A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away movie posters were actually considered works of art. The artists who created them were allowed to let their imaginations run wild and even B movies often boasted posters with magnificent artwork. Today, however, that era is all but gone. Movie posters generally consist of bland head shots of the stars and look like they were created by a high school apprentice working on a scanner during lunch break. In this exclusive article for Cinema Retro, Sim Branaghan, author of the new book British Film Posters: An Illustrated History, celebrates a bygone era in which movie fans would salivate over posters of forthcoming films.
Where does any love-affair with the cinema really begin? Mine, unfortunately, appears to have begun with the Christmas 1970 reissue of Mary Poppins at Walsall’s ABC cinema – or at least, it did according to my mother. Being then just a few weeks short of my fourth birthday, I have no recollection of the trip. But things improved as the years passed – The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Island At the Top of the World, At the Earth’s Core, Star Wars, Warlords of Atlantis, and many others were cheerfully enjoyed in the faded glamour of local Black Country fleapits like the Wolverhampton Odeon, Dudley Plaza, and West Bromwich Kings, all now sadly long-vanished.
One thing you couldn’t ignore about these films, while queuing patiently outside to get in (remember that?) were their posters – glorious full-colour paintings, often tending to depict Doug McClure being menaced by an irritable dinosaur. They were frequently more memorable than the films themselves.
The Living Daylights (1987) with art by Brian Bysouth, was the last major
British film to use 'painted' artwork on a quad poster design. Definitely
the end of a magnificent era for not only film posters, but the Bond style.
of artwork too.
By primary school I was devouring films on television – the ATV Thursday Picture Show, BBC1’s Saturday Night at the Movies – and in summer 1978 my long-suffering mother finally relented, and allowed me to begin staying up late at weekends to watch the BBC2 Horror Double Bills. Monsters quickly took over my world, and I started buying the popular history books: Denis Gifford’s ‘Pictorial History of Horror Movies’, Alan Frank’s ‘Movie Treasury of Horror Movies’, plus pulpy fan-magazines like House of Hammer and Monster Mag. Having always possessed a near-obsessive love of detail, I was much keener to read about the history of the production companies and technicians than plod through tiresome plot summaries – people’s careers and the ‘men behind the scenes’ have always intrigued me.
The Land That Time Forgot (1974) with art by Tom Chantrell, is a perfect
example of when the poster was actually better than the film itself, as was the case with all of these Amicus produced prehistoric movies during that
In February 1980, in search of back-issues of such literary masterpieces as Famous Monsters of Filmland, I visited a Movie Mania Midlands Film Fair at Birmingham’s Methodist Central Hall on Corporation Street (now also long-since closed). The cinema-collecting scene in this country was then a fairly new phenomenon (the very first such ‘MovieJumble’ fair had been held only seven years earlier in Wimbledon, South London), and original memorabilia was still pretty cheap. All the wildly exciting film posters I had grown up with were pinned up around the walls, on sale for about £1 or £2 each. Even on a modest 50p a week pocket money, this was clearly an easily affordable proposition, and I began collecting, slowly at first, then steadily gaining momentum as I increased in both confidence and funds. I started travelling to the bigger fairs in Manchester and London, and, once I left school and began earning a wage in the mid-80s, there was really no stopping me.
Initially, like most young collectors, I only bought posters for films I had already seen, but as time went on I started picking up almost anything that looked interesting. British posters, or ‘quads’ (short for ‘Quad Crown’, the original printer’s term) seemed to me obviously the best sort – at 30”x40” they were large enough to be properly impressive, while their unique landscape format gave a genuinely cinematic feel compared to most other countries’ posters, which were usually stuck with a sometimes restrictive portrait style. Quads were definitely the things to buy.
During those early days, I suppose I collected them simply because I enjoyed looking at them on my wall. I was naturally always intrigued by the details – the printers’ names, and occasional artists’ signatures – but in the absence of any decent reference book on the subject, these remained tantalizing mysteries. I was effectively still considering the posters purely on the basis of the films they were advertising.
One distinctive change that I did begin to notice by the late 1980’s was that painted artwork on new posters was rapidly dying out, to be replaced by rather boring photomontages. I had no idea why this was happening, but after a while decided to set myself an informal “cut-off-point” of 1985 for my collecting – although great films were obviously still being made, their posters were now very rarely memorable enough to be worth acquiring. At the other end of the scale, posters from any earlier than about 1950 were so rare as to be quite unattainable on my modest budget, so I found myself with a collection spanning a ‘golden age’ period of roughly 35 years.
