Parliament in numbers. Illustration: Dan Murrell
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Living by numbers: YouGov and the power of the pollsters

A YouGov poll putting the Yes camp ahead on the eve of the Scotland referendum panicked Westminster into making a series of concessions. Was it a sign that we're paying too much attention to polls?

The last time Peter Kellner forecast the result on the eve of a major British vote he was accused of costing UK taxpayers tens of billions of pounds. For much of the Scottish referendum campaign, the outcome had seemed a foregone conclusion. Yet on 7 September – 11 days before Scots voted for or against independence from the rest of the United Kingdom – a poll by YouGov, of which Kellner is president, suggested that the outcome was too close to call: the Yes camp was ahead, by the narrowest possible margin. YouGov put its lead at 51-49, well within the pollsters’ margin of error. The 307-year-old Union seemed in doubt. David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg cancelled their commitments and travelled to Scotland bearing inducements designed to halt the Yes surge.

It has since been calculated that the promises the three party leaders made to Scottish voters – by way of amendments to the Barnett formula for allocating public spending to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – would cost the UK £45bn over the next decade. And the Daily Mail blamed Kellner, Britain’s pre-eminent political pollster, for helping to run up the bill. Other polling companies had detected a shift in the public mood, but it was the YouGov poll that became the subject of debate, and the focus of irritation for those who believe that polling has too much influence on politics.

On 29 March YouGov and Kellner again stirred up expectations when its poll for the Sunday Times, the first to come out after the Cameron/Miliband televised question-and-answer session, put Labour 4 points ahead of the Conservatives. If the 6-point swing that the finding represents were reflected across the country on 7 May, Labour would win “enough seats to come close to an outright majority, even if it loses badly in Scotland”, Kellner wrote.

The poll was out of line with that of YouGov’s competitors, however; a ComRes survey the same day put the Tories 4 points ahead. And YouGov polls later that week put the two parties neck-and-neck again. Yet the Labour surge, though brief, was “real”, Kellner told me. “There has plainly been a rise in Ed Miliband’s ratings [since the first leaders’ television event].”

Kellner is confident in his firm’s methods, and in what its findings tell us. On the day of the Scottish referendum, YouGov went back to the people they had surveyed earlier in the week and asked how they had voted. This showed a slight but consistent shift from Yes to No. Kellner went on television at 10.30pm, saying he was 99 per cent certain that the Better Together campaign had succeeded. It was brave to make a call so early, and a leading psephologist dismissed it out of hand. One joke went that if Scotland voted for independence, it would be a race to see who resigned first – Peter Kellner or David Cameron. Kellner was proved correct.

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It is hard to know what impact the Scotland poll that showed Yes narrowly ahead had on the final result. Kellner acknowledges that YouGov’s figures sent the No camp into “a blue funk”, but argues that there is no way of assessing whether the party leaders’ response made a difference or not. The late swing back to No was not unexpected – people often “look over the cliff edge and then draw back in referendums”, he said.

Kellner, who is 68, with glasses and receding white hair, gave me another example of the way in which polling influences politics when I met him at YouGov’s offices near Old Street, in east London, before Christmas. In the summer of 2013, when it became apparent that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria had used chemical weapons against his own people, Barack Obama asked David Cameron to support a US attack against the Syrian regime. Parliament was recalled on 29 August to debate the proposal. Three days before the Commons vote, Kellner added a question to a YouGov poll asking whether people would support or oppose Britain’s participation in a military campaign. Fifty per cent of respondents were opposed to British planes enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria or, if necessary, joining in the conflict.

The Sun published the results on a Wed­nesday. “That poll went round the world,” Kellner said, as we sat in his office, a small, glass-walled cell in the corner of a much larger (and entirely empty) room. “It was the only poll ahead of the Thursday debate, in which it was accepted as a non-contentious fact that the public did not want the British government to take part in the operation.”

The government’s motion asking for MPs’ support for military action was defeated by 13 votes. “The Commons voted against, and Obama pulled back,” Kellner said. “So the Commons vote prevented, indirectly, the air strikes going ahead.

“Here’s the question I ask myself: was our poll a key part of the chain that led to the attacks not taking place – and if it was, is that improper?” His answer is no.

(A similar question about political influence had been asked three years earlier, in 2010, when one of YouGov’s polls showed that Ed Miliband had erased a large deficit and overtaken his brother, David, in the race for the Labour leadership. Some on the left believe the survey swung the momentum in favour of Ed.)

