27 May 2023
by Jo Molyneux
Large black bird popping out of book.
A pop- up book seems fitting to illustrate the work of the master of suspense. Just one of the BFI's treasures. (© Still from BFI Reuben Library short film)

It can be surprising for some people to learn that the British Film Institute (BFI) National Archive holds more within its collection than just film. Our archivists, conservators and curators take care of one the largest film and television collections in the world and our ambition is to ensure that everyone within the UK has the opportunity to engage with the widest possible range of this collection. Some highlights from this collection are noted below along with links on how to discover so much more.

An astounding invention

The Harold Brown Mark IV Printer

This wonderful piece of Heath Robinson-style equipment was designed and built by the BFI’s first preservation officer, Harold Brown. Made out of rubber bands, Meccano and parts from a Gaumont projector, this step printer was created to copy film which had been shrunken or damaged – Brown’s design has no doubt saved several reels from obscurity. The printer has recently been cleaned by professional conservators and is proudly displayed at the BFI J.P. Getty Jnr Conservation Centre.  It was a star attraction for last year’s Heritage Open Day, under the theme 'Astounding Inventions'.

Strange machine with rectangular frame made of meccano, discs and a workbench.
Made from meccano, this astounding invention has saved films from oblivion. (© Heritage Open Days 2023)

Delicate film prints

Flames of Passion (1922) 35mm film print / dir. Graham Cutts, Graham-Wilcox Productions 

Directed by Graham Cutts and starring Mae Marsh and C. Aubrey Smith, this early colour silent feature film initially shocked critics with its themes of seduction, adultery and infanticide. This was a hit with audiences though and it became the first post-war British film to be sold to America. The eagle-eyed amongst you might recognise this image from the early social media announcements for the BFI Film on Film Festival – this celebration of celluloid in all its glory is being held at the BFI Southbank from 7th – 11th June 2023. Whilst the BFI National Archive holds a print for Flames of Passion, it is sadly too delicate for projection but the festival will be projecting many titles from our collection including some rarely seen nitrate prints.

Section of film negative showing a woman's ghostly face surrounded by flames.
One of the delicate nitrate film reels in the collection, 'Flames of Passion' is now too fragile to watch. (© BFI National Archive)

Brilliant books

The BFI Reuben Library

Did you know that the BFI had a library? Housed in a lovely, quiet section of the BFI Southbank, the BFI Reuben Library has an impressive collection of books, magazines, press books and journals which cover film, television and all things moving image. Whilst the collection priority is focused on the UK, the scope is international. The library collection is incredibly varied but gems include ‘Tinting and toning of Eastman positive motion picture film’ by the Eastman Kodak Company, ‘Alfred Hitchcock: the master of suspense – a pop-up book’  by Cindy Eng & Kees Moerbeek and ‘Bidding for the mainstream? Black and Asian British film since the 1990s’ by Barbara Korte & Claudia Sternberg.

Here is a short film made for Heritage Open Days last year to give a taster of the treasures they hold:

Stunning posters

Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945) film poster designed by John Piper, Ealing Studios

This beautiful poster for the 1945 Ealing Studios film was designed by John Piper and is preserved in the BFI poster collection under the care of our Special Collections curators. To accompany the Blu-ray release of Pink String and Sealing Wax, BFI Senior Curator, Claire Smith, wrote an informative article about Piper and the other artists involved in Ealing film posters, she sums up the evocative style of this poster: “Piper’s pink skyline evokes the sunset world of Victorian England. The burnished hues are also reminiscent of Piper’s earlier wartime sketches, which were replete with smouldering ruins”. As well as film posters, Claire’s team collect and care for scripts, press books, film stills, animation cels and production & costume designs. Some of the treasures within this collection include the production design illustrations for Lawrence of Arabia (1962) by John Box and Gurinder Chadha’s storyboards for Bend it Like Beckham (2002).

1940s illustrated poster depicting a femme fatale in front of a white building and red sky.
Poster design is a true artform, and essential to grab potential customers' attention. (BFI National Archive)

Classics made for TV

The Woman in Black (1989) Television Film / Central Independent Television, Capglobe Ltd., TX 24/12/1989

This made for television film, broadcast on ITV in December 1989, is an unsettling adaptation of Susan Hill’s classic book. Scripted by the master of horror inflected thrillers, Nigel Kneale, it is a wonderfully grainy and eerie visit to Crythin Gifford (the town featured in the novel). The BFI National Archive has been collecting British television since the 1950s and this comes directly from the broadcasters, production companies and individuals. Some of this collection, including this version of The Woman in Black, is available to view for free at our Mediatheque situated at the BFI Southbank.

Silhouette of Victorian lady standing in a graveyard with a tall tree in the background.
TV as well as film is represented in the collection, this still is from an early tv movie of The Woman in Black. (© BFI National Archive)

*Members of our television preservation and curatorial teams will be at the BFI National Archive’s Conservation Centre when we open for Heritage Open Day on Sunday 17th September 2023.* 

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