Highlands & Islands

'Heroic' Highlands and Islands film projectionists remembered

Highlands and Islands Film Guild poster Image copyright The Moving Image Archive National Library Scotland
Image caption A Highlands and Islands Film Guild flyer

A group of academics are recording people's memories of the "heroic" film projectionists of the Highlands and Islands Film Guild and the screenings they put on in make-shift venues across the region.

The guild was set up after World war Two to take cinema to remote locations, giving many people their first experience of seeing the world depicted on the screen.

Their visits were loved by many, but at times they generated controversy.

After securing funding to record the history of the service, the academics will try to recreate the atmosphere of a 1940s show with a screening at this week's Inverness Film Festival.

Technical challenges

During World War Two, the Ministry of Information started sending film projectionists teams around the Highlands and Islands to show newsreels in village halls and other locations.

Although this was for propaganda purposes they proved popular. When the conflict was over the Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society suggested setting up a similar scheme to show a wider range of programmes, including entertainment films and cartoons, in the hope that this cultural offering would help stem depopulation.

Image copyright The Moving Image Archive National Library Scotland
Image caption An audience wrapped up in a cold hall for one of the guild's shows

Screenings of 16mm films were held in village halls, schools and even army huts.

There was often no electricity supply and the projectionists had to cope with various technical challenges as well as the difficulties of travelling to remote locations with all their equipment.

The service was publicly funded showing films that were both educational and entertaining, but the service folded due to financial difficulties in 1971.

'Cold hard benches'

Dr Ian Goode, a lecturer in film and television studies at the University of Glasgow, is leading the team of academics who are working on the three-year research project.

"These heroic individuals went around not just in the summer but in the winter as well to take their film shows to communities," he said.

"There are tales of films being lost overboard on journeys to locations like North Ronaldsay in Orkney.

"There were all kinds of tales about agriculture intruding on the shows such as livestock chewing through power cables.

"The struggle to put on the film shows in whatever spaces were available and the journeys the operators undertook to take the cinema to these communities add to its appeal and the extent to which it is remembered fondly.

"The venues were not very warm and not very comfortable yet people still went along willingly because they knew they would enjoy the film show.

"They were prepared to sit in the cold on hard benches. It was along way from the picture palace of the city."

Image copyright The Moving Image Archive National Library Scotland
Image caption The guild's projectionists travelled to remote places to show films

Dr Goode added: "We want to build an oral history of people's memories who can remember the Highlands and Islands Film Guild while they are still with us and secure their memories for the future.

"The lifespan of the guild running as it did from 1946 to 1971 gives us a chance to assess the first moment of the arrival of film as a medium in these areas and then to assess its decline as other leisure choices became available and the spectre of television appeared on the horizon."

Communities' resistance

A wide variety of films were shown which were often aimed at a family audience. There would be Laurel and Hardy classics as well as contemporary hits like James Bond films.

The guild also tried to show films they thought would particularly appeal to audiences in the Highlands and Islands. Whisky Galore was put on for this reason and was said to have generated record receipts.

For younger people it would have been their first experience of film and it would have been a real treat for children to go along.

However, the film guild and their projectionists were not always seen in a positive light.

Image copyright The Moving Image Archive National Library Scotland
Image caption Memories of the guild's work is being sought by academics

Dr Goode said: "If possible we are also interested in trying to find out about the resistance to the appearance of film in communities.

"There is evidence to suggest that certain families were resistant to it and prevented their children from attending. We also understand that there was opposition from certain areas of the church.

"There is mention of a minister on Scalpay on Harris walking along the queue of people waiting to get into a film show trying to persuade them out of going in to watch the films.

"We want to build up as complete and comprehensive a picture of the response to the film guild as we can. The fondly remembered narratives but also the other side of the story as well."

On Friday from 18:00, a special film guild programme is being put on as part of the Inverness Film Festival at Eden Court, in Inverness, using 16mm projector and 16mm film.

The organisers hope to recreate as close as they can a Highlands and Islands Film Guild programme from the late 1940s.

Dr Goode said: "The room won't be cold and the seats will be more comfortable but we hope to evoke something and get people to come along a share their memories with us."

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