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The PPT Looking after cinemas heritage

This article first appeared in
..in 70mm
The 70mm Newsletter

Written by: Mike Taylor
Issue 66 - November 2001

In the 1970s more and more 'Picture Palaces' were being boarded-up, turned into bingo halls, split into multi- screens or razed to the ground for "redevelopment". More and more projection box equipment was being thrown into skips or sold for scrap. It was these developments that led, in November 1979, to the formation of the Projected Picture Trust.

The initiative began with Charles Beddow, then the British Film Institute's Technical Officer. He had become acutely aware of the situation when setting up the BFI's network of film centres. What he saw on his travels convinced him that unless something was done, much of the nation's rich cinema heritage would be lost forever.

Charles' worries were shared by the enthusiasts who responded to a circular letter, and who agreed to form a steering committee. They included the curator of the National Film Archive (NFA), a specialist designer and consultant, a representative of a screen manufacturer, a member of a regional arts association and the editor of an amateur moviemakers magazine. 

The new organisation's objectives were encapsulated in the Statement: "To locate, renovate, preserve and exhibit the equipment and data, past and present, of still and moving images". Today this remains an accurate description of its current and planned activities. The PPT was registered as an educational charity in 1983. Its emblem is Robert Paul's Theatrograph projector of 1896 (illustrated). Although this emphasises the Trust's determination to preserve tangible evidence of the industry's pioneering days, it does not mean that the work is wholly driven by nostalgia. Image technology is advancing so rapidly that a great effort is needed to maintain proper records of today's achievements. 

Voluntary Effort

It was agreed at the outset that the PPT would be a voluntary undertaking. Its officers are not paid for their services. Indeed, the Trust is deeply indebted to the relatively small number of individuals who not only give up their spare time but also dig into their own pockets in order to further its aims. The Trust has also received support from a variety of bodies, including BECTU, BFI, Harkness Hall Screens, Odeon, Dolby, Kodak, Theatre Developments Limited and many others.

A small but regular income is derived from members, annual subscriptions, which began at a modest 5.00 in 1979, and, in real terms, are even better value today at 15.00.

Co-operation

A voluntary organisation with big ideas but limited resources cannot afford to do it alone. Over the years, the Trust has undertaken many joint ventures with groups, ranging from the NF A to the Magic Lantern Society of Great Britain. 

Notable examples of this have included a PPT display at an open day at Pinewood Studios, a demonstration of four-channel sound at the National Film Theatre, an exhibition of vintage projectors at the Museum of London and regular performances at the Astra Cinema, the Duxford branch of the Imperial War Museum (where the projection equipment is provided by and under the control of the PPT).

Acquiring Equipment

The Trust saw no point in duplicating the fine work that was already being done by other groups concerned with the art and architecture of the cinema. Its mission was to fill in the gaps in these activities. That is why its efforts have been focussed on tracking down and restoring examples of the wide range of apparatus that, from the beginning of the 20th century, has brought the cinema to billions of people all over the world.

Its first major acquisition was made within three months of the inaugural meeting. This was a complete set of equipment from Odeon's discontinued projectionists training school. More followed. Not only projectors but also ancillary items such as ticket-issuing machines from the London Pavilion, and items from other cinemas that were either putting up the shutters or updating their equipment. Meanwhile, various pieces of vintage machinery were being donated or loaned to the Trust by private collectors.

These early prizes, the nucleus of today's massive collection, presented the PPT with a challenge it has been facing ever since. Cinema equipment is often very big and very heavy. Moving these items put a severe strain on the transport and lifting gear, not to mention the muscles of the members volunteering for this vital but unglamorous task. 

There was also the problem of finding 'free' storage and workshop space. It did not take long for the Trust's collection to outgrow the premises initially provided by the NFA at Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire. This necessitated the relocation of some equipment to a depot in the Midlands, previously used for the storage of nuclear warheads! The North London Cinema Society came to the rescue by providing storage and workshop space at the Film Centre in Muswell Hill.

