Please note that this article was written for The Missing Link during the Spring of 1997 and some of the information and prices may have changed.
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Vist the BFI's websiteThe Missing Link

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Since its inception in 1933, The British Film Insitute has built up an enviable collection of films and ephemera dating from the birth of the moving image to the present day. Together with its own production company, film museum, cinemas, library and information service, the BFI. can rightfully boast the world's largest collection.
The British Film Institute exists solely as a service to those of us interested in any aspect of film and is open to everyone. The Institute's slogan "to promote and develop knowledge and enjoyment of the culture of the moving image" is to be taken literally, and if one is motivated enough to uncover more information about your favorite film or personality, then the BFI should be your first port of call.

For this brief tour I will begin with their viewing service and film rental. With over a quarter of a million silent and sound titles housed in the National Film and Television Archives (NFTVA), there stands a good chance that your request will be available. It was only by rapidly firing questions at the poor woman on the other end of the phone in the viewing service department, that I discovered the BFI held a 35mm print of Tod Slaughter's Bothered by a Beard (1945), a quasi-documentary detailing the history of shaving and featuring Slaughter in a brief vignette reprising his role of Sweeny Todd. Also available was Slaughter's later film appearance as a caretaker of an old manor house in A GHOST FOR SALE (1952) which depicts a ghost through sequences lifted from Slaughter's earlier film Curse of the Wraydons (1946).
My initial choice had been to view a French print of the Ghost Train, the silent version of 1927, but I was informed that the print had already been shipped to the United States to be screened at a convention in Los Angeles. Due to this double booking I was not charged and as a further treat the staff had kept aside a video print of what remains of the 1931 Ghost Train for me.
All the prints are viewed in a sound proof cubicle with an easily operated movieola at your disposal. The BFI. charge 10 per viewing hour based on the running time of the film and this service is situated at their main building at 21 Stephen Street, London. W1P 2LN, just off Charing Cross Road. Phone enquiries and appointments for this service can be made on 0171 255 1444 extension 321 (I spoke to a very helpful and patient Alison Strauss).
Furthermore the BFI's "National Film Archive Catalogue of Viewing Copies" lists all fiction and non-fiction films available for view on the premises that can be ordered from
BFI Publications, Plymbridge Distributors Ltd., Estover, Plymouth, Devon. PL6 7PZ.
The film rental service is explained in great detail in the BFI's "Early and Silent Cinema: a Source Book" priced at 4.50 which lists all the available films for hire and their charges.

The British Film InstituteAt the Library and Information Services, also at 21 Stephen Street, a visitor will find anything from books, publications, stills, newspaper cuttings, published and unpublished scripts to copies of , as well as a computer database containing cross references to thousands of films, personalities, events and organisations. This is the department to enquire about information on any particular actor or film. You will receive a reply stating whether they have the information with the charges for photocopies or printouts from their database. The minimum non-commercial research charge is approximately 11. Unfortunately from my experiences in following this course with regard to my own research into the life of Tod Slaughter, the photocopies were of a poor quality. I managed to procure better copies at a fraction of the cost from The Theatre Museum in Tavistock Street, London. However, in saying that, nine times out of ten it will only be the BFI that will have the information you need.
The Library and Information Services can also provide agent's addresses for actors that you may wish to contact. Unfortunately they are unable to supply addresses for actors who are no longer working as I found out when I tried contacting Aubrey Woods who portrayed Jaimie Wilson in Tod Slaughter's The Greed of William Hart (1948).

The Stills, Posters and Design Department is situated on the first floor and houses over 6 million images from more than 60,000 films and television programmes. It would be an insurmountable task to provide a subject index for these items, but they can answer any enquiries made about a particular film or programme and whether they are included in the collection. Prices for 10x8 duplicate prints begin from 5 excluding postage with each still becoming cheaper, the more you order. For 10x8 colour stills or posters, prices begin at 11 excluding postage. The cheaper option is to have them laser copied for approximately 2.50 each, the quality then of course depends on the state of the original photograph. It is wise to be as specific as possible regarding the still you require, as the staff will pick their own selection if you have not furnished them with enough detail. Alternatively you can make your own selection by making an appointment from 11:00-5:00pm., Tuesday-Friday where you can wade through the requested files and pick the prints you require, they will then be ready for you in approximately 4 to 5 weeks.
Enquiries and appointment bookings can be made on 0171 255 1444 extension 290 or 291.
L'Eclipse du Soleil en Pleine Lune (1907) part of the BFI's Melies exhibitionAnother feature of this department is the Reading Room which is open to visitors on Monday and Friday from 10:30-5:30pm. and Tuesday to Thursday from 1:00-8:00pm. For those of you who don't have an annual subscription, a daily pass will cost you 5, but the BFI stress that these are limited, and once the Reading Room is full, these passes will be discontinued for the day. The wisest option is to phone just after 10:00am. to secure your pass for that day or the next. On arrival you will be asked to complete a Reading Room Registration Card which will then give you direct access to the multitudes of books and periodicals and use of a photocopier that is operated by a pre-paid credit card sized key. Only the books marked with a "P" or with a coloured label on the spine may not be photocopied mainly due to their fragile condition. This is more widespread in the Special Collections section which can only be viewed by appointments made beforehand on extension 278 where you can discuss your requirements. A request slip must be filled in for each item with a limit of three items to be requested at any one time.
The BFI collection catalogues situated at the counter are there to help you locate the item you need which helps to limit the amount of time looking for something instead of reading it.

Across the Thames, amid the grey concrete of the visually repulsive South Bank lies the BFI's Museum of the Moving Image (MOMI) "where 100 years of cinema come to life". Open daily from 10am-6pm. at a charge of 5.95, this is well worth a lenghty visit of at least 2 hours. Along the museum's journey from filmland's evolutionary stages to today's modern techniques the visitor will encounter interactive models, screenings of early film examples together with some hired actors who have a tendency to jump out and harangue you into playing a scene before a make-believe camera.
Of  great interest is Fritz Lang's personal viewer, a full sized stunt dummy of the monster from The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), one of the models used in Mighty Joe Young by Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen, Will Hay's pince-nez, Charlie Chaplin's original cane and tramp outfit and many other prized possessions. The journey ends naturally enough at the MOMI giftshop containing a large selection of postcards, videos, BFI merchandise and a large assortment of books including those for the more serious-minded film conoisseur. Phone 0171 815 1343 to contact the gift shop directly.
In the same building complex lies the National Film Theatre which shows approximately seven films on a daily basis that include anything from rare oddities and venerated classics to more contemporary productions. NFT1 is the most intimate, while NFT2 is a large amphitheatre to cater for large audiences. The Royal Festival Hall on the other hand is often used for premieres and specially restored prints with room enough for a full orchestra.
The cost is 5.50 unless otherwise stated or 4.50 for NFT members. To book a seat in advance phone 0171 928 3232.
The NFT Bookshop contains a number of interesting books including the BFI Companion to Horror and a selection of BFI's own video releases amongst others.

In addition to all that I have mentioned, there is always a series of special exhibitions and lectures promoted by the BFI throughout the year as well as the London Film Festival held annually during November. Now in its 41st. year, the festival is a non-competitive forum for feature films, shorts and videos that have never been screened in Britain before.

So there you have it, a layman's guide to the incredible BFI. Take full advatage of the services it has to offer. For fans like ourselves, the BFI is an indespensible resource as well as one of our greatest national treasures.

Vist the BFI's website21 Stephen Street, London. W1P 2LN. England
Tel: 0171 255 1444 Fax: 0171 436 7950
or visit their website at

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