Home » Working at the Everyman in the 1990s: Michael Brooke

Working at the Everyman in the 1990s: Michael Brooke

Posted March 2024

Michael Brooke is a writer, editor and DVD/Blue-Ray producer who specialises in British and Central and East European cinema. We met for this interview at the BFI South Bank bar before a screening of Green Border by Agnieszka Holland the opening night film of the annual Kinoteka Polish Film Festival. Although Michael worked for the British Film Institute for years he prefers the freelance life. He lives in Worthing with his family and chickens.

In 1989 Michael saw an ad in Time Out for an administrative assistant at the Everyman cinema. He was 22 and aside from part time work in Dixons, the electrical retail chain, he had never had a proper job. But he did spend a lot of his time in repertory cinemas. The Scala was a favourite but he travelled all over London to see double and triple bills on the big screen. His application resulted in an interview with the Everyman’s two managers Peter Howden and Liz Wrenn, who also ran Electric Pictures, based in Camden. Peter later told him that he was so impressed with his knowledge of film and his enthusiasm for repertory cinema that he decided to overlook his lack of practical experience in the film business.

His new job, which needless to say was not well paid, involved general administration in support of Peter who had overall strategic and creative control. Michael worked on every stage of the programme – researching and booking films, dealing with distributors, marketing and design of programmes and publicity, helping with events and writing text on the films for the programme. He performed this latter task right from the beginning and the skill of writing rapidly about films has stayed with him ever since. All in all, it was a hectic job including occasional front of house responsibilities which increased when June Carroll took over the cinema in 1993 and had to make savings in staff costs.

In a period when the Everyman was showing two or three films a day (with up to four or five on Sundays), working with distributors was a complex task. Most films came through the Rank Depot in Perivale. The films were delivered at street level outside the cinema and Michael was sometimes called upon to help the projectionists lug the heavy cans, usually containing 35 mm reels, up several flights of stairs. Any number of problems could arise in the process of putting films on screen, including legal issues with film rights, bad subtitling or being sent the wrong films. Misunderstandings occurred, for example, when the colour remakes of The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes arrived rather than the original 1930s Hitchcock originals. And once he ordered a copy of Russ Meyer’s Slaves but was sent a serious drama about slavery instead. Film rights were a complicated business. Michael recalls that the Madrid-based owner of Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight threatened legal action after it transpired that the film’s former distributor no longer had the rights; it was replaced by Citizen Kane at the last minute. On the other hand the prize-winning film Time of the Gypsies, in Serbo-Croat and Romani, by Serbian director Emir Kusturica was shown at the Everyman following the distributor going bust. It apparently became ‘an illegal repertory hit’ all over London.

A number of ‘stray prints’ of obscure origin were housed in one of the upstairs rooms. The pile contained old prints from the days of the Everyman’s founding owner, James Fairfax-Jones, including the films of his friend Richard Massingham from the 1930s and 1940s. And at one point the film Shoah, which was screened courtesy of the newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell, was there. It simply wasn’t picked up and all 36 reels were stranded at the Everyman.

The quality of the prints was variable. Quite often there was only one print of a film doing the rounds, for example Pasolini’s Salò which was in such a terrible state that an advance warning was posted in the box-office window. There wasn’t time to rehearse every screening but projectionists Pete Bell and Corinne Gilson kept detailed records of the state of all the prints with a mark out of ten and only those with a low score were rehearsed. Michael felt sorry for Corinne at a screening of Eisenstein’s Strike: the only print in distribution was a 16mm dupe of a 35mm original, and the first reel had cropped the second line of the subtitles. Unfortunately, the end result looked like inept projection, ironically in this case because Corinne was handling it with millimetre precision.

There were, however, very few complaints about print quality. Audiences were happy to catch up with repeats of old classics or the early films from famous directors like Martin Scorsese. In particular they were keen to see foreign language films which before the early 1990s were generally not available on VHS. Michael pointed out that you could get a fine film education in foreign language films at the Everyman through their seasons of ‘cash cows’ like Bergman and their double and triple bills. One particularly gratifying surprise hit involved the whole of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s ten-part Dekalog, screened in two quintuple bills. Double and triple bills also enabled programmers to show thematic juxtapositions. Time Out was useful here because its Film Guide had themed indexes. Moreover, Peter Howden was particularly creative in his curating of triple bills, for example The Exorcist and Needful Things alongside The Seventh Seal in a season of films about demonic possession to accompany the UK premiere of Jan Švankmajer’s Faust; although stylistically very different, all three starred Max von Sydow. Sadly, when there was a big increase of foreign and widescreen format videotapes on the market, the appeal of the double and triple bills declined, and many film prints were now not being replaced.

