Denis Forman (1917-2013)

Sir Denis Forman (1917-2013) was BFI Director at a key moment in the Institute’s history, and went on to become a significant force in British television.


Denis Forman was an extraordinary individual who had fought in the second world war and, although he lost a leg at the Battle of Monte Cassino, he never let it interfere with his life.

In the immediate postwar period he worked in the Films Division of the Central Office of Information under John Grierson who recommended him for the job of BFI Director when the post became vacant in 1948. Although he was only 31 years old, Forman took charge at the BFI in 1949 and it is no exaggeration to say that without him we would not have the organisation we have today.

Sir Denis Forman

Sir Denis Forman

Forman helped create the Telekinema exhibit at the Festival of Britain and although it was a paid-for addition to the main entrance ticket it was one of the most successful parts of the South Bank exhibition, showing pioneering 3D films (some commissioned by the BFI) and live television broadcasts. In 1952 the Telekinema was re-opened by the BFI as the National Film Theatre and it is a fitting monument to his vision that remains open to this day.

He brought in new editorial staff to the BFI to run Sight & Sound magazine and the Monthly Film Bulletin: Gavin Lambert, Penelope Houston and Lindsay Anderson. Karel Reisz was also brought in and became the NFT’s first full-time programmer with a synergy of ideas between the publications and the BFI cinemas. BFI membership, which had previously attracted a few thousand individuals, rose to over 23,000. There was a new and enthusiastic audience for arthouse and classic cinema who flocked to the NFT and the BFI Library.

Among his many enduring achievements at the BFI, Forman was also responsible for creating the Experimental Film Fund which laid the ground for the BFI Production Board. Forman also undertook pioneering work in attempting to secure the right of copyright deposit for any film screened in Britain for the National Film Library (now BFI National Archive).

He was also an early advocate for the BFI to get involved in television archiving. Although Denis Forman left the BFI in 1955, his legacy is all around. He was an appropriate figure to pen an introduction to the BFI’s history published last year in which, with characteristic brio, he cheerfully confessed when John Grierson first mentioned the British Film Institute to him he replied, “Never heard of it.” But it is thanks to him and his vision and administrative flair that the organisation was reborn after the war and continues to flourish.

Moving from the BFI to the newly created ITV company in the north-west, Granada Television, run by Sidney Bernstein, he became associated with long-running programmes like What the Papers Say, the award-winning World in Action and some of Granada’s most successful, world-renowned, drama output, among which was The Jewel in the Crown in 1984. As an ambitious champion of quality television for the masses, he will be remembered as one of most highly respected and most influential figures in British television history.

Sir Denis returned to the BFI as Chair of the Board of Governors from 1971 to 1973 and was made a Fellow of the BFI in 1993.

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