The text of the minister’s tribute to Tom, 20 December, 2005:
Tom Milne, the youngest of a family of three, was like his sisters Elma and Eileen, born in Malacca, Malaya. At the age of 9 he was sent home to Aberdeen to Angusfield Preparatory School and from there went on to Trinity College, Glenalmond. His war time service was with the Fleet Air Arm as a Meteorologist and his last year of the Second World was spent on New Guinea on the Pacific island of Poona. After the war Tom Milne returned to Aberdeen to take an honours degree in English and French, followed by further study at the Sorbonne in Paris and teaching in a French Lycee. From there he moved to London and worked in an Antiquarian Bookshop, editing the theatre magazines, Theatre Workshop and Encore, and translating books from French into English.
When his career path took him into the world of the film critic, he joined the British Film Institute as associate editor of Sight and Sound and editor of the Monthly Film Bulletin. Leaving the Film Institute to go freelance he wrote as a film critic for the Times, the Financial Times, the Observer and edited the definitive Time Out Film Guide. He also contributed to such major works as the Oxford Companion to the Theatre, and the Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought. A lifetime work was the translation of French films into English with sub-titles, and this was still his work to his death, long after he retired and returned to live with his sister Eileen in Aberdeen, in 1993.
(A version of this text was read out by the minister at Tom’s funeral in Aberdeen on December 20, 2005.)
While these memories are mine, the affection and admiration that I felt for Tom are shared by many with whom he worked at the British Film Institute and who want to be included in this message. So please consider this as a tribute not just from me but from Geoff Andrew, Paul Taylor, Steve Jenkins and many others.
I first met Tom shortly after joining the British Film Institute in the mid-Seventies and was immediately impressed by his wide film knowledge and his enthusiasm for sharing that knowledge. In addition to film, one of Tom’s abiding passions was hardboiled American crime fiction. Up to that time I’d been a pretty voracious reader but it is Tom that I have to thank — or blame — for converting me from a reader into a collector. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett may be household names but Tom introduced me to an intriguing netherworld of writers such as Cornell Woolrich, Jim Thompson and David Goodis, long before they were ‘rediscovered’ and republished. To feed our passion, we subsequently went on bookhunting trips together, taking the train to seaside towns like Brighton, Southend or Bournemouth or longer coach trips to Hay-on-Wye, the town of books. We would stagger back onto the coach clutching garish paperbacks, and giggling at the fellow passengers’ haul of dull theological tomes. Our strategy in bookshops had a military precision. Assuming the fiction section was in alphabetical order we would start from opposite ends of the alphabet, calling out “Do you need such and such a title?” (note the collector’s word ‘need’ rather than ‘want’). At the end of the day, we would divvy out our haul and there was never the slightest bit of tension around who got what.
Tom had miraculous powers of recall for plots and characters of novels and films, and I remember fondly how he would come and sit down in my office after submitting his copy to the magazine Sight and Sound, and regale me with extraordinarily detailed synopses of what he’d just read or seen. Sometimes in such length that I did need to remind him that I did actually have a job to do…
Tom used to live in a rambling mansion block flat off the Kings Road in London where his massive book collection was stored — A A Milne next to Yukio Mishima — and a small box room was reserved for duplicate copies. The flat was rented unfurnished and was sold at auction. So unworldly was Tom that when the new owner wanted to renovate the flat for sale, Tom failed to ask for any premium to move out and was instead impressed that the owner offered to pay his removal expenses.
As well as writing extensively about film, Tom translated and prepared subtitles for nearly 400 films over forty years, working closely with his friend John Minchinton. In an irony that I hope Tom would have appreciated, the last film that he was working on at the time of his death was the French film Rien ne va plus.
Tom’s professional life may well be unknown to many of you listening to this tribute and as Tom was an infinitely modest man, it may come as a surprise to know that, for many of us, Tom was simply the best British film critic ever. His tastes were eclectic, his enthusiasms infectious and his work was an undiluted pleasure to read.
I’ll miss not having any more articles by Tom to read, but far more will I miss the joy of having him as a friend — a man of immense warmth, a little shy and with an agreeably sharp sense of humour. Rest in peace.
