Yesterday saw the first film screening of the Cultural Memory and British Cinema-going of the 1960s project’s tour of Scotland. It was something I’d been looking forward to since I started planning this research trip across the Highlands in spring, not least because it was my first opportunity to ask people who live in rural Scottish communities how they engaged with films during the 1960s, when the nearest cinema was often located several towns away. In this sense, Tomintoul was an excellent place to begin because, as I noted in my last post, the mobile cinemas that once toured this region appear to have stopped coming here in the very early years of the decade, leaving the residents almost entirely without convenient, and perhaps even inconvenient, access to films. I wanted to find out more, so at 1pm I set off to meet the driver of the Screen Machine, Scotland’s mobile cinema, for the event.
In a small car park opposite the whiskey shop on the main street that runs through the centre of the village, I found the Screen Machine open for business. I had seen it before in Edinburgh at the launch of its current 15th anniversary tour, but I still found the sight of a folding cinema auditorium balanced on the back of a lorry in a tiny village on top of a small mountain a little bizarre. After all, the Screen Machine isn’t some sort of makeshift, second best option. It is a fully functional cinema, complete with a ticket office, a large screen, surround sound and digital projection equipment. It is even able to show films in 3D. Comfortable in your plush seat, you begin to forget that village life is carrying on as usual a few meters away. It really is a remarkable vehicle.
However, more remarkable still is the response that it gets from the people who live along its route. Children dash to their windows to wave at it as it drives by, birthday parties gather outside its doors for an evening’s entertainment and people even applaud as it arrives in town. I’ve been struck by the extent to which the Screen Machine is more than just a curiosity. It connects local communities with each other, broader society and, of course, cinema itself. Even in a place such as Tomintoul, which could easily feel quite isolated from the world around it, the Screen Machine provides an important sense of community in a local, national and even, when screening films from abroad, international context. Watching a film here isn’t quite the same as watching one anywhere else.
As I watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s from the back of the cinema, I started to wonder whether there was this same sense of excitement when the mobile film units of the Highlands and Islands Film Guild came here five and a half decades ago. Breakfast at Tiffany’s was certainly screened by the Guild in the 1960s, though I’ve found no evidence that it was shown in Tomintoul. That hardly matters though, since the film still prompted all sorts of memories of the era in the audience. Some had lived elsewhere in the 1960s and had seen the film on its initial release, while others had made special trips to watch it in cinemas in Dufftown or Elgin. The latter doesn’t sound like it was an easy option, with a number of bus connections and walks along unlit country roads to contend with. It was nice to get the chance to chat with a group of people who clearly felt that cinema was worth these troubles, but it also caused me to reflect on all the questionnaires we have received so far from 1960s cinema-goers from London, Manchester, Edinburgh and other urban population centres, where a number of cinemas were within walking distance and the choice of films was broad. In places like these a trip to the cinema seems to have been a reasonably cheap and very convenient leisure activity. In Tomintoul after the Guild stopped visiting, it was a significant commitment that took almost an entire day. In this sense at least, cinema meant different things to people in different parts of the country.
However, further detail on the cinema-going experiences of the people of Tomintoul will have to wait for now. Those who came to see the film took a good number of questionnaires away with them, but I will have to be patient while they are completed and returned. Sadly, many of the visitors had to leave shortly after the screening to make their transport connections (one woman told me that when you are reliant on public transport, you have to make sure you get it when you can as there might not be another service for a week!), meaning that I could only complete one oral history interview for the project. However, this respondent had moved to Tomintoul from somewhere more urban several decades ago. As such, it will be a few more weeks before the precise nature of 1960s cinema-going in Tomintoul is revealed. The hints I’ve had so far from the archives, conversations with residents and discussions with people in the surrounding towns where cinemas were located have been exciting and tantalising, but more is yet to come.
I left Tomintoul this morning and clambered into the cabin of the Screen Machine for my first journey in the vehicle. Iain, who wears the various hats of driver, projectionist and front of house staff member, is both very warmhearted and still clearly devoted to his job after fifteen years. As we made our way towards Aviemore, through stunning scenery and with one tight squeeze past a bus on a narrow road, he told me about what the visits of the Highlands and Islands Film Guild to his village had meant to him during the 1960s. He chose his current job partly as a result of the love of cinema that the Guild inspired in him as a schoolboy. In a few hours time I’ll be attending a party to celebrate Screen Machine’s 15th birthday but, as Iain’s story shows, this is just part of the long, continuous narrative of mobile cinema and its relationship to rural Scotland, which is much, much more than 15 years old.
Dr Matthew Jones