My interest in the history behind the posters themselves was still fairly vague, though I had by now amassed a collection large enough to be quite a formidable research resource, had I felt inclined to consider it in those terms. Things began to change in summer 1995, when I moved down to London, and met the veteran poster artist Tom Chantrell. We got along well, and saw each other socially on quite a regular basis. Although by that point Tom had been retired for about ten years, he still enjoyed talking about his career, and for the first time I began to properly understand the background to the film publicity scene – how campaigns were devised and posters created, and, even more crucially, how the whole business was effectively controlled by the handful of advertising agencies holding the major distributor accounts. Everything began to make more sense, and the big picture started to emerge, of a half-forgotten and rapidly vanishing world which no one had ever considered properly before.
Sometimes though, we need a sharp nudge to get us moving. Following a short illness, Tom died suddenly in July 2001, and his wife Shirley invited me to speak at his funeral. This emotionally-charged afternoon forced me to start thinking seriously about the point of my twenty years of collecting. I would never now be able to ask Tom any of the dozens of important questions I was beginning to realise needed answering. How many similarly significant poster artists had already died, anonymous and forgotten? How many were still around, drifting quietly through unassuming retirement? I decided to try and find out. Being a librarian by profession, I had always rather wanted to write a book, and I finally saw that the ideal subject – fresh, interesting and hitherto completely neglected – was staring me in the face.
I started cautiously, with a chapter on the history of collecting itself, something I felt confident I already knew something about. That went rather well, so I moved on to the printing companies, painstakingly working out which were still in operation, and which defunct. This in turn led on to the history of the printing processes themselves, which naturally fed into the ‘back story’ of how illustrated theatrical posters first appeared in Britain. The toughest part of the book to research turned out to be the advertising agencies – which companies had held which accounts over what periods of time developed into a complex jigsaw puzzle that took several months to assemble.
But eventually I had an acceptable framework sketched out, and with some trepidation I began tracking down and contacting the artists. This, perhaps unsurprisingly, became the most richly-rewarding part of the book. A more friendly, helpful, and down-to-earth collection of chaps you couldn’t hope to meet, everyone of whom was more than happy to share their time and memories. I was lucky right down the line, getting through to just about everyone important, often in the nick of time. Eric Pulford, along with Chantrell the most prolific of the post-war designers, died within two years of my interview with him, only just failing to see the book finally published.
The Sea Wolves (1980) with art by Arnaldo Putza, majors on the 'stars' of the film - the sort of line-up we will never see the likes of again.
By this time, I was looking at my collection, and film posters in general, in a completely different way. It had finally dawned on me that this story was not really about the cinema at all per se – it was rather about a great lost tradition of popular British art, one that had vanished almost overnight in the mid-80s, when computer graphic-design technology swiftly rendered hand-painted posters a fatally slow and expensive anachronism. Here, I realised, was a coherent and neatly self-contained body of work, commercial in intent but with obvious artistic and social significance, possessing a clear beginning, middle and end, and with its own cast of often larger-than-life characters. It was the perfect story, and I had some difficulty believing no one had ever tried to write it up before.
But they hadn’t, so I tidied up my manuscript, added a short ‘epilogue’ attempting to explain the significance of the history as I now saw it, and, with a deep breath, in August 2003 submitted it to the publishing department of the British Film Institute. After a series of frustrating delays, during which I became increasingly paranoid that somebody else was going to steal my thunder, the BFI’s new Head of Publishing Rebecca Barden enthusiastically signed it up in July 2005. We were off.
Steve Chibnall did a meticulous job of editing down my sometimes rambling manuscript into a tight, logically structured narrative, and Mike Caldwell, the BFI’s Head of Posters at their Berkhamsted archive, patiently guided me around his empire while I selected possible illustrations. After we had picked out about 100 of the BFI’s best posters, plus 200 of my own, Mike then photographed everything in his studio over a couple of intensive afternoons, and got the results down to Tom Cabot, the book’s production manager back in London. Tom put the book together impressively quickly over a few frantically busy late-autumn weeks, and it at last appeared in December 2006, just in time for the Christmas market.
I was pleased with the book in the book in the end, and hope readers will share my enthusiasm. The story it tells is multi-faceted, taking in the rise and fall of a great forgotten tradition of popular British art, a lost world of craftsman-led printing, and an uproarious bunch of old-time publicists, who knew better than anyone that the way to sell their movies was with shamelessly over-the-top hype. Above all, perhaps, it recalls a time when a “trip to the pictures” was still something special, when the cinemas themselves still had real character, and the films – good, bad and indifferent – always LOOKED as though they could be the Greatest Thing Ever Made. If my book inspires people to start considering some of the artists behind this “Land That Time Forgot”, or indeed helps to reproduce the vivid thrill of excitement I had when I first clapped eyes on Tom Chantrell’s glorious quad of the same name 33 years ago, then I guess it will have done it’s job.
Sim Branaghan is the author of British Film Posters – An Illustrated History