Farewell to Pete Walsh, a true champion of film in Birmingham

Posted on 13 December 2012

Pete Walsh, who once programmed the city’s Arts Lab cinema, establishing it as one of the finest repertory art house cinemas in the UK, died last week after a short illness at the age of 62.

Pete had been for the past 18 years the director of cinemas at the Irish Film Centre in the heart of Dublin’s Temple Bar, but for many years before that Pete Walsh had been at the very core of Birmingham’s independent cinema life.

At the Birmingham Arts Lab in the 1970s, firstly at Tower Street, and subsequently at Holt Street on the Aston University campus, Pete programmed the Arts Lab cinema with the eye of a cinephile, the passion of a devotee, and the joy of an avid cinema-goer.

The Birmingham Arts Lab was where Pete made his first mark in cinema.

Ian Francis, of the city’s Flatpack Film Festival, said: “Pete Walsh gathered an eclectic programme of international and underground film for “the world’s most uncomfortable cinema” at the Tower Street space.”

When the Birmingham Arts Lab transformed into The Triangle in the 1980s, joining forces with Aston University’s Centre for the Arts, Pete established the cinema there as one of the finest repertory art house cinemas in the UK. This legacy is felt to this day in the city.

Pete was a one off who doted on film, and pursued this ‘coup de foudre’ unstintingly, combining a wealth of film knowledge with an enthusiasm for the medium that knew no limit.

His meticulously researched and studiously prepared film seasons were the stuff of legend and much imitated by art house venues across the country.

I especially recall the stunning retrospective he mounted on the career of the great American director John Huston. Late nighters, all nighters, surreal double bills, week end events, festivals, all encompassing tributes, retrospectives and seasons honouring directors – all rigorously researched and cleverly curated by Pete and colleagues.

The week that American actor, director and film outlaw, Dennis Hopper spent in residence – or was it captivity – at the Birmingham Arts Lab in 1982, on Pete’s invitation, is remembered to this day by all who were present.

A large group of film programmers, festival directors, cinema managers etc all spent time at the Birmingham Arts Lab or The Triangle, like at a Film School, before bedding in their ideas at other venues and cities in acknowledged imitation.

A fag in one hand, a pint in the other, and a gossipy chuckle in his throat, Pete was at his very best – in the much loved Sacks of Potatoes pub – when chatting informally about film. His move back to his native Ireland in the 1990s was a loss to Birmingham.

However, he was able to pursue his work with increased gusto at the Irish Film Institute in Dublin. The respect he was held in by the Irish Film Institute is evident by their act of making their screens ‘dark’ on Monday as a tribute.

Ross Keane, director of the Irish Film Institute, said: “For most people, their cinema going experience at the Irish Film Institute has been shaped by Pete Walsh. He played a significant part in the development of serious film culture throughout the nation.”

And, UK colleagues have followed suit in their affectionate comments.

Adrian Wooton, CEO of Film London, said: “Peter Walsh was a terrifically dedicated and knowledgeable cinema programmer and gave so many people, including me, their first jobs in film.”

When I got to know Pete Walsh in 1979 he was programming the Arts Lab cinema under the directorship of Ted Little, who had come to Birmingham after being Director of the ICA in London. Ted had a mischievous streak in him, which also chimed with a lesser known one in Pete.

For one April Fool’s Day – they put in the film programme a false film – Ai No Bovva, dir Nagisa Oshima, and Pete studiously wrote up the film notes reviewing the false film like he would for any other film.

As people turned up on April 1 to buy tickets for the sequel to Ai No Corrida, Pete and Ted asked them all – about 30 or so – had they come for the “April the 1st” screening of Ai No Bovva, stressing and re stressing the date, whilst chuckling widely.

As well as being known for his meticulously prepared film programmes, Pete was also a staunch supporter of independent film making in the city.

The Birmingham Film Workshop engagement with programming would not have happened without Pete making the cinema available – almost a Workshop Cinema – for screenings, works in progress and educational events that gave the Film Workshop a momentum and profile in those years.

Pete also threw himself into backing the Birmingham Film Festival – the ‘Birminale’ as it was dubbed – and brought his expert international film knowledge – second to no one – into advising on the programme, and again making the cinema available for screenings.

The festival opened in 1985 at The Triangle with crowds spilling out onto the university campus, as they tried to secure tickets for My Beautiful Laundrette, the hot UK film at that time.

The emergence of independent film in the city owed much to Pete’s knowledge, advice and support, as film makers associated with the Birmingham Film Makers Co op, Birmingham Film Workshop, and the Birmingham Film Festival will all attest to.

A one off, Pete; no sequels. He will be sorely missed.

Professor Roger Shannon is a lecturer at Edge Hill University, Lancashire.

Farewell to Pete Walsh, a true champion of film in Birmingham