Maggie's gift to Gordon

David Cameron tried to break with the Tory past by modelling himself on Tony Blair. But with Margare

History imposed on David Cameron the task of persuading the electorate that Conservatives are at home in 21st-century Britain. William Hague, Michael Howard and Iain Duncan Smith were at one in supposing that, overlooked or derided by metropolitan opinion, there was a conservative British majority that viewed the society emerging around them with alarm and indignation. In fact, most voters felt at home in liberal Britain, and the Conservatives went on to three successive defeats. Breaking with his predecessors, Cameron decided that unless the Conservatives identified themselves with the nation that Britain has become they were finished as a party of government. By aligning himself with contemporary British values, he posed a challenge to Labour to which Gordon Brown must now respond.

The next general election will take place against the background of a period of profound social change that goes back to the crises of the Seventies. To a considerable extent, 21st-century Britain is an unintended consequence of Margaret Thatcher. It was Thatcher who, accentuating the impact of global forces that no one controls, dismantled the postwar settlement and created the market-driven society we live in today. She believed that by rejuvenating British capitalism she could revive the stolidly bourgeois Britain she had known in the Fifties; but that country was a product of Labour rule, and the upshot of reshaping public institutions on a market model was to create a society of a kind she had never imagined.

In an essay that had a powerful influence on the intellectual fringes of early Thatcherism, Friedrich Hayek distinguished between two rival versions of individualism - a "true", Burkean variety, rooted in tradition, that accepted the constraints of conventional morality and a "false", Romantic version in which personal choice and self-realisation trumped all other values. Hayek believed that a revitalised free market would bring with it a return to "true" individualism.

Instead, it was a version of Romantic individualism that triumphed. As the imperatives of market choice have spread into every area of social life, personal fulfilment and the satisfaction of desire have become the ruling values. Relationships of all kinds have become looser and social structures have become more negotiable and provisional. In many ways this has been a benign process. As a result we are more tolerant of the varieties of family and sexual life, and less pervasively racist, and although we are perceptibly more unequal we are less obsessed with class than in the past. But the country created by freeing up the market is in many respects the antithesis of the one Hayek and Thatcher aimed to restore. If ever there was such a thing as a conservative philosophy, its central values were social cohesion and cultural continuity in a settled form of common life. Yet when it is released from restraint the market works to unsettle established ways of living. So, far from reviving an older Britain, Thatcher wiped away its last traces.

Endemic discontent

However, if the freewheeling society we have today is Thatcher's creation, her latter-day followers refuse to recognise the fact. The diehards who make up much of the Conservatives' core support despise and reject the nation she un wittingly created. They believe that by ditching Thatcher's inheritance, Cameron has abandoned anything resembling conservatism; but it was Thatcher who destroyed the old social structures - and with them the possibility of a viable conservative project. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Conservative Party itself. The loosening up of hierarchies that occurred in society at large has been reflected in a parallel dissolution of the Tory culture of loyalty. Before Thatcher, Tory leaders could rely on an ethos that elevated loyalty above ideology. After Thatcher, disloyalty and infighting became defining Tory traits, and every party leader was placed permanently on probation. Mistrusted by his party, Cameron is seen as a traitor to conservative values. But the Thatcherites themselves - with their endemic discontent and doctrinal mentality - demonstrate how unreal these values have become. Early this month, the former deputy leader Michael Ancram urged Cameron to "unveil the party's soul" rather than "trashing" its Thatcherite past. If Cameron follows such advice, the Conservatives will be left stranded on the margins of power in a country they have ceased to comprehend.

Whatever his critics may say, Cameron had no alternative but to remodel his party. His strategy of repositioning his party on the liberal centre ground enabled it to become, once again, a contender for power. The trouble is that the model of modernisation he adopted was already obsolete. By the time Cameron adopted Blairite new Labour as his template, Blair had become a buffoonish figure - a would-be global messiah who engineered the worst British foreign policy disaster since Suez. A more experienced politician might have asked himself whether it was wise to pose as Blair's successor. Cameron might have unseated Blair in a general election run-off; but once Blair vanished from the scene, the Tory leader was left looking dated and redundant.

In the Commons, Cameron goaded Blair with the taunt, "You were the future once." Yet, by modelling himself on Blair, Cameron tied himself to the past. Unprepared for the national sigh of relief that greeted Blair's departure, he seems ill-prepared for the very different style of politics that has arrived with Gordon Brown.

Only a new breed of Conservatives, for whom Thatcher was a chapter in the history books rather than a living presence, could have consigned her to the memory hole with such brisk finality. In this, Cameron's limited political experience has been a source of strength, but passing most of his short political life in Blair's shadow has narrowed Cameron's vision. Blair's decade in power was a by-product of unrepeatable historical conditions. He was able to return Labour to power by accepting many of Thatcher's policies because she embodied the interests and values of a crucial part of the electorate that was ready to transfer its allegiance to him.

By the time Blair left office he represented no one, and the same is true of Cameron today. Like Blair, Cameron moves in a smart, moneyed set with tenuous links to the wider society. Aside from the fox-hunting fraternity - promised a free vote on repealing the ban - it is hard to think of any social group whose concerns Cameron has consistently championed. Even his commitment to green issues, which at one point seemed to be voicing widely felt anxieties, sounds contrived and unconvincing. There is no section of today's Britain where his voice resonates with any particular force.