Kellner’s allegiances are well known – he has been a member of the Labour Party for forty years, and is a former political editor of the New Statesman – and yet, as a pollster, he aspires to political neutrality and insists that he personally does not want power or influence. “If people take notice of what I say, it’s because of the public attitudes I analyse, not because of my personal opinions,” he said, in an email exchange following our meeting. Such modesty is faintly unconvincing: Kellner is frequently on air, interpreting the data in memorably pithy ways. His friend Andrew Cooper, the Tory peer who co-founded the polling company Populus in 2003 and served as Cameron’s director of strategy between 2011 and 2013, says Kellner is still the best political commentator in Britain.

He is also well connected in Labour circles, being married to the Labour peer Catherine Ashton, whose term as the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and vice-president of the European Commission ended in November. He concedes that his contributions have some influence on political debate, though he expresses this in a characteristically measured and thoughtful way. He describes himself as a believer in Edmund Burke’s notion of representative democracy – which does not regard an MP as a delegate required to enact his or her constituents’ will but rather as a representative entitled to interpret it according to his or her judgement and conscience – and he thinks that polling data can “enrich” the conversation between politicians and those they serve. George Gallup, the father of modern polling, believed that it would create “a truer democracy” by making governments “more efficient and responsive”, and Kellner reckons that the data is now available in sufficient quantities to realise Gallup’s aim.

Immigration is a case in point. “Plainly, a big majority of people think we have far too many immigrants,” Kellner said. “But once you start digging into it, you find that belief is related to a whole range of other things – it’s to do with the recession, insecurity, worries about the future – and a lot of it is nonsense.”

A recent Ipsos MORI poll showed that the average Briton believes that immigrants make up 24.4 per cent of the population, when the figure is 13 per cent. Kellner notes, too, that people think the proportion of the population on Jobseeker’s Allowance is “vastly higher” than it is. The confusion informs the mainstream parties’ illogical response to the challenge of Ukip. “As someone once pointed out, the mainstream parties are saying: ‘Ukip is right – don’t vote for them.’ They should be saying: ‘Ukip is wrong – don’t vote for them.’”

More sophisticated use of polling data, Kellner argued, would allow politicians to “dig into the roots of people’s hostility” and address the causes, rather than symptoms.

Andrew Cooper of Populus takes a similar view. He says that politicians use polls in the way the CEO of a big business might: “to understand in detail what people think about the world, to be clear about the problems and concerns in their lives and to understand the most effective way they can make their case”. No politician, Cooper told me, is governed by the data that tracks shifts in public opinion – not least because it shows that “most people, on most issues, don’t have a settled view”.

“If you did try to figure out what to do with reference to public opinion, you would end up completely becalmed, because voters think nothing of holding two contradictory opinions, or changing their mind on a dime,” Cooper said. Besides, the public wouldn’t respect politicians who seemed to respond to their own mood too closely. What Kellner calls the “paradox of polling” shows that people want it both ways. “They want politicians to listen to the voters and do what they say, but they also want politicians who know their own minds,” he said. “They want them to be tough and sincere, but they want them to do, toughly and sincerely, what they want them to do.”

Kellner explored the subject of people’s perception of politicians in more detail in a 2012 booklet, Democracy on Trial, which collected polling data that shows what voters “really think of parliament and our politicians”. It is not a story of universal contempt: only 15 per cent of voters think Westminster succeeds in “representing the interests and wishes of people like you” and 62 per cent believe that “politicians tell lies all the time” – yet 63 per cent agree that, “for all its faults, Britain’s democratic system is one of the finest in the world”.

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It is a sentiment that Kellner appears to endorse. In 2009 he published a book called Democracy: 1,000 Years in Pursuit of British Liberty, consisting of annotated extracts from celebrated speeches on freedom, from the laws of William the Conqueror to recent considerations of liberty and the constitution. It was dedicated to his father, Michael, on the grounds that it “contains some of the reasons why he chose to become British”.

Michael Kellner was an Austrian Jew, born in 1920, who emigrated to Palestine with his family in 1938, after Kristallnacht. “Most kids of that age in Palestine at the time either joined the Irgun and fought the British or joined the British and fought the Germans,” Kellner said. It is one of many binary propositions that punctuate his conversation – the product, perhaps, of a habit of seeing the world through the prism of either/or questions. His father had never been to Britain, but he joined the British army and was sent to Greece, where he was wounded and captured in the German invasion of 1941. Michael Kellner spent the rest of the war in a German POW camp, and when it was liberated he went to Britain, where he stayed for the rest of his life. “Britain’s tradition of liberty and tolerance was important to him,” Kellner said. “He became a British subject out of choice, because of what Britain stood for.”

