Leslie Hardcastle obituary: longtime BFI controller with transformational impact

As controller of the BFI, Hardcastle oversaw the expansion of the National Film Theatre, the launch of the London Film Festival and the founding of the Museum of the Moving Image.

20 March 2023

By Ian Christie

Leslie Hardcastle

Perhaps the defining qualities of Leslie Hardcastle, who has died aged 96, were his innate showmanship and infectious enthusiasm for whatever project was in hand. During 30 years at the helm of the National Film Theatre (now BFI Southbank) – he always favoured nautical terms – Leslie oversaw its growth from a single screen to three, and the launch of the London Film Festival. His enthusiasm powered the BFI’s most ambitious project, the Museum of the Moving Image, launched next to the NFT in 1988, with the support of then director Tony Smith and head of the National Film Archive, David Francis. 

For 11 years, MoMI gave London an innovative world-class museum devoted to the history of cinema and related media. Visiting filmmakers, archivists and tourists enjoyed its dramatic hands-on approach to media history, which vividly reflected Leslie’s own approach. He relished the fact that its reputation lingered after its demise, with would-be visitors and even taxi drivers believing it still open. Undaunted, in the new century he drew past collaborators, including David Robinson and me, into the project of enhancing Jonathan Sands’ Movieum at County Hall to become a London Film Museum, which moved to Covent Garden in 2012 before becoming devoted to Bond and Harry Potter displays.

Leslie Hardcastle

Born into a theatrical family in 1926, Leslie started work in the film industry after postwar National Service in the Navy. This early experience of Wardour Street culture and practices would lead him to the BFI, where he started work in its Central Booking Agency, booking films for the film society movement. After the success of an experimental Telekinema as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951, the BFI began to campaign for a permanent National Film Theatre, in the face of both government and film industry hostility, as Leslie recalled. When the NFT opened on its present site in 1957, he became its first house manager then general manager and, in 1966, controller – the title that would define his role over the following decades. 

An early NFT programmer was Lindsay Anderson, then known only as a critic and maker of documentaries. Anderson would be followed by a succession of contrasting figures – including the Americans Richard Roud and Ken Wlaschin, and in 1984 Sheila Whitaker – with all of whom Leslie formed varied but strong relationships. It was under Roud’s stewardship that the London Film Festival was launched, with Leslie becoming its administrator. As he delighted in recalling, when this seeded a New York festival, that too was initially organised from London’s South Bank.

Leslie saw himself as the captain of a busy ship, rarely needing to concern himself with what happened in the engine room of programming. But when he did, as in 1991, he could act decisively and effectively. Ken Loach’s Riff-Raff had been produced by Channel Four, which was impatient to screen it. However, when I petitioned Leslie on behalf of its producer, Sally Hibbin, he scheduled a run of screenings at short notice, which brought the film valuable press attention and led to Loach returning to the cinema screen after two decades of often contentious work for television, as well as winning the European Film Award for best picture.

For many who attended the NFT, Leslie was its visible and welcoming face. He was also an indefatigable host of lunches and parties, during festivals and visits by celebrities. On his watch, on-stage interviews with notable filmmakers and stars became institutionalised, first sponsored by the John Player tobacco company, then by the Guardian. Leslie knew he was not the ideal interviewer, and would mischievously claim to have launched the career of Michael Parkinson, then a sports journalist, by inviting him to conduct an early series of celebrity interviews.

Behind the scenes, Leslie fought trenchantly to preserve the NFT’s status and budgets, often seemingly in competition with other departments of the BFI, especially after the institute expanded its role across UK regions during the 1970s and 80s. But regional film theatres weren’t his only challenge during this period. The BFI’s National Film Archive still followed a policy set down by its founding curator, Ernest Lindgren, of giving higher priority to preservation than making prints available to screen at the NFT. And from the archive’s perspective, not enough of its lesser-known holdings of British cinema were being shown at Waterloo, which led to a period of breakaway programming at the Museum of London.

Leslie Hardcastle and David Francis

Whatever tension there had been between the NFT and the archive was overcome by the late 80s, when Leslie and David Francis joined forces to create MoMI, made possible by the inspiring leadership and fund-raising genius of the BFI’s new director, Tony Smith (the fourth that Leslie had served under). In truth, many people, both inside and beyond the BFI contributed to MoMI’s unexpected success. It became an example of what the BFI could achieve if all its factions and often warring personalities agreed to work together, and quickly became a model for a new kind of hands-on and interactive way of presenting the history of the moving image. 

After retiring as controller of the NFT in 1991, Leslie retained his close ties with MoMI, becoming its consultant curator until 1994. But he had many other passions, of which the most important was probably his leadership of the Soho Society. Leslie and his wife Wendy divided their time between Soho – demonstrating that it could be a place to live, as well as a bohemian haunt and entertainment hub – and East Sussex. And despite his commitment to the NFT’s metropolitan flagship role, he maintained active links with the film society movement that had first brought him to the BFI. In Uckfield, he became a mainstay of the local film society, bringing visitors to introduce and discuss films shown by the enterprising Uckfield Picture House, one of the earliest commercial independents to embrace digital projection.

For those who knew him, two other qualities will always be associated with Leslie. One was a lifelong love of film, in all its forms. He was never happier than meeting the great names of cinema, and ensuring that they felt appreciated at least somewhere in a country that otherwise hid its national cinematheque beneath Waterloo Bridge. The other quality was one of deep loyalty to his staff and colleagues. However much tempers might flare and insults fly, Leslie was an inveterate team-builder, who believed the show must go on. He brought out the best in everyone who was lucky enough to work for or with him.

Ian Christie is professor of film and media history at Birkbeck, University of London. He worked at the BFI between 1976 and 1996 in a variety of roles, including as head of distribution. After both he and Leslie had left, they collaborated on the London Film Museum, together with David Robinson.  

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