Bedford Film Society (BFS) History
In the past, commercial cinemas have sometimes been criticised for providing only the most popular fare for the mass market, avoiding more ‘worthy’ examples of film art. The film society movement which started in London in 1925 was convinced that there was a potential audience of ‘people who regard the cinema with the liveliest interest’ who would appreciate an opportunity to see a wider range of films ‘of intrinsic merit, whether old or new’. Arrangements had previously meant that film distributors could not allow commercial cinemas to show many films for single–day screenings but these restrictions were later waived for membership-only film societies which did not sell tickets at the door. The British Federation of Film Societies (BFFS), was established in 1946 and having ‘successfully weathered the considerable changes in the cinema landscape over seven decades’, is now the national support and development organisation for the film society and community cinema movement.
Just after World War II when cinema audiences were at their peak, there were four cinemas in Bedford; John Chetham was running two of these - the Plaza and the Picturedrome. In conjunction with Richard Dellow, a Bedfordshire Times journalist, Chetham used his Picturedrome to show special programmes of ‘Continental’ films on Sundays, bringing these within reach of a Bedford audience. In November 1949, Chetham got together with Dellow, John Turner and others, to found the Bedford Film Society (BFS), now one of the longest established and best-regarded film societies in the UK.
As a non-profit organisation, the aim of the Society was ‘to encourage the appreciation and enjoyment of film as an art form’ by means of lectures and discussions and by showing films of ‘cultural, historical, educational and technical value’, both outstanding films from the past and newer films which had won critical acclaim yet were unlikely to be shown locally in the commercial cinema.
The first season of films – a ‘step towards better films in Bedford’, as one journalist put it - got underway on the afternoon of 29th January 1950, John Chetham having offered the Picturedrome as a venue for monthly Sunday shows; the first film shown by the Society was Four steps in the Clouds, a prize-winning Italian comedy which attracted an audience of 375 who paid 2 shillings (10p) each for a temporary guest subscription; about half this number subsequently took out a full or partial subscription at up to 10 shillings (50p) in the first year.
Films were chosen by the Society committee, often after special viewings of what was available from distributors at the British Film Institute National Film Theatre in London, at other specialist London cinemas or at film festivals as far away as Edinburgh or Cork. From the earliest days, programme notes were supplied to inform the film-goer and enhance the viewing experience and audience feedback was sought to help guide the choice of films for subsequent seasons. In addition to the 35mm films shown on Sundays at the Picturedrome, a programme of 16mm films was soon added; these were shown midweek for a smaller audience, first at the North Beds College of FE (later Mander College, now Bedford College) on Cauldwell Street and later at the Civic Theatre and at Bedford Guildhouse. Diversity was the keynote and both programmes included films from France, Italy, Sweden, Spain, Germany and India as well as those from the UK and USA, together with a classic cartoon or a short feature or documentary.
In 1951, some members of the BFS, not content with just watching films, decided to form a film production unit to make their own documentaries. Later to be called the Crest Film Group, the unit won a Gold Award from the Institute of Amateur Cinematographers in 1954 for River Highway, the story of the River Ouse; another award-winning film – England may be Home – was made about the Italian community in Bedford and local showings were arranged for the best amateur films from around the country.
John Chetham reluctantly brought his Sunday Continental film shows to an end in 1952; by 1954, BFS membership had risen to well over 300, a level that was maintained for the next two decades, although the yearly turnover amongst members was high. For some years the Society had been able to boast of ‘16 films for 16 shillings (80p)’ but, in 1962, the annual fee rose for the first time, set at £1 for 18 shows and still promoted as ‘a bargain’ at a time when a cinema ticket might cost 3 shillings (15p).
When the Picturedrome closed in 1964, John Chetham, who had become President of the BFS, gave the Society use of his Plaza Cinema instead on Sunday afternoons. After that cinema was acquired by the Granada company in 1969, the Society continued to operated from the Guildhouse and from Mander College.
Considering the nature of its formation, it was not surprising that BFS considered itself complementary to the local cinemas rather than being in competition; indeed, the local cinema programmes were listed in the Society’s monthly Bulletin. Neither was television seen as a direct threat although by the late 1950s it was having an impact on cinema audiences and hundreds of cinemas were closing each year. In the early days it was very rare that one of the films that the Society planned to show might appear on TV but this slowly changed ; even then, it was considered that some less popular films that were televised to such a large audience may have served to create interest in the wider aspects of the cinema industry.
Whilst continuing to use the Guild House, by the late 1970s the Society had moved most of its programme to the Civic Theatre when 35mm projection became available there. In 1980, the Society won the BFFS award for the Best Town Film Society and the following year they won a further award for the quality of their programming.
Throughout, straightforward film shows had been supplemented by studio and cinema visits, discussion evenings and film lectures featuring the work of a director or an actor or examining a particular film genre. Many of these were organised by founder member John Turner who later wrote film reviews for the local press.
Guest speakers from the film industry were invited to talk about their work. William Alwyn, film composer, and film producer John Croydon came to Bedford in 1950; the writer Roger Manvell visited in 1954 and, in 1963, director Joseph Losey came together with musician John Dankworth. Later, several film days were also organised at the Civic Theatre or at Polhill College (now the University of Bedfordshire), looking at, for instance, American film noir, Australian cinema or the work of Jacques Tati. There was also co-operation with other Bedford organisations such as the Bedford School Film Society, the Musical Society, the Italian Society, the Historical Association and the Royal Aircraft Establishment, arrangements being made to show films of mutual interest.