He then became a Labour Party councillor in County Durham. Kellner says that growing up in a politically interested household shaped his career. He won a place to study mathematics at Cambridge but switched to economics and statistics because it had more practical applications. His first job, as a “specialist statistician”, was with the Sunday Times and he stayed there for 11 years, before joining the New Statesman and working as a columnist for the Independent, the Evening Standard and the Sunday Times. Later, he set up a “polling relationship” with the Independent and Newsnight, and his interest in data and statistics has remained constant throughout his career. “I have never enjoyed or been very good at the lobby gossip side of politics,” he said.

His own political career was brief; he stood in elections for Westminster City Council in 1978 although, given he was a candidate in Belgravia, he did not have “great hopes” of winning. Yet his party links were an advantage when YouGov was set up, because its two founders had strong connections with the Tories: Nadhim Zahawi is a Baghdad-born businessman who became a Conservative MP in 2010, and Stephan Shakespeare set up the ConservativeHome website, which he later sold to the pollster Michael Ashcroft. It was “useful” to have someone known to be involved with Labour, he says. The Lib Dem peer Navnit Dholakia was another early recruit, for the appearance of neutrality is essential to any polling organisation – and especially one pioneering a new way of measuring public opinion.

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When I arrived at the YouGov offices Kellner handed me a copy of the front page of the News Chronicle, dated Wednesday 4 July 1945. It reported that Gallup’s second “Election Poll” had “tested the voting intentions of a representative sample of men and women voters covering 195 constituencies” and found that Clement Attlee’s Labour Party had a 6-point lead over Winston Churchill’s Conservatives. Churchill’s status was such that many dismissed the poll. Even the News Chronicle, which had commissioned the research, had its doubts. Yet it proved correct: in fact, it underestimated the margin of victory – Labour won 47 per cent of the vote as Gallup predicted, but the Conservatives polled 6 points lower than expected, and Labour won a momentous victory with a majority of 146 seats.

It was the first time that polling had been available in a British general election, and Gallup was the only company providing it. Polling had originated in the United States in the early part of the 19th century. In 1824 a newspaper in Pennsylvania asked people which presidential candidate they preferred, and on the basis of their replies it predicted that Andrew Jackson would win more votes than John Quincy Adams.

The first national poll came nearly 100 years later: in 1916, a magazine called the Literary Digest mailed out millions of cards to its readers asking which way they intended to vote, and forecast Woodrow Wilson’s victory on the basis of the returns. The Literary Digest also picked the right candidate in several subsequent elections, though it failed to anticipate Franklin D Roosevelt’s victory in 1936 because a disproportionate number of its readers were Republican voters. It was during this very election that George Gallup conducted the first demographically representative survey.

Since then, opinion polling has become an accepted part of political and commercial life. Kellner offers a summary of what he calls the “disasters”: pollsters failed to detect the late swing that caused Thomas Dewey to lose to Harry Truman in the 1948 US presidential election, and most did not predict that Ted Heath’s Tories would overturn a Labour lead in the 1970 general election – the honourable exception being MORI, the company set up the previous year by Robert Worcester. But the most egregious failure came in 1992, when John Major won a majority of 21 seats despite trailing in the polls throughout the campaign.

That result is usually attributed to the “shy Tory factor”, which suggests that people were ashamed to admit they were planning to vote Conservative, but Kellner believes there was a more substantive problem. “All the pollsters used the same target data for social class – and it was wrong. The election had the misfortune to take place a few weeks before the 1991 census data became available, and when it came out, it showed that Britain in the 1980s had moved far more from working class to middle class than anyone thought.” Reweighting the raw data to the right class makes a significant difference. Kellner believes that Labour was never in the lead: the Conservatives were ahead from the day John Major became prime minister in November 1990.

Regardless of the causes, the failure forced the pollsters to change their methods. Until then, most polls had been conducted face to face. During the 1990s, telephone polling became the norm but by the time YouGov set up in 2000 a new form of communication was available. “The internet was the game-changer,” Cooper said.

Given that approximately half the population had access to the internet, people wondered how you could get representative samples, and Kellner couches his explanation in another neat formulation. “We did two things – one that worked and one that didn’t. The first thing we did was explain in detail how we did it. That didn’t work: people’s eyes glazed over. And the second thing was we kept getting things right.”