Michael’s job was varied and interesting. Working at one of the leading repertory cinemas in London gave him the opportunity to see rare films, especially as he lived fairly locally in Kilburn. Not surprisingly, one film sticks out in his memory. He sat through Syberberg’s seven and a half hour experimental film on Hitler, having got special permission from his boss to take time out from the office one afternoon. He also recalls Mephisto, by Hungarian director István Szabó. Eastern European films were rarely shown at the Everyman but on this occasion, with the help of the Hungarian Embassy, they were able to get a copy through the Rank depot, despite the fact that nobody then held the UK rights. Michael also organised events. Fortunately lots of media folk and actors lived locally and were happy to volunteer their services. A particularly memorable example was on 30th October 1993, when Jean Vigo’s complete works were screened on the day that Fellini and River Phoenix died, a fact that presenter Paul Ryan worked into his introduction (to audible gasps from audience members who hadn’t yet heard about Phoenix’s death) on the grounds that Vigo was both a great filmmaker (like Fellini) and died shockingly young (like Phoenix). That same event saw Lindsay Anderson introduce Zéro de Conduite, and the following year he would introduce a programme of his own films up to and including If…., although sadly a planned follow-up was curtailed when he unexpectedly died soon afterwards.

Budgets were tight and there was little money for marketing. When the Everyman showed the documentary A Great Day in Harlem based on the iconic group photograph from 1958 of 57 jazz musicians assembled in Harlem. The film, made in 1994, was a whistle stop tour of those who were there. Michael created his own leaflet which he personally distributed to jazz shops in London. The popularity of the screening led to successful jazz seasons at the Everyman.

There was a good atmosphere in the foyer of the cinema where Michael enjoyed chatting with audience members As well as cinephiles from all over London there was still a bunch of regular locals who enjoyed the cheap prices, including one who had been coming since the 1930s. This gentleman kept up with all the changes and particularly liked John Sayles. Michael had to closely check all box office figures and, because money was tight, he had to be ruthless about what was shown in a single screen theatre. For instance he turned down a personal request from prominent director Ismail Merchant for a six week run of his new film, In Custody, about an Urdu poet. It had not done well on opening and Michael sensed that it would not do any better with Hampstead audiences.

Hopes were placed on the café in the basement which had opened in 1986 and was taken over to be run directly in 1991. It was open 7 days a week until 11pm. Michael remembers it being a rendezvous for film discussion as well as a meeting place for all types of Hampstead locals. It even had live jazz for a while. It became the unofficial campaign headquarters for Labour MP Glenda Jackson who was given her own designated table. He remembers that she was totally taken up with politics and was too busy to contribute to the 60th anniversary celebrations in 1993.

Running a repertory cinema was a risky business in the 1990s. Michael recalls that they were very worried when the Odeon Swiss Cottage expanded from three to six screens in 1992 and began showing long runs of films like Groundhog Day and Thelma and Louise, in other words Everyman type films. Another setback in 1992 was the move to East London of Westfield College and its hall of residence which was near the Finchley Road and in walking distance of the Everyman. Combined with the competition from VHS (in one memorable week, six early Pedro Almodóvar films were simultaneously released on video killing off one of the Everyman’s more reliable triple-bill cash cows) the cinema was in real financial trouble in 1993. By this time Michael was on the board of the Everyman, replacing Tess Fairfax-Jones who had just died, but hated having to conceal from the rest of the staff just how bad things were getting; every Monday morning there was a directors’ meeting to assess whether or not the cinema was trading insolvently. It never quite reached that stage (which would have meant compulsory closure), but it was a very close-run thing at times. The cinema just about managed to keep going as an independent till 1998 when it was taken over by Pullman, and subsequently was set up as the first in the Everyman chain in 2000.

Michael left the Everyman in 1995. He had gained enormous experience in cinema which stood him in good stead for his successful career in the film world.