'Automation could kill projection': The Cameo's Eric Saunders on the future of the projectionist

Eric Saunders has now been a projectionist at Edinburgh's Cameo Cinema for over twenty-five years, a period which covers the cinema’s entire modern era from its reopening in 1986 onwards. While he’s a reluctant interviewee, to say the very least, I’d hoped that the near fifteen years I had worked with him would count for something when I suggested a brief chat to mark his quarter century at the historic Cameo.

Thankfully, he was willing to talk for a little while, though meeting in a quality bar may have swung it.

Ian Hoey: OK Eric, going back to the very beginning, were you always into movies? Was that always a likely career path?

Eric Saunders: Not really. I was probably more into photography initially. I did used to go and see some independent films as a teenager, things like Woody Allen’s Love and Death and Lisztomania – an all-time classic.

Mr Mania?

No Lisztomania.

Oh, hmm.

It’s a hotchpotch. I remember being absolutely stopped in my tracks as a teenager when I happened upon Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage being shown on BBC2. For the first time in my life I was made conscious of the fact that film could actually be very serious and a lot deeper than I thought it could be. Then, when I was working in photography in London, I became a regular at The Electric in Portobello Road, I suppose around the end of the Seventies this was. And I guess I was probably going there four or five times a week and seeing two or three films there on each trip.

Two or three films a trip! One after the other?

Yeah, I saw quite a few films in that era.

So, you’re doing photography in London, going to see a lot of films. What was the next step?

Being a shrewd type, when I noticed a sign on the box office saying ‘Projectionist Needed – Will Train’, I thought, “Hello, this is for me”. Instead of having to pay to see all of these films I could work and also take a look at them. I was a regular so I didn’t need to have much of an interview. Obviously I went to see the Head Projectionist and with my experience of working in photography I was used to handling film in any case, so it all seemed like a natural progression.

Did you get trained up quickly?

Yes, it was full on. You were having to make up four films every day. There were around twenty-five to thirty different titles every single week at The Electric. You had a matinee that was repeated at the end of the day and a double bill that was on a couple of times.

That’s a lot of movies. What year was that then?

I started working there in 1980.

How do you look back on your days at The Electric?

It was hard graft. Often the prints came from private collections. Phillip Jenkinson had a collection of prints and we often used to get them from him, such as the Jean-Luc Godard season, which we ran pretty comprehensively. When I first started there, the films wouldn’t go through, each and every film would break down at some stage.

Every film?

Every film. The prints were not in a good state, but no one else showed them so it was a case of either putting up with them breaking down or not showing them full stop. By the time I left, I’d managed to get all those prints going through which meant a large amount of hard work. It took a lot of thorough going through and repair work.

How long were you at The Electric for?

Until 1984 when it closed.

And that will have been the infamous screening of Buster Keaton’s The General. Should we mention the fact that you got tanked up on wine for the final show?

Well, at the time I was just doing what everyone else was doing, i.e. drinking throughout the whole day that last day.

Was the end of The Electric something that was foreseen, or was it quite sudden? I’d imagine that the early to mid-Eighties was the time when the majority of cinema closures occurred in the UK, turning them into Bingo halls and the like.

We had hoped that being a rep cinema we would get by, but the owners thought otherwise I’m afraid. I wasn’t conscious of audiences getting fewer and fewer. My memories are of them being constant, but never particularly massive.

What was the capacity?

About 300.

The Electric shuts and you’re out of a job, what happened next?

Back into the photography. I went from The Electric to a photo lab in Soho.

I won’t ask you what sorts of photos of you were dealing with there!

Unfortunately it wasn’t the more interesting ones, it was very much commercial and advertising. Quite a big outfit, who I think are still there. And I hated it there. I had contacts, signed up to an agency and I was able to get a photographic job in Edinburgh.

That was still in 1984?

Yes.

And then in 1986 the Cameo job came up?

Again it was contacts that I’d made at The Electric. One of the guys had worked as manager at the Filmhouse and initially I came up for a projection job there, which I just missed out on. I think they’d virtually made their choice by the time I came up here.

Were you taken on by the Cameo when it was getting fitted out for the reopening?

Yes I was.

How many projectionists were there, were you taken on as Chief?

No, there was an old guy, Johnny Barron, who had been Mr Cameo Projectionist for decades. Unfortunately he had had a slight stroke, but the people who reopened the Cameo, Recorded Cinemas, had a soft spot for him so it was being co run by myself and Johnny.

Anything particularly stick in your mind from those opening few months? Any differences you experienced from your work at The Electric?

I missed the variety of rep cinema, the fact that you had nearly thirty different film titles each week whereas at the Cameo there weren’t that many. And I think it was interesting back then that you had all these different people coming together to run the place, the new staff and, of course, Pete Buckingham and Richard Boyd. The opening party was upstairs in the Café Royale. And it was certainly memorable.

How long did Johnny stick around for?

Johnny’s health deteriorated and in the end he was hospitalised. There were a couple of Bills that we had, Bill Shearer and Bill Pierce.

And then comes along the plan of three screens [Completed in 1991]. What do you remember of that?

It was like returning to 1986. A lot of building work was going on and it was quite fascinating to watch the space that used to be shops turning into cinemas. I remember Richard Boyd coming up and meeting with Island boss Chris Blackwell, the two of them walking up the left hand fire exit in Screen One and all I actually saw of Chris Blackwell was his sandals (laughs). I think he turned up briefly and then was straight back out to the airport and off. It was Richard Boyd that pushed through getting those two screens.