YouGov’s early successes included the 2001 election, when it estimated Labour’s lead more accurately than most other companies, and the first Pop Idol final in 2002, when it predicted that Will Young would beat Gareth Gates by 53 per cent to 47.

Even so, online polling was still facing “very real problems” when Cooper and Michael Simmonds set up Populus in 2003. Kellner may have worked out how to make the weightings and adjustments that would secure representative samples, Cooper said, but that didn’t mean that anyone else had. “Some big companies spent a long time trying to replicate it, but couldn’t figure out a way to do it. The same basic theory and weighting used in telephone polling didn’t work when applied to online polling – which left people wanting to move into it staring at a blank sheet of paper.”

The debate about the merits of respective methods still goes on, even now, when the proportion of people online is higher than the proportion of people with a fixed-line telephone and the response rate for some telephone polls has fallen as low as 20 per cent. “The argument about online panels is that to some extent they are self-selecting, according to who signs up, but telephone polls are now on the way to becoming self-selecting,” Kellner said. Ipsos MORI, which produces a monthly Political Monitor survey for the London Evening Standard, says it is “methodology-neutral”, meaning that it tries to use the method most suitable for its clients’ needs. It does a lot of online work but still maintains that, for surveys that need to “cover as wide a sample as possible, for example of older people, who are more likely to vote”, telephone polling gives “the most consistent results with less need for extra weighting”. Yet all the pollsters agree on one thing: no approach is without drawbacks. “Different polls give you different answers, and you can find examples in both camps of the more or less accurate,” says John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde and Britain’s most prominent psephologist.

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Ipsos MORI, which was formed in 2005 from the merger of Robert Worcester’s MORI and the British branch of the French company Ipsos, remains the UK’s largest research firm. But YouGov is growing fast; it expanded into America in 2007 when it bought the US company Polimetrix and now has 25 offices worldwide, in continental Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Its ambition is clear, and both its strapline (“What the world thinks”) and mission statement (“It is our ambition to supply a live stream of continuous, accurate data and insight into what people are thinking and doing all over the world, all of the time, so that companies, governments and institutions can better serve the people that sustain them”) have a slightly cultic air. The firm now has a “panel” of more than 600,000 members in the UK and three million worldwide, from whom it selects a weighted sample of respondents for each poll.

Given its aims, I was surprised by how quiet its headquarters seemed – the building near Old Street looks more like a fashionable block of flats than an office. Yet I later realised that the unattended desks in the room beyond Kellner’s office were further evidence of YouGov’s ambition: it had just taken over two more floors in the block, partly to accommodate future expansion.

Kellner estimates that 90 per cent of YouGov’s work is market research and only 10 per cent politics, though in his particular case the numbers are reversed. He used to have a 1.7 per cent stake in the firm which, the Financial Times reported in 2007, was “worth about £2.3m”. He sold the shares on the advice of the cabinet secretary, however, after his wife became leader of the House of Lords in Gordon Brown’s first government in 2007. John Humphrys, the BBC journalist and presenter of the Today programme, who was also given shares in YouGov when it was set up, remains a shareholder and still writes a column on its website. Kellner calls himself a “wage slave” although, if the FT’s estimate is correct, he would have become a millionaire when he sold his shares. “Few journalists have moved into new territory with quite such spectacular results,” said a profile in the Independent in 2006, under the headline “Ten out of ten hacks really envy him”. It is not he who makes the company money, he adds: but he will not reveal what newspapers pay for a poll, saying only that it’s less than it was 20 years ago. Industry insiders suggest a figure of between £500 and £1,000 per poll if commissioned as part of a long-term contract. Indeed, political polling is often a loss-leader, and many companies do it less for profit than for publicity.

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When I spoke to him before Christmas Kellner made few predictions, beyond saying that he expected the turnout to go up again in the May election, as it did in 2005 and 2010, after the collapse of 2001 when the inevitable Labour victory generated little tension or ideological argument. Now, when we speak again, he still believes that we “shall still end up with a Conservative lead in the popular vote” – without the party securing an outright majority – “unless some specific event or events give Labour a boost”.

Yet in a race this close, small margins can have a big impact: the spike for Labour in late March briefly raised the prospect of a minority single-party government, like the one Harold Wilson formed in 1974, leaving the other big parties with the choice of allowing it to govern or risking public displeasure by voting it down, triggering a long period of uncertainty. When we first spoke, Kellner suggested that “the ten days after the election might be as tense and unpredictable as the ten days before”. Now it seems that the uncertainty could last for months.