— Nigel Algar, December 2005
by Geoff Andrew
The news of Tom Milne’s death was very saddening to me. We had never been close, in any conventional sense of the word — like many of his acquaintances, I knew little of his private life, except of his love for movies, books and cigarettes — but I always regarded him, somehow, as a good friend and, again as did so many acquaintances, as a mentor. In short, Tom was someone special. No, let’s be as clear, direct and precise as Tom was in his writing: he was someone very special.
Flashback. My last ‘encounter’ with Tom was over the telephone, a year or so before his death. I hadn’t heard from him for some years — we’d even given up exchanging Christmas cards — but I was delighted to hear his voice again as I picked up the phone, not only because it meant he was still alive (indeed, he reassured me of his health and happiness) but because it brought back many pleasant memories. Actually, it was almost as if nothing had changed in the decade or more — was it really so long? — since I’d seen Tom; when he rang, we picked up the conversation as if continuing it from a few weeks ago, and then he almost apologetically explained that he’d started doing a little consultancy work for a guy called Nick who worked for Eureka DVD and was setting up a series called Masters of Cinema. Tom wanted to alert me to a forthcoming release of Dreyer’s Mikael; the review in the Time Out Film Guide was in Tom’s opinion a tad inadequate — though he otherwise generally approved of the late Bob Baker’s assessments — and maybe I might like to consider rectifying it by taking a look at the DVD myself: did I mind him suggesting to Nick that I be sent a review copy? The query/suggestion was at once entirely respectful and motivated by sincere cinematic passion — and, as such, totally typical of Tom. Of course, I agreed (anything for a decent freebie!) — at which point we soon reverted to discussions of movies other than Dreyer’s. The result of this final dialogue with Tom, just as typically, was to my advantage: Mikael, which I’d never seen before, was a revelation. Sorry, Bob. You did much fine work, some of it there in the Time Out Film Guide, but Tom — who’d been the editor of the first three editions — was in this case, as so often, absolutely right.
Flashback further. (The Locket springs to mind — and wasn’t it Tom who introduced me to the delights of John Brahm?) My first encounter with Tom was in the early 80s when I was the young manager/programmer of Portobello Road’s Electric Cinema Club — now, like many sites of 60s and 70s cinephilia, transformed, this time into a trendy, comfy boîte for bourgeois types who care more for leather seats and the eatery next door than about the quality of movies shown on screen. He came along, quite humbly, to review as a freelancer for Time Out (before I even dreamed of writing for that rag) a movie the Electric was going to play in a couple of weeks’ time: I think it may have been Sjöstrom’s He Who Gets Slapped. I was surprised and thrilled to meet this man who had written so much and so wisely on cinema; yet all he wanted, it seemed, was a coffee (not that great!), and the chance for a ciggie and a chat before and after the screening. All those things, of course, he got; I felt privileged and proud to be in the presence of someone who’d meant so much to British film culture — indeed, to international film culture. And what amazed me, apart from Tom’s expertise, his knowledge, his articulacy, his wit, was his absolute lack of pretension: all he cared about was telling us about the films he loved. He’d discuss a movie, maybe describe or analyse it in incredible detail, and you’d end up learning enormous amounts of stuff not only about that movie but about various related matters; but never for one second would he talk down to you, or make you feel in any way inferior for knowing less than he. He was no know-it-all; he just loved passing on his passions. Tom’s generosity of spirit was what made him special, not only as a critic but as a person.
Further visits to the Electric followed, and then — when I went to Time Out, to alternate with him as the reviewer of films on TV — to the magazine, which Tom used to frequent Fridays, mainly to collect the relevant documentation but also (unwittingly, I’m sure) to bring great pleasure and education to the staff there: just ask Wally Hammond for his opinion of Tom. He’d turn up, always quietly, always with a smile, fag ash scattered over the dark blue corduroy jacket and dark blue polo (he was never a fashion-victim but always, in his slightly old-fashioned, out-of-touch way, a bit of a dandy), and he’d wax wondrously lyrical about cinema. All kinds of cinema. We all know Tom wrote/edited superb books on Dreyer, Mamoulian, Whale, Godard, Losey (and no, he and I didn’t see eye to eye on the last two), but I should also mention how he helped turn me on to or better understand the likes of Dieterle (The Last Flight), Leisen (Kitty), Aldrich, Altman, Becker, Rohmer, Ozu, Mankiewicz, Passer’s Cutter’s Way, Lumet’s Prince of the City, Makavejev’s Innocence Unprotected, even little known B-movies like Careful, Soft Shoulder.