A significant advance was made at the beginning of 1984 when the Trust acquired premises at Duxford in Cambridgeshire in return for an undertaking to restore the former RAFCC Astra Cinema and provide film shows for Museum visitors. Duxford became the centre of much of the PPT's activities. The dilapidated cinema, with its wartime memories, was painstakingly renovated and the first public performance, using 50-year old projectors, was given in June 1987. For the next seven years, members of the PPT gave three shows a day on every Saturday and Sunday that the Museum was open to the public.

This arrangement ceased in 1994 when the Museum decided not to provide a cinema facility for its visitors and the Trust's exhibition and storage space was much reduced. This meant that facilities had to be found elsewhere. Other stores were located in places such as Birkenhead, members' garages, front rooms, etc.!

Restoration Work

Much of the equipment tracked down by the PPT has been in need of restoration. Teams of enthusiasts with appropriate knowledge and skills have undertaken this. Restoration has been undertaken on the "workdays", regularly held at the Trust's regional centres. Individual members in their own homes or workshops have tackled other jobs. Restoration is an on-going process. There are always opportunities for members to play a part in it. They do not have to have engineering skills; the most valued contributions are enthusiasm and commitment! 

Educational Visits

The Trust has arranged visits to significant sites in Britain and Europe. In some cases, this has given new members their first opportunity to see what actually happens inside a projection suite. Notable sites visited include the projection box at the Odeon, Leicester Square, the splendidly restored 1911 Electric Palace, Harwich, the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Bradford, the Belgian Film Archive, the Cinematheque Francais, Paris and the National Film Archive. 

Keeping the Records

The PPT preserves not only equipment but also the documentation relating to it: manufacturers' catalogues, operating and service manuals, etc. In 1986 all this material was transferred to the Archives' computer database to facilitate finding any item required by members and bona fide researchers.

Publications

The Trust's founders recognised that many of the individuals wishing to support its aims would be unable for geographical or other reasons to participate in the restoration work or organised visits. From the earliest days, all members received a newsletter reporting on meetings, notable acquisitions and many other activities. There were also specially written articles on all aspects of cinema history and technology. This is now a fully-fledged quarterly A4 magazine, free to members. From time to time, well-researched and illustrated information publications are produced on specific items connected With the PPT or the film production process.

Public Displays

Although 'preservation' is obviously the major item in the PPT's objectives, this has never been seen as an end in itself. Opportunities have been taken to put the fruits of restoration work on public exhibition. These activities started in 1981 with a display of vintage projectors and other items on the South Bank during the London Film Festival. More recently there have been displays at the Museum of the Moving Image and various regional film centres. Items from the PPT's collection have been provided on loan to museums and libraries, etc.

1984 saw the inauguration of what has become the PPT's permanent exhibition of cinema equipment, now known as The National Museum of Cinema Technology. This is at Bletchley Park, on the historic site (featured on television recently) where vital code-breaking work was accomplished during World War 2.

Spreading Out

From the start, the PPT saw itself as a national (and international) organisation. It was soon noticed that there was an imbalance in the location of its membership: 50% were in London and the Home Counties. In 1987, a basic re-assessment of PPT policy set a target: to establish branches throughout the UK, each with its own workshops and exhibition areas. That target, not yet fully attained, is reflected in the way the PPT now operates through its eight regional centres. Other conclusions were that the PPT should concentrate its activities within the professional field of motion picture technology; reduce the pressure on restoration facilities by giving priority to the reception of complete equipment in good working order; make equipment available for display or use at museums or other similar establishments and eventually to establish a headquarters with permanent staff.

After twenty years some of the aims of the Trust's founders have yet to be fully realised, but they are now more firmly in place than ever before. The PPT is a dynamic organisation, building on its past and present resources. It offers unlimited opportunities for members of all ages to help preserve the technical achievements of the cinema in a manner befitting their cultural and social importance.

For membership details, please send an addressed envelope to:

Hon. Membership Secretary
The Projected Pictures Trust
19 Gingells Farm Road
Charvil
Berks RG10 9DJ
England

Contact number: +44 1707 375 020

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