This week’s edition of Radio 4’s The Film Programme will be both a first and a last. What’s last about it is that after 17 years the show is coming to an end. What’s first about it is that never before have the programme’s two presenters, who have done it as a job share, come together to present the same edition. The occasion is that historic.
For both Francine Stock and Antonia Quirke, the rolling of the credits on a programme that’s been a weekly fixture since 2004 marks a regrettable turn of events. The programme’s sort-of successor will be a show called Screenshot, but it will air fortnightly not weekly. And its mission to “look at the kaleidoscopic world of the moving image” is expected to extend to TV, video and gaming as well as film in the traditional sense.
For all the havoc wrought on the film industry by the pandemic, Stock and Quirke still believe in the power of the cinema-going experience, and in the idea of film communities – the community of filmmakers, and that of film consumers. To a great extent, it’s those communities that the programme has existed to serve.
“It’s ironic that on the exact day of our last programme, Hollywood is opening the biggest ever movie museum,” Quirke, who is 50, says. “And it’s going to have incredible theatres and screening rooms and programmes of events year-round, so tell me this is a dead form! It’s clearly an alive and exciting, precious form. This idea that it’s time we bowed out and film stood behind long-form television or any other kind of screen iteration is just insane to me.”
The axing of the show has also dismayed the wider film world. Some 100 film luminaries – among them Martin Scorsese, Steve McQueen, Emma Thompson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Richard E Grant and Liam Neeson – wrote a letter to The Observer, in which they said that “to axe such a long-standing and much-loved programme represents an unacceptable diminution of the BBC’s dedication to the continuing story of film, whatever programming is intended to replace it”. The Film Programme, the letter said, “has always been an exemplary blend of coverage of current cinema and the film canon, and an active champion of independent film”.
How we consume film was undergoing huge change even before the pandemic, with streaming well established and movies turning up on Netflix within days of them going into cinemas. Indeed, this trend will be the topic of the jointly fronted final edition. Nonetheless, says Stock, the evolution of film consumption didn’t limit the scope of The Film Programme.
“An enduring thing that I’m very happy with is that we looked not just at the classics, but perhaps at lesser-known but really terrific films from film history that we could just shine a light on. That’s probably the thing I’ve had more response to and letters about than anything – people saying, ‘I would never have discovered this, had I not heard about it on The Film Programme’.”
She cites a listener who heard the director Moira Buffini on the programme discussing the 1979 movie Stalker – a work by the Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky that even its adherents might describe as challenging – and finding that she had opened it up to him. “That was really a guiding element of the programme.”
Stock, who is 63, has been to film festivals all over the world, but it’s perhaps significant that her personal highlights are closer to home and reflect the role that cinema plays in everyday lives – a trip she made to Campbelltown in Scotland, when the town was trying to save its Art Deco cinema; and to Lewes in Sussex for a screening of Paper Moon (the 1973 movie starring real-life father and daughter Ryan and Tatum O’Neal) for a junior film club.
Of the programme’s demise, Stock says, “I’m sad. I understand that things have to change, and that the industry has changed. But I still think there’s a great desire to watch things communally. And the programme has brought a different way of sharing the film experience. I think of it as something that has allowed enthusiasm to be spread around.”
Stock and Quirke give great credit for the programme’s popularity to its longtime producer Stephen Hughes, and between the three of them they established an approach that meant the film world came to them rather than the other way round. The programme seemed to operate outside of the press-junket circuit of film promotion.
“We never really held tight to current releases,” explains Quirke. “Of course, we’d always feature a film that was out that week, but it didn’t have to headline the programme. We might headline with a classic film because we’d discovered that someone involved in the making of it, who people thought was long dead, might still be around and living in, I don’t know, Reading. That’s how we found the special-effects artist who masterminded the world-turning-backwards sequence in Superman. One time I interviewed the guy who edited Jagged Edge, which was one of the most exciting films I ever saw when I was growing up.”
Quirke chooses as her stand-out interview one she did with Christopher Lee. Perhaps appropriately, the star of many a Hammer Horror movie was, she says, terrifying. “It was for one of The Lord of the Rings films. And he got the wrong end of the stick when I talked to him about Tolkien. Of course, he’d known Tolkien, and got very angry, and there was this great flaring of the nostrils.”
She says she also loved interviewing directing duo the Coen Brothers, likewise the actor Willem Dafoe. “That was the lovely thing about The Film Programme. Because it was so respected, you were given proper time with top people.” And now The Film Programme’s own top people are heading off into the sunset.
The final edition of The Film Programme is at 4pm on Radio 4 on Thursday 30 September. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our TV Guide.