What more can I say? Regrettably, I never got to socialise in any big way with Tom; a couple of lunches, one or two brief visits to the jam-packed Shepherd’s Bush flat he moved into after leaving Chelsea. But even after he’d given up the Time Out TV Films gig, for as long as he was in London, we’d bump into each other regularly at screenings or talk regularly on the phone. He remained hugely open-minded: he adored the early films of the Coen Brothers, and would probably have been more receptive to the ironic tone of some of their more recent films than were most contemporary ‘critics’. I can’t imagine that he wouldn’t have appreciated — or at least enjoyed the opportunity to grapple with, intellectually — the likes of Kiarostami or Kitano, Nuri Bilge Ceylan or Michael Haneke, the Dardenne brothers or Nicolas Philibert. Sometimes I’d have agreed with Tom, sometimes not — but disagreement was never a problem with Tom, because he gave so much of value in discussion; it was never just about scoring points. When writing a book on Nick Ray’s films, Tom gave me so much helpful advice that I dedicated the volume to him —his passion and understanding of Ray, shared with so little fuss, not only made writing the book easier, but made the end product far better than it would have been otherwise. I wrote in that dedication that Tom had ‘long been — through his writing, knowledge of film and generosity — an inspirational example of what a film critic should be like.’ Almost twenty years on, I stand by those words. He may be gone, but his writing, and his example, are still with us. He deserves my sincerest thanks.
— Geoff Andrew, December 2005
by Michael Brooke
In 1993 we premiered Wladyslaw Starewicz’ The Tale of the Fox [Le roman de renard] at the Everyman Cinema (London), and a vital part of the package were the witty and idiomatic subtitles, which translated both the dialogue and numerous songs. Tom was the unsung genius behind them — and his achievement was doubly impressive when you consider that he didn’t have a script to work from: all we could offer him was the poor-quality 1930s recording.
— Michael Brooke, December 2005
by Peter Cowie
When Tom took over editorship of the Monthly Film Bulletin under Penelope Houston in the early 1960s, he almost instantly transformed the publication into a genuine paper of record. No credit was too insignificant not to be double-checked by Tom’s hawk-eyed intelligence — and this, remember, was long before the easy days of checking facts on imdb.com. He was fastidious of habit, suave of voice, yet impeccable in taste — and the book he wrote for us at Tantivy on Dreyer remains one of the most perceptive ever done.
— Peter Cowie, December 2005
by Neville Hunnings
Before he devoted himself exclusively to film, Tom was primarily interested in theatre. The “antiquarian bookshop” that he worked in when he first came to London was a theatre bookshop run by Ifan Kyrle Fletcher. One of Tom’s first jobs there was to help organise a major international conference of theatre historians, which afterwards developed into the International Federation for Theatre Research. Kyrle Fletcher had also just co-founded the Society for Theatre Research to explore the new discipline of theatrical history and it was there that I met Tom, in the mid 1950s, when the then librarian, Ann Kahn, asked for volunteers to catalogue the Society’s collection of books. In the course of doing that we developed a close friendship which was essentially theatre-based, at least to begin with. I still have a press photo of Tom and me sitting virtually alone in the stalls of the Theatre Royal at Stratford-at-Bow during a performance of one of Joan Littlewood’s productions, at which we were always avid attenders.
While basically in agreement on most things, we were, like most thoughtful young men, continually arguing, not least over the merits and significance of Look Back in Anger, for George Devine’s newly formed company at the Royal Court Theatre was another of our theatrical enthusiasms. So was the work of the innovative theatre directors of the preceding half-century or so; we spent many hours going through old theatre programmes in the V & A’s Enthoven Collection, compiling lists of their productions. The results stayed with Tom, but nothing ever came of it (except our own increased knowledge).
