50 Years of Glasgow Film Theatre

With the much-loved Glasgow Film Theatre celebrating its 50th anniversary this month, we speak to some of the programmers, technical staff and front-of-house workers who help run this wonderful cinema

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 29 Apr 2024
  • Glasgow Film Theatre

On 2 May, 1974, the Glasgow Film Theatre had its very first screening. That film was Federico Fellini’s flamboyant Roma. Fifty years later to the day, on 2 May 2024, GFT will be bringing Roma back to kick off a month-long season of films to celebrate this landmark 50th anniversary. The programme demonstrates the cinema’s catholic tastes. Whether you’re after a Wild West knees-up (Calamity Jane singalong, anyone?), a late-night laugh-fest (a screening of The Roomthe ‘Citizen Kane of bad movies’) or existential sci-fi (a double-bill of Solaris and Blade Runner), the GFT’s 50th-anniversary programme has you covered. 

This cinema isn’t just cherished for its eclectic programming, however. The GFT is all things to all people: it’s a place of learning, it’s a place of community, it’s a place of worship. My own introduction to the GFT was dragging a bunch of university pals along to a screening of Donnie Darko sometime in the early 00s, and I kept returning. It’s where I got my first taste of some of my favourite filmmakers like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Agnès Varda and Jean Renoir; where I giddily watched the likes of The Warriors, Dawn of the Dead and The Thing at late-night screenings; where I attended Q&As with people like Mike Leigh, Lynne Ramsay, and Terence Davies; and where I danced in the aisles during Stop Making Sense (Life During Wartime got me to my feet, I'm only human).

Speak to anyone in Glasgow who gives a damn about film and they’ll have a story about a transformative experience within GFT’s glorious art deco walls. But what about the stories of the people who make this wonderful cinema tick? Ahead of these celebrations, we caught up with some of the members of the GFT team to hear about their memories of running this cherished Glasgow institution, and where better to start than head honcho Allison Gardner.

Gardner recalls that her first visit to GFT was in 1993, where she saw the somewhat-forgotten Italian war drama Mediterraneo. “I was over visiting the CCA for a job interview,” she tells me, “that I didn’t get!” The CCA’s loss was GFT’s gain. Gardner joined GFT that year and rose through the ranks of the programming team to become the director of the annual Glasgow Film Festival and in 2020, she took over as Glasgow Film's CEO. 

When I ask Gardner for her favourite bit of programming over the years, it’s not a flashy premiere or expansive season she points to, but one of the cinema’s perennial favourites. “I started programming It’s A Wonderful Life [possibly circa 1997] and I was astounded at the reaction from the public; it’s now a staple of the GFT Christmas programme.”

Similarly, Gardner’s favourite memory isn’t a visit from one of the countless stars who’ve graced the GFT stage over the years, but a moment where an audience made a palpable connection with a film. “I think my favourite day at GFT was when we were doing audio descriptions for children who were blind,” says Gardener. She’s a bit hazy on what the actual film was (“The first Harry Potter… I think!) but the reaction on the kids’ faces hasn’t left her. “In those days we did it live – Carol McGregor did the describing live from the projection booth! The look of sheer pleasure on their faces has always stayed with me and it inspires me to ensure we can share the love of cinema with everyone.”

Photograph of Allison Gardner and Richard Ayoade on stage with microphones.
Allison Gardner (L) and Richard Ayoade (r) at the 2011 Glasgow Film Festival. Photo: Stuart Crawford

“Cinema for All” is very much GFT's key mission, and nowhere is this more important than in the vital work done by GFT's Learning & Youth Engagement Manager, Rebecca McSheaffrey. Her first memory of GFT is visiting with her mum to see Breakfast at Tiffany’s. “I was 16, I remember feeling it was a very glamorous and grown-up thing to do!” recalls McSheaffrey. More recently, her favourite screening has to be Jono McLeod’s stranger than fiction documentary My Old School starring Alan Cumming. McLeod, Cumming and the rest of the film's cast were in attendance at that sold-out premiere. "It was just such a raucous laugh," says McSheaffrey. "The kind of experience you can only have at GFT!”

McSheaffrey reckons being GFT's Learning Manager is a privileged position. "I get to see children and young people enjoy their first experience of GFT and how much joy it brings them,” she says. McSheaffrey’s role also includes facilitating the innovative Glasgow Youth Film Festival, where a group of Glasgow teens curate their own three-day event. “It’s great to see new and old audiences celebrate their choices and reward them for all the hard work they put into it,” says McSheaffrey, “because they really do care about putting on a great festival. It’s a privilege to help future filmmakers, programmers, curators and critics find their voice and I love when they come back years later to say the different ways GFT’s education work helped them in their life and career.”

Nicola Scott is GFT’s Community Engagement officer and she tells me her favourite screening at GFT was a “dream double-bill” from 2019. It featured two great films from 1995: Gus Van Sant’s To Die For, starring Nicole Kidman, and Todd Haynes’ Safe, starring Julianne Moore. “I'd never seen Safe before and it was fantastic," remembers Scott. "It was great to watch along with a film I'd been obsessed with as a teenager. Kidman and Moore are acting powerhouses.”

Last year Scott launched the Glasgow Film Club, a monthly Pay What You Can screening, and it’s been going from strength to strength. “About four film clubs in we watched Ken Loach’s The Old Oak,” she explains. “By this point we had regulars coming as well as people who just turned up to the film and then decided to come along. We had such a great conversation about the film – also a lot of laughs and cups of tea! The best thing about watching films is talking to people about them."