Edward Platt is an NS contributing writer

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue 2015

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Can celluloid lovers like Christopher Nolan stop a digital-only future for film?

Despite proponents like the Dunkirk director, physical film is finding it tough in the modern age. 

“Chris Nolan is one of the few producing and directing films right now who could open that film. He is one of the all-time great filmmakers.”

No prizes for guessing which new release Vue CEO Tim Richards is talking about. Aside from its box office success, aside from its filmmaking craft, aside even from its early reception as an Oscar favourite, Dunkirk sees Nolan doing what Nolan does best: he has used his latest film to reopen the debate about celluloid.

Until relatively recently all film was projected from that old, classic medium of the film reel - a spool of celluloid run in front of a projector bulb throwing images on to a screen. It comes mainly in two forms: 35mm (standard theatrical presentations) or 70mm (larger, more detailed presentations most popular in the 60s and 70s). Fans say it provides a “warmer” colour palette, with more depth and saturation than modern digital formats.

But now it’s hard to even see movies on film to make the comparison. After George Lucas, godfather of the Star Wars franchise, shot Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones entirely in digital rather than on physical film, the rollout of digital progressed with clinical efficacy. Within ten years, film was almost wiped out, deemed to be impractical and irrelevant. Modern cinema, it was argued, could be stored in a hard drive.

Christopher Nolan set out to change all that. He championed film as a medium against the industry trend, producing (The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar) in super-detailed, super-sized IMAX 70mm. With Dunkirk, Nolan has taken that further by screening the film in 35mm, 70mm and IMAX 70mm.

Nolan is not the medium's only poster boy – it is symbolic that the new Star Wars trilogy, 15 years on from Attack’s groundbreaking digital filming, is now being shot on film once more. This summer, Dunkirk may well be seeing the biggest rollout of a 70mm presentation in cinemas for 25 years, but in 2015 Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight saw chains and independent cinemas having to retrofit 21st Century cinemas for a 20th Century presentation style. It was a difficult process, with only a handful of screens able to show the film as Tarantino intended – but it was a start.

Today, celluloid is, ostensibly, looking healthier. A recent deal struck between Hollywood big wigs and Kodak has helped. Kodak will now supply celluloid to Twentieth Century Fox, Disney, Warner Bros., Universal, Paramount and Sony. It’s a deal which is not only helping keep Kodak afloat, but also film alive.

Kodak has also gone a step further, launching an app to help audiences find 35mm screenings in local cinemas. Called ‘Reel Film’, it endeavours to back Nolan and co in ensuring that celluloid is still a viable method of film projection in the 21st century.

Even so, whether Nolan’s film fightback has actually had any impact is unclear. Independent cinemas still screen in film, and certainly Vue and Odeon both have film projectors in some of their flagship screens, but digital dominates. Meanwhile, key creatives are pushing hard for a digital future: Peter Jackson, James Cameron and the creative teams at Marvel are all pioneering in digital fields. Whether or not film can survive after over a decade of effacement is a difficult – and surpisingly emotionally charged – question.

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Paul Vickery, Head of Programming at the Prince Charles Cinema in London, is the kind of person you might expect to talk all about how physical film is a beautiful medium, key for preserving the history of cinema. History, he tells me, is important to the Prince Charles, but it's a surprise when he saysfilm is actually more practical for their operation. Because not every film they screen has been digitised, access to old reels is essential for their business.

“If you completely remove film as an option for presentation as a cinema that shows older films,” he says, “you effectively cut 75 per cent of the films that you could possibly show out of your options, and you can only focus on those that have been digitised.”

Vickery says the debate around film and digital often neglects the practicality of film. “It's always focusing on the idea of the romance of seeing films on film, but as much as it is that, it's also to have more options, to present more films. You need to be able to show them from all formats.”

That’s a key part of what makes the Prince Charles Cinema special. Sitting in London's movie-premier hub Leicester Square, the Prince Charles is renowned for its celluloid presentations of older films and has made a successful business out of its 35mm and 70mm screenings of both classics and niche films.

“If there is the option to show film and digital, we tend to take film as the option because it's also something you can't replicate at home,” he explains. “It's also just the nature of how film is seen on screen: its image clarity, its colour palette, the sound is just something that's very different to digital, and I think that's something that's very worth saving.

