In times that trumpet their own importance, it is sometimes easy to lose sight of the fact that what is truly remarkable can nevertheless pass unnoticed.
Manchester & Salford Film Society, only a little off the beaten path in its current home at Altrincham Little Theatre, still quietly ticking over with retrospective screenings from month to month, has a history which belies its unassuming public image. Entwined with its vivid history is the no-less compelling biography of its longest-serving member, the singular Marjorie Ainsworth, now 100-years-old herself.
Staking its claim to being the longest-established volunteer-led film society in the United Kingdom, with evidence for that bold assertion lodged in an extensive archive held by the Working Class Movement Library, it can trace its roots back even further than its premiere screening at the Prince’s Cinema on Salford’s Liverpool Street in November 1930. Founded by Reg Cordwell, it traded then under the name of the Manchester and Salford Workers’ Film Society, and so radical was its reputation that it found its way onto the Labour Party’s list of proscribed organisations. Its rebellious credentials were spelled out still further when, after the Salford Watch Committee refused to allow the society to screen Soviet director Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Storm Over Asia, it simply decamped over the city limits to Manchester and showed it there. Ewan MacColl, the Broughton-born folk singer who would go on to write Dirty Old Town in ambivalent tribute to the city in which he was raised, was one of its early members.
Marjorie wasn’t that far behind him in enlisting. Persuaded to become a member when just 17 by her then boyfriend, Tom, she joined him initially in the society in 1939, and subsequently in marriage three years later. With the exception of the two war years she spent with the RAF in Wales, she has been active in the society ever since, holding, at one time or another, a myriad of roles from booking the films to hosting committee meetings.
Impressively enough, both Ainsworths would go on to be awarded the Roebuck Cup for their services to community cinema; Tom being presented with it by no less a figure than Tony Curtis in 1984, Marjorie receiving it more recently in 2016.
At times leading a peripatetic existence, the society held on by the skin of its teeth. Enjoying an 18-year run at the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society on George Street, the curtain was brought down on its residence there in the most dramatic of denouements when the building itself collapsed.
While its circumstances could occasionally be straitened, this seems to have done little to dim the spirits of its members. Marjorie recalls arranging screenings with a culinary theme when the cuisine served would be inspired by the national dishes of the country whose films made up the programme.
By the sounds of it, the 1960s in particular were heady days. The society found common cause with Granada television, then something of a young upstart, long before its identity had been subsumed within the homogeneity of the wider ITV Network. Memorably, a ‘teach-in’ organised at Lyme Hall in 1968 was attended by a number of their staff, among them a pre-Sex Pistols Bill Grundy. There was also a gathering at Burton Manor at which guests included the film critic Dilys Powell and Lotte Reiniger, the German director who, using her distinctive silhouettes, gave the world its first feature animation. She gifted Marjorie one of her cut-outs, a souvenir which she treasures to this day.
With so illustrious a past, and when cinemas such as Manchester’s own HOME have done so much to bring world cinema to a wider audience, the society in its current incarnation cannot help but feel a little prosaic by contrast. What it offers, perhaps, that its rival in Tony Wilson Place does not, is a sense of continuity and community where like-minded cineastes encourage conversation and strangers can become acquainted with the life’s passion of a peerless centenarian.
Images courtesy of the Working Class Movement Library