Alan Lovell British Film Institute Obituary

Alan Lovell (1935-2021)

Alan Lovell

The Forgotten Television Drama project owes a debt of gratitude to Alan Lovell, the film educationist, writer and practitioner, who died on 6 May 2021, aged 85. In 1969, while working in the Education Department of the British Film Institute, Lovell presented a seminar paper entitled ‘The British Cinema: the Unknown Cinema’, in which he argued that the scholarly neglect of British Cinema meant that much of it was unknown – a situation which, by 1997, he acknowledged was no longer the case.[1] In 2009, when I presented a paper at a conference on ‘Television Classics’ at the University of Warwick I called it ‘Unknown TV Classics’, citing Lovell’s paper and arguing that, in comparison to the scholarly research on British cinema history, much of the history of British television drama was still unknown. As I mentioned in one of the early posts on this blog, that paper was the genesis of the Forgotten Television Drama project at Royal Holloway. Now, as a result of the research carried out as part of the project, together with related projects undertaken in the last two decades, many areas of British television drama history that were previously unknown have been rediscovered.

Alan Lovell was an important figure in British film culture and the history of his involvement, his educational work, his writings, his practice, deserves to be written.[2] But his interests extended beyond film, as two early articles for the journal Contrast illustrate. In 1962 Contrast published Lovell’s interview with the dramatist John Arden, about Arden’s early television plays, which provides a good insight into the process of adapting stage plays for television. This was followed in 1963 by an article about David Mercer’s first television plays in which Lovell argued that Mercer’s A Suitable Case for Treatment (BBC, 1962) was more successful than his ‘Generations’ trilogy (BBC, 1961-63) because of its departure from naturalism. Both pieces show Lovell’s interest in the work of radical writers and the short biographical sketch which accompanied the Arden interview paints a picture of someone whose interests were both eclectic and committed:

Alan Lovell is a Welshman. Since leaving university, he has spent most of his time lecturing for the British Film Institute. He organised the ‘Anarchist Cinema’ season at the National Film Theatre and is the film critic of Peace News. Has made two attempts to work in television. Associated-Rediffusion changed one programme so much that he had to take his name off the credits. MONITOR were enthusiastic about another idea and said they’d do it but forgot to contact him again. (Contrast, Vol.2, No.2, Winter 1962, p. 125)

In 1961 Lovell wrote the script for a BBC documentary called Living Jazz (7 August 1961), Jack Gold’s first film as a director, and in 1964 he wrote and directed an impressionistic short film about the development of the South Bank as a cultural centre, followed in 1966 by Star, a film he wrote and directed about Julie Christie. But it was his activities as a film educationist that sustained him throughout the 1960s, culminating in his resignation from the BFI in 1971, along with five other members of the BFI Education Department, as the result of an ideological confrontation with the Governors of the British Film Institute.[3]

Lovell continued to make an important contribution to British film culture throughout the 1970s, writing Studies in Documentary (with Jim Hillier, 1972), Don Siegel: American Cinema (1975), editing a monograph on the BFI Production Board (1976) and serving on the editorial board of Screen, for which he wrote numerous articles (see select bibliography below). In the late 1970s and 1980s he made a significant contribution to independent film and film culture at West Midlands Arts and the Birmingham Film and Video Workshop, where he wrote and directed three documentaries: Traces Left (1983), Are You Being Served (Well)? (1986) and The Black and White Pirate Show (1987).

During the 1990s Lovell taught film at Warwick University and in the late ‘90s joined the Media Studies department at Staffordshire University where I was working as a Principal Lecturer. I remember him making stimulating contributions on the Film Workshop Movement and on Pirate Radio to a module I was teaching on Alternative Practices in Film and Broadcasting, using the documentaries he had made at the Birmingham Film and Video Workshop. But perhaps his most important contribution at Staffordshire was teaching modules on Scriptwriting which were very popular with students. He also collaborated with colleagues (and ex-colleagues) from the department on three books, one on screen acting and two books on contemporary Hollywood films, film makers and audiences, which show how wide-ranging and contemporary Lovell’s interest in the cinema was.

When I completed a draft of my first book, British Television Drama: A History (BFI, 2003) I was grateful for Alan’s comments on it and pleased that I was able to include quotes from his 1963 article on David Mercer in a section on ‘The television playwright’. I did not see Alan much after leaving Staffordshire University in 2002 (Alan left shortly after) and last saw him in 2019 at the funeral of Jim Cook, another pioneering educationist from the BFI with whom Lovell edited Coming to Terms with Hollywood (1981), a BFI Dossier about the radical film makers working in Hollywood in the 1940s-50s.

Quite by chance, in the month that Lovell died (though I wasn’t aware of it until later), I read a short essay he wrote for a book on Raymond Williams, produced to accompany a season of films and television programmes at the National Film Theatre in June 1989. Intriguingly titled ‘I Started Out with Renoir But Finished Up with Rachel Roberts’ Lovell’s essay was an attempt to fulfil the remit of the book to write about a film or television programme ‘imaginatively suggested’ by Williams’ work.[4] He begins by discussing the 1930s films of Jean Renoir which he showed on ‘The first film course I ever taught’, films that he felt had an affinity with Williams’ ideas about realism, before embarking on a stimulating consideration of how his own political and cultural ideas were influenced by Williams. Lovell eventually settles on Daniel (1983), the film directed by Sidney Lumet about the alleged atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, for his choice, not so much for the film but the novel by E.L. Doctorow on which the film is based: ‘Combining political intelligence with aesthetic vitality, Doctorow’s novel represents for me the kind of art Williams was working towards.’

