Aviemore and Inverness are very different places in which I attended very different events. In Aviemore, a small town in the Cairngorms National Park that caters to tourists interested in outdoor pursuits, I was lucky enough to be able to be at a birthday party to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Screen Machine, the mobile cinema that is my host while I’m in the Highlands. Forty miles northeast of Aviemore, in the beautiful city of Inverness, I hosted the second film screening of the Cultural Memory and British Cinema-going project’s tour of Scotland. Both events were thoroughly enjoyable and reflected different aspects of Scotland’s cinema heritage.
After arriving in Aviemore in style, perched in the cabin of the articulated lorry that hauls Screen Machine’s folding auditorium across the country, I checked into my hotel and got ready for the party. I wasn’t sure quite what to expect, particularly as I was to be something of an outsider in a pre-existing network of colleagues. The evening brought together all sorts of people connected to the Screen Machine in a variety of capacities. I met funders, mobile cinema designers, the wonderful organisational team who made my visit possible (thanks Jon, Fiona and everyone else!), the delightful mother and daughter ushering team of Anne and Sorcha Monk, and many more besides. It was really great to be able to see the hard work and dedication that it takes to keep the Screen Machine on the road being recognised and celebrated. As I’ve seen first-hand over the last week, this team provides an invaluable service to the remote communities that the cinema visits, bringing the magic of the silver screen to places where it isn’t otherwise available.
However, it takes more than dedication to make such a project work and, in this era of budget cuts and belt tightening, this precious resource needs support more than ever if it is to survive for another 15 years. It is expensive to keep a vehicle of the Screen Machine’s size on the road, and perhaps increasingly so as fuel prices continue to rise. I can easily imagine it becoming difficult for funders to provide the necessary money for a project such as this over the coming years. That would be a great shame indeed, not least because alternatives, such as using existing public buildings as screening spaces, would risk losing the wonder of the cinema visit. As the questionnaire responses our project is receiving are starting to show, people don’t just go to the cinema to see a film. They go for the unique character of the experience itself. Making a special trip out, the anticipation on the journey there, entering the darkened auditorium, following the dotted lights on the floor down the aisle and sitting on folding seats as the trailers begin to play are all part of what makes going to the cinema such a wonderful event. This is why cinema has survived the arrival of VHS, DVDs and video-on-demand services and it can’t be captured in village halls in quite the same way. Before coming to Scotland I had my doubts about whether it could be captured on the back of a lorry either. I’m happy to report that I was wrong and that Screen Machine really does reproduce the cinema experience in all its glory. I hope that both funding bodies and the public that the vehicle serves continue to appreciate its value so that it can continue to offer its unique service for another 15 years. When the Highlands and Islands Film Guild ceased its mobile cinema activities at the dawn of the 1970s, these pleasures were denied to residents of much of rural Scotland. As Iain MacColl, who has been operating the cinema while I’ve been in Scotland (not to mention the last decade and a half), blew out the candles on Screen Machine’s birthday cake, it was clear that all those involved understood the power and significance of bringing these pleasures back to communities that had sorely missed them. Happy birthday, Screen Machine! Here’s to many more.
The next morning found me on the platform of Aviemore station, waiting for the train that would take me to Inverness and to that evening’s screening of Dr No, the very first James Bond film. I hadn’t visited Scotland’s most northerly city before, but was excited by its reputation as a flourishing arts powerhouse. I wasn’t disappointed. The venue for the 1960s project’s screening was Eden Court, a theatre and cinema in the heart of the city. The cinema’s programmer, Paul Taylor, has been extremely generous in helping us to introduce the project to audiences in Inverness and upon meeting him it became clear that his generosity was equally matched by his enthusiasm for both cinema in general and our 1960s cinema project. Paul and his team at Eden Court worked hard to promote our event and their work paid off. The cinema was packed and I was particularly delighted to see a good mix of people, including those in our target audience of 1960s cinema-goers and those who were far too young to remember the era. Indeed, there were a good number of children at the event, accompanied by parents who were clearly keen to share their love of 1960s Bond films with their offspring. Sharing our work with such a mixed audience and encouraging them to reflect on 1960s Britain, either through their own memories or through what they imagined it had been like, was an absolute delight.
The crowd were kind enough to listen to my introduction to the film and the project without shouting for more Bond and less Jones. This interest in our research was again made clear when, at the end of the film, a significant proportion of the audience came up to me to chat about my research and to offer to complete questionnaires. Many copies were even taken for distribution to friends, colleagues and family members. This was really encouraging and I’m grateful to everyone who came along on such a rainy evening and helped to make the event a success.
I was even fortunate enough to have some audience members share their memories of 1960s cinema-going in Inverness and elsewhere with me on the night itself. We also chatted about Dr No and the extent to which we thought it reflected the supposedly more liberal values of the 1960s. Sean Connery’s voice caused some debate, with questions asked about why his Scottish accent had been obscured and whether this represented an attempt to render Scotland invisible in the film. I’ll be interested to see if this issue comes up in any of the memories shared in the questionnaires that are returned. Perhaps issues of nationality within the UK were more prominent that I had appreciated in the 1960s and perhaps this had an impact on the ways in which films of the era were understood.
This morning I left Inverness behind and spent the train journey to Newtonmore pondering what I had learned about Scottish screen heritage over the previous two days. In Aviemore it seemed to me that Screen Machine had spent 15 years correcting an historical cinema-going catastrophe by bringing movie magic back to rural communities. In Inverness I’d been encouraged to reflect on the ways in which Scotland emerged or was hidden in 1960s British films. I have to admit that these issues hadn’t been at the forefront of my thinking in London when I was planning the tour. I’d chosen to take up Screen Machine’s kind offer of collaboration as it provided a convenient means of bringing the project to communities that it might not otherwise have reached, while Dr No had been selected for Inverness due to the continuing popularity of the James Bond character and franchise. However, both of these choices have unexpectedly thrown up fascinating potential avenues of exploration for me to follow over the remaining two years of the project. One of my favourite things about this type of research is that all the planning that you do for the work cannot help you to anticipate the directions you will eventually take once you begin to speak to audiences themselves. I’m extremely grateful to everyone I have met since I arrived here for showing me that I’d been overlooking some of the more interesting ways in which this country’s film history can be approached, challenged and understood.
Next it is on to Newtonmore and Fort William, the final two venues of the tour. Maybe what I find out there will change my thinking all over again!
Dr Matthew Jones