SETTING THE SCENE”
Lecturer and journalist Ian Haydn Smith waits for the Gibson call.
I usually receive the call in late spring. “Ian,” Roger Gibson begins. There’s a brief pause. “It’s that time of year again. Just sorting out the seasons for the festival. I’ve got Ian Christie doing… and wondered if you would like to give a talk on…” Like Gregory Peck’s suspicion that the comedy roles he was offered only came to him after Cary Grant had turned them down, I always wonder if the talks that Roger offers me are ones that Professor Christie had chosen not to do. (Like Peck with Grant, however, to come second to Ian – an erudite, witty and engaging speaker – has never bothered me.)
I can’t remember when I began giving talks at Chichester Film Festival and, for the New Park Cinema and its excellent education programme. (Both of which are bolstered by a team of committed staff members and volunteers whose enthusiasm is boundless.) No other festival I’ve been involved with has offered me such a wide array of subjects to talk on. It’s too easy with any film festival to play safe –crowd pleasers – but it’s more interesting to shake things up, to present a programme from a national cinema or lesser-known filmmaker, which challenges and delights. Roger’s ideas for festival talks have also been an opportunity for me to delve into other subjects.
Over the years, it has been a delight to see the same faces at the talks, as well as a stream of curious new attendees, attracted by a topic or its link to a film they love. Roger’s introductions set the scene and he’s also one of the first to pose a question. We’ve journeyed through the First World War, various eras of French cinema, and many more. We can attract a sizeable crowd by putting ‘sex’ in the title of a talk, no matter how oblique it is to the topic. But the audience response, no matter the subject, is always engaged – evidence of just how important the work of the festival and the cinema is.
Favourite moments? Watching an audience rapt by excerpts from the films of the Greek director Theo Angelopoulos and the Iranian New Wave. And coming out of an early morning screening of A Farewell to Arms to overhear a conversation between two elderly women discussing – in their words – the ‘erotic charm’ of Gary Cooper. That’s Chichester for you!
Ian Haydn Smith is a film journalist and critic, Editor of Curzon Magazine. He also represents the British Council at film and arts events around the world, and is editor of the annually revised book ‘1001 Films to See Before You Die’. He has regularly hosted BAFTA events, as well as hosting and chairing discussions at the London Film Festival.