime baddie JR Ewing and his flamboyant stetson hats, and start focusing on material from a wider network of televisual styles.

I get distracted by the heavy stream of titles online; alternating between being teary-eyed with smudged mascara at David Lynch’s black and white cult classic The Elephant Man, then guffawing loudly (much to the disgust and heavy eye-rolling of my fellow film and media aficionados) at the deliciously un-PC Kenny Everett Christmas Show, “all done in the best possible taste!”. I am not immune to a bit of childhood nostalgia, marvelling at the short animation Mr Benn – a single guy about town who has enough time away from work to go into a magical fancy-dress shop, indulging in his own fantasy world. It’s an idea I can warm to away from early museum shifts and screaming schoolchildren in South Kensington.

Moving through the heavy glass door to the BFI Reuben Library, I am confronted with an enormous archive of film and media resources.  It has a collection of two million images, complete with scanning facilities, and a variety of databases with stills, designs and special collections on famous producers. The library is lined from ceiling to floor with encyclopaedias, directories, picture books and DVDs, with two private study areas to work on research. The only personal disadvantage as a Monday night Birkbeckette is the closure of the library on that day.

Annual membership of the BFI is £45 which includes free member-only screenings and priority bookings for all films, events and festivals. Flashing my Birkbeck ID to the box office staff, I receive my discount, paying only £7 to see Nosferatu in the studio, as opposed to the standard price of £11. Succumbing in darkness to the creepiness of the vampire, against the loud soundtrack, I know that I have got my fright for the night.

It has been worth suffering aching limbs and sore eyes, the discomfort softened by a large rosé at the  Anterim bar with soothing jazz vibrations permeating the air. All in all, this vibrant, clean and modern institution is a must for film lovers with friendly, helpful staff and sumptuous views of the South Bank.

Lynsey Ford

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