Lovell does not end his essay there, however, but proceeds to consider how Williams’ Welsh background (something they both shared) manifests in his work, especially the novels. Consideration of the character of Kate Owen in Williams’ novel Second Generation (1964), ‘a key book for understanding his relation to Wales’, leads Lovell to discuss ‘another Welsh woman who struggled with puritanism, the actress, Rachel Roberts’, and he chooses This Sporting Life (1963), in which Roberts plays ‘the repressed, life-denying Mrs Hammond’, as a second film, ‘to mark the puritanism which has so powerfully affected Welsh life.’ After reading this I wondered whether Lovell had seen Rachel Roberts (as I am sure he must have) in the 1974 Play for Today, Back of Beyond, where she plays a lonely, damaged woman, living alone on an isolated Welsh farm, who commits suicide at the end of the play, as Roberts herself did six years later.

A mere eight and a half pages long, Lovell’s essay is not only a stimulating discussion of Raymond Williams’ work but is a typically erudite and engaging manifestation of his own far-reaching intellectual and cultural interests, summarised in the final paragraph:

I’ve come a long way from that adult education class about realism in the Cinema. David Storey and This Sporting Life, Rachel Roberts, Gwyn Thomas, No Bells on Sunday, All Things Betray Thee, puritanism, Wales, the Rosenbergs, the Korean War, realism, modernism, structuralism, E.L. Doctorow and The Book of Daniel, the French Popular Front, La Grande Illusion and La Regle du Jeu, Jean Renoir – only Raymond Williams could have provoked and encouraged me to think about and try to connect such rich and various topics.

And only Alan Lovell could have written about such topics in such an eloquent and fascinating manner, as he did throughout his life.

Lez Cooke

Alan Lovell – Select Bibliography

‘The Scholarship Boy’, Universities and Left Review, Vol.1 No.2, 1957

Anarchist Cinema, Peace News, 1962

‘Writers and Television 2: The Writer’s View: John Arden interviewed by Alan Lovell’, Contrast, Vol.2, No.2, Winter 1962

‘Television Playwright: David Mercer’, Contrast, Vol.2, No.4, Summer 1963

Studies in the Teaching of Film Within Formal Education: Four Courses (ed. Paddy Whannel and Peter Harcourt) – Stuart Hall/Roy Knight/Albert Hunt/Alan Lovell, BFI Education, 1964

Art of the Cinema in Ten European Countries, 1967

‘The British Cinema: The Unknown Cinema’, BFI Education Department Seminar Paper, 13 March 1969

‘Robin Wood – A Dissenting View’, Screen, Vol.10, No.2, March/April 1969

‘The Common Pursuit of True Judgement’, Screen, Vol.11, Nos.4/5, July/October 1970

‘The BFI and Film Education’, Screen, Vol.12 No.3, Autumn 1971

‘Notes on British Film Culture’, Screen, Vol.13 No.2, Summer 1972

Studies in Documentary (with Jim Hillier), Secker & Warburg, 1972

Don Siegel: American Cinema, BFI, 1975

‘Television Studies’, Screen, Vol.16 No.1, Spring 1975

‘Brecht in Britain – Lindsay Anderson’, Screen, Vol.16 No.4, Winter 1975/6

The Searchers and the Pleasure Principle’, Screen Education, no.17, Winter 1975/76

Production Board (ed.), BFI, 1976

Book Review: ‘Hopes for Great Happenings – Alternatives in Education and Theatre (Albert Hunt)’, Screen Education, no.19, Summer 1976

‘BFI Regional Conference’, Screen, Vol.21 No.4, 1980/81

BFI Dossier No.11: Coming to Terms with Hollywood’ (ed. with Jim Cook), BFI, 1981

‘I Started Out with Renoir But Finished Up with Rachel Roberts’ in David Lusted (ed.), Raymond Williams: Film, TV, Culture, NFT/BFI, 1989

‘That was the Workshops that was’, Screen, Vol.31 No.1, Spring 1990

‘The British Cinema: The Known Cinema?’ in Robert Murphy (ed), The British Cinema Book, British Film Institute, 1997

Screen Acting (ed. with Peter Kramer), Routledge, 1999

Making Films in Contemporary Hollywood (with Gianluca Sergi), Hodder Arnold, 2005

Cinema Entertainment: Essays on audiences, films and film makers (with Gianluca Sergi), OUP, 2009


Living Jazz (BBC, 7 August 1961) – script

South Bank (1964) – script/director

Star (1966) – script/director

Traces Left (1983) – script/director

Are You Being Served (Well)? (1986) – script/director

The Black and White Pirate Show (1987) – script/director


[1] Alan Lovell, ‘The British Cinema: The Unknown Cinema’, BFI Education Department Seminar Paper, 13 March 1969. Nearly 20 years later Lovell wrote an article acknowledging that the situation had changed and British Cinema had become much better known as a result of scholarly activity in the intervening period: ‘The British Cinema: The Known Cinema?’ in Robert Murphy (ed), The British Cinema Book, British Film Institute, 1997.

[2] See John Gibbs, ‘An Interview with Alan Lovell, 13 April 1999’, Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism, Issue 8, June 2019, for a fascinating discussion of Lovell’s engagement with British film culture,

[3] See Alan Lovell, ‘The BFI and Film Education’ and ‘Letter of Resignation from Alan Lovell’ in Screen Vol. 12 No. 3, Autumn 1971. On a personal note, the resignation of Jim Pines as one of the six members of staff to leave the Education Department led indirectly to a vacancy lower down the pecking order and I went to work as a projectionist in the basement viewing theatre at 81 Dean Street, subsequently moving into the Education Department as the Technical Officer, helping to produce the study materials which Lovell felt was one of the most important aspects of the department’s work.

[4] From the back cover of the book, edited by David Lusted, Raymond Williams: Film, TV, Culture (NFT/BFI Education, 1989).

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