Cat no. 226485

British Cinema History Research Project Oral Histories: Charles Cooper (exhibitor/distributor)


Charles Cooper (5 June 1910 - ?)

Charles Cooper was born in London in 1910, the son of Russian Jewish emigrants who ran a Kosher butcher business in Stoke Newington. His interest in film began with the gift of a 9.5mm camera and projector. He became a regular filmgoer, although increasingly he felt dissatisfied by the films commercially exhibited. By the early 1930s he was involved in the left wing film-club movement, particularly in the Kino group which distributed 16mm versions of Soviet classics such as 'Battleship Potemkin'. He was involved in Kino's 1934 production 'Bread', a short film protesting against the injustice of the Means Test, which includes worker newsreel footage of a hunger march shot by Cooper. Cooper was also an eye witness of the early weeks of the Spanish Civil War, assisting Otto Katz to retrieve material for his book 'The Nazi Conspiracy in Spain'.

In the late 1930s Cooper went on a trip to Mexico, and on the outbreak of war in 1939 found himself stranded in America. Through the war he worked in New York in the Film Department of the 'International Workers Order', a left wing group concerned with maintaining cultural links between immigrants to America and thier native countries. The Film Department distributed films and filmstrips for non theatrical exhibition throughout the United States. When the IWO's position became untenable due to activities of McCarthy and the House of Un-American Activities Committee, Cooper bought the assets of the film department and continued privately for a few years. However, not holding American citizenship, he was forced to return to Britain where in 1950 he set up Contemporary Films, distributing political and art house films, initially in conjunction with George Hoellering at the Academy Cinema. In the 1960s he opened the Paris Pullman in South Kensington and the Phoenix cinemas in Finchley.

In this rich and detailed interview (conducted by Sid Cole in 1989), Cooper discusses his family history, his early work with Kino and his interest in social and political film-making. He recounts Kino's problems with the censor distributing Soviet films during the 1930s. He recounts his experiences with the 'International Workers Order' in America, particularly his interest in showing films representing Black communities. Cooper provides a fascinating insight into the working practices of Contemporary Films in its early days, the technical problems dealing with foreign films, the relationship with the BBFC (particularly with John Trevelyan and the relaxing of censorship in the 1960s) and the negotiations with the BBC and Channel 4 over television and theatrical rights. He details his exhibition philosophy, arguing that cinemas should be centres of entertainment and the arts, providing more than simply a viewing space, and he discusses the exhibtion situation as at 1989, with particular reference to Arts Cinema and the BFI regional exhibition netwrok.

(Lawrence Napper, BCHRP)