Head Curator for the BFI National Film Archive, Robin Baker is the driving force behind the restoration programme to breathe new life into 9 silent Hitchcocks. As the films make their way around the world, Robin reveals the films that have mattered to him most.
Robin Baker introducing Hitchcock in Shanghai in 2013
What’s your connection to the British Council? Any possible future collaborations in the pipeline?
I’ve been working with British Council colleagues in the UK, China, Brazil and Serbia to take Alfred Hitchcock on a posthumous world tour. We’ve been screening his 9 surviving silent films to hugely enthusiastic audiences across the globe. Future collaborations? Does anyone fancy one of the projects below?
What current projects are you working on?
We're currently completing the restoration of one of the most remarkable films in the BFI National Archive - The Epic of Everest (1924). It’s the record of the legendary expedition that culminated in the deaths of British climbers Mallory and Irvine. Filmed in brutally harsh conditions Captain Noel captured images of quite breathtaking beauty. Much of my life, however, is spent working on a Lottery-funded project that will see the digitisation of 10,000 British films - from home movies to adverts to features - over the next 4 years. It will transform our understanding of and access to British cinema. First up will be a number of great, ghoulish, gothic classics…
What/who originally turned you onto film?
I thank the schedulers at the BBC who in the 1970s enabled me to consume old British and American movies whenever I turned on the TV. Unimaginable now. Thanks also to the box office staff at the ABC and Odeon cinemas in Chester who allowed a teenage boy to sneak into grownup movies and fall in love with the work of Scorsese, Coppola and Woody Allen (films that would have been banned on the Baker family TV).
What has been your career high so far?
Everyone at the archive is hugely proud of our restoration work on Hitchcock's silent feature films and their success with new audiences. Hitchcock aside, my career highlight was back in 1999 when I devised and organised the world’s first ever Singalonga Sound of Music with Briony Hanson (now the British Council's Director of Film). It’s great to think that we gave the world drag queens dressed in old curtains and the sweet sound of communal singing in Latin.
What was your first job in the film industry?
I was a volunteer film programmer at the Gantry, Southampton's much-missed arts centre. I learned a huge amount (generally by making stupid decisions) and the experience qualified me for my first paid job in the film industry.
If I knew then what I know now I'd tell you to…
Watch Hitchcock, Powell & Pressburger, Ozu, Ophuls, Hawks, Bergman, Demy, Satyajit Ray, Dreyer, Eisenstein, Fellini, Minnelli, Renoir, Vigo then make your movie.
What is your favourite British film?
No competition: A Matter of Life and Death. The creativity, ambition and romanticism of Powell, Pressburger and their team marks one of the high points of world cinema. Close-run second favourite is the rather more prosaic Parkgate Iron and Steel Co., Rotherham (1901) by British pioneers Mitchell and Kenyon which features the first appearance of the abusive 'V' sign in British film history.
If you could have directed/been involved with any film ever made, which one would it be?
It has been a long standing personal tragedy that I wasn't cast as one of The Railway Children.
What’s the first film you remember seeing?
It was probably Bambi or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. What 5 year old is not going to love movies featuring the death of the lead character’s mother or a monstrous, ballet-dancing child-catcher?
What’s your favourite line or scene from a film?
The shot from The Long Day Closes where we are taken from the balcony of a smoky cinema and transported into a fairground and the heart of the film we are watching. It captures the very essence of being in love with the movies and Terence Davies achieves it with cinematic verve, slight of hand and some considerable emotional clout. Favourite line? Stanley Holloway to Joyce Carey in Brief Encounter: “He’s not a bad lot, Mr Saunders. After all, you can’t expect much spirit from a man who’s only got one lung and a wife with diabetes”.
Favourite screen kiss?
Grace Kelly planting a big smacker on James Stewart's lips in Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Surely everyone wants to be James Stewart, especially in such circumstances.
Who’s your favourite screen hero and/or villain?
Joan Collins as evil Princess Nellifer in Land of the Pharaohs takes a lot of beating. Her villainy knows no bounds; she looks great in an ancient Egyptian bikini and the way in which she meets her nemesis could not be more satisfying, grandiose or perfectly choreographed.
Who would play you in the film about your life?
Michael Redgrave c1938, Gregory Peck c1946, Cary Grant c1957, Alain Delon c1960, Jamie Foxx c2013. Explanations are superfluous. In reality Orson Welles c1980 is possibly closer to the mark.