Bristol Arts Centre memories

In the late sixties till about mid seventies, this was the sole Arts Centre in Bristol, and had to cope with both film and small-scale live performances, possibly even ballet. This was the era when you reverently went to see the latest Truffaut, Bergman, Godard, Antonioni, Pasolini etc. All demanding, “serious” films, in lofty contrast to the pabulum and prolefeed available at the Odeon or the ABC etc.

The entrance looked like a normal terraced house on King’s Square, but had an illuminated sign using the same green graphics as on the Programme notes sheets. (Parking was then relatively easy in the square or the surrounding roads!) The place seemed to be run by a shortish, dark-haired chap, in early middle-age, well-dressed in three-piece suit, who meeted-and-greeted punters, and to whom you complained after a Cassavetes movie.

Getting from the entrance to the auditorium seemed an airport walk; as a child, I marvelled at the Tardis-like ability of a small Victorian house to contain such a long passage, not then realising the cinema is remote from the frontage. This auditorium looked then just as it is now. Oh, there was also an usherette, (yes, even for such a small audience!). She used one of those red-glowing-nipple torches, and was attractive young lady, but slightly cast-eyed. The seats were perfectly comfortable, but I recall there was sometimes a slightly unpleasant odour, maybe caused by damp? The place was certainly not air-conditioned then.

As children we were often brought there for weekend afternoon performances of ‘U’ certificate films, often “revivals”, or the odd theatrical piece. I remember a season of cartoons, which were individually introduced by a knowledgeable chap who told you about the director, animation techniques, voice characterization actors, etc whilst the younger tots fidgeted.

I also recall a season of Buster Keaton films; these had just been rescued, in the nick of time, from the horrors of Nitrate oblivion, (or worse, flambe), and copied onto modern safety stock. Enterprisingly, the Centre placed an upright piano on one side of the screen, and engaged an old geezer who had played in silent houses (this was around ’69) to accompany the films. He deservedly got his own round of applause at the end.

By contrast, and moving to the the evening presentations, aimed at intellectuals, my mother recalls one of those pour epater le bourgeois live events, where the guilt-ridden middle-class liberal audience are made to sit on the stage, where they are harangued with Marxist simples by the cast, who “occupy” the seats. My parents also walked out on Dyn Amo (1972) (look it up) a sort of homegrown would-be Warhol movie, mostly set in a strip club. I recall BAC offered a Club membership, permitting them to show WR Mysteries of the Organism uncut, including the infamous plaster-caster scene…

Curiously, I don’t remember BAC ever showing adverts, except, possibly, for forthcoming attactions. Maybe subsidies were more generous then!

A perenially popular art-film presentation was Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop (1971), an early existentialist road movie, with James Taylor, Warren Oates and the late Dennis Wilson. My younger brother wanted to see this film just for the cars, but it was an “X”, so no dice. I, however, saw it twice, and my adolescent sensibilities were jolted by that scene where shy Taylor waits outside a cheap motel room, whilst we hear his companion, Wilson, have sex with a casual pick-up. I saw the Mick Jagger/ Nicolas Roeg/Donald Cammel Performance at the BAC twice, (that one really freaked me out-I finally understood what cinema could be), and other films that just didn’t seem (then) to be getting to TV quick enough, like The Last Picture Show.

This was a different (pre-video) age, and even some ten–year old films had not yet made it the small screen; at least, that how it appeared to a then-teenager; thus, I saw A Hard Day’s Night, Cabaret, Some Like it Hot-overrated, not that funny, Ken Russell’s The Boyfriend (camp but enjoyable, like a warm-up for Moulin Rouge), New York, New York, Sunday, Bloody Sunday, even various Hammer Horrors etc. Some of the first Brit. New-Wave films were also shown, like Radio On, (1979) another existential road movie, very Wim Wenders-ish, with Kraftwerk on the track, and in deliberately-grainy black-and-white. (This film actually starts in London and makes its dystopian way along the A4 to a desolate, hardly-recognizable Bristol, encountering a young then-barely-known Sting along the way!)

Anyhow, I continued to go to the BAC until about ‘81. I think the last film I saw there was one of Truffaut’s late films, aptly titled The Last Metro (1980). A change of name to King’s Square Cinema(?) about this time did not seem to help the Centre’s fortunes; by now the Arnolfini, with its air-conditioned luxury, was the first port of call for most cineasts (especially in Summer) and this, in turn, was rivalled if not supplanted by the Watershed, with its multiple screens-from 1982 or so onward.

John Ounsted     19/6/14

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