“Not many people have 35mm projectors at home. If you have it on Blu-Ray or DVD, to see it on film is a way of dragging someone out from their house to come and see it at the cinema.”

Currently screening is Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 epic 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm. It’s an incredible presentation of what Vickery says is a seven or eight year-old print struck from the film’s original negatives: the colour of the picture is far richer, while the fine detail in some close-up shots is on par with modern movies. Even more impressive, though, is that the screening is packed. “Fifteen years ago, there would be cinemas where that would be almost on a circuit,” laments Vickery. “We've just stayed the course, and that's something that's just fallen away and we're one of the last, along with the BFI, to show films from film.

“There’s still a bit kicking around, but as we do more and more of it, we seem to be pulling out those people who are looking for that and they seem to be coming back again and again. The repertory side of our programme is more popular than ever.”

That popularity is seemingly reflected in its audiences’ passion for celluloid. Vickery tells me that the PCC’s suggestions board and social media are always filled with requests for film screenings, with specific questions about the way it’s being projected.

For Vickery, it’s a mark of pride. “It sounds like inflated ego almost,” he begins, as if providing a disclaimer, “but it's why I think the work we do and the BFI do and any cinema that shows films from film is about history. By us continuing to show film on film, studios will continue to make their film print available and keep them going out. If people stop showing films on film, they'd just get rid of them.

“Once they're all gone, they only way we're ever gonna be able to see them is if they're taking these films and digitising them, which as you imagine, is always going to be the classic set of films, and then there'll be very select ones will get picked, but it's not gonna be every film.

“You have to keep showing films from film to keep the history of cinema alive in cinemas.”

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History is something that the BFI is committed to preserving. 40 per cent of their annual programming is projected on celluloid, and they loan around 200 prints to venues each year. Their new “BFI 2022” initiative will produce 100 new film prints in the next five years.

Most recently they have focussed on safeguarding their archive, the BFI’s creative director Heather Stewart tells me when we meet her in her office in the BFI’s artsy offices just off Tottenham Court Road.

“We got money from the government to renew our storage which was a big deal because the national collection really wasn't safe,” she says  “There was work at risk because it was warm and humid and we have bought a fantastic, sub-zero state of the art storage facility in Warwickshire in our big site there and our negatives are there. So our master materials are all in there safe - all the nitrate negatives and all that. In 200 years, people will be able to come back and make materials from those, whether digitising or analogue.”

Stewart tells me that it’s important to do both: “Do we at the BFI think that audiences need to see films in the way the filmmaker intended? Yes. That's not going away - that's what we're here for. Do we want as many audiences as possible to see the film? Yes. So of course we're interested in digital.”

The restoration and printing project is attracting lots of “international interest” according to Stewart: just one example is that the BFI are looking into partnering with Warner Bros in their labs in Burbank, California.

“We're becoming the only place left that actually loans film prints around the world so that you can see the films the way they were intended,” she says. “So if you don't have any kind of renewal programme, you'll eventually just have blanked out, scratchy old prints and you can't see them."

They're getting financial support too, she says: “There are people like Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson [director of Oscar-winner There Will Be Blood whose 2012 film The Master was shot and screened in 70mm], a lot of people who are very committed to film, and so there's conversations going on elsewhere and with the film foundation about bringing other investments in so we can really go for it and have a fantastic collection of great great 35mm prints for audiences to look at.”

As a fan of the film reel, Stewart is passionate about this. I put to her the common suggestion that lay audiences can’t tell the difference between screening on film, and digital. “I don't agree with that", she says. "If you sit with people and look at it, they feel something that you might not be able to articulate.

“It's the realism the film gives you - that organic thing, the light going through the film is not the same as the binary of 0s and 1s. It's a different sensation. Which isn't to say that digital is 'lesser than', but it's a different effect. People know. They feel it in their bodies, the excitement becomes more real. There's that pleasure of film, of course but I don't want to be too geeky about it.”

Yet not every film print available is in good condition. “There's a live discussion,” says Stewart. “Is it better to show a scratched 35mm print of some great film, or a really excellent digital transfer?”

There’s no neat answer.

But Stewart is certainly driven by the idea of presenting films as closely as possible to the filmmakers’ true vision. “If you're interested in the artwork,” she explains, “that's what the artwork has to look like, and digital will be an approximation of that. If you spend a lot of money, and I mean really a lot of money, it can be an excellent approximation of that. But lots of digital transfers are not great - they're cheap. They're fine, but they're never going to be like the original.”

