HL Deb 15 July 1985 vol 466 cc499-501

2.49 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will propose a conference to consider how to ensure the preservation of nitrate film stock, and will issue invitations to attend that conference to the companies owning nitrate film stock, the British Film Institute and representatives of those employed in the film industry.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Arts (The Earl of Gowrie)

My Lords, this a matter for the British Film Institute, which with the help of substantial Government and private funding, in 1975 started an extensive programme to duplicate its stock of nitrate-based film on to new safety film. During this time the stock at risk has been reduced from 200 million feet to 130 million feet. I am pleased to announce that in August this year the BFI is to start the construction of the J. Paul Getty Film Preservation Centre of the National Film Archive. This will provide increased facilities for the storage and preservation of film and video and will enable the BFI to increase its rate of duplication of nitrate film by 50 per cent. to 7 million feet per year and so complete the transfer of its present nitrate stock within a safe timescale.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, will the Minister accept from me that that information is very welcome news indeed, particularly against the background that at present the funds made available to the British Film Institute allow them to treat only 4 million feet? My understanding is that they are required to treat 7 million feet, and that appears to be something for the future. But would the Minister not agree that since there is the prospect of losing some of our national heritage, nothing would be lost by arranging a conference of the entrepreneurs, the workers in the industry, and the British Film Institute to see whether they can produce over a period of time a scheme that will guarantee absolutely the safety of stock which is in danger?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Graham, for his welcome to the considerable strides forward that are being made by Government and individuals in partnership. I have no objection to conferences. But as I said in my original Answer, that would of course be a matter for the industry and for the British Film Institute.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, while the noble Earl is to be congratulated on continuing the national scheme started in 1975, is he aware that we cannot altogether divorce ourselves from the deterioration of stock which is held in other hands? Is he also aware of reports that stock held by Movietone and by Pathé is seriously deteriorating? Will he ask those of his officials concerned to have a look into this and give him a report?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, implies, there are two major collections of nitrate film held by commercial companies rather than by the British Film Institute for which I am responsible. These two collections continue to generate considerable revenue which I believe the companies could well use to pay towards their duplication on to safety film. I hope that the companies will notice what both noble Lords have said.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, arising out of what my noble friend asked, will the noble Earl confirm that none of the more important film classics has been allowed to deteriorate during the last few years?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I understand that thanks to the good progress we are making this is the case. But I shall of course keep the situation continually under review.

Lord Lloyd of Hampstead

My Lords, as a former chairman of the British Film Institute and the National Film Archive I naturally welcome the statement that the noble Earl the Minister made regarding the progress which, with his assistance, the British Film Institute has been able to make. But is he aware, as I am sure he is, that the two collections to which reference has been made—the Pathé News Library and the Movietone News Library—contain an absolutely unique collection amounting to a visual history of the first half of this century, and that in a very short space of time, perhaps two or three years, they will be irretrievably lost because they are on nitrate? In those circumstances will he indicate that he will be prepared to take some initiative either to goad or perhaps to encourage the two companies which own these librairies—namely, Thorn EMI and Twentieth Century Fox—to take some appropriate effective action to ensure that such a disaster does not occur?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, as I think the noble Lord is well aware, I have myself considerable reponsibilities for trying to avert disaster, as he puts it—and as a fellow film buff I do not think that that is too strong a term—in the British Film Institute stock for which I am responsible. I hope that the two great companies he mentioned will pay heed to his words and I am delighted to encourage them. I understand that the British Film Institute would welcome the opportunity to carry out the duplication on a commercial basis, and, should the companies sponsor this, the institute could apply for an award under my Business Sponsorship Incentive Scheme. So I hope that that too will happen.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, may I once more repeat my gratitude to the noble Earl the Minister for his opening statement, which is certainly encouraging? In view of what he has said—that is, in regard to the limited nature of his remit in this matter almost wholly directed to the stock held by the British Film Institute—cloes not the noble Earl the Minister agree that the Government's presence at a conference which he suggests could be called by the British Film Institute would do nothing but good? If in fact that initiative comes forward without financial commitment but with encouragement, will the Minister be able to respond helpfully?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, in my answers I have tried to show that I am aware of the importance of this issue in terms of the National Film Archive. As I said, the question of a conference is a matter for the British Film Institute. But should it be interested in calling one, I am sure that I should be most pleased to participate.