Rising costs meant that by 1981 the full annual fee had risen to £12 (for 26 films) but it was soon found possible to show each film on two consecutive nights to accommodate the membership.
1985 was not only the 50th anniversary of the Granada Cinema in Bedford but was also designated as British Film Year. BFS celebrated this in conjunction with Bedford Borough Council with an exhibition at the Library and a special season of films at the Civic Theatre during September of that year, opened by Dame Anna Neagle; Tom Rand, film costume designer, visited Bedford and Philip Strick, the film critic, also came to talk about American film noir at Hastingsbury School. BFS won a Special Commendation from BFFS for its contribution to British Film Year, ‘going further than most in its support’ and organising special events in addition to its ‘regular fine programme’. The same year it also won a Gold Award for consistently good work in bringing ‘the best of film to the general public’.
From 1991, when the annual membership fee was £18, the Society’s programme of 20 films was shown entirely at the Civic Theatre . In 1997 when the annual fee was £26, membership stood at 140.
Films – either 35mm or 16mm, depending on availability – originally came from the distributors as several large reels in metal ‘cans’ which had to be collected or delivered for a specific date and returned in a timely fashion. Skilled projectionists were required and people like Ken Harris and Les Partridge had served the Society well for many years in several venues. However, technology was changing and, at the end of 2006, the Society moved from the Civic Theatre to the theatre at Bedford High School (now Trinity Arts and Leisure Theatre) where they could take advantage of new DVD and Blu-Ray projection. Membership, which had declined towards the last days at the Civic Theatre, began to increase once more.
Whilst cinemas have become ’multiplexes’ which can offer more variety than former single screen cinemas, the proliferation of TV channels, the introduction of videotapes and then disks for purchase or rental together with online film viewing services across the internet, has made home access to films, old and new, so much easier. Although there may be some advantages in viewing a film at home on modern equipment, watching it on the ‘big screen’ as part of an audience can be a very different experience. At the same time, the new disk-based projection technology has made films more available and public showing much simpler and cheaper than when dependent on film reels; as a result, the number of film societies is now on the rise and there are now some 600 film societies and community cinemas of all sizes in the UK.
The aims of Bedford Film Society remain unchanged from those established in 1950 and the Society continues to show films not only from the UK, North America and Western and Eastern Europe, but also from Asia, Australia, the Far East and South America. The Society continues to select its films from special screenings, through quality reviews and from members’ recommendations, showing some ‘art-house’ films whilst meeting local needs by providing a range of significant foreign language films and good films on limited general release.
In 2006, the Society won the BFFS 60th Anniversary Award for its outstanding contribution over more than 50 years and in 2010 celebrated its own Diamond Jubilee, outlasting most of the Bedford cinemas. Membership of the Society currently stands at over 130 and new members are welcome; the society has its own website which gives further details and lists films shown over recent seasons together with their audience ratings.
© Gerry Allen 2013
The author is grateful for informative conversations with former and current members of the BFS Executive Committee including John Turner, Peter Clark, Terry Ferguson, Gordon Whittington and Ken and Linda Cook and with local historian Stuart Antrobus.
Bedford Film Society - records deposited at Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service (BARS):
- BFS Constitution
- BFS Bulletin (1952-55)
- BFS Executive Committee and Annual General Meetings: Minutes and Reports (1949-)
- BFS Film Programmes and Programme Notes (1950-)
- The Bedford Film Society: past, present and future (1997)
Newspapers (available at Bedford Library)
Bedford Record - 3rd Jan 1950 p.10; 31st Jan 1950 p.1; 29th Mar 1955 p.3; 25th Sep 1956 p.7; 18th Dec 1956 p.7; 24th Sep 1957 p.7; 21st Jan 1958 p.7; 19th April 1960 p.7
Bedfordshire Times - 6th Jan 1950 p.8; 13th Jan 1950 p.5; 16th September 1960 p.12; 14th September 1962 p.10; 20th September 1963 p.16; 18th Sep 1964 p.16; 8th October 1965 p.16; 23rd September 1966p.14
Bedfordshire Times - 6th Sep 1984 p.12; 15th Aug 1985 p.13; 22nd Aug 1985 p.13; 29th Aug 1985 p.15; 5th Sep 1985 p.13; 12th Sep 1985 p.12
Bedfordshire on Sunday - 4th March 1984 p.5; 9th December 1984 p.5; 3rd March 1985 p.5; 25th Aug 1985 p.13; 8th Sep 1985 p.5
Bedfordshire Journal - 19th Sep 1974 p.5; 24th January 1980 p.10; 16th April 1981 p.4
Bedfordshire on Sunday - 10th Sep 2006 p.40
Bedford Film Society, ring binder of newspaper cuttings
Other publications (available at Bedford Library)
- A Look at Leisure: Bedford Film Society, Bedfordshire Topic, November 1967
- John Turner. Bedford Film Society: almost 60 years young!, Art’icle Magazine (Bedford Arts Forum), October 2008 pp.42-3
- David Cleveland. Films Were Made: a look at films and film-makers in the East of England, 1896-1996, through films in the East Anglian Film Archive, Vol 2: Local History, (2011) pp. 35-46
- Bedford Film Society www.bedfordfilmsociety.org.uk
- British Federation of Film Societies www.bffs.org.uk
- British Film Institute www.bfi.org.uk
- East Anglian Film Archive www.eafa.org.uk/browse.aspx
Page last updated: 27th Febuary 2014