Cars arriving at the second London Film Festival, 1958
As beginnings go, it is as humble as it is auspicious. At a dinner party at the home of Sunday Times film critic Dilys Powell, guests including British Film Institute director James Quinn were bemoaning the lack of a film festival in London. From that conversation among (admittedly influential) friends was born the London Film Festival, which launched on the Southbank in 1957 at the BFI’s National Film Theatre (now BFI Southbank).
While the Festival may have grown considerably over the years, since that very first edition it has brought the best in world cinema to a demanding, culture-hungry audience at Southbank and beyond. Indeed, the first film ever to be shown in the Festival was Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) and, of the 15 international works that made up that first programme, nine went on to receive theatrical release in the UK.
Sixty years on, and the LFF is now as devoted to home-grown filmmakers and new discoveries as it is to established masters, and has developed into one of the most essential, diverse and highly regarded festivals in the global calendar. We plot a course through its vivid history.
The Seventh Seal (1957)
Just one day after Princess Margaret opened the British Film Institute’s brand new cinema under an arch of Waterloo Bridge on London’s Southbank, it played host to the inaugural London Film Festival. Crafted by the BFI and original collaborators The Sunday Times (who exited after one year over disagreements about location) to be a ‘festival of festivals’, the LFF was initially dedicated to showing winning films from the likes of Cannes, Venice and Berlin.
While the LFF remained determinedly non-competitive for four decades, in its second year it introduced the annual Sutherland Trophy, named after BFI patron George Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, fifth Duke of Sutherland, to be presented at the LFF to the maker of the most most original first or second feature introduced at the National Film Theatre during the previous year. (In 1997, the criteria changed to include titles screened only during the LFF itself.) Marking the Festival’s international flavour, the winner of the first trophy in 1958 was Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story.
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At the third LFF in 1959, director François Truffaut turned up to the screening of his film Les Quatre Cents Coups without a ticket and unable to speak English. He managed to charm the ushers, who found him a seat in the audience.
In 1963, the Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts based the New York Film Festival on the London pattern but, by the mid-1960s, the LFF’s success had garnered such huge interest in European productions that prize-winners from other festivals were being brought for distribution before the BFI could get the rights to show them. By necessity, the shape of the LFF began to change, and it began to incorporate lesser-known or debut features under the banner ‘London Choices’; the first of these included Swedish director Lars Magnus Lindgren’s Dear John.
The 1960s also saw one of the LFF’s most notorious moments when, in 1968, it showed Godard’s first English-language film, One Plus One, as a London Choice. When producer Iain Quarrier took to the stage to explain why he had tinkered with the ending, the director launched across the stage and punched him in the face.
By the 1970s, the LFF had established itself as the home of undiscovered gems alongside European festival hits; indeed, at the 1970 Festival, only seven of the 28 films shown had secured UK distribution before they spooled at Southbank. And it was at the 1970 Festival that audiences first experienced David Lynch, with his short film The Grandmother, and witnessed Werner Herzog’s verbal altercation with an audience member with dwarfism who took offence to his film Even Dwarfs Started Small.
It was also in the 1970s, as critical and popular interest in independent cinema began to challenge that of European arthouse, that the Festival began to expand both in size and diversity under the new directorship of Ken Wlaschin. In 1974, programmers took the bold decision to show Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which – in line with classification guidelines – had to be restricted to BFI members only. (The same occurred with Walerian Borowczyk’s The Beast in 1975 and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s controversial horror art film Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom in 1977.)
Despite its expansion, the LFF resisted calls for more rigid categorisation; in his introduction to the 1976 Festival, Wlaschin stated that the policy of the LFF was “to show the development of world cinema in an open way without preconceptions”.
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After John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 was shown in the Action Cinema strand at the 1977 Festival, its positive feedback saw it acquire theatrical distribution throughout Europe and the USA, launching Carpenter’s career.
In 1980, the same year that LFF audience members were enthralled by a lecture about the problem of colour-fading given by Martin Scorsese, whose Raging Bull closed the Festival, a screening of Kevin Brownlow’s reconstruction of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927), complete with the Wren Orchestra playing a new score by Carl Davis, wowed audiences at the Empire Leicester Square.
