From Robert Powell to Home from home, Marion Hewitt retires from the North West Film Archive

In 2021 Marion Hewitt retired after a career spanning 40 years at the North West Film Archive at Manchester.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Marion via Zoom in early October on behalf of FAUK to find out more about the last 4 decades that lead to this amazing milestone and achievement and how she is planning her well deserved rest from work life.

Marion was looking relaxed in her kitchen but explained “I’m still getting the hang of having nothing to do but, at the same time, I no longer have the excuse to put off things in the house I never had time to do cos I was working – I can spend all morning making bramble jelly and then head off to an afternoon of cinema!”

But when we spoke, she was still going into NWFA once a week to do “the handover that never happened” and ensure that she left her team in a good place for the next 40!

So I asked how it was that a young Marion’s passion for film first developed.

It was as a student at the University of Stirling 1973-76 that Marion first got the taste for cinema –

“On campus there was the McRobert Centre which was like a regional film theatre –  I went to see Macbeth and got a taste for independent film rather than mainstream, although I do remember going to see ‘Carry on Cleo’ in the 60s too!  I read English and Psychology which is nothing much to do with anything since, it was the course which looked like I could get away with it – this was the 70s, so I was going there to have a good time – and came out with a solid ordinary degree – I didn’t know what I wanted to do!”

Any FAUK Members who might have spent some quality time with Marion as co-driver on the M9 near Bo’ness in search of the Kelpies a few years back, might be surprised to hear that, after uni, she went to au-pair in Brussels and then became a taxi driver back in Scotland until the end of ‘77 – a job that was to drive her later in an exciting new direction!……….

Now having decided to do a Post Grad Diploma in Librarianship, Marion also needed a bit of work experience behind her to help qualify. This was era of the Job Creation Programmes and she signed up to the Manpower Services Commission job opportunities on offer. She explained :

“The library in Dumfries had created a project where they wanted all the school libraries in the district catalogued – they assembled a crew of half dozen graduates and we were sent out to high schools around the region to catalogue the school libraries – we were writing records on 5”x3” cards and filing them in drawers”

But whilst full steam ahead on cataloguing, her taxi driving talents were soon in demand again with a call offering her a job as a driver on location in Scotland for the filming of ‘The 39 Steps’ starring Robert Powell.

“They needed drivers and someone who they knew could communicate in a civil manner with the talent!  So I took 2 dodgy weeks off work – I told a lie, I think I said I had a ‘woman’s problem’ – then there I was in and around Lockerbie – as Robert Powell’s driver!  I would drive him to the location then mostly hang about. Sometimes I was sent on errands by the Director or take rushes to the station. Robert Powell’s wife turned up with the baby and I would drive her around a bit – she wanted to go to the Border woollen mills and stock up on cashmere jumpers. I had fun watching the production and learning a lot about what went on – that’s what hooked me! Seeing the process (of filming) whenever I went to the cinema I could understand better how it got constructed.”

After the library cataloguing job and her experience of ‘Driving Mr Powell’, Marion headed to London as a Library Assistant at the North London Poly Library School on the Essex Road site. Marion was immersed totally into the workings of academic libraries, the Library School, text books and processes. London offered her an amazing choice of cinemas and films to explore too –

“In London I would go to  the cinema probably 6 nights out of 7 and catch up with all the stuff I hadn’t seen. At the Scala on Charlotte St (before it moved to Kings Cross) you could go and watch all night Jack Nicholson films. In Bloomsbury there was the late night double bill –  I lived in Highbury, and had an old Beetle, so I used to drive to Bloomsbury  and watch films into the early hours –  and the Screen on the Green, whenever the programme changed I’d go to those”

1980 saw Marion starting a Post Grad Diploma in Librarianship at Manchester Poly.

“My course included a module – called ‘non book librarianship’ – to do with slides and micro fiche,  so I took that module and began to think it might be nice to get work in a film library. I remember there was computer in the building, an early Apple one. We watched a demo on how we might search a database in the future by filling in forms and turning them into punch cards which were fed into something somewhere and the print out was there next week in our next lesson!  – I feel a bit like my grandpa who was born in 1896 – he saw the birth of aviation, motor cars and cinema!!”

With her Diploma gained in 1981, Marion found herself on the dole for the first 6 months but the Job Creation Scheme came to the rescue again and she landed a job at Bolton Local History Library where there was a project to index the local newspapers.

I sat there – a hot summer –upstairs in the old reading room and used to drift off to sleep over massive volumes of large format local papers – page by page indexing the stories from 1901. But news that the North West Film Archive were looking for a film cataloguer on one of the Job Creation Schemes sounded so much more interesting so I jumped ship from Bolton. They weren’t too thrilled and I was ‘carpeted’ by the Librarian who told me off for being presumptuous!”

