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A Grand Launch for BIFF chez Bond

You might expect James Bond's London town-house to be securely guarded, so it took a flurry of e-mails and some guest-list confusion with the doorman to be ushered into the elegant home of Eon Productions, at the Hyde Park Corner end of Piccadilly, for the Launch of the 15th Bradford International Film Festival (on Thursday 26th February 2009).

What, you may ask, is the connection between an annual celebration of cinema in a Northern metropolis and the world's longest-running and most lucrative film franchise? Well, James Bond in one guise or another has often come to the aid of what used to be called the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, which was created -for reasons too complex to relate here- back on 16th June 1983 in the very heart of the West Yorkshire city of Bradford, once centre of the world's wool industry and one of the wealthiest places in the British Empire. Latterly, the city has suffered a sadly spectacular decline and is now perhaps better known as the scene of the worst race riots in British history a few summers ago - and not long before that as the venue for the public burning of copies of Salman Rushdie's fiery little novel "The Satanic Verses", the event that led to his fatwaisation.

But apart from that, Mrs Lincoln- the Film Museum (as -in spite of its clumsy nomenclature- it came to be known and loved locally) actually grew, from a well-designed series of galleries exploring the origins and practice of photography in all its forms,as well as cinematography and television, housing the first permanent IMAX auditorium in Europe, with what was for long the largest cinema screen in the land of literally dizzying proportions, to swallow up the adjacent Library Theatre, which became in 1992, the Pictureville Cinema, described by David Puttnam as he then was, as more or less the best purpose-built cinema in the country.

The following year it was equipped with 3-projector Cinerama and remains, I believe, the only cinema in the world publicly and regularly screening the original Cinerama spectacles.(It continues to screen its own copy of This is Cinerama as a matinee on the first Saturday of every month). A third, smaller cinema was subsequently added and in recognition of its benefactor was called the Cubby Broccoli.Does the (Money-)penny now begin to drop?

After a later and lengthy refit, the transformed and enlarged premises were inaugurated by Pierce Brosnan, and a large temporary exhibition "Bond, James Bond" opened there in 2002 before travelling south to London.(A similarly spectacular Star Wars show was shared with the Barbican in London).

The NMPFT was one of the first national museums to champion free admission,though screenings, and special exhibitions have always been open only to paying ticket-holders, and the catering in cafes and bars was not exactly low-priced.A sibling is the National Railway Museum in nearby York while the Mothership remains the Science Museum in South Kensington.It soon became one of the leading tourist venues in Great Britain and in its heyday was usually attracting one million visitors annually(no, I don't know they measured attendances when admission was free, perhaps 007 helped to monitor the families, schools and coachloads- latterly,admissions have apparently declined to some 700,000 each year which is not bad considering the Bradford Council seems to have let the city-centre suffer more damage than the Luftwaffe achieved.Eminent Bradfordian J.B.Priestley must be spinning in his grave today.

The Bradford International Film Festival grew out of the WideScreen Weekend which celebrated the building's unrivalled 70mm-and beyond-screening facilities.The splendid building was rebranded in 2007 as the National Media Museum, but as GNER has given way to National Express, it is not currently as easy to reach it by public transport from Kings Cross station in London (most train journeys require a change at Leeds' but there are some direct coach services from Victoria, and easier connections from Paris, Prague, Bruxelles,Amsterdam,etc to the nearby Leeds-Bradford International Airport. Though broadly referred to as being Up North, Bradford is actually in the heart of England, equidistant from Edinburgh and London.The local water is the purest on the planet, and not for nothing is Yorkshire called 'God's own county'.

The 15th Bradford International Film Festivals runs from 13th-28th March 2009. Over a buffet lunch of sandwiches, fresh fruit and wines, NMeM staff outlined the programme and in the luxurious basement cinema an appetising montage of film extracts clarified the sundry strands.Essentially, BIFF is a selection of feature premieres and previews- the most important, unquestionably is Andrzej Wajda's 2007 wartime tragedy Katyn (8pm, 17th March, Pictureville) with sundry shorts (six of them short-listed for the Shine Short Film Award), a 'CineFile' of half a dozen films about films (such as Tasmanian Devil:the Fast and Furious Life of Errol Flynn, with Christopher Lee's articulate but rueful reminiscences of his painful encounter with the legendary hell-raising star), a new section of some 15 feature-length Documentaries, and a number of independent films representing 'Uncharted States of America.

The WideScreen Weekend brings its own fans from far and wide in the middle of the festival(a Widescreen pass costs £85)- this year a focus on the work of the Festival's Artistic Director's favourite actor Richard Burton brings Derren Nesbitt to introduce Where Eagles Dare,while amongst the sundry Hollywood musicals and biblical epics there are some more recent movies that I didn't think had been shot in 70mm.

But the greatest interest has to be for the special events.BIFF traditionally opens and closes with new British productions, and lures some veteran home-grouwn talents,and this year is no exception- Virginia McKenna will attend to receive an award and share a Screentalk, with six of her best-known films to be screened;Terry Jones, erudite comedian and director,fields three of his films;Peter Whitehead, documentarist of the Swinging Sixties is due; and recently-made Patron, Michael G.Wilson, continuing Bond producer will give a Masterclass.
More from Phillip Bergson on his blog on fest21.com

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