MACE’s James Patterson bids a very fond farewell to a lifetime in touch with archive film.
“I was never interested in film as a youngster, I never really went to the cinema. My big plan was to be a university librarian”
But it was with a Post Grad Diploma in Librarianship from Ealing HE College gained whilst working at King’s College, London that in 1979, a 25 year old James Patterson landed his first professional librarian’s job as a cataloguer at the National Film Archive at 81 Dean Street and so started his career and lifelong passion for film.
He remembers his first day at the job well…”I was living in Ealing at the time – it was 1979. I got married on 1st September, had a couple of weeks holiday (which included a couple of days honeymoon and a couple of gigs) and then started work at the BFI on 17th September”.
James remembers the BFI as a joyful place to work with great people. The first 5 years were busy at work and home as James and his first wife Lesley had 2 children and moved out to Tring in 1985 from where he joined the commuters. His plan, he explains, had been to move his job to Berkhamsted, but that never really happened.
After 5 years as Cataloguer, James was then appointed Assistant Documentary Films Officer under Roger Witney and then 5 years later he started 10 years as Keeper of Documentary Films. He remembers lots of interesting collections but particularly the very large new acquisitions from the National Coal Board, British Transport, British Steel, Filmatic, Humphries and Universal Laboratories as well as the Inner London Education Authority Library. From 1998 until he left James was also co-ordinator of an £18 million Lottery project – ‘An Archive for the 21st Century’ which saw the appointment of some 70 project staff and the development of new nitrate vaults and clearing the backlogs across the archive
It was the restructuring of the BFI in 1998/99 which brought James’ days at the BFI to a close – or as he politely puts it “I was told my progress had reached an end”. But during his years as ‘Keeper of Docs’ he had also looked outside of London and liaised with the regions. With BUFC’s Jim Ballantyne he organised regional meetings which lead in the mid 90s to the establishment of SWFTA, NEFA and YFA. MACE was also registered in 1995 but lay dormant until, in 1999, James left the BFI and, on a one year contract and a £10,000 pay cut, James started the Media Archive for Central England. He remembers the date he started here too – “it was 14th February 2000, Valentine’s Day ….and it’s been a love affair ever since!”
And so MACE started, on a shoestring with tight budgets and a new funding landscape with the regional screen agencies being established.
So what’s changed?!
James feels, for him it’s a good time to stop – he explains “the endless reliance on project funding tires you out in the end though the challenge of building an archive in these circumstances is always engrossing. And the pressure to ensure the wage
bill is provided every month leaves no time for some of the parts of the job that are best. But also it’s the right time because MACE is in a good place. A great team, a great relationship with Lincoln University, a new database and website and digital infrastructure all coming into place. The foundations are there for a bright new era.”
So what are your best memories?
“Oh, what I’ll remember most are the great people that I have had the privilege to work with for the past 37 years. I don’t really want to single people out but I must mention some colleagues especially Clyde, Elaine, the Rogers Witney and Holman, Anne Fleming and so many others in those happy days at the NFTVA . And there’s all the great team at MACE – especially Richard and, Phil who have been so instrumental in its success, and across the archives all of my great colleagues and friends especially Frank, Sue, Marion and Iola who I have worked alongside for so long.”
James has experienced so many changes in the Film Archive world – it was nitrate all the way when he started and preservation was king. Everything was on cards with no computers at all.
“Now, “ he adds “access drives everything – it’s a different world with endlessly changing technology and the internet. Gosh, that makes me sound like a Luddite! But I’m not advocating a return to those days!”
So what are some of your ‘wow’ moments?
“Oh there are the big discovery moments, you know – finding the 1895 Derby by Birt Acres in a box of bits brought to the BFI by a radio enthusiast must be close to the top.
I remember unearthing a number of Michael Powell’s silent quote quickies in a collection from a greenhouse in Harrogate!
And at MACE being given 1 of only 2 surviving Robert W. Paul Boer War reconstruction films by a gentleman after a screening in Coventry. He had it in his pocket!
But James has never lost the excitement of viewing amateur collections – “the anticipation as you set up the film ready to play on a Steenbeck – that’s what I’ll miss – that moment of excitement as you start to run the film and find what you have. And I’m an old cataloguer at heart – I love the thrill of the chase – of discovering what you have in front of you. There have been magic moments when I have sat at the Steenbeck and just cried because I have been so moved by what I have seen. And to be able to make these things available for people for the first time in years has been a privilege.”
And what now?
James is looking forward to spending some time with folk duo partner John Dipper and plan to record a new album by the end of March. He is also rehearsing with another band and preparing a solo repertoire prior to a busy summer of festival gigs in all three guises. He also has to finish reworking the end of his first novel so he can get on with the next one! “If it ever sees the light of day I’ll let you know. There are not, after all, so many books set in the world of film archives!“ And in between all of that, he and Caroline have just agreed to take on the cultivation of part of the walled garden at Baggrave Hall – a mile or so from where they live.
Asked if he has any plans to carry on working with film in any way, James smiles but answers firmly “It’s been just great, and thank you all for everything…but no! His work and colleagues have been such a big part of his life for so long and he will of course miss us all “Despite looking forward to it and feeling ready and that it is the right time to move on, I am really sad too and know that rather like the death of an old friend I shall mourn the loss of being part of that world.”
James, enjoy your retirement and new life and rest assured you have made an invaluable contribution to the world of archive film for which we are all grateful.