Never mind the quality feel the width!
Lawrence Lettice on a film festival with a unique remit, showing films on the screens they were intended for
No doubt everyone has heard of the Edinburgh International Film Festival and the Cannes Film Festival, but has anyone heard of the Wide Screen Film Festival?
This auspicious event (running for 25 years) takes place annually in the spectacular setting of the Science & Media Centre, in Bradford.
It is not as well known as the older, more established film festivals but for true lovers of cinema it’s a real treat; especially aficionados of glorious wide-screen – think Cinerama, Todd AO, Technirama and Cinemascope.
Think also of days gone by when epic productions tended to run for 3 hours plus – not including the Overture and the Intermission (which offered a welcome opportunity to indulge in an Orange Mivvi).
Why Bradford? Well, it possesses the only extant Cinerama screen in Europe and one of vanishing few around the world. In an age of instant streaming and regular downloading, along with attempts to recreate the full cinema experience from the comfort of your front room, this is a passing rare chance to revel in what was once ‘a proper night at the pictures’; something to be welcomed and treasured.
With the lockdown having an inevitable knock-on affect on the entire notion of cinema going, raising doubts and uncertainties as to its future, the existence of a well-loved annual event such as this shouldn’t be ignored but celebrated.
For me, an amateur film enthusiast from a very young age, the chance given to meet, converse (as well as share the odd beer!) with those who have had long, experience and active involvement within the cinema industry, was always going to be an occasion to savour.
It was during some of my conversations with a number of the delegates that I sadly brought up the fact that Edinburgh has never had its own Cinerama screen, the nearest being the old Coliseum in Glasgow.
I first attended the Widescreen weekend back in 2019 not quite sure what to expect, however, what I eventually discovered to my delight was a film festival curated with commitment, affection, and no little skill, by the organisers and embraced with brio by the enthused and appreciative attendees.
What struck me at first, was the sheer undiluted enthusiasm and passion displayed by the people who came along year after year.
Also present were professional film historians, archivists, print restorers and retired projectionists; an assortment of talented individuals from all over the globe, who have all at one time or another, worked in certain capacities within the film industry.
From what I could see, the event was impeccably co-ordinated by Kathryn Penny and her team, who organised the many screenings and lectures with almost effortless precision - their love for what they were doing apparent to all.
For 25 years now, the festival has enthralled and entertained countless cinema devotees. Widescreen purists, who keep coming back for more, I spotted a few familiar faces from my last visit.
Within that vast building in Bradford there are 3 screens: the Pictureville auditorium, which includes the ‘wide smile’ box Cinerama screen. The smaller – but no less comfortable ‘Cubby Broccoli’ screen and the immense IMAX screen.
This year’s opening gala (which included a generous amount of wine & cake – much enjoyed by yours truly!) presentation was a stunningly restored, beautiful print of the legendary epic, Spartacus.
I have never seen this immortal film look so good, with Kirk Douglas’s sturdy white teeth, impossibly, even whiter than I remember. And too, his famous dimpled chin, looking extra cavernous as he battled everything thrown at him whilst taking on the might of the Roman Empire!
One regular and always welcome contributor to the festival’s continuous success and popularity is the marvellous Professor Sir Christopher Frayling. You could post that what this much respected and admired academic doesn’t know about film history, or popular culture for that matter, isn’t worth knowing. F
He is universally renowned as an authority on vampirism in cinema and the history of spaghetti westerns – as well as an acclaimed writer and broadcaster on the arts – but also a warm, witty and intelligent presence throughout the weekend. In person, he is gracious, informed and a marvellous raconteur.
As a ‘scruff fae Leith’, I had to pinch myself that I was not only engaging in conversation with an affable, erudite and friendly professor, but also one of the world’s finest intellectual minds.
I guess what the festival really attempts to do is to revisit and enjoy (on the widest, or wackiest, screens available) many of the best loved classics of the past in their full cinematic pomp – with the best print available at the time, aided by a stunning sound system.
So, if you ever want to immerse yourself in the total thrillingly filmic experience of watching the likes of Ben Hur, The Sound of Music, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The King And I and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in the way they were intended to be viewed.
Bradford, in October, is as close to cinematic heaven as it gets.
Interior and exterior of old Coliseum Cinema, Glasgow