Peter ‘Pete’ Walsh, the highly respected film programmer and cinema manager, who for the last 18 years worked at the Irish Film Institute in Dublin, passed away on December 7th after a short illness, at the age of 62. Professionally much admired, Pete was for some 40 years an inspirational fixture on the independent cinema scene, known for his encyclopaedic cinema knowledge and his dogged, passionate and often richly amusing and argumentative commitment (especially after a few drinks!) to a notion of cinema and cinema exhibition. Pete was also a very warm, social and dryly witty personality who loved company.
Born in Wexford in Ireland, he came to England as teenager and it was through college, studying photography in Birmingham, and then his membership of the Birmingham Film Society in the early 1970s that he became friends with likeminded movie buff Tony Jones and worked with fellow enthusiasts at the fledging, bohemian Birmingham Arts Lab. The Lab was created in a freewheeling entrepreneurial spirit, with equipment and fixtures and fittings borrowed from all over, and rapidly became the centre of the city’s arthouse cinema universe.
Pete was one its central figures, sharing projection, programming and writing duties. Based on the model of the Academy in London, the Lab was a space that championed independent, avant-garde, auteur-driven work as well as classical Hollywood cinema and welcomed whenever it could both international and local filmmakers; Pete very much supported emergent talent being fostered in the city while Dennis Hopper’s rock ’n’ roll appearance at Pete’s invitation in 1982, presenting his films and an exhibition of his photography for a week, is still remembered as a legendary, hallowed event in the annals of Birmingham cinema-going.
Shortly afterwards, the Arts Lab’s activities were merged into a new multi-arts centre, the Triangle, based on the University of Aston campus. Pete followed, continuing to produce engaging contemporary programmes mixed with authoritative retrospectives, drawing on the expertise of critics and academics to help him curate them and write the wonderfully fulsome accompanying booklets produced by the cinema. This was another hallmark of Pete’s work: his inclusiveness and long-term relationships not just with other film programmers (he also contributed to various incarnations of the Birmingham Film Festival) but with the very best people teaching, researching and writing about film in the UK, including, of course, contributors to Sight & Sound.
Perhaps Pete’s most enduring if unsung legacy was his encouragement and generosity in mentoring young people (such as myself) who turned up at his office wanting to work in cinema. Almost without exception, Pete took us on and initiated us into the magic and mystery of his own personal smallest show on earth, and all of us were proud to call him a friend forever afterwards.
After a decade of political and financial difficulties, the cinema at the Triangle was finally closed in 1993. Pete nonetheless found an exciting new job, returning to Ireland to run the cinema programme for the recently established Irish Film Institute in Dublin, where he continued to champion films, filmmakers and would-be film programmers for the best part of another two decades. His hardcore belief in cinema and its diversity was evinced in his top ten selection for the Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll earlier this year in which, after much agonising, Citizen Kane nestled alongside The Honeymoon Killers, Make Way for Tomorrow, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ordet, Persona, Rio Bravo, Sátántangó, Sunrise and Vertigo.
Even very near the end of his life, visited by friends and family, he passionately debated the merits of certain movies, slipped out of the hospice for some special cinema visits (Skyfall he loathed, The Master he loved!), enthusiastically planned for future seasons and remained a resolute advocate of the analogue, celluloid and the pleasures of 70mm over digital projection. Pete will be much missed by his many film friends and ever-supportive family. Plans are being made for memorial tribute events to his life and career in Dublin, Birmingham and London.
Thanks to Tony Jones, Roger Shannon and James Mulvey for information in this piece.