John Huntley was born in Kew, Surrey in 1921. He left school in 1937 with five 'O' levels, and began his first job as a junior clerk in an insurance company - The Employers Liability Assurance Corporation. He remained there for two years until, in 1939, he was given a job as a teaboy at Denham studios, under Alexander Korda. John had always enjoyed films, often going to the cinema two or three times a week, sometimes to see the same programme. When the outbreak of war caused the larger part of Denham to be closed down, his contract ended after only eighteen months, and it almost seemed that his opportunity to work in the industry had disappeared.
In 1940, John joined the Royal Air Force as a wireless operator / mechanic for the RAF Army co-operative Command. Later, in 1943, he joined Bomber Command as a wireless air gunner, and then in 1944 he moved on to Coastal Command. It was here, however, that he found the chance to further his interest in movies, as he started to work as a lecturer and camp projectionist, showing educational films. He also put on entertainment programmes, and travelled around showing these at different camp cinemas.
John also began to write for the RAF journals, which included the occasional film review. He started to write for various periodicals, including Sight and Sound and later wrote for the Penguin Film Reviews. In 1944 he began work with the American Film Music Bulletin as their British correspondent, and continued writing for them until 1950. It was also during these years that he began writing his first book, British Film Music, which was later published in 1947.
Following the end of the war, John was offered a position with the J. Arthur Rank Organisation at the re-established Denham and Pinewood Studios. He worked as a music and sound technician with Muir Mathieson, who had realised John's enthusiasm for film music through his writing and publications. He worked on many famous movies such as Hamlet, A Matter of Life and Death, David Lean's Oliver Twist, and The Red Shoes among others. With access to the other departments at the studios, John's interest in film developed further as he wrote his second book - British Technicolor Films - published in 1949. Unfortunately, with the collapse of the Rank organisation in 1950, the music department was disbanded, and the employees went their separate ways.
In 1951, John worked as part of the technical team - Telekinema - who organised the film contribution for the Festival of Britain. Telekinema became the original National Film Theatre, and John worked as a Programme Director for two years. During that time, one notable project was the revival of Buster Keaton's career in Britain. A contact from Cinematheque Francaise saw Buster Keatonperforming in a Paris circus, and having found copies of The Navigator and The General in the French archives, he was brought over with his movies, and re-introduced to the British public.
John's association with the British Film Institute came in 1952, through his work with the NFT. During the twenty-three years that he was there he worked in many positions, beginning as Programming Officer. He continued to present large-scale film shows and festivals at venues such as The Royal Festival Hall and The Barbican, on topics ranging from transport to ballet. From 1966 he was involved in opening regional film theatres, and when he left in 1974, John was the Head of the Regional Unit of the BFI, and thirty-five theatres had been opened throughout the country.
During this time, John continued contributing to various journals and publications and wrote a further three books: The Technique of Film Music (with Roger Manvell), Railways in the Cinema and How Films are Made (with Stanley Reed). He also became very involved with the broadcasting world, producing and presenting many television programmes, including Clapperboard (co-presented with Chris Kelly, directed by Graham Murray) for Granada, Bygones and Bioscope Bygones for Anglia and Attic Archives for the BBC. He also began a long association with the world of radio, speaking as an expert on various aspects of film and conducting interviews.
When he left the BFI in 1974, John worked as a theatrical agent with Richard Jackson Personnel Management. He continued to present film shows, and to add to his collection of movies, primarily on the subject of transport, but then growing to encompass all topics and periods. In 1985, he and his daughter Amanda decided to set up Huntley Film Archives.
John, in his latter years, concentrated on radio broadcasts and appearances, such as Much Ado About Shakespeare and The History of British Film Studios for Radio Four, a film star series for Radio Two and The Train Now Departing. He also recently featured in the BBC's Leisure Hour. He researched, wrote and presented numerous videos with Peter Middleton (producer - Video 125) on the history of transport. John updated Railways in the Cinema, and Railways on the Screen, which includes listings of steam on television, was published in 1993.
Sadly, John died in August of 2003, aged 82 and working up to the last.
Brian Baxter of the Guardian wrote:
It would be apt, yet somehow inadequate, to describe John Huntley, who has died of cancer aged 82, as a writer and film historian, since he was above all a film enthusiast and an educationalist in the broadest sense. He regarded cinema as a source of delight and information, never concerning himself with what he perceived as pretension.
It was Huntley's enthusiasm and energetic desire for mass communication which made him a stimulating talker, a rather carefree administrator and a cornucopia of information.
His work was his passion and his film archive a testament to a lifelong devotion to film as art and history. He is sorely missed.
John Frederick Huntley, born July 18 1921; died August 7 2003