The Film Makers Co-Op and the First English Underground Cinema 1966-70


Back In 1966, long before 'Artists film and video' , the London counter culture was gearing up for the revolution....the mods were rioting at the coast, the radical student movement was beginning a cycle of sit-ins and occupations, drug use was becoming a form of rebellion, there was a steady influx of militant draft dodgers from the U.S. and liberational movements were coalescing around radical feminism, black power, gay liberation, ecology, squatting and the commune.

At the Better Books bookshop on Charing Cross Road the poet manager Bob Cobbing began screening American Underground film as part of a series of events that included work from the Destruction In Art Symposium and readings by poets including Alexander Trocchi.
Out of these screenings emerged the London Filmmakers Co-Op on the 13th October 1966 2

The Co-Op based its structure on the New York Co-Op , an open screening, open distribution collective formed in 1961. In its formative stages the London Co-Op was a coalition of disparate interests; U.S. film makers including Steve Dwoskin and Simon Hartog and British journalists, poets and would be film makers including Cobbing, Raymond Durgnat and Dave Curtis. Two weeks after its formation the Co-Op teamed up with the International Times 3

( I T ), London's first weekly Underground newspaper, and counter cultural organiser Jim Haynes to hold the Spontaneous Festival of Underground Film at the Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre from Halloween to Bonfire Night.

Meanwhile there was a night of Underground film at the first Notting Hill Gate festival and this festival initiated the U.F.O. or Underground Freak Out Club , an all night psychedelic acid venue on Tottenham Court Road. Until it closed in October '67 the U.F.O. served as a rallying point for the expanding counter culture, there the first London light shows took place and Dave Curtis and others screened film loops and cut-ups to the music of Pink Floyd, Procul Harum and the Soft Machine. Under U.F.O. influence 3 vast 24 hour happenings took place fusing live music, lights shows, film and thousands of stoned youth. 4

The L.F.M.C. held regular screenings at Better Books until October '67 when new management sacked Cobbing and kicked out the Co - Op. During this period the Co-Op was riven with factionalism and personality clashes and this conflict eventually polarised around a split between those members who believed Underground film culture could be most effectively developed through screenings and distribution and this included Cobbing, Durgnat and Dwoskin , and those who maintained that the Co-Op should concentrate on providing production equipment and facilities for film makers and this faction was based at the Arts Lab on Drury Lane.

The London Arts Lab was set up by Jim Haynes in September '67 as a counter cultural arts complex housing a gallery, theatre, restaurant, bookshop, studio and workshop space and general crash pad. Following the example of London and Brighton, Arts Labs were set up all over the country, by 1969 over 150 were operating. The Drury Lane Arts Lab Cinema was run by Dave Curtis , it held screenings six nights a week, mixing Underground film with cult and European features.
With the exhibition / distribution faction of the Co-Op in exile the Arts Lab became the centre of underground film activity, this marked a shift in audience towards the psychedelic anarchy of the counter culture and the ascendance of the production faction who began to construct printing and processing equipment under the direction of Malcolm Le Grice. Around this time Le Grice and Hartog drew up a joint constitution which united the two factions. 5

The fundamental points of the constitution were:

1. Dedication to the production, distribution and screening of independent film.

2. Open collective democratic membership structure based on General Meetings at which a governing Executive Committee is elected by the membership

3. Non-profit making / common ownership.

4. Open access distribution of film/video.

5. Commitment to promoting all the films in distribution equally and non-selectively.

Throughout '68 the Arts Lab film makers developed primitive printing / processing facilities , this was motivated firstly by the prohibitive cost of commercial facilities and secondly because the commercial labs would censor by confiscation any material they deemed subversive. Le Grice was at this time teaching art at Goldsmiths College and St Martins School of Art and many of his students joined the Arts Lab / Co-Op and used the facilities.
Although initially hostile to the B.F.I. the Co-Op first approached them unsuccessfully for workshop funding in September '68.

Meanwhile inspired by the radical American 'Newsreel' movement, the Italian 'Cinegiornale' and revolutionary action in Paris, Derry and Chicago, London film makers formed agit-prop collectives including Cinema Action, Angry Arts, Politkino and later the London Women's Film Group (1972) and the Berwick Street Collective (1972).