The process of restoration doesn’t end with digitisation. Keeping film copies in order to have originals is hugely important given how quickly digital media change. Film is a constant form of storage which does not alter. As Stewart defiantly puts it, “all archives worldwide are on the same page and the plan is to continue looking after analogue, so it ain't going anywhere.”

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The BFI were kind enough put on a display of how film projection works in practice. Tina McFarling, Media Advisor, and Dominic Simmons, Head of Technical, provide a tour of two screens at BFI Southbank. Chatting in the projection room above the screen which hosted the 70mm première of Dunkirk, their passion for celluloid was on display.

Standing next to two mammoth 70mm projectors, Simmons talks through the real-terms use of film, and the technical expertise behind it. “It's a lot more labour intensive than sticking digital prints on, but it's something we want to do,” he says.

One of the projection booths at the BFI

During the visit, the team are prepping a rare 35mm screening of the documentary I Am Cuba to be shown that afternoon. Simmons says that operating a celluloid projector is a “more complex operation” than digital. Looking at the endless labyrinth of film and sprockets, it's easy to believe.

“If you're screening from film in a cinema,” he says, “then you need engineers, technicians who are capable of doing it, whereas a lot of multiplexes have deskilled their operation.”

Simmons says that, while larger chains have one engineer to oversee every screen with the actual process of running the films centralised with a centre loading playlists, the BFI has twenty-two technicians, each closely overseeing the projection of a film when on duty.

“There's so much about the different elements of the presentation that you need to know that all comes together with the sound, the lighting and the rest of it.

“When you're starting a film, it's more of a manual operation. Someone needs to be there to press the buttons at the right time, manage the sound, operate the curtains, and attach the trailers to the feature.”

Having skilled operators is all very well, but of course you need to have the equipment to operate in the first place. “We have to make sure that the equipment is kept and utilised as well as making sure the prints are available, and then the skills will follow”, he says.

Simmons says many are likening the film fight back to vinyl’s resurrection, but has a rueful smile when he talks about film being described as “hipsterish” and “boutiquey”.

He also points out that the quaint touches that make film attractive to this new, younger audience – blemishes, the occasional scratch – are a headache for projectionists. “For me,” he says, “that's quite difficult because a bad print of a film is never a good thing, but if it's a bad print of a film that can't be seen any other way...” He trails off sadly.

The threat of damage to film prints is constant, he says. “Every time you run a film print through a projector there is some element of damage done to it. You're running it over sprockets at loads of feet per second.”

He switches a nearby projector on – it’s loud, quick and, after leaning in to look more closely, it’s easy to see that it’s violent. “It's a really physical process,” Simmons continues. “The film is starting and stopping 24 times a second.”

The idea that shooting on film, for which the very raw material is in short and ever-decreasing supply, is endangered is a tragic one. “There's a finite amount,” Simmons says. “People aren't striking new prints, so if you damage a print, the damage is there forever.”

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The Prince Charles and the BFI are in a privileged position to protect endangered film stock. A friendly partnership between them, which sees the BFI lending reels to the Prince Charles, as well as benefitting from the business of London’s rabidly cinephile audience, allow them to prioritise screening on film the majority of the time. Not every cinema is so lucky.

While the historic Ultimate Picture Palace in Oxford does have a 35mm projector, owner Becky Hallsmith says that it’s mainly the digital projector in use “for all sorts of logistic reasons”.

Though Dunkirk’s push for film projection was a welcome one, it still didn’t make sense for the UPP to screen it. “Certainly we thought about it, but I felt that if you're going to see it on celluloid, you probably want to see it on 70mm, so we decided not to get it on 35mm.”

Economic factors come into effect here too – the UPP, based just out of the city centre in Cowley, vies for Oxford’s filmgoers’ love with the Phoenix Picturehouse in nearby Jericho. While they do have slightly different markets, Hallsmith was aware that the Picturehouse was already set to screen Dunkirk in 35mm, leading her to decide not to.

 “It's not like I'm saying we never do it” she clarifies. “But there are reasons I haven't this time.”

Hallsmith was also aware that not all of her projectionists are trained in screening film, saying that, by screening Dunkirk in digital, she was “taking that little headache out of the equation”.

For the UPP, practicality of this kind trumps sentiment, given the cinema’s small operation. “I'd love it if I had the time to work out what films had beautiful 35mm prints and programme accordingly,” she says, “but I just don't have the time to put that amount of thought into details of programming. We're tiny. I'm doing all sorts of different jobs around the cinema as well. The programming is by no means the least important - it's the most important part of the job - but there is a limit to how much one can do and how much research one can do.”

