A few years ago my wife and I had the great experience of attending a rare screening, at the National Media Museum in Bradford, of the only surviving print in the world of The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm in Cinerama. Cinerama was the 3D IMAX of its day, using three projectors to screen an immense, immersive image on a huge curved screen. When I first saw in the film in 1962 I was just eight years old, and the Cinerama experience instilled a love of the big screen spectacle that’s never left me. I don’t mind admitting that there were a few tears in my eyes, that day in Bradford…
A few weeks ago we watched Black Panther: Wakanda Forever in the excellent surroundings of the new Montrose Playhouse cinema, and that magic was rekindled again. There really is nothing quite like seeing a movie as it’s meant to be seen, in comfort, on the biggest screen possible.
So, back in 1994, when, as the head of a small cultural development agency called Highlands and Islands Arts (HI-Arts), I was asked to lead the development of a mobile cinema service for the Highlands, I jumped at the chance. At that time, the plan had been for the service to be run by the Council—our role was just to develop the technical plans and secure the funding from the new National Lottery. But then Local Government reorganisation happened, and the newly formed Highland Council was in no position to start running a mobile cinema, and so little HI-Arts had to devise a way to deliver what was now called the ‘Screen Machine’ to as many small and remote communities as possible.
We were fortunate that one of the first two Screen Machine Operators we recruited was a certain Iain MacColl, though I don’t think either he or I could have imagined, when we ran our first ever film in the Screen Machine in 1998, that the service would still be running almost 25 years later, and that both of us would still be involved. That very first screening was of Armageddon, and our chief worry was the amount of noise spillage outside the Machine—but then, ‘Armageddon’ was probably the loudest film that had ever been made, up to that date!
The first Screen Machine was a popular success, leading to two such mobiles cinemas being commissioned in Ireland, and one by the charity which provides entertainment services to the British Armed Forces. But SM1 was a prototype, with all the technical issues that that implies, and so, in 2002, Iain and I took the decision that we had to fundraise for and build a second, replacement, Screen Machine, this time built by the experts in the field, Toutenkamion. SM2 launched in 2005 and is still on the road more than 17 years later, and as popular—post-pandemic—as it’s ever been.
In 2008 HI-Arts was asked by the then Scottish Screen to set up a new agency, which became Regional Screen Scotland, and we transferred ownership and operation of the Screen Machine to that new agency, including the two Operators. HI-Arts was finally wound up in 2013, and I worked as a freelance for a couple of years, but when I saw that the job of CEO of Regional Screen Scotland was up for grabs, I didn’t hesitate.
More than forty years ago I had worked in the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow (what’s now the CCA) under a visionary, if maddening, Director, Chris Carrell. Chris had a concept of outreach, engagement and inclusion that was decades ahead of its time. The experience of working there instilled in me a deep-seated belief in the value of arts and culture in communities, and my work at HI-Arts and as a freelance had only strengthened that conviction. So, I saw the chance to start to reshape RSS as an agency focused on the value and importance of local and community cinema, with the Screen Machine as its flagship and exemplar.
I’ve been incredibly fortunate that that vision has been shared, and shaped and developed, by a truly marvellous team, and a hugely supportive Board. Whether it’s been attending a Shinty Memories screening in the Screen Machine in Newtonmore, being at the first ever screening in the new cinema in Cromarty, or meeting with local groups at a networking event by the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, my belief in the power of cinema has been constantly renewed. With the multiple challenges that our communities face today, I think cinema is needed more now than at any time in my lifetime.
Although, living in a village in the Highlands, I was lucky to have what could be called a ‘good’ pandemic, the experience still made me think about the future, and I decided it was a good time to step down as CEO, and hand over to someone who could bring a new energy, and new experiences, to the job. I’m absolutely delighted that Hazel Wotherspoon will be taking over in January, as I think she’ll be ideal in the role, and I’ll be staying around for a few weeks to help ensure a smooth handover, before finally taking Voltaire’s advice, and heading off to cultivate my garden!