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The Guardian; August 11, 2003
Film expert, writer and historian who started as Alexander Korda's teaboy, worked for the BFI and established a movie archive
Monday August 11, 2003
It would be apt, yet somehow inadequate, to describe John Huntley, who has died of cancer aged 82, as a writer and film historian, since he was above all a film enthusiast and an educationalist in the broadest sense. He regarded cinema as a source of delight and information, never concerning himself with what he perceived as pretension.
It was Huntley's enthusiasm and energetic desire for mass communication which made him a stimulating talker, a rather carefree administrator and a cornucopia of information. It was because of his dislike of bureaucracy and narrow intellectualism that he fell out with the British Film Institute, where he had worked successfully for many years. As the organisation descended into chaos during its internecine conflicts, from the mid-1970s onwards, Huntley became one of the earliest of its numerous casualties. Characteristically, he bounced back after an acrimonious parting and embarked on a successful freelance career.
He was born in Kew and left school at 16 after his school certificate. Mundane clerical work was followed by a job as a teaboy at Denham Studios under Alexander Korda. He also spent five weeks at the Royal College of Music in 1939. Then he joined the RAF, served as a wireless air gunner with Bomber Command and flew on Sunderland flying boats with Coastal Command. It was with the RAF in 1944, that he began working with film.
He lectured at various camps, showing educational and other material while writing for RAF journals and external publications, including the pioneering Penguin Film Reviews under Roger Manvell. He also contributed to Sight And Sound and was correspondent for the American Film Music Bulletin.
In 1947, his first book, British Film Music was published and he returned to work at Denham and Pinewood Studios, then controlled by the Rank Organisation. Under the conductor and composer Muir Matheson he became a music and sound assistant on numerous films including Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948); David Lean's Oliver Twist (1948) and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's A Matter Of Life And Death (1946) and The Red Shoes (1948).
He also published his second book British Technicolor Films (1949), before becoming involved with the South Bank's Telekinema at the 1951 Festival of Britain. This spawned the National Film Theatre, under the BFI's auspices. His stint there as a programmer from 1952 was characterised by a concern for a broad-based audience - including school groups. It was then and there that I first encountered John as a lecturer - and subsequently at BFI's summer schools. It was to take me some years to realise my new-found ambition, and have his job as an NFT programmer. By that time he was a key member of the BFI executive and head of its regional development.
The BFI director, Stanley Reed, shared his missionary zeal and having just joined the BFI as press officer, one of my tasks was accompanying this formidable duo during a hectic eight-year period when some 36 regional film theatres were launched. Guests as diverse as Irene Handl and Harold Pinter were inveigled into attending the screenings and providing the opening speeches.
The BFI's expansion, including a second NFT in 1970, was largely the result of the open-minded approach of Huntley, Reed and the NFT controller Leslie Hardcastle. But turmoil within the organisation led to Huntley's departure in 1974 and Reed's retirement, initiating two decades of decline. Huntley resumed his writing career with a further book (with Manvell) The Technique Of Film Music, How Films Are Made (with Reed) and Railways In The Cinema, for which he certainly needed no assistance. He continued lecturing at the NFT, the Festival Hall and throughout Britain.
He joined forces with the theatrical agent and producer Richard Jackson and expanded his career into radio and television, with programmes such as Clapperboard for Granada and innumerable radio shows - lately Radio 4's Back Row. His jovial manner, booming voice and ability to talk amusingly kept him busy well past retirement age.
In the mid-1980s, with his daughter Amanda, he set up the Huntley Film Archives using material collected from many sources - including, to its chagrin, the BFI - to service TV programmes, his video productions and lecture tours. Within a decade they had to move to larger premises in north London. He updated his books on railways and continued his stage presentations never losing his spontaneity or the energy that inspired audiences and fellow enthusiasts for the most magical of the arts. He was divorced; he is survived by his two daughters.
Nigel Fountain writes: In the early 1990s, visiting Cheltenham, I saw a dog-eared shop window ad. "Lancs And Yanks," it said "an illustrated lecture on RAF Bomber Command and the USAAF". It was by John Huntley - of whom I had never heard. Concluding that it would be attended by eight people, a dog, and odd, I went along on that wet, windy night.
I was directed to the overspill. The town hall was packed out. The strongest impression of the 600 there, listening, rapt, to Huntley was of a group from that demobilised army of technologists who had comprised this country's industrial base. "You suddenly realise the enormous skill that was there," Huntley said to me after the lecture, "the extraordinary dedication to making pieces of machinery work." Among the film footage, Huntley showed an RAF training film which, by its very stiltedness, brushed against the mundane horror of life and death as aircrew - "so pathetically human," said Huntley - and a 1943 colour promo movie for Boeing, complete with Lana Turner clones as Rosie The Riveter. Throughout Huntley was the enthusiast, but the realist too, hinting at what great Victorian popular lectures must have been about.
I never got to any other of his planes-and-trains tours but they seemed to trace a route map of industrial decline. Around that time the great de Havilland factory at Hatfield had become rubble - and he had done a show nearby, to a huge audience. He had been irritated about the vast press coverage of the then recent Windsor Castle fire. "Hatfield," he observed "is about personal tragedies, a lot of people would say 'bugger Windsor, when do I get my bloody job back?'" He was, indeed, a real education.
· John Frederick Huntley, born July 18 1921; died August 7 2003
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