Performances also occurred at more outside venues than ever before and introduced the concept of Festival on the Square, with evening screenings at West End cinemas, and the Surprise Film, which remains a firm favourite to this day. Malcolm’s 1985 edition of the Festival presented 160 films attracting record attendance, and 70 per cent of the films shown sold for UK cinema or TV distribution.
After Whitaker took over the Festival in 1986, the number of programme strands continued to expand and the LFF took up permanent residence in Odeon West End, alongside Southbank, for the entire festival run.
By the 1990s, the LFF had grown substantially to programme a far-reaching range of films across all nationalities and genres. These included controversial releases like Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers in 1994 and David Cronenberg’s Crash in 1996, both of which had to be specially approved by Westminster Council for screening in the Festival.
In 1997 a new team, headed by Adrian Wootton as director and Sandra Hebron as festival programmer, offered up more than 150 features and 70 shorts, with emphasis given to new British works and gala screenings as well as an expanded restorations strand. That year, the LFF had more than 100,000 admissions and, in 1998, the Festival expanded its reach by not only increasing the number of London venues to accommodate a larger number of films, but by choosing selected highlights to screen in cinemas across the UK.
Major filmmakers with debut features in the festival during the 1990s included Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave, LFF 1994), Shane Meadows (Small Time, LFF 1996) and Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides, LFF 1999).
Sandra Hebron assumed the directorship in 2003, when the BFI was integrated into the Festival’s title, becoming the BFI London Film Festival. Significant transformations continued under her leadership, including the introduction of a new standalone awards ceremony in 2009 to better highlight the work of the filmmakers, and included trophies for Best Film and Best British Newcomer, alongside the already-established Sutherland Trophy and Grierson Award for Best Documentary.
The ceremony also formally incorporated the presentation of BFI Fellowships at the Festival. The inaugural awards went to Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet (Best Film) and The Scouting Book for Boys screenwriter Jack Thorne (Best British Newcomer), with first Fellowships awarded to Malian filmmaker Souleymane Cissé and actor John Hurt.
In 2012, incoming director Clare Stewart, who joined from Sydney Film Festival, brought with her some notable changes that have strengthened LFF’s position on the international stage. At the centre was the introduction of a jury-judged formal competition, with awards for Best Film, Best Documentary, Best First Feature and Best British Newcomer. Competitors for Best Film that year included Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Matthew McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths, David Ayer’s End of Watch and, eventual winner, Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone.
The LFF remains a Festival for the public, now screening around 240 features and 150 short films each year from 70 or more countries. To help audiences navigate the plethora of features and shorts, Stewart instigated a new structure to the programme, with films now programmed into strands including Love, Debate, Dare and Thrill.
Since 2010, American Express has been the Festival’s principal sponsor – a vital partnership which has helped expand the Festival’s footprint across London and the rest of the UK. The LFF now extends beyond Southbank and the West End, with screenings in an increasing number of venues, and with Opening and Closing Night presentations now occurring across the UK with cinecasts from the red carpet at Odeon Leicester Square.
The Festival’s industry programme has also expanded in recent years, with more than 150 films now receiving press and industry screenings in addition to public screenings. The Festival has various initiatives which provide development and profile for emerging British talent, and in 2015 augmented its long-running Screen Talks programme with a new talk series, LFF Connects, which focuses on the future of film and how it intersects with other creative industries. Christopher Nolan and Tacita Dean gave the inaugural talk.
In 2015, the Festival championed the works of female filmmakers, with Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette as the opening film and a symposium in association with Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Similarly, 2016’s event will focus on black filmmakers and actors, opening with Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom and taking in screenings of important new and classic works including the European premiere of Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe.
Carey Mulligan, Anne Marie Duff, Helena Bonham Carter and Romola Garai at the Opening Night gala screening of Suffragette at the 59th BFI London Film Festival
Indeed, as it moves towards its 60th event, the BFI London Film Festival manages to remain true to its history while ensuring it is relevant for modern audiences, and continues to look to the future of both filmmaking and film viewing.
Did you know?
Since 2014, it’s been possible to enjoy the LFF experience UK-wide on BFI Player, the BFI’s VOD service, which features a Festival digital channel showing regular red carpet action and filmmaker interviews, and offers past Festival favourites in its film collection.