In November the Arts Lab closed amid accusations of financial mismanagement and the Co-Op moved to share the offices of The Binary Information Transfer in Notting Hill Gate. B.I.T. was an Underground organisation which coordinated news and information on agitation, the Arts Lab movement, drug culture, communes.....Without a permanent base the Co-Op held irregular screenings at the Electric Cinema Club on Portobello Road which was an established venue for underground multi- media happenings.

In the autumn of '69 the LFMC established a permanent base at a new arts lab project called the Institute for Research and Technology ( I.R.A.T.) in Camden. The cinema under the direction of Dave Curtis seated over a hundred and worked on a weekly cycle of three days of Underground/Co-Op film and four days of European features, independent shorts, student work and retrospectives from the avant garde tradition.
In the early days of the Co-Op, English Underground film was limited to Dwoskin, John Latham, Jeff Keen, Le Grice, Anthony Scott and a few others but from the the Arts Lab to the I.R.A.T. a culture developed and the percentage of English work screened amongst the American steadily increased, and most of this work was produced on Co-Op facilities , by 1970 professional printing and processing equipment was installed at the I.R.A.T.
In September 1970 the Co-Op, the I.R.A.T. and a group of independent film distributors organised the International Underground Film Festival at the National Film Theatre , the festival was open and included work from Britain, Europe and America.
This was effectively the last year of the Underground, after 1970 the term 'Underground' was rapidly dropped to be replaced by 'Avant Garde', 'Experimental' and 'Independent' in both the mainstream media and the journals of the movement.6

In January 1971 the I.R.A.T. closed and the Co-Op sought new premises eventually moving to an old dairy on Prince of Wales Crescent, Camden.
It was here , isolated in it's own self contained premises that the production/processing project became completely dominant. Curtis stopped programming and the new cinema was run by Peter Gidal who was to become the principal theorist of English Structuralist film. Screenings declined to twice a week and often once a week, seasons and retrospectives were dropped and the screenings became dominated by the latest work or work in progress.

As the seventies wore on the days of the Underground faded into adolescent memory and the Co-Op filmmakers were integrated into the fine arts Avant-Garde, there were screenings at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool, the Serpentine Gallery and eventually at the Tate and the Hayward. Art schools introduced film making and many Co-Op members became tutors; Ron Haselden at Reading, Mike Leggett at Exeter, Guy Sherwin at the N.E. London Poly, David Hall, Tony Sinden and Jeff Keen at Maidstone, Anne -Rees Mogg at Chelsea, Peter Gidal and Steve Dwoskin at the Royal College of Arts. 7
The B.F.I. and the Arts Council began during this period to recognise the Avant-Garde and fund it's film makers, and in 1975 the Co-Op received it's first major B.F.I. grant for further production facilities.
In the late seventies Dave Curtis became the Film and Video Officer at the Arts Council.

London's Underground film movement was an integral part of the counter culture, it shared the same venues and ideology, a coalition of psychedelic youth culture and anarchist and ultra leftist agitation. The experiments with image 'distortion' and erotic imagery which were in the seventies claimed as anti-realist formal techniques were in the Underground perceived as celebrations of hallucinogenic and sexual pleasure.
The counter culture believed the revolution was immanent, that they were on the eve of a total transformation of British society....but the revolution never happened.

The L.F.M.C. proved to be more enduring, and more radical in its organisational
structure than the New York Co-Op which inspired its formation. 8
The principles of democracy and open access laid out in the constitution of 1967 were extended in the seventies to film production and employment of staff, nevertheless, the very activists who had dragged the Co-Op into being, embarked upon a course which would lead them inevitably to the soulless bureaucracy of the Lux. Even back in the days of the Underground there were those who saw it coming. In Cinimantics 3 (1970) alongside an article by Peter Gidal and a conversation between the filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub, Glauber Rocha, Miklos Jancso, Pierre Clementi and Simon Hartog, there appears an anonymous article on

the forthcoming International Underground Film Festival at the N.F.T.:

'Objectively the facts are that in September a week of Underground movies will be shown at the N.F.T. with filmmakers from all around the world participating.
Specifically the facts are that the revolutionary potential of the underground has been underscored by this establishment take-over bid, disguised as an 'open screening'. The cultural bankruptcy of the bourgeoisie forces it to seek props for its cultural facade from any creative source whatever, even one which is militantly opposed to it. This source it must contain within it own definition of Kulture. '
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