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I Is for Irreplaceable

I Is for Irreplaceable

The BFI’s new Film Storage Centre, Gaydon. (Courtesy of Rob Ewart).

Like many modern businesses, shopping precincts, offices and pedestrian walkways, the British Film Institute’s new archive in Gaydon, Warwickshire, is equipped with a defibrillator. I see these DIY heart attack rescue systems around a lot these days. Inevitable, perhaps, what with us being a nation of car-driving cholesterol monkeys – run by a government whose idea of adequate healthcare sits somewhere between Ikea and Wall Mart. It was only a matter of time before treating embolisms was parcelled out to plucky amateurs and Quincy enthusiasts. Here at the BFI, however, the defibrillator is more than just a life-saving device. Resting in the front office, next to various film preservation machines, it emanates a powerful symbolic aura. For in Gaydon they are literally and metaphorically keeping our filmic heritage alive.

I put this to site manager Rob Ewart as he took me through the centre’s health and safety procedures. ‘Much like this defibrillator’, I said, ‘you’re rejuvenating the old and decrepit – these films would die without you. Rob, you are a Florence Nightingale for sick celluloid.’

He took my compliment in his stride. ‘That’s definitely better than being compared to a Bond villain’. Rob was referring to the umpteen press articles that had appeared in the weeks following the centre’s grand opening. Everyone – everyone – began their articles with the Bond-villain spiel. The fact that the site is in the middle of nowhere, the building is full of mechanical gadgets, and stands where once the MoD kept its nuclear arsenal meant there had to be a few Hollywood-parallels. ‘Clearly, they’ve been watching too many Bond films at the BFI’, declared The Independent. Tim Robey of The Telegraph was more specific: ‘It looks like a Bond villain bunker – the one from Quantum of Solace.’ With its forty-five degree angle slanting roof and clearly defined row of metal chambers it looked to me more like a cross between a half open ping-pong table and The Titanic. But let’s not quibble over silly metaphors; either way it is certainly an impressive piece of architecture.

The new Gaydon site was completed in January 2012 and has since been stocked with more than 300,000 film reels. So well designed is it, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) awarded it West Midlands Building of the Year. And the above picture does not really do full justice to the cornucopia of mechanical wizardry on offer. Take, for instance, its safety features. Rob carries a hand-held device that detects his every move. If he is motionless for more than thirty seconds an alarm will sound. His colleagues will come drag him off the roof, out of the chilled vaults or wherever else he may be, give him CPR (which they are all trained in) and, presumably, make him a nice cup of tea. And this is nothing compared to the building’s complex fire prevention technologies.

Many of the films stored here are made from nitrate, the standard material for all reels until 1952, and is highly flammable. Stories of venues going up in flames after the spontaneous, or not so spontaneous (projectionists in the old days were known to load films with a fag hanging out their mouth) combustion of nitrate reels are the stuff of legend. ‘Nitrate produces its own oxygen’, says Rob. ‘So it’s incredibly difficult to extinguish the fires. The best way is just to let it burn itself out.’ A fire in the archive could have meant a substantial amount of stock being lost. Not anymore. Each vault is protected by thick insulation and comes with its own metal portcullis. ‘If the worst does happen and one of the reels catches fire one of the giant metal doors you saw on the way in will open up and allow a quick burn.’

As we stop into various offices, Rob gives me the lowdown on the new centre. Perhaps its greatest coup is to have at its disposal technology that allows the films to be stored at below-freezing temperatures (the first European archive to do so). This prevents decomposition and means that films which otherwise would have perished now have a chance to be saved. ‘There’s only so much you can do at any one time’, says Rob as, dressed in thick puffer jackets, we march through the chilled area. ‘Our job is to check films for damage, clean them, can them, label them and, more generally, check the building is running smoothly and that all materials are ready to be used by artists, curators etc. We used to aim for about fifty films per day.’

‘Before this new place was built we used to work over there.’ He points out the window toward a row of drab looking bunkers. ‘They were OK, but the temperature wasn’t low enough to fully prevent decomposition. It meant that we had to prioritise. Some films would be dealt with quicker than others.’ Rob also recounts an occasion when a bunker flooded and a few films had to be junked. The new building has alleviated concerns that this could happen again.

Interestingly, under the old system films were often grouped together by director. Thus there was a Charlie Chaplin section, an Alfred Hitchcock section etc. That is no longer the case. Now Chaplin cans sit alongside amateur efforts; Hitchcocks consort with Hammer horrors. Even the names are slowly being removed, replaced instead by a number identifiable only by way of a database. It may be difficult for visitors to identify their favourite movie, but now that all films can be preserved and treated on time there is less need to create hierarchies/ ‘special’ sections. Perhaps for this reason, one might suggest that the new archive is democratising the archival process. No longer is privilege bestowed on certain ‘classics’ or ‘auteurs’. Rather, every reel is anonymous and thus of the same import – all films are equal under Rob.

If, as has been noted, the building is quite difficult to find, this is for a good reason. It houses a number of valuable items. As well as holding original prints of ancient and classic movies (a film of the 1895 Epsom Derby; Scorsese’s Red Shoes restoration; footage of Scott’s Antarctic voyage etc.) it is also currently in possession of several items of famous film and television apparel. I tried on Peter Sellers’ hat from the Pink Panther movies. Fred Astaire’s Top Hat was there, too. Numerous Monty Python props, a full size Frankenstein model, and James Stewart’s clown suit from The Greatest Show on Earth: would you want any old John robber strolling about the place? ‘There’s also the safety worries’, Rob reminds me. ‘If someone lit a cigarette where they shouldn’t there’s still the danger we’d end up losing priceless material.’ So if the site is a little bit secret, it’s not because Rob and his colleagues are plotting to blow up our world. They just don’t want people like me to blow up theirs. I quickly put my tobacco away.

Finally, and importantly, the bats are safe. Hundreds of the little buggers have been living on the Gaydon site for years. There were concerns that the recent building work had destroyed their habitat, so the BFI built a special house for them. Rob speaks of having come face-to-face with bats, badgers and rabbits. ‘I’d never seen a badger alive before working here; only dead ones in the road.’ Within its twenty-one acres, modern technology and nature can, to an extent, live side by side.

Indeed, there is a certain irony in Gaydon’s new function. Where once the site contained enough nuclear warheads to destroy most of the world, now it provides a more benign, conservatory, function. Films, bats and badgers are all protected here. Rob makes sure of that. And he also knows how to use the defibrillator (you remember, the one I mentioned at the beginning).

So, fear not, courageous film historian, educator, archivist, Bond villain – any who travel into deepest, darkest Warwickshire. Your hearts, like the cinematic wonders upon which you gaze, are in safe hands.

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