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End of an era

Pauline McLean | 15:26 UK time, Tuesday, 29 March 2011

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It's fair to say that an era is coming to an end at the Scottish Screen archive, when curator Janet McBain steps down.

To many people, Janet McBain is the Scottish Screen archive: the face on television when a new piece of film is found, the person providing the introductions at special screenings in cinemas.

Originally appointed as part of a job creation scheme, her first task was to sift through the films in the collection - rather modestly housed in a garden shed behind the Scottish Film Council headquarters in Glasgow.

Her second task - every bit as important - was to begin a public appeal for more films.

"There had been a film archive in London since the 1930s and we knew there was a lot of film out there, but I think many of them were loathe to hand anything over if it ended up hundreds of miles away in London," she recalls.

"People were coming forward saying I've had this for years and didn't know who to give it to.

"We just tapped a nerve and loads of stuff came from shelves and attics and factories and cinemas."

Within six months, the archive had 4,000 cans of film and had to move it from the shed into a basement.

Much of the footage was amateur - giving a real sense of Scottish life through the 20th century.

From the Lochgelly pensioners off on an outing in the 1930s to the colour footage from Musselburgh as the whole community sends off the fishermen for the herring season, the strength of the collection remains the real people it features.

That, says Janet McBain, remains the thrill.

"When you go out to give talks and the lights go down and you see people enjoying these films after all this time," she says.

"And to think I had a hand in preserving that film so another generation could enjoy it."

Some films continue to elude her.

Hunting Tower, the 1920s film which starred Sir Harry Lauder has been on her radar since 1976.

The discovery of a short piece of archive showing crowds waiting in Glasgow for Lauder at the film's premiere gives them hope that one day the film itself will be recovered.

A lot has changed in the past decade. Scottish Screen is no more so the Scottish Screen Archive now comes under the auspices of the National Library of Scotland.

The archive headquarters are no longer in the west end of Glasgow, but on an industrial estate in Hillington.

Technology has changed dramatically too.

"In the old days, if someone wanted to see a piece of film, you brought them in, sat them down in front of a Steenbeck player and played them the original film - if it was available.

"Nowadays, you can see almost any film in any part of the world at the click of a mouse.

"Technology has really revolutionised the access we can provide to the collection."

But it's also brought new problems. Video - which makes up a chunk of the collection - is difficult to preserve.

Maintaining a digital film collection will be expensive and time consuming. But Janet can leave that to her successor Ruth Washbrook and the rest of the team.

She and her colleague Annie Docherty - who started on the same day in 1976 - once claimed they'd seen every film in the archive.

Thirty five years later, with more than 32,000 films in the collection, that's less likely but as both leave this week, they can be proud of their role in preserving Scotland's film heritage.

Good luck to them both in whatever they choose to do.

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