It was Seona Robertson who interviewed and gave Marion the job which she started at NWFA in Oct 1981. Marion started cataloguing and shotlisting – sitting at a Steenbeck watching 35 mm and 16mm prints and writing down exactly what happened. She would then type up the pages and index them – on 5” x 3” cards again.

“The North West Film Archive at the time was one part of a bigger project called Manchester Studies. They had started collecting family album photographs and oral histories of working people to redress the balance as the unofficial record showing working peoples’ experiences and real lives which was very popular in the history departments. It was in Manchester Poly again under Bill Williams who was the authority on Jewish history in Manchester and beyond – he was a pioneer and set up  the Manchester Jewish Museum which recently reopened a fantastic new facility with HLF funding.”

Originally the North West Film Archive started as a one year research project in 1977, to look at the regional’s film and cinema industry.  Seona Robertson was appointed, having gained some experience in Scotland with Janet McBain.

“Seona knew what tin of film looked like and when she started talking to the museums and libraries and archives around the region – they were all saying “we’ve got stuff in our strong room please take it”!  She started to accumulate film under her desk – that’s where it started!  And then a few more joined the project, including Maryann Gomes – all learning on the job – with some technical support from the Polytechnic’s Film School to repair, view, and sometimes copy what was coming in, borrowing their equipment and begging other facilities where they could.  Very ‘seat of the pants’ to start with but expertise grew quickly.”

Marion explained that Seona’s priority was to get the stuff out there for people to see.

“In the 70s, it was like a big reel of 16mm prints – you would take it apart and reassemble it in a different order with different material depending on which Village Hall you were going to. You’d carry it on the bus and the old blokes in the Village Hall would have set up the projector, if you were lucky. You’d have your tape recorder with you with a compilation of jolly old music to go with it and that was the kit. I would go with Seona to the film shows and start a conversation with potential donors as they would come and talk to you about what film they’d got and the circle would complete itself – you’d come back with more stuff. So I learned just through doing it really. “

L to R Seona Robertson, Maryann Gomes and Marion 1982

Into the 80s, the relationships would evolve, for example into partnerships with local history societies and other heritage organisations.  Seona and Maryann worked on funding relationships with local authorities. Marion’s role developed and she would begin to take enquiries from individuals, museums and commercial footage sales, creating the workflow processes and send prints to labs for copies to be made to send to production companies.

Marion recalls how her colleagues moved on to other roles in the sector –

“Maryann was a legend in the sector, an instigator of the Film Archives Forum, and Seona went on to form Reality Productions and produced ‘Pleasure Palaces’ broadcast in the first ever week of C4 transmission – a series of 3 x 1 hour programmes on a journey through cinema and the audiences.”

But in 1982 the Job Creation Scheme collapsed and funding for Marion’s role halted. She then worked for Seona at Reality Productions as a Production Secretary, followed by a stint at Granada TV during Librarian Sylvia Cowling’s maternity leave.

“At Reality Productions I was clearing footage for their documentaries, alongside being general dogsbody and learning aspects of independent production.  In the 9 months at Granada I learnt a huge amount about major broadcast productions – they were editing Jewel in the Crown along the corridor on 16mm while the newsroom and regional productions were transitioning to ENG – so I was learning about the cine film production side and this new thing called  ‘tape’!”

By this time Maryann had secured enough money to get the film archive back on track – and Marion was back at the end of ‘84 as Assistant Archivist. The Archive was moved to Minshull House in 1985 where it started off in the roof space with no storage facility and where it was either baking or freezing. But the University Librarian (Prof Colin Harris) convinced the University to build state of the art vaults, conservation and viewing rooms, and offices in 1996 which marked a real step change.

Then in 2014 the NWFA relocated to another purpose built facility in the refurbished Manchester Central Library, remaining part of MMU Library Service alongside the new relationship with Archives+ partnership, where it is thrives today.

Marion was very much part of an evolving world of film archives as they developed across the UK in the 70s and 80s with EAFA (David Cleveland), Scotland (Janet McBain) and the North West (Seona Robertson and Maryann Gomes) setting the scene and then Yorkshire, MACE and SASE, influenced by their models, establishing in the late 80s/early 90s.

Marion recalls there was a great deal of informal networking at the time and the establishment of the Film Archive Forum in 1987 began to bring the UK sector together to identify and address common issues.  The NWFA gained membership of the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) in 1994, bringing recognition of the work of regional archives to the international network.

Funding was always a main issue across the board – the Film Council was set up in 2000 with 9 regional agencies managing government and lottery funding and then abolished 10 years later with the BFI resuming responsibility.

Marion found the forever shifting landscape a challenge when she took up the role of NWFA Director following the all too early death of Maryann Gomes in 2002.

“Just when you thought you’d got it settled it would change again. There were 9 regional screen agencies and in the North West we had funding which barely paid one salary – there was a constant thrashing round of public sector money. My job also became less hands on and more about reporting and applications – there was constant pressure.”

