National Film and Television School - In the Beginning

Its Founding Mother and Fathers by Roger Crittenden.

Jennie Lee (1965) by Walter Bird, Courtesy of National Portrait GalleryNational Film and Television School

Perhaps the most undeniable truth about filmmaking is the fact that, assuming you have a decent script, the likelihood of success depends crucially on the casting. In the case of the NFTS there were three choices of individuals without whom it is very  unlikely that the NFTS would have come into existence fifty years ago and still be pre-eminent today.  

The first and least appreciated was Jennie Lee, whom Harold Wilson appointed as the first ever Minister for the Arts in 1964.  

Jennie Lee at Film Schools Conference (1966) by New Theatre MagazineNational Film and Television School

Whilst her role in the establishment of the Open University has been widely acknowledged and her dogged support of the establishment of a permanent home for the National Theatre kept the project afloat, arguably her greatest achievement was to see through the Act of Parliament that established the NFS in 1970.

Jennie Lee Quote (1967) by NFTSNational Film and Television School

She had set the process in motion when she established a government committee to investigate the need for a film school in 1965.  
Jennie Lee's speech at an International Conference of Film Schools hosted by Bristol University in January 1966.

The delegates to the conference represented three constituencies. Those from foreign film schools – either in Eastern Europe or the US and therefore state run or private; those from educational institutions in the UK – usually with some kind of film department;  and those from different branches of the UK film industry – including production, distribution, exhibition and unions. 

Dennis Lloyd Baron Lloyd of Hampstead (1965) by Walter Bird, Courtesy of National Portrait GalleryNational Film and Television School

Some from each of these catchments could expect to contribute to the evidence to be collected by the Committee Jennie Lee had set up.  Most of the delegates would have been ignorant of the ‘distinguished’ Lord Lloyd, whom Jennie lee had persuaded to chair the committee.

Dennis Lloyd was Head of the Department of Laws at London University and a brilliant chairman of the committee managing the disparate elements represented by the members with a jurist’s skill. 

Jennie Lee’s acuity in choosing him was in recognising the need for a neutral person untainted by association with one or other aspect of the film industry or indeed any one educational institution jockeying for   pole position in the supposed competition to house the Film School.

NFS Report of a Committee - Title Page (1967) by Department of Education and ScienceNational Film and Television School

Jennie Lee  would have known that previous attempts to get a representative group around the table to discuss training in the film industry had usually foundered on resistance both to the idea of academic education for a craft based activity and to any notion  that profits from filmmaking should be syphoned off for training. 

NFS Report of a Committee - Summary of Recommendations (1967) by Department of Education and ScienceNational Film and Television School

Frankly getting in to the industry at that time was largely based on who you knew rather than on what you knew. However every other country in Europe, East and West with a substantial film industry had by this time established at least one reputable school. It was in this context that Lord Lloyd and his committee began their work.

Their report that came out in April 1967 was a miracle of common sense and coherent analysis suggesting in surprising detail the nature of the school that was established and remains in place today. 

Beaconsfield Studios (1927) by NFTSNational Film and Television School

Beaconsfield Studios

That committee had two important tasks: to identify suitable premises and to recruit a founding director of the school.  Three sites were identified: Riverside Studios in Hammersmith which the BBC had mothballed at the time, Bray Studios near Maidenhead which was going through a lean time, and Beaconsfield Studios which were by then being used to convert cookers to North Sea Gas.

Riverside was rejected as being too small to accommodate all the facilities the School would require. Bray Studios was badly served by public transport, which left Beaconsfield, which was  available because it had been bequeathed to King’s College Cambridge only to be sold for the purposes of filmmaking. 

Eventually a mortgage was arranged through the Rank Organisation brokered by its then Chairman, John Davis, who happened to be a member of Lord Lloyd’s Committee. 

NFS Report of a Committee - Status of a National Film School by Department of Education and ScienceNational Film and Television School

The question of who should be the Founding Director was related to the hybrid nature of the Institution. It was envisioned as neither academic nor technical. The craft or art of film was to be learnt through practice. 

At some point between the Act of Parliament that brought the school into being and its opening in 1971 the recommendation in the report that it should be responsible to the Department of Education and Science was dropped in favour of receiving Government support directly from the Arts vote and therefore reporting to that Minister. 

NFS Report of a Committee - Jennie Lee Foreword by Department of Education and ScienceNational Film and Television School

Crucially this avoided all kinds of strictures being imposed that applied to all other places of higher education, that would have inhibited the development of the course and dictated the imposition of regulations regarding cost per student and even who was qualified to apply or be appointed to teach.

Far-sighted though this change was, it would have been even more appropriate if Jennie Lee could have presided over those first formative years as the Minister responsible, but Labour lost the election in 1970 and sadly she lost her seat.

Colin Young by Roger CrittendenNational Film and Television School

Nevertheless she had overseen the establishment of a far sighted group who had the prescience to cast the net for the Founding Director wide enough to avoid being parochial or resorting to a ‘safe pair of hands’. 

Perhaps because much effort had already been expended in looking at models abroad, that might be useful in defining the character of the School, the group were aware of what had been going on at the University of California in Los Angeles – not, it has to be said, in imitation of the Hollywood mainstream, but in the spirit of the 1960’s – there and elsewhere. 

No-one on that committee would however have been looking for an American to fill the post. That would have been anathema to most aspects of the Film Industry. 

So the fact that an emigre Scot by the name of Colin Young was running the Department of Theatre Arts at UCLA was a present from heaven or at least from Glasgow via studying philosophy at St Andrews, which was sufficiently impressive a background to allay any suspicions amongst conservative factions.

Colin Young and NFTS Staff by Roger CrittendenNational Film and Television School

What the documentation doesn’t tell us is how much the committee divined about Colin’s approach to education for film practice, including how far he would go to support talent by bending or even breaking the rules applied by the Regents who governed UCLA. 

Even one example would have sufficed to give them a vivid picture. Paul Schrader who was a student during Colin’s time at UCLA details in the book, Schrader on Schrader, how little he had done to formally qualify for his degree but in one short conversation with Colin sufficient areas of activity were identified that could substitute for the requirements. In other words evidence of potential was more important than ticking boxes. 

Roger Crittenden and Colin Young by Roger CrittendenNational Film and Television School

Colin’s approach was seen as cavalier by some, but his insistence on avoiding inhibiting talent by constructing hoops for students to jump through, became the guiding principle for this ‘learning by doing’ and whilst it was inevitable that sooner or later the School the essential start necessary to forge the special and even unique institution that it became and remains.

Lord Lloyd, Colin Young and Jennie Lee by Lord Lloyd & Jennie Lee by Walter Bird Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery and Colin Young by NFTSNational Film and Television School

We should celebrate and continue to recognise that Jennie Lee, Denis Lloyd and Colin Young were the triumvirate who laid the foundations for this School as it enters the second half of its first century.

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