Screen Education: From Film Appreciation to Media Studies

The case for the study of cinema was hard fought, not least among the believers, finds Philip Kemp

July 30, 2009

Midway through Terry Bolas' Screen Education comes a 12-page block of photographs. Six of these pages show - classes of attentive media students? Vintage audio-visual aids? Two-page spreads from Screen? No - restaurants and pubs in Soho. One establishment, a caption tells us, "was a favoured lunchtime haunt of BFI (British Film Institute) education and SEFT (Society for Education in Film and Television) colleagues/activists", while to another "the SEFT activists would repair ... to continue the arguments of the meetings or to 'lick their wounds'". It's akin to illustrating a history of the Napoleonic Wars with pictures of Bonaparte's favourite Parisian bistros.

Still, the photos are an apt adjunct to the parochial and frequently embattled story that Bolas has to tell. He traces the development, and rise to academic respectability, of what began in the 1930s as "film appreciation" and had become by the early 1990s the discipline of "media studies". He deals, though, almost entirely with the UK, giving only glimpses of what was happening elsewhere in the world. Some consideration of parallel developments in the US and France - where film became an academic subject sooner than in Britain - could have been enlightening. But these are mentioned only in so far as they impinged on the British scene. Even "the British scene" is an exaggeration. Essentially, Bolas focuses on the relationship - sometimes amicable, often fraught - between the BFI and the organisation founded in 1950 as the Society of Film Teachers (SFT), later SEFT, until the latter's demise in 1989.

Although SEFT was nominally independent, it was closely tied to the BFI. The two organisations collaborated on joint educational ventures; the institute provided the society's premises and most of its funding; and personnel often moved from one organisation to the other or were simultaneously employed by both. In the late 1960s, Bolas himself was secretary of SEFT and teacher adviser at the BFI, as well as editor of SEFT's magazine Screen. And when in the early 1970s, following internal pressure, the BFI education department was shrunk, SEFT took over many of its functions.

When not sniping at each other, the two bodies had no lack of outside hostility to contend with. Until relatively recently, the mere idea of studying film - let alone television - aroused ridicule in the press and lofty disdain in the academic hierarchy. Cinemas, notes Bolas, were "perceived as harbouring disease, providing the cover of darkness for illicit activity and as keeping children from their beds while harming their eyesight", while the films themselves might "entice the young into delinquency or inflict psychological damage on them". As late as 1958 a senior teacher could, in The Journal of Education, dismiss the art of cinema in toto as "ephemeral" and "parasitic". Even the pioneering advocates of "film appreciation" took a defensive high moral tone, suggesting that the impressionable young should be introduced to "good" films to "inoculate" them against the preponderance of "bad" ones.

By the 1970s, though, the climate was changing fast. The walls of academia had been breached: the appointment of Thorold Dickinson at the University of London as the UK's first lecturer in film blazed a path for similar initiatives elsewhere. And with the BFI education department "beheaded" (Bolas' own term) and reduced to a mere Education Advisory Service, SEFT was riding high. These were the glory years of Screen, a magazine in thrall to the ideas of Lacan, Althusser, Derrida, Gramsci and Foucault, expressed in aggressively impenetrable prose that some at the BFI (and even within SEFT itself) characterised as "intellectual terrorism". In 1975 four members of Screen's editorial board were moved to resign with the pointed comment, "We do not think that obscurity is a guarantee of profundity."

Fears that Screen was losing touch with its constituency, teachers of film, led to the spin-off in 1974 of the supposedly more accessible Screen Education. Eight years later it was re-merged with Screen, and by the end of the 1980s, SEFT itself was no more, the BFI having pulled the financial plug. Screen has lived on, though, published under the auspices of the University of Glasgow, albeit with its influence diminished.

With media studies now taught in virtually every UK university, and more than 30,000 students taking the subject at A level, the battle seems to have been won. But Bolas adds a melancholy postscript. While this trend may be seen by conservative academics, he suggests, "as evidence of dumbing down in higher education", for the "surviving radicals of the 1970s" - among whom he implicitly includes himself - "this institutionalisation of media education represents an altogether more profound dumbing down".

Screen Education: From Film Appreciation to Media Studies

By Terry Bolas

Intellect, 432pp, £19.95

ISBN 9781841502373

Published 1 January 2009

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