In 2013 Manchester Metropolitan University took all 10 of the North West Film Archive staff onto the establishment, something Maryann Gomes had always been working towards, and temporary posts became permanent.

Marion was very much part of an important time in film archiving history. “Sue Howard once observed that we, Janet McBain, and David Cleveland had the best years when it was unchartered territory, when it was all about enthusiasm, passion and challenge – 40 years on people who are coming to work in the sector are entering a better established profession – I’m not saying we’ve handed it to them on a plate – but that struggle to get established and going from one person and borrowed equipment, to 10 people and membership of FIAF and all the partnerships and collaborations is a long way to come – so what we did in the beginning will never be the case again.”

From the 40 years working with the archive content, I ask if Marion had any particular favourites

“There are thousands, but the film of Yuri Gagarin visiting Manchester promoting Russia and its technical skills in 1961, 3 months after orbiting earth, is particularly special.

Yuri Gagarin visiting Manchester -1961

He was invited to Manchester by the Foundry Workers’ Union – Gagarin had been a foundry man. He was given a lavish civil lunch at the Town Hall, met Foundry workers at Trafford Park then it was off to London to meet the Queen. The film, part mute and part sound, was found when they were clearing out the Union offices. Neither Granada nor BBC claimed it – so it was low risk and we used it everywhere. 2021 was the 50th anniversary year of that visit. You can see he was mobbed like Elvis Presley.”

“The Poly had a Film School and some of their productions from 70s are a cluster on 16mm. One of the stand out films is Roxette from 1978– a documentary made by students profiling Roxy Music fans getting ready to go to a Bryan Ferry concert – it’s been curated into a number of exhibitions all over the world and is a classic of the late 70s”

Preston Newsreel Compilation


“There’s an early Topical film of a 1902 Balloon ascent as part of Preston Guild celebrations–which we sent off to the BFI for preservation but were told it was not possible to do anything with. Years later, we were sent a surprise – a preservation copy!  The background was researched by Preston born Alex Cherian, who had taken the MA in Film Archiving at EAFA/UEA (and now works as an award winning film archivist in San Francisco), and discovered the details of the event, down to the date and time of the balloon flight!”


Calling Blighty 191

Marion was also behind the Calling Blighty project  films of Messages Home from soldiers deployed to the Far East during WW2 made to be shown in cinemas in the UK to families and loved ones.

“A stack of these films was found in the Town Hall basement in 1983. They were sent to the IMW, and over the years I had data from the accompanying sheets hammered into a database.  In 2015 Prof Steve Hawley from the Manchester School of Art collaborated on the Calling Blighty project to try and trace relatives of the soldiers from the local regiment who featured, and to recreate the cinema screenings for the families today. The project was the subject of a C4 documentary in 2016”


The various Civic films – commissioned by towns and cities to show ratepayers where their money goes rate highly in Marion’s top list. In particular ‘Rates for the Job’  (1966) offers amazing views of life in Liverpool aiming to explain how the £20 million budget was spent.

The Changing Face of Salford Pt1 – Life in the slums

The 3 films showing The Changing Face of Salford offer a fascinating insight into life in the terraced streets as they were demolished at the end of the 1960s.

The large collection of films made by amateur film maker Sam Hanna across 6 decades are a unique, fascinating record of local life in Lancashire including many films of dying crafts and craftsmen in the 60s.

Marion has been very much aware of attracting younger audiences to archive film and the possibilities of working in the industry. The Manchester Time Machine  was launched in 2018 – a groundbreaking iPhone app merging archive film with GPS to create a street level tour of the city’s streets from the last 100 years

“It appealed to youngsters but also it was also great to get artists interested in using archive film. They need to understand they are using other peoples’ material and they respect that.

The big step now is into everything digital. In terms of young people coming into the trade – somebody needs to learn all the cine film skills – that’s the dying art – but there are many more people who want to do curating, which is great, however…. Access through digitising is liberating – but that’s the tip of the iceberg – what goes on under the waterline is the hard work of preservation – cine film is not going away there’s still piles of it out there! – I hope young people coming in will be interested in the physical aspects of looking after material as much as there are those who want to programme it.”

Plaque on a seat at HOME, Manchester

I’m sure we all hope by now Marion is getting used to enjoying her retirement. As a special tribute, HOME Manchester have placed a plaque on one of their cinema seats which reads “Marion Hewitt. 40 years of caring for cinematic heritage in Manchester and beyond.  Thanks from all of us at HOME.” – what a marvellous tribute!

Asked if she misses work Marion responds– “I don’t really miss it as such but it’s ‘missing’, along with the team I worked with for all those years – it’s just suddenly not there any more – so you don’t have 100 emails every day – most of which you delete – well you can stop looking out for that cos nobody cares now.!”

Nobody cares Marion? – definitely not so! – you will be missed for sure. Showing such passion for the preservation, value and impact of archive film, you have left a great legacy. Congratulations!

We wish you a very happy retirement!

JaneJarvis  – FAUK