Tom was always interested in the new, but not blindly so. He had a sensitive discrimination, helped no doubt by his study of the literature of two of the world’s great literary traditions; and this was given backbone by a streak of stubbornness (which could, however, be shifted by persuasive argument — occasionally) and a willingness to strike out alone on an unpopular or even unrespectable path if that seemed to him to be the right direction, which it usually was.
He was more embedded in the life of the artistic world than I was — he had Robert Robinson as a fellow lodger for a time in his flat in Thurloe Square opposite the V & A Museum — and his contacts with people like Clive Goodwin, Charles Marowitz, Michael Kustow et al. naturally led to him becoming involved with, then co-editor, and by 1966 senior editor of the trail-blazing theatre magazine “Encore”. It was natural too that his passion for theatre should spill over into film, which ultimately took over completely. Again he was open to what was unregarded and critically dismissed, not through wilfulness like the young French “Cahiers” critics, but because he responded easily to what was there and was not put off by being in a minority of two, or even one (or three, if one includes John Gillett). He immediately saw the virtues of Night of the Hunter, as of other such films maudits, and responded enthusiastically to the revelations of those great NFT seasons which revealed the glories of Keaton and Feuillade for the first time.
In the late sixties, after my first son was born (to whom he was a, not very assiduous, godfather) and we moved away from central London I lost touch with him. He had by then moved from Kensington out to Land’s End in Fulham and although we visited him there the old chumminess had gone. Partly that was the inevitable result when one of two friends marries and the other remains a bachelor (I had the feeling of an unhappy love affair lurking somewhere in the background, although Tom never said anything). The enjoyable foursomes we used to play in the squash courts at Chelsea Cloisters (with my wife Märta and Tom’s former colleague at Kyrle Fletcher’s bookshop, Barbara, making up the four) replaced the twosomes we used to play before I got married. But they did not survive and we both moved on.
I saw him once again some ten years later. Sylvia, Penelope Houston’s assistant at the BFI, had taken the opportunity of an office party to invite both Tom and me in the hope of getting us together again. There I had the same experience as Geoff Andrew: we just started talking as though we had last seen each other the previous week, it was uncanny. We agreed to meet again but never did. And that was that.
— Neville Hunnings, February 2006
First thoughts on the passing of Tom Milne by David Meeker
For over a decade, from 1964 until 1975 I shared a large, rambling Chelsea mansion flat with Tom and his love of film, theatre and cats. We became very close professional colleagues though we rarely socialised once the working day was done — I was with the British Film Institute and, on most days, Tom would be in or around the Editorial offices working sometimes on a freelance basis and sometimes more permanently filling in for someone’s absence. The only exception to this rule was our regular attendance at the Royal Court Theatre just up the road where we witnessed much of that exciting period of theatre - how we loved Pinter and Arden and Wesker. (Tom had once been a contributor to the seminal theatre publication, Encore). And how we so unkindly giggled at poor Simone Signoret attempting to articulate her Lady Macbeth opposite Alec Guinness. We had to leave the theatre for fear that the rest of the audience would catch on.
Tom loved to talk — and, boy, could he talk! On Sundays we routinely walked to a Chinese restaurant in the King’s Road for lunch where we discussed all our dream projects some of which did eventually materialise — our James Whale retrospective at the National Film Theatre, his books on Joe Losey (who we often used to meet in the street as he too lived in Chelsea), Rouben Mamoulian (this arose out of our deep love for Love me tonight which I would run for him in his sitting room on my 16mm projector — thanks to Phil Jenkinson having loaned me his print. And why did Tom warm so instinctively to Mamoulian? Because his “signature” was to place a cat in every movie!)), the late Joel Siegel’s book on Val Lewton, Rui Nogueira’s superb Melville on Melville, etc. But mainly we chatted endlessly about other films and filmmakers that we both loved: Feuillade, Gance, Cocteau, Pabst, Féjos, Gréville, Heifits, Richard Wilson, Satyajit Ray, Wilder, etc. , And we argued like mad over certain movies: Dreyer’s Gertrud, for example, which he mysteriously loved… But, thank goodness, we were 100% in agreement over our total loathing of Ken Russell!
Most days during the week we would also lunch together in Old Compton Street, though in a BFI group composed of whoever happened to be around that day but with a hard core consisting of Penelope Houston, Richard Roud, Philip Strick, David Wilson, Jan Dawson, John Gillett and Gillian Hartnoll. Later on I recall Jonathan Rosenbaum joining us (he eventually replaced me in Tom’s flat after I moved out in 1975). Those halcyon days seem so far away now particularly with dear Richard, John and Jan long gone.
Talking of Gillett reminds me that when his mother died he found himself quite unable to cope with the everyday stuff of London life and his good friend, the late Brenda Davies, Head of the BFI Book Library, found room in her house for John to stay until he got himself sorted out. But after some 6 months she couldn’t bear it any longer (dear, sweet John could be, in a word, intolerable). So, in a weak moment Tom and I agreed that John could have our spare room. To cut a long story short we begged him to leave after a few months and he ended up quite happy in a boarding house somewhere…
Our only other guests, besides an occasional visit from Tom’s sister, were our very dear friends Rui Nogueira and his lovely wife Nicoletta who would come over from Paris now and again and would be sheer joy to have around.
I recall that Tom hated the idea of appearing on any kind of public platform. He wouldn’t even introduce a film at the NFT. He’d always refuse requests for radio or TV interviews — except, I seem to remember, just once when he agreed to be interviewed on camera for the Granada series, Tempo. I recall Mike Hodges, then a director for the series, bringing his camera crew to the flat.
Tom was relatively benign towards his fellow critics but he had a angry bee in his bonnet over the late Alex Walker. Not at all because of Alex’s highly professional skills but because of his obsessional prejudice against smokers. Tom, who smoked like the proverbial chimney, would deliberately sit directly behind Alex at the start of a press show and blow his smoke forward before moving away, much to the delight of his colleagues. He had a touch of the naughty schoolboy in him. His other great dislike was the BFI Education Department but that’s another story…
Tom was a wise and generous mentor to me for many years and I’m only sorry that I rarely saw him after I’d moved out of the flat and certainly not at all these last 20 years or so. I shall miss him as I continually miss so many of those mutual colleagues who have passed away — Richard Roud, Carlos Clarens, John Kobal, Jan Dawson, Jacques Ledoux, Henri Langlois, Joel Siegel, Alex Walker, John Gillett and all those filmmakers…
“It’s heavy, what is it?” “The, er, stuff that dreams are made of” “Huh?”
— David Meeker, London, December 2005
by John Minchinton
I suppose I knew Tom longer than most others, first coming into contact when I helped out at the NFT in the early Sixties and he was working in the BFI. He began to help me with sub-titling French films in the mid-Sixties and altogether I count that he worked on 391 jobs. I enclose a list for you, it says it all: almost four hundred films, many of them classics, the work spread over forty years. Tom was working on Rien ne va plus, and had written 300 of the 900 titles before he was taken to hospital.
Jonathan Rosenbaum is right to observe “Some day, when the profoundly underestimated and ignored legacy of the BFI’s Editorial Department under Penelope over several decades gets properly reappraised, the incredible work of Tom will finally receive some of its due.” Sight and Sound and The Monthly Film Bulletin may have made our blood boil on occasion, but one only has to look at them again to see how much wider was their scope than contemporary continental publications in general.
Tom’s contributions to translation, film history and criticism, literary history and French culture were formidable. — John Minchinton, December 2005
by Rui Nogueira
I met Tom in the late Sixties through Gillian Hartnoll at the BFI. He was working at that time with Penelope Houston on Sight and Sound and we got on really well as soon as we met. Tom was sharing a flat with David Meeker at Cornwall Mansions, World’s End, and I often stayed over at their flat during my frequent visits to London.
Tom helped me a lot at the beginning of my “career”. He offered me the possibility of doing an interview book with François Truffaut — which was a fantastic opportunity to me. My first interview with Truffaut wasn’t very good and I asked him about possibly changing from a Truffaut book to a Melville book. Tom accepted the idea with enthusiasm and he translated my book brilliantly. Later, I discovered that an interview book with Melville was his project #1 for the “Cinema One” series of books, but, as he told me later, he felt that my approach was a good one and abandoned his project. The important thing to him was to have a good book to publish…
I have only good memories of Tom, and even though I haven’t see him for more than 20 years, I miss him a lot. He was intelligent, faithful, cultured, with a great sense of humour, and was a great film lover. Even when we disagreed about a film or filmmaker it was fantastic to discuss it with him.
Unfortunately, my English is not very good and I can’t develop all the things I would like to say about him. I now realise how people of his generation were efficient and competent in their work. Things have changed a lot…
Tom was a person who really mattered in my professional life and I owe him a lot. I will never forget him and his love for cats, another passion that I shared with him.
— Rui Nogueira, Switzerland, December 2005
Tom Milne Remembered by Jonathan Rosenbaum
I was a fan of Tom Milne’s writing before I ever met him, having not only read his passionate criticism religiously in Sight and Sound during the 1960s, but also having selected his review of Franju’s Judex for a never-published anthology, Film Masters, that I edited in New York, shortly before I moved to Paris in 1969. I acquired permission to reprint it from Penelope Houston, the magazine’s editor (whose vibrant review of Last Year at Marienbad I was also including), and having published virtually nothing of my own at the time, I was inordinately pleased when Penelope wrote me back that Tom had said, “Whoever he is, tell him he’s got taste,” for that review was one of his own favorites.
I think I must have met him for the first time circa 1974, in London, when I was preparing to live there and start work as assistant editor to Richard Combs on Monthly Film Bulletin, Sight and Sound’s sister magazine at the BFI. As a former assistant to Penelope, Tom was still a key contributor to both magazines; one might even call him — I would indeed call him — the key contributor, as well as a mainstay at the office in all sorts of other, more practical ways (such as deputy editing and proofreading, for example). Along with Ray Durgnat, whom I was becoming friends with over the same period, he was my favorite London film critic, so it pained me that these two brilliant writers had so little use for one another, despite their many shared enthusiasms and their considerable erudition, due mainly to the highly sectarian nature of the local film scene. But then again, I was even more pained when an issue of Projections in the 1990s devoted to film criticism had virtually nothing to say about either one of these giants, for related reasons — as if they’d never existed.
Through a false impression that may have been stoked by a faulty recollection of a conversation with Tom, I’ve been assuming for years that he and Ray were born around the same time. In fact, I now know from Tom’s sister (by way of Nigel Algar) that he was born in 1926, whereas Ray was born in 1932. Come to think of it, this is perfectly reasonable insofar as Tom is the only critic I’m aware of who ever wrote about Jacques Rivette’s silent, 40-minute La quadrille, produced by and costarring Jean-Luc Godard, which Tom saw at a ciné-club on Rue Danton circa 1950 — most likely around the same time he was going to the Sorbonne, which meant he would have been in his mid-20s at the time, rather than (less likely) a teenager. (See his essay about Rivette’s L’amour fou, one of his favorite films, in the Spring 1969 Sight and Sound, which opens with his memorable account of that screening.) For maybe a year and a half in the mid-70s, I wound up as a flat mate of Tom’s in his dusty, rambling, second-story, book-laden digs on Branch Hill in World’s End, not far from the Thames. It was a place that reflected Tom’s reclusiveness, yet he remained a good and invaluable friend the whole time I stayed there, until I moved back to the states in early 1977. During most of that time, I was translating André Bazin’s Orson Welles (or trying to) and editing a BFI monograph called Rivette: Texts & Interviews, and Tom’s help on both books was so committed and substantial — meticulously correcting my slipshod translation of Bazin and translating most of the Rivette texts himself — that he should have been credited as coeditor on both (though I’m sure he would have modestly declined that courtesy had he been offered it).
On one of my visits back to London, after Tom had moved back to Aberdeen to live with his sister, I phoned him there to ask why he’d decided to return there and thereby give up film criticism. I recall he said something about a sour kind of inspiration having once hit him on a bus ride to the West End, which more or less went to the tune of, “Why am I still doing this?”
The sad fact was, I think he finally packed it in because he wasn’t getting more positive feedback on what he was doing. If he’d been writing today and the Internet had carried at least some of his passionate prose, it might have been different; back then, alas, as strange as it may seem, the fact that he loved film as much as he did actually counted as a handicap in some of the London film circles we both frequented. (He’d also had a stint as a drama critic for a magazine called Encore, a career that seemingly went equally underappreciated.)
Some day, when the profoundly underestimated and ignored legacy of the BFI’s Editorial Department under Penelope over several decades gets properly reappraised, the incredible work of Tom will finally receive some of its due. I’m thinking not only of his irreplaceable translation work (including Godard’s criticism and Bernard Eisenschitz’s Nick Ray biography, and his subtitling for the BBC — including one labor of love he was particularly and justly proud of, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, another favorite, subtitled in rhyming couplets) and his wonderful book on Dreyer, but the extraordinary articles and reviews he wrote for Sight and Sound and Monthly Film Bulletin, the list of which is far too long and rich for me to try to synopsize here. If this work were online today, it would have been canonized as essential writing about cinema a long time ago. Above all, it deserves to be collected, treasured, and remembered.
— Jonathan Rosenbaum, December 2005
Tom Milne by Nick Wrigley
I count myself extremely fortunate to have known Tom for the last two years of his life. I attempted to kickstart his writing about film again, and to persuade him to record an audio commentary for the MoC Series, but he politely declined, not really interested in any work outside of translating and subtitling. However, after furnishing him with a multiregion DVD player and plying him with numerous hard-to-find discs, he spoke with great enthusiasm on the phone most Sundays about the latest DVD releases (he was particularly in love with Criterion’s Eyes without a Face disc), and he was quick to realise just what a wonderful phenomenon DVD was for the film lover. Tom was tremendously supportive of our MoC Series of DVDs, even going so far as granting me permission to reprint any of his writing in future DVD booklets.
Right upto the month he died, Tom was subtitling films with his friend John Minchinton, and one of the last jobs he finished was Rivette’s Céline et Julie vont en bateau, a difficult film to subtitle and one which gave us much opportunity to discuss subtitling etiquette, the subtleties of translation, and other memorably difficult problems he’d encountered in his long subtitling career.
For my generation (born in the 1970s), and for those living well away from London, BBC2’s Moviedrome strand (presented by Alex Cox) in the 1980s and early 90s was one of the only ways to see interesting, hard-to-find World Cinema and cult films. Alex Cox told me that for his generation in the 1960s there was a similar strand on BBC2 which first turned him on to Buñuel, Bergman, Dreyer, Godard, etc. Anyway, it was Tom who was largely responsible for the selection and subtitling of these screenings on BBC2 in the 60s, and, seeing as there’s nothing like this today in the horrid, vapid, kaleidoscope that is modern TV, Tom and myself both hoped that quality DVD releases were helping to fill this void for today’s generation.
I occasionally sent Tom old postcards that I’d collected as a student in Canterbury, and one particular series of these were from Scotland in the 1940s. Little did I know that Tom knew every scene on every postcard like the back of his hand. He once wrote:
“I forgot to say thanks for the last “Ancient Scotland” postcard. It was received with the same joy as the others, only rather more so. This because ‘The Devil’s Elbow’, which is depicted, no longer exists as such. It used to be the most fearsome Z-bend on the high roads of Britain, but a few years ago it was altered to meet with traffic and safety conditions. Generations of boys (myself included) determined to make good the boast of riding down the Devil’s Elbow on a bike without even once braking. Needless to say I never made it, and truth to tell, I have a feeling no-one who tried could have lived to tell the tale. These days it’s just a dreary, if hilly, country road, and the joy of your postcard is its glimpse of what once was.”
I will remember Tom’s wonderful voice, his photographic recall of plot/dialogue, and his truly infectious enthusiasm for all things film. I concur with Jonathan Rosenbaum — Tom’s collected writing would make a tremendous read, and I’d like to try and make that happen.