Exterior photograph of Glasgow Film Theatre.
Exterior photo of Glasgow Film Theatre, taken in 2015. Photo supplied by GFT

The main monthly programme for GFT is corraled by Programme Manager Paul Gallagher, whose first film visit to GFT was the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? in 2000, but it’s the Surprise Film at Glasgow Film Festival 2013 that sticks out as a favourite memory: Harmony Korine's wild ride Spring Breakers.

“I really didn’t like the film,” says Gallagher, “but seeing it in that context with that audience was just perfect.” His favourite memory as a member of staff, meanwhile, was killing time with a legendary Scottish actor. “Getting to hang out for a couple of hours with Brian Cox in the GFT bar when he came for a Q&A for a little film he was in (with half the cast of Succession in the audience!) was pretty brilliant.”

As for the best part of Gallagher’s job? Well, it’s getting to programme for a great audience. “I feel very lucky that we have such an adventurous, film-loving audience here in Glasgow, because it gives me the opportunity to put a really wide range of films on screen. Most of the time if we have an idea and think 'could we…?' the answer is nearly always 'yes', and that is an amazing privilege.”

One of the people in the projection booths making these screenings happen is Technical Officer Euan Bright, who reckons his most memorable experience at GFT was seeing The Grand Budapest Hotel at the opening of the Glasgow Film Festival in 2014. “I remember specifically the atmosphere was nothing like I had experienced in a cinema before. The enthusiasm of the audience was really infectious. A film like that really benefits from a crowd; every joke hit harder.”

Bright spends his shifts tucked away in the dark of the cinema’s projection booths, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. “Working in projection means you’re on the frontline for every screening,” he says. “You get the opportunity to meet and work with many people in the industry, from students to seasoned film directors. Everyone shares the same enthusiasm for cinema, so each interaction is always a pleasure.”

What makes the projection so special at GFT is that it's one of the only cinemas in Scotland that's still able to screen from 35mm and 70mm film. Bright's first foray into celluloid projection wasn’t a feature, but a five-minute music video of Haim’s Summer Girl directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. “I was still learning the ins and outs of 35mm projection at the theatre,” recalls Bright, “so it was a nice introduction being so short. No splicing or changeover was required, so the pressure was certainly off. And the fact it was a good track certainly helped alleviate the anxiety!”

Bright says his biggest thrill working a GFT so far “by a mile” has been projecting last year's Oppenheimer in 70mm. “It was the longest consecutive run of a 70mm print I had ran. The combination of Barbie for the Barbenheimer weekend led to a really busy and exciting couple of days for the cinema. It’s a lot of manual labour, lifting and lacing the spools and film. With four changeovers throughout, you've got to know the film pretty well.” Despite running that Oppenheimer print several times, he never got tired of it. “The picture and colours are just so much richer [in 70mm]. It’s certainly the best way to see a film.”

Black and white photograph of the exterior of Glasgow Film Theatre.
The Glasgow Film Theatre in 1976. Photo supplied by GFT

If you're a GFT regular you might have seen some of the above staff in the GFT corridors, but one person you’re sure to have come across is Tamir Amar Pettet, who’s been part of the Box Office team since 2021. The film that popped Pettet's GFT cherry was an arthouse classic: François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim. “I heavily recommended to anyone who has not had the divine pleasure of watching it,” says Pettet. His favourite, though, is more recent. “The best film I have seen at GFT was All The Beauty and the Bloodshed, a documentary about the artist Nan Goldin, a very beautiful and dynamic portrait of one of my favourite artists.” Pettet also squeezes in a mention for Maryam Touzani’s intricate Moroccan love story The Blue Caftan. “It’s very much so a film to weep to, while drinking a glass or two of the Mr. Cosmo's Merlot [GFT’s house special]. Thank you, Mr. Cosmo.”

Some of Pettet's favourite memories include working the first opening Gala after COVID restrictions had been lifted (“It was amazing to see the anticipation to return to the cinema”). He also gets a kick out of working the late shift and getting to turning off the house lights in Screen 1 (“Knowing that different types of audiences have passed through that day to watch something new or old, it's very satisfying,” he says). Pettet keeps coming back for the people, though. “I’ve loved getting to know and befriend regulars, volunteers, and staff, and meeting one of my closest friends, Polly.”

Another member of the team at the GFT coal face is Duty Manager Karlean Bourne, who’s been part of GFT’s front-of-house team for a decade now. “Some of my favourite moments are getting to meet some of our guests,” says Bourne. “People like Terry Gilliam, Richard Ayoade, and the fantastic Brian Blessed all spring to mind as moments I will never forget. As a huge fan of Ken Loach, getting to meet and talk with Paul Laverty, the amazing screenwriter of so many of his films, has to be the absolute highlight too. My mum and I bonded over our love of Ken Loach films. Sadly, my mum is no longer able to enjoy these films with me but I think she would have been as excited as me.”

Working front of house at the GFT means Bourne is in a position where she can watch people’s journeys at the cinema grow, from GFT greenhorns to weekly regulars. “Seeing our audiences, volunteers and staff make connections with the films and each other shows the importance that spaces like GFT have within the wider community,” says Bourne. “The intimate relationship that people develop with Glasgow Film is what makes it such a special organisation.”

Whatever brings you to GFT – be it the inventive programming, the world-class projection, the welcoming atmosphere, or the lovely staff – take this month-long celebration as an opportunity to pay the cinema a visit

For details on the screenings in GFT's 50th Anniversary programme, head to glasgowfilm.org/anniversary-programme