Standing up on my own in front of grown ups was never my favourite: a few months ago, the circus came to the village where I live in the Scottish Highlands — the Las Vegas Circus, straight out of County Cork — and I was winkled out from under my seat by the clown and made to play a very, very, very small violin and dance in front of my neighbours.
It’s been the gift that’s gone on giving all summer for anyone of a mind to come up behind me in the chemist’s and tell me they reckon it’s about time I went to muck out the elephants…
I am a BFI baby, dyed in the wool.
This was the circus I ran away to join.
It is an honour and a privilege to stand here and wave a balloon on a stick for my old alma mater.
I owe the very fact that I have spent the last 32 years making cinema directly to her.
The first film I ever made, and pretty much the next handful, were produced by her.
It was the BFI that championed the cinema and its makers that I was first drawn to work with.
She designed the cine-kindergarten in which I built my first cine-sandcastles, gathered together my first cine-partnerships and lifelong friends.
She has my love and support ad infinitum, per adua ad astra etc etc etc.
I went to the archive at Berkhamsted a few weeks ago.
No cine-nerd Aladdin could imagine what endless booty is cherished there.
The magical specialists who operate this phenomenal machine, part forensic scientists, part surgeons, part couturiers, part alchemists, deal in proper archaeology there: our roots, the foundations of our house.
Amongst it all, there was one particular treasure waiting for me.
In between Dirk Bogarde’s script of Song without End and Emeric Pressburger’s notes for unshot scenes for my favourite film of all time — the peerless I Know Where I’m Going — there was something I know very well indeed, inside out.
Derek Jarman’s sketchbook for Caravaggio.
A scrapbook stuffed to the gunnels.
Pasted and drawn images.
Printed snatches of dialogue.
The hieroglyphics of Derek’s blooming brown handwriting everywhere.
As fresh as the day.
A rose I had given him pinned like a butterfly on the open page.
A list of telephone numbers — mine included — 352 6638 — on the first leaf.
Part lucky charm, part cinematic shopping list, part family album, wholly personal and unique.
Reliable booster jet, starter motor, invisible friend: Caravaggio was a film produced by the BFI.
It went on to win the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival of 1986.
Caravaggio was that first film I ever made.
All those years ago, like most young animals, I knew more of what I didn’t want to do than what I did.
I knew, after two years of trying it out in the theatre, that I was definitely not interested in being an actor, that I longed to work in a team as a technician, and, having kept myself comfortably on my winnings from two flat seasons, that I had an ability to pick winners and live rough in between them.
I was pretty much set on becoming a cinema usherette in the Lumiere in St Martin’s Lane when I was invited to tea with a filmmaker called Derek Jarman.
I went to meet Derek in his flat on Charing Cross Road; he sat me down, handed me a photograph album, black-painted with gold leaf inset on the cover and said:
“Here’s the film”.
Not, “Here’s a treatment for the film I hope to make”.
Here’s the film.
That book is not — in fact — an artefact.
It is not a relic, for worship.
IT IS A USEFUL THING.
A perpetually useful thing.
It is a battery
No less now than when it joined together the pirate band we worked with and held, for us all, the code: it was our lexicon, it defined our language for the months we worked together. But, it’s humming, still. Ready to fire up the next wave.
Over nine years, I made seven films with Derek. Each of them began with the blacking and the gilding and the opening of a new bound book. During shooting, the book would sit on his director’s chair with of a sense of benign surveillance, frequently consulted, available to all-comers. Our collective pacemaker.
“Cinematography, a military art. Prepare a film like a battle”.
Many of you here tonight have never made a film, some may yet, many more may never and wouldn’t want to try.
But even those of us who have made even many, wonder from time to time how such a thing as a film is ever made.
We have legions of filmmakers amongst us always and everywhere. Many are selling us coffee or insurance or any number of things while they pay off their student loans. Some may just have been pouring you your wine. Most of all the above will have the drafts of their screenplays on their phones.
Believe me, they will all be asking themselves this question pretty much incessantly: how is a film made, how can MY film be made?
The answer is, I suggest, YOUR WAY.
There is no formula but that.
The BFI — and the brilliant and passionately dedicated people who serve us all by running it — know this and have always known this: their support for the authentic voices of its filmmakers helps to build our — authentic — culture. And maybe, our sense of — kaleidoscopic - identity.
Certainly a properly awake, informed and clear-eyed future, surely more valuable to us all by the day in these eye-rubbingly myopic times.
This much I know:
Art is not a luxury.
Film is history
History is context
Context is perspective
Without context we lose our bearings. Without perspective, we lose our way.
The BFI is not about profit motive or wealth creation.
It’s about the voices of our next generations, inspired and encouraged and informed by ours and those before us — now over a hundred years worth of encouragement — to film the world around them, weave the shapes of their narratives and what they see through their own eyes, standing in their own shoes.
The BFI is a charity: if you support us, we will support them, we will develop this reliance on the examples of the nerve of their forerunners to point their cameras on whatever they saw in front of them, whatever they saw inside.
We will support and encourage them to know that…
They know best.
That the most precious things they will need, they have already,
That the films they envisage are rooted everywhere, not only in the checking accounts of the industrial professionals, nor the province of Holly or Bolly or any other distant wood.
And we will champion and embolden them to define and stick to their guns, to hold their heads high, draw their tribe around them.
Buy the albums, gild the covers — or fill the Silvine notebooks, or work out how to operate the latest generations of Final Draft — and in every case, write down the telephone numbers of their comrades and get to work.
When I asked myself this morning what it is — simply — I can bring to you tonight to cajole you to join with us, dig deep into your fabulous, rocking pockets and help fund the future for the British Film Institute and all her works, it was this double image of the wine-pouring filmmakers amongst us and Derek’s living, pulsing, ever pop-up example of spirited do-it-yourself that burned brightest in my mind. They are one and the same.
The BFI holds both the past and the future in the same gesture of reverence and respect: films getting made by inspired individuals need company, need context, need the embrace of knowing just how many ways there are to screw in a light bulb, skin a cat or prepare for battle. The archive builds the house: our filmmakers — past, present and future — light it up.
Thank you sincerely for your fellowship and your invaluable support. The high seas of historical witness beckon us and we have serious rigging to do. But the crew is manifold and beautiful and champing at the bit.
Long live the lightship BFI and all who sail in her. Film Forever. Love to everybody.