Last Reels is a novel by Ben Dowell, who maybe known to many in the industry as he was a one time trainer for the Odeon projectionist school in Burton-upon-Trent. Ben worked in the cinema business for almost thirty years, as a projectionist, trainer and engineer.
While the book is a work of fiction that describes how the cinema industry in 2010 changed from film to digital continuing up to 2014, and asks the question of whether there is still a place for the projectionist we follow the lives of a number of different characters in their own unique situation and how it impacts each in term. Each of the chapters is a reel in time starting in the 1970s and describes the changes that each decade brought about for the projectionist in the cinema. Last Reels is an affectionate evocation of the changes in the industry from the 1960’s to 2014 and the final transition from film to digital which brought in the end of an era told three the eyes of three different characters:
Bill started as a rewind boy in the early sixties, and has seen many changes through his career – the conversion of single screen cinemas into twins and triples, the introduction of automation, xenon lamps and platters. He’s survived all the changes and job cuts and managed to keep working even during the seventies and eighties when the business was in decline and cinemas shut every week.
Caroline began working in the cinema while studying at college. Somehow, she stayed and has found a happy niche in projection. She loves the style and grandeur of the nineteen thirties cinemas, the magic of film projection and the art of good presentation. But does she really want to stay on as the job becomes integrated with management and standards fall?
Graham’s family and girlfriend would prefer he had another job; one which was more in keeping with his degree, yet he has chosen to make his career in projection. As the conversion from 35mm to digital ploughs relentlessly on, he becomes a cinema engineer, visiting increasingly deserted projection rooms throughout the country as experienced people leave the trade.
Over the years there have been countless books, films and articles written about the changeover from celluloid to digital projection across the cinema industry. All of which have tried to give an inside to one of the greatest changes the industry ever experienced. While others have done a great job of portraying the change, this novel really gets under the skin to portray the feelings and the emotions of the characters involved.
While the names and locations that Ben uses are mainly fictional, if you have spent any time in the industry in the period up to 2010 you are likely to recognise many of the characters being talked about.
The book is a great gentle read, that is easy to pick up, the pages are fall of real detail about the life of a projectionist up until 2014. Ben’s knowledge and background comes out through the entire story and he does a great job of capturing the essence of the projection rooms and cinemas that are being described. Where there is any risk of technical jargon and phrases not being understood by the audience, Ben does a great job of explaining them through the narrative. The attention to detail is such that in one passage of the story a book is referenced, that I ended up going out to buy so that I could better understand the passage in the book. The handling of the subject of the changeover this is all handled in a sensitive way, showing the situation from those that it affected most. Using the three different main characters and their different backgrounds helps to manage how the changes effected each of a similar larger group of real projectionists. The story is entirely from the projectionists points of view and reflects really well the many changes that were seen over nearly half a century. It feels like a very honest story of the situation as it was at the time.