Despite the practical issues related to 35mm, Hallsmith is still glad to have the option available, saying that when the digital projector was installed in 2012, there was enough room for the installation to account for the 35mm one – and to revamp it.

Despite many 35mm projectors being sent to an unceremonious death in skips, some projectors that are replaced for digital successors are cannibalised for parts. Hallsmith was a beneficiary. “Most of the bits on our 35mm projector are quite new,” she explains, “because they had all this stuff that they were taking out of other cinemas, so they upgraded our 35mm for us because they had all the parts to do it with.”

But Hallsmith is grounded when I ask her if having both projectors in operation is important. “It's important for me,” she laughs. “One of my real pleasures in life is to sit at the back near the projection room and to hear the film going through the sprocket. It's one of the most magical sounds in the world and always will be for me.

“But I know that for a lot of our customers, it is neither here nor there, so I have mixed feelings about it. It's not like I think everything should be on 35mm. I love it, but I can see the practicalities.”

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It is certainly practicality that’s governing cinema chains. Cineworld, Odeon and Vue have all seen huge expansions in recent years. Vue chief Tim Richards, says celluloid is a “niche product”, but the admission is tinged with sadness.

“The problem that we had,” he says about the 70mm screenings of Dunkirk, “with the conversion to digital that happened globally, there are literally no projectors left anywhere, and it's very, very hard to get one. We managed to find a projector and then we couldn't find anybody who actually knew how to run it. There are very real practical issues with the medium.

“To reinforce that we have a new look and feel to our head office, and I really wanted to have an old analogue 35mm projector in our reception and we couldn't find one. We had thousands of these things, and we had none left. We couldn't even get one for our reception!”

Even with a working projector and a trained projectionist, Richards says the format has “very obvious issues” with mass consumption. Again on the subject of Dunkirk, this time in 35mm, he says, “One of the prints that arrived was scratched. It's something that's been in the industry for a long time. If you have a big scratch, you simply can't screen it. You've got to get another print, especially when it will run through part of the film.”

It’s something that saddens Richards, who still says that projecting on film forms part of the “philosophy” of Vue. “We’re all big supporters [of film] and we love it. We've all been in the industry for between 25 and 30 years, the whole senior team. We genuinely love what we do, we genuinely love movies.”

That said, Richards, who is a governor of the BFI, is firmly committed to refining digital, more practical for Vue’s multiplexes. “If you go down and look at what we opened up in Leicester Square, our new flagship site, it's a 100 year old building where we shoehorned in new technology so it's not perfect, but it gives you an idea of what we're doing."

The new site has two Sony Finity 4K resolution projectors working in tandem – as well as the brand new Dolby Atmos sound system. The dual projection gives the screen a brighter, deeper hue. From a digital perspective, it is bleeding edge, and the set up is being rolled out across the UK and Germany, with 44 sites and counting. Richards is, as you would expect, enamoured with the results, claiming “that screen stands up to anything in the world”. What might be more surprising are the reactions he claims that it has elicited from celluloid devotees.

“There were a lot of old hardcore film fans there who were pleasantly surprised at the quality” he says. “People think of digital as being that new, TV-at-home which has got that clinical feel to it, and they don't feel it's got that warmth and colour saturation. This [Finity presentation] has that warmth of an old 35mm or 70mm, so I don't think the future is going back.”

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For Richards and Vue, the future appears to be as bright as that 4K Sony Finity screen in Leicester Square - for celluloid, not so much. While the appetite for watching movies on film might be growing at a promising rate for indie exhibitors, the list of technical and logistical problems is still insurmountable for many smaller venues - saying nothing of the race against time to preserve easily-damaged prints.

The main concern is an ephemeral one: the preservation of the knowledge needed to run a film projection. When the BFI’s Dominic Simmons speaks about the skills of his team and the need to pass those skills on, it evokes near forgotten skills such as thatching and forging. If the BFI and the PCC have anything to say about it, those projection skills will live on, but it’s unclear how far their voices can carry in a digital multiplex age.

As for the voice of celluloid-lover-supreme Christopher Nolan, even he too is shouting down what seems to be an unstoppable march towards a convenient digital future. But in a groundswell of growing interest and passion for the film reel, it seems that a director so obsessed with playing with time in his films seems to have bought exactly that for celluloid. Time is running out on the film reel, but there might be more of it left than we thought.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue 2015