Investigating Press Books at the British Film Institute Reuben Library

Robert Shail, Leeds Beckett University

26 May 2021


The opportunity to present a paper for the ‘Stardom and the Archive’ symposium at the University of Exeter in February 2020 led me on a slightly nostalgic trip back into my past as a researcher. In the late 1990s I was undertaking my MA dissertation at the University of the West of England examining some of Tony Richardson’s films of the 1960s. My then supervisor, Andrew Spicer (now Professor), suggested a trip to the BFI Library in Stephen’s Street, just off Tottenham Court Road, in London. I went with the task of looking-up the press cuttings on Tom Jones (1963) but while there I made a discovery: there was something called a press book on the film. I filled in my pink request slip and saw it disappear down into the cellars of the building via a dumb waiter. A little later some slightly scratchy microfiche appeared. I had discovered for myself a remarkable source. The following year I was back on the first of many trips as part of my doctoral research into male stars in British cinema of the 1960s. Press books were to prove an invaluable tool.

For my paper at Exeter I took the chance to revisit the BFI’s collection of press books, this time using the 1960s career of Albert Finney to give the paper a shape. The Reuben Library at BFI Southbank is a good deal more comfortable than Stephen Street ever was, but I was delighted to find that the press books were still on microfiche and had to be ordered via pink slips from the cellars, once again appearing magically by dumb waiter.

So, for the uninitiated, what is a press book? These are small pamphlets rather than books which were created by film production companies, or by marketing agencies on their behalf, and distributed to cinema managers. The booklet was designed to provide suggestions and resources for the promotion of upcoming releases. For anyone analysing the creation of stars and stardom these pamphlets are particularly interesting as stars loom large in the marketing strategies on display.

The format tends to be repetitive. Examination of the press book for Far From the Madding Crowd (1967), a film I analysed as part of my PhD, gives a good sense of the typical style and content. The cover presents the main poster used for the campaign, in this case an image in which Julie Christie is prominent; a variety of sizes and formats for posters are on offer later in the booklet.

Two pages of potential news stories follow which focus on the stars, the director, and some of the picturesque Dorset locations used for the shoot. The next two pages focus entirely on the film’s four key stars with interviews and background information including potted biographies.

The following page shifts to the director, John Schlesinger, and short pieces on a number of the key technicians such as cinematographer Nicholas Roeg. The next nine pages feature all the various posters and lobby cards available; star images feature heavily here. Finally, there are specific suggestions for exploitation via television and radio, as well as features about Thomas Hardy’s novel and the soundtrack album.

Another press book for the film adds a few more interesting features. One page featured a fashion tie-in with Vogue magazine where Julie Christie models several dresses with a Victorian theme. A further page features reviews from the national press which praise the film. A selection of stills are offered in another section which can be used for the basis of a foyer display; the stars all feature heavily here in images which are close to scenes from the film. Rather more curious is a children’s art competition where a still has been converted into a line drawing – children can colour it in and win free tickets for a screening of their choice. Strangest of all is a full page tie-in with Raleigh bicycles. This seems to be an ongoing arrangement with the manufacturer and includes a number of slightly awkward photos of the film’s stars in period costume posing with bikes.

One use of the press books is to chart the changing star images which develop over a given time period. My case study for the Exeter conference was to look at the press books for three Albert Finney films released across the 1960s. I began with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). Finney’s image at this stage – it was his first leading role, playing Arthur Seaton – appears to be built around his potential status as a working-class rebel, in keeping with the films of the burgeoning New Wave and designed to tap into press interest in the phenomenon of the ‘Angry Young Man’. The poster image used in the press book shows Finney in the stance of a boxer, squaring up to an unseen adversary. On a page entitled ‘Sell the Title and Albert Finney’ this image is reinforced through a number of quotes attributed to the star which emphasise his working-class background as the ‘son of a Manchester bookmaker’. Another page is headed ‘Finney Rockets to Stardom’ and continues this theme in its emphasis on how his rise to fame had started with his education as a ‘Salford Grammar School boy’. Finney becomes representative of the aspirational working-class generation who had benefitted from the 1944 Education Act.

By 1964 the zeitgeist had clearly changed. The press book for Tom Jones is at pains to distance itself from Finney’s earlier image. An interview with Finney is titled ‘I’m no Rebel’ and goes on to quote the star: ‘You felt that Arthur had got bitter early in his life and become defensive. But Tom doesn’t do that. He just behaves. He does whatever is natural for him to do’. This theme is taken up again in another feature headed ‘Actor by Accident’. The shift in Finney’s image from working-class rebel to nascent ‘Swinging London’ icon is reinforced in the film’s main poster which tells us that ‘Tom Jones loves and loves and loves and loves!’. This is accompanied by an image of Finney with half-a-dozen of the film’s female stars sitting at his feet or wrapped around his legs. The angry young man has been replaced by an uninhibited pleasure seeker.

The final press book I looked at was for Charlie Bubbles (1967), a film reflecting the more uncertain and conflicted nature of the late 1960s. The tone is much less certain in this press book, almost as if the producers and marketers are a somewhat at a loss as to what image of masculinity is now prevalent in British culture. Finney himself is quoted as saying: ‘I find it very upsetting if audiences tend to create an image about a particular artist’ and yet the piece makes clear the autobiographical aspects of the film. It suggests that Finney’s uncertainty, like that of his character, is reflective of the times: ‘There are many real life Charlie Bubbles today’. The rebel and hedonist have apparently gone, replaced by a figure who seems at best ambivalent.

The BFI’s collection of press books is a remarkable, and often highly entertaining, resource for anyone interested in the promotion of films, in the marketing of stardom, and in films as cultural products of their time. Crude they may sometimes be in their reading of the audience but it is precisely this directness of address that makes them a remarkable window on the past, at least in terms of the film-maker’s assumptions about that audience.

Robert Shail is Professor of Film and Director of Research in the Leeds School of Arts at Leeds Beckett University and has published widely on postwar British cinema, stardom, and children’s cinema.

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One Comment

  1. Thanks, Rob for this nostalgia-laden trip down the Press Book Archives!

    I’ve had so much pleasure when visiting the BFI for my own work, and I’ll always remember our research trips with immense fondness. The long train journey, the excitement of “That London”, the faded hotel with its sign saying “Coloured TVs in every room”… all wonderful and a truly valuable part of my life.

    I always thought that the BFI staff were great. I do wonder if those in the basement ever saw the light of day as the dumb waiter ascended away from their lives in the lower reaches of Stephen’s Street. The staff, those pink slips and the dreaded microfiche reels opened up my studies to so much brilliant material to use, including boxes of production notes for Carry On Up the Khyber and even Carry On Emmannuelle!

    And your article? It’s brought back so many smashing memories – thanks!

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