Spotlight on Matthew Jones

4 December 2013

Matthew Jones

This week the spotlight is on Dr Matthew Jones, Research Associate on the ‘Cultural Memory and British Cinema-going of the 1960s’ project, UCL History.

What is your role and what does it involve?

I’m the sole Research Associate on a large, AHRC-funded project that is collecting memories of going to the cinema in the 1960s. This makes for a very varied workload – one day I might be going through the questionnaires and oral history interviews we have gathered so far, looking for patterns and connections; the next I might be travelling across the Highlands on a mobile cinema, screening 1960s films and encouraging people to remember their experiences in that decade!

My colleague on the project, Dr Melvyn Stokes, and I have collected memories from about 600 people since March. With another two years left to go, it looks like the project will be able to reflect a very broad cross-section of British society indeed. Melvyn and I want to make the memories that we gather available to the public as a major resource for future historians, so the more the merrier!

I’m also teaching again, having focused on research during the last semester. It’s lovely to be back in the classroom with such enthusiastic students.

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?

I joined UCL on 2 January 2013, which meant moving to London on New Year’s Eve and arriving just in time for the fireworks. It was really lovely of the city to put on such a show to welcome me. 

Before that I had been teaching Film and Media Studies across five different universities in North West England. That made for an exhausting working week and I’m delighted that I now have just one office to call my own.

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

The mobile cinema tour of the Scottish Highlands that I recently completed was really valuable for a number of reasons. I spent two weeks visiting remote communities with Screen Machine, an articulated lorry with a folding 80-seat cinema on the back, which celebrated its 15th anniversary this year with an extended tour and a varied programme of classic films and current releases. We drove into a different town each day, showed classic 1960s films and discussed the audiences’ memories of the period.

For the project, it provided us with memories of rural cinema-going in the 1960s, which was a very different experience from visiting an urban cinema. However, more importantly, I got to see the value that these communities place on being able to watch films on the big screen. For many in that part of the country, a trip to the cinema might mean anything up to a full day of travelling. That is prohibitive to say the least!

To have a cinema that can come to their doorstep gives them a stronger sense of being connected to the outside world, enabling them to share in a cultural activity that the rest of us simply take for granted. Watching people getting excited as the cinema pulled into town reminded me just how powerful a medium film is.

It was an exhausting two weeks, but I’m extremely proud to have been part of Screen Machine’s 15th anniversary tour and to have encouraged residents in the rural communities I visited to value their memories of 1960s cinema-going as much as this research project does.

Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list 

I’m in the middle of all sorts of projects at the moment. I’m collecting 1960s memories, writing a book about 1950s science fiction cinema, writing an article for a Norwegian politics journal, organising a programme of film screenings, putting together two edited collections on time travel narratives in various media formats and writing a book chapter about images of cyborgs in pop music videos.

However, the project right at the top of my list at the moment is an event on which Melvyn and I are collaborating with the British Film Institute. On 13 December we will be introducing a screening of The Innocents (1961) at the BFI as part of their Gothic season. We will also be inviting the audience to share their own memories of cinema-going during the 1960s. 

It is set to be an exciting event anyway, but The Innocents is a particular favourite of mine so I’m doubly thrilled. It’s an adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and is a really chilling watch. Deborah Kerr gives an astonishing performance, though the film was sadly overlooked by audiences when it was first released. Now it is rightly viewed as a classic and it will be a real pleasure to get the chance to show it on the big screen so audiences can see what they missed the first time around. 

Find out more about the event and book tickets.

What is your favourite album, film and novel?

As a film historian I get asked what my favourite movie is all the time. I tend to say Lars Von Trier’s Dogville, which is a film that I still find challenging and fascinating after many, many viewings. However, I sometimes wonder whether that is just an answer I give to try and persuade people that I am serious about films, when in reality what I watch more than anything else is old B-movies.

I wrote my PhD thesis on 1950s science fiction cinema and those are still the films I go back to on rainy Sunday afternoons. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is perhaps the most respectable of the bunch, but if you want the truth I tend to enjoy the really silly ‘big bug’ films much more. Them! sees gigantic ants taking up residence under Los Angeles; Beginning of the End finds a plague of overgrown grasshoppers infesting Chicago; Attack of the Crab Monsters, