Reviews for Friends #4 BFI Mediatheque

The British Film Institute have installed a Mediatheque – their eighth in the UK – in the Library of Birmingham.

“Have they?!” I hear you say – yes, it is true! I can’t believe it isn’t advertised more widely.

If, like me, you love TV, especially old TV, then this really is the place for you. A true hidden gem, the Mediatheque is a space that gives you access to over 2,500 titles from the BFI National Archive – for free. The archive is the world’s greatest and most diverse collection of film and television. From home movies to feature films, documentaries to kids’ TV, many titles have rarely been seen since their original release or broadcast – if at all.

In light of astronomical cinema prices, this is an exceptionally good alternative.

You can choose the films you want to see before your visit from the BFI website. Then travel to the Library of Birmingham, book into a private booth, and log in to choose your titles. The only trouble is, there is so much to choose from! There literally is something for everyone.

What I have seen so far has been sensational. I’ve delved into some forgotten film classics, including Gregory’s Girl from 1980, a Scottish high school comedy about an amiable loser in love. I’ve seen a Play for Today from 1977, Mike Leigh’s inimitable Abigail’s Party, along with a hidden TV gem from 1991, Absolute Hell -a tragicomedy set in a crumbling Soho post-war drinking den, starring Judi Dench and Bill Nighy.

I’ve also enjoyed some insights into our social history - the BFI produced a new collection to mark this new addition to their Mediatheques - Brum and Beyond: West Midlands on Screen. The collection brings together titles from the BFI National Archive and Media Archive for Central England (MACE), illuminating a century of life in this hugely diverse region. I chose a surreal docu-drama from the 1980s, following a group of Coventry teens. Brilliantly entertaining.

But a must-watch (strictly for older viewers) has got to be Gangsters - a cult Birmingham soap opera of sorts from the 1970s, described as an ‘urban western’. It really is unforgettable, even if just for the snapshot of Birmingham architecture and city planning from that era that this series provides.

Overall the Mediatheque facilities are great. There is even a café bar available (when it is open – again, no-one knows it’s there, so why would anyone use it?!)

But I have spotted a few key areas that need improving, I feel, if the Mediatheque, and the Library of Birmingham as a whole in fact, is going to be a sustained success.
The headphone facilities in the viewing booths are of really quite poor quality – very crackly, you have to fiddle around to get the sound right. It reminds me of using my Walkman in the 90s.

The (very loud) speaker announcements they make in the Library, really quite regularly, are an inconvenience – the announcements so loud, and the sound quality of the Mediatheque so poor, that you literally have to pause whatever it is you’re viewing. Which in itself is annoying, because the keyboard set-up is fiddly to use. It would be massively improved by a touch screen monitor, especially considering your viewing slot has a maximum time limit, and you don’t want to be wasting it getting to grips with the keys.

But my final criticism – biggest bone of contention – is the general Library staff. My God. I find it totally bizarre that so much money be poured into a space, only to follow up with no apparent care about who is employed to deliver that space. Here we have an international tourist attraction, totally mismatched by the lazy, unknowledgeable and downright rude staff working there. It is embarrassing.

I can’t really review the rest of the Library facilities as I have hardly used them. To the extent I have used them – taking out and returning a handful of books - I have been consistently enraged by the incompetence and poor attitude of the staff members I have encountered. All apart from one, who I feel I need to mention – Phil, for his ownership of expected standards of customer service skills.

But please, don’t let the staff put you off. As citizens of Birmingham we should be proud of this amazing public facility, and bloody use it – tell everyone you know!

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