Cinema memories on tour – a diary from Scotland

UCL History’s Cultural Memory and British Cinema-going of the 1960s project has hit the road! I’m going to be in Scotland for the next two weeks, hosting special screenings of 1960s films and collecting local memories of going to the pictures at a time when the world faced the possibility of nuclear war and humanity took its first steps on the moon.

Earlier in the year the generous people who run Screen Machine, Scotland’s mobile cinema, were kind enough to offer to me the chance to join them on their travels. Bringing the research that Dr Melvyn Stokes and I have been working on to a new audience and inviting them to contribute to its archive of memories was too good an opportunity to miss. We begin tomorrow, 13th September, in Tomintoul, before visiting Newtonmore on 17th and Fort William on 19th. In each of these towns I’ll be hosting a screening of the classic Audrey Hepburn film Breakfast at Tiffany’s from 1961, discussing the audience’s own memories of their cinema-going during the decade and interviewing local people about their experiences. There will also be an extra event in Fort William on 19th September, when I’ll be giving a talk about the project in the town’s library. In addition, I’ll also be visiting Inverness on 15th September to show the first James Bond film, Dr. No, at the magnificent Eden Court arts centre, and Aviemore on 14th for a party to celebrate 15 years of Screen Machine. It’s a packed schedule, but I am thoroughly excited to find out how, and indeed whether, people who lived many miles from their nearest cinema engaged with the films, stars and genres of the 1960s.

Leaving London on the sleeper train

Leaving London on the sleeper train

It is fitting that this section of the project is being run in conjunction with Screen Machine because Scotland has a long history of mobile film exhibition. After an uncomfortable night in a rather cramped sleeper train from London to Edinburgh, I spent Wednesday finding out more about it by delving into the records of the Highlands and Islands Film Guild in the National Archives of Scotland. The Guild had been running a fleet of mobile cinemas for many years by the 1960s, but this was the decade when the arrival of television, amongst other factors, caused a sharp decrease in revenues. By the middle of the decade the Guild was in terminal decline and there was a rapid drop in the number of small towns and villages that its mobile cinemas frequented before it was finally wound up in 1970. I haven’t yet had enough time to properly explore the material I found in the archive, but it is clear that, while the Guild ceased service to many towns, much of the area of the Highlands that I am visiting still received regular screenings up to the end of 1969. Newtonmore and Aviemore, for example, had either one or two screenings every week. Rather than cutting down on the frequency of visits across the board, the Guild found itself in a position where it was forced to withdraw individual cinema vehicles, or ‘units’, leaving the area they previously served largely or entirely without access to films. As a result, places that were lucky enough to still be visited, like Newtonmore and Aviemore, continued to enjoy a frequent service.

On the train North to Elgin

On the train North to Elgin

However, Tomintoul, where I am writing from today, does not appear to have been as fortunate as its larger neighbours. I couldn’t find mention of this place, which lays claim to being the highest village in the Highlands and is nestled in the north of the Cairngorms National Park, in the Guild’s records after 1960. At present I couldn’t say with certainty that this was precisely when the mobile cinema stopped coming here, but that is the distinct impression I got from the documents I have examined so far. I’m hoping to get a little more information tomorrow at the first screening event of the tour, where I will get the chance to meet people who lived here when the village was still on the Guild’s itinerary.

The highland village of Tomintoul

The highland village of Tomintoul

Perhaps they will also be able to tell me about what it was like to have your only access to cinema being reliant on the weather. The Guild seems to have been quite resilient in this regard, losing only 13 screenings to poor conditions in 1966, for example. However, as my taxi driver put it on the way down from Elgin, I wouldn’t trust these roads when the temperature drops.

Dr Matthew Jones

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