Cameron's patrician background plainly had a role in his most serious error to date. His in souciant dismissal of an institution that was for generations a hugely important part of British education showed how slender is his acquaintance with the choices most people have to face. Unlike most Tory voters, Cameron has always been able to take for granted the option of educating his children privately. Like a junior colonial officer in the declining years of empire, he seems hardly to comprehend the lives of those he has set out to govern. His stumble over grammar schools was more than a minor slip. It disclosed an amateurish quality in his entire operation, and exposed the vulnerability of a political project that lacks any solid base of social support.

Provincial majority

There is a great opportunity here for Gordon Brown. Linked by overlapping social ties and a common proximity to the London media, Blair and Cameron are alike in their detachment from Britain's provincial majority. This is not the disaffected, reactionary rump invoked by latter-day Thatcherites. It is broadly liberal in outlook, but it demands from government some of the qualities that used to be claimed by Conservatives, such as common sense, competence and a cool head in times of crisis. It has no time for Blairite rants about incessant change, nor for the unending stream of ephemeral initiatives that embodied the Blair regime in practice. By distancing himself so sharply from this style of government, Brown has wounded Cameron at his weakest point.

The shift in the public philosophy of the Conservatives that Cameron initiated seems to have started as a psephological gambit, which recognised that the party could not return to power on the back of its core supporters alone and aimed to capture Liberal Democrat votes in about a hundred key seats. As an electoral strategy it has had mixed results, with Lib Dem voters switching to Labour as well as to Cameron's Conservatives. At the same time, large issues have been left unresolved. At present there are at least two tendencies vying for control among the Con servatives. There are neoliberals such as John Redwood, who urge further large-scale market deregulation and hugely reduced government - a programme whose effect would be to impose another revolutionary shake-up on society, and which for that reason has no prospect of being implemented by any government in the fore seeable future.

In contrast there are the neoconservatives, who accept that governments are bound to continue to play a significant role in social welfare and regulating the economy. What these tendencies have in common is that neither can claim to be distinctively conservative - the neoliberals owe more to Hayek (who always denied being a conservative) than they do to Burke, while neoconservatism originated on the American far left. Both are progressive ideologies, which differ from those that prevail on the centre left chiefly by being less realistic and more dogmatic.

The practical problem for Cameron is that neither of these tendencies allows the Conser vatives to make the vital break with the past. If the neoliberal tendency represents a reversion to Thatcherism at its most rigidly doctrinal, the neoconservative wing of the party - to which, in most respects, Cameron himself belongs - offers little more than a continuation of Blairism. These difficulties have been compounded by his most recent turn in which - while talking of the need to repair Britain's " broken society" - he has increasingly reverted to stock right-wing themes such as crime and immigration.

Many commentators have accused Cameron of inconsistency, but his larger error is that of moving back to the reactionary territory that lost his predecessors the past three elections. However dressed up in fashionable jargon, talk of the broken society cannot help harking back to a nation whose passing the majority of Britons do not regret. No doubt concern with crime is widespread, as are doubts about current levels of immigration. But these worries do not add up to anything like a wide sense of social collapse, and most of Britain's voters like the country in which they live. By putting a rejection of that country at the heart of his campaign, Cam eron has fallen into the trap that has snared every Conservative leader since Thatcher. He has failed to reconcile his party to the society she created, while alienating the voters he needs to attract by implicitly condemning the way many of them have chosen to live.

At present, both the parliamentary party and the party organisation are racked by internecine conflicts, and Cameron himself is looking ever more like an opportunist with no settled beliefs. By itself, intellectual incoherence has rarely been a serious obstacle to securing power. When combined with an ill-conceived political strategy, the result can be disastrous. Only months ago Cameron seemed poised to overtake Labour. There is still a chance he could deny it an overall majority in the general election, but with the Tory leader's switch to the self-defeating politics of reaction and Gordon Brown's assured performance as Prime Minister, the initiative has moved back to Labour. Brown's "steady as she goes" brand of government is an ambiguous phenomenon, for though it involves a sharp break with Blair's style, it is premised on continuing with much of the policy framework that was in place when Blair was in power - which itself continued much of Thatcher's. In an irony neatly captured by the tea at No 10, Cameron has been left struggling to manage the party Thatcher nearly destroyed, while Brown is using the Thatcher inheritance to entrench Labour as the party of government. If Brown can convince voters that he has viable new policies - particularly in the areas of energy and the environment - there is every chance Cameron will follow Blair into history's memory hole.

Much now depends on events. Enough has transpired to plant a large question mark over Cameron's project. He aimed to fashion a new centre-right party, but the result has been a continuation of drift and division. A setback in the next general election could turn these divisions into a civil war not unlike the one that engulfed the party when Thatcher was toppled. The difference is that, after Cameron's attempt to impose a Blair-style makeover on the party, it could end up like a failed state - a rabble of rival factions, each claiming to embody true conservatism at a time when such a thing is no longer imaginable.

The stakes could hardly be higher. The upshot of the next general election could be meltdown in the Conservative Party and a long period of unchallenged power for Gordon Brown.

John Gray's latest book is "Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia" (Allen Lane, the Penguin Press, £18.99)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble ahead: the crises facing Gordon Brown

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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 24 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble ahead: the crises facing Gordon Brown