Cameo cinema

Did the projectionist department expand when the two extra screens opened?

Not considerably. I think we started to take on young trainees when the government had a work scheme where you could train someone and the government would virtually pay their whole wage.

You must have worked something like twenty-six or twenty-seven Edinburgh International Film Festivals. Do any particular ones stick in your mind?

Yeah, the one festival that does stick in mind was the one when I initially turned down the job of Chief Projectionist. Mark Jenkins took it on and that coincided with the most intense film festival that there’s ever been at the Cameo. All of a sudden he had a total initiation by fire, plus the General Manager at the time was on Mark’s case constantly and making life difficult so, I must admit, that playing second fiddle during that particular film festival was one of the smartest moves I’ve ever made.

Why was it so intense?

Just the volume of films shown, it was in the years when all three screens were in use.

Sometime in the nineties then, can you remember the actual year it was?

I tell you what, if you ask Mark Jenkins, he’ll remember (laughs).

With your experience over the years, from working with guys like Johnny to the young ladies you have assisting you now, do you think there’s a certain kind of person that becomes a projectionist?

Honest to God Ian, it’s just like Cinema Paradiso (roars with laughter). And you’ve got to use that quote (more laughter). Back in the day, it was all young guys that wanted to be projectionists, apart from the ghost of Mr Christie that hung around The Electric.

Not John Christie? The serial killer of Rillington Place fame? Did he go to The Electric?

He was a projectionist there.

You what?!

Well that’s the commonly held belief. I don’t think there’s any wage slip as proof or anything like that.

Aside from people like yourself and Christie then, is there a common personality trait of the people that become projectionists?

I think that the London situation is quite a bit different to anywhere else. It’s much more transient. You get interested people coming in, doing a bit of projection and then wandering out doing other things. Other film related things. It’s not until I came up here and met people like Johnny and Bill Shearer, Bill Pierce and a youthful Pete Naples.

Don’t take this the wrong way, but how much longer do you see yourself doing projection?

In the present economic climate, also my age and the changing nature of photography, my other line of work, I hope to continue as long as I can. It’s hard to see any other line of work, other than as some form of tech, that at my time of life would realistically give me employment.

It’s impossible to have a cinema related conversation without discussing the digital revolution, what are your thoughts on this?

I think it’s much the same as the relationship between vinyl and CD. Very similar. With vinyl, like film, you get a lot more subtlety of tones. With digital you get clinical, crystal clear high contrast image. It’s much like the overall experience of an age. Every time I travel these days, be it by bus, train or aeroplane, it all feels quite similar. Whereas I remember going on steam trains as a kid and there’s a lot more richness of experience.

You think technology is sanitising everything?

Absolutely, yeah, digital is very squeaky clean.

I know where you’re coming from. Even photographs of mine from the Eighties have a real period look about them with the colours and so on. Of course it’s not just the look of the films that digital is influencing but the entire way they are screened.

It’s very apparent that automation could kill projection.

I know, there are already cinemas with no projectionists to speak of, but doing away with them altogether seems insane. Mark Kermode and others almost have a campaign going over this and I’d hope people see sense. Presentation is an art after all.

You’re right that you need a technically competent person in the building, otherwise presentation and the maintenance of the building suffers in the long run.

Would you have liked to have tried your hand anywhere else? Could you see yourself at the Odeon, Leicester Square for example?

Oh no, no, no. I’m not one of these high profile operators. I’m much more of a film person, an appreciator of film. To be honest, I was probably at my happiest when I was dealing with a huge range of diverse titles.

To most film fans that’s surely some kind of Heaven. The volume of stuff you were dealing with at The Electric sounds great.

It was the mix as well. It was the early silents, it was classic Hollywood…and not so classic Hollywood, maverick Hollywood, plus European and the controversial. We opened things like Taxi Zum Klo, which was recently revived at the Cameo funnily enough.

I’m also aware that you ran the infamous Thundercrack many times

We did, but I don’t think we can take credit for opening it. I think that was the Scala, I might be wrong. That’s going back a bit.

Considering the huge amount of films you must have seen, do you have a favourite?

Favourite film ever is Tarkovsky’s Stalker - it blends the visual and the philosophic. Have you not seen it?

No I haven’t, can’t say I feel overly excited about it.

I took my dad to have a look at it. He had a great sleep.

Bringing this to a close, are there any other prominent moments of Cameo history you bore witness to that spring to mind

Well, I was there the day that the classic Cameo neon got ripped down from the canopy and the Cannon sign was put up there for a number of hours.

Ah yes, that was when they thought they’d taken the place over. And the sign went missing didn’t it?

I think it was in the build-up that culminated in Richard Boyd pushing through the triple screens. At that time there were sales talks with the Cannon group and they appeared to think it was a done deal when in fact it wasn’t. Cannon jumped the gun, started to put up their signs and then were told to take them away. We tried to hunt the sign down immediately, within hours of it going, but we never got to the bottom of what happened to it.

And a shame it is too. Thanks for your time Eric and, of course, thanks for your contribution to the cultural life of Edinburgh for the last twenty-five years. I would wish you another happy twenty-five but I think the average human lifespan would make that a farcical comment. Only kidding. It’s been a pleasure and long may there be people like you behind the scenes presenting films the way they should be seen.