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Memories Of BIFF Part 1: Jean Simmons And Michael Parkinson

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Tony Earnshaw was Bradford International Film Festival‘s artistic director from 2000 – 2011. In the first of a series of posts that looks back at the history of BIFF as we prepare for its 20th edition, Tony recalls some of his favourite moments.

Jean Simmons - Bradford International Film Festival Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, 2003 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Jean Simmons – Bradford International Film Festival Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, 2003 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

As much as it was my job the film festival gave me the time of my life during my 12 years as director. Film was my plaything, the cinemas were my playground and movie people became my friends.

Bradford became a magnet for high-profile guests and their movies. We hosted many famous faces. Among them were actors Jean Simmons, Ian Carmichael and Richard Todd. Directors Ken Annakin and Roy Ward Baker. Ace cinematographers Jack Cardiff, Freddie Francis and Alex Thomson. Roy Alon, the Yorkshireman who made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s most prolific stuntman.

Every one of them became a pal. Now they’re all gone – off to work in that cavernous film studio in the sky.

I have wonderful memories of lovely Jean Simmons. She was my guest at Bradford Film Festival in 2003, travelling from her home in Santa Monica to receive the festival’s annual Lifetime Achievement Award.

My first glimpse of her was at Leeds Station. Her train had arrived early; our driver was collecting another guest and Jean, her daughter Tracy and son-in-law Sebastian were gathered in one of the little cafés waiting for us. Engraved on my mind is the image of Jean delicately munching her way through a packet of cheese and onion crisps.

The following evening we hosted an on stage interview with this demure, effervescent beauty. She was then 74 but in listening to that voice, unchanged over more than half a century, it was like speaking to the slave girl Varinia from Spartacus. Nothing had changed, and elegance is timeless.

On stage in Pictureville Cinema, Jean cast her mind back over a career that began in the ’40s and was still going strong in 2003. I reminded her of the passage of time – 7 decades – and her eyebrows shot skywards in mock horror.

When she left two days later she handed me a black and white still of herself in a pose from The Big Country. On it she had written

“Seven decades??? You must be joking! With much love, Jean Simmons”

It’s something I’ll never forget, just as I’ll always remember her nervous laughter as we walked onto that stage 11 long years ago.

My favourite guest? Michael Parkinson.

Happily he’s still hale and hearty. He was a boyhood hero who epitomised everything I wanted to be. I stole every interviewing technique I know from Parky. Landing him as a guest in 2007, and stepping forward to interview him before a live audience, was a long-held dream.

As I was about to introduce him he put his hand on my shoulder. “Enjoy it, Tony,” he murmured in my ear. I did. So did he. And the next day he sent me a thank you message of warmth and appreciation. I still have it.

The 20th Bradford International Film Festival begins on Thursday 27th March. The full programme is out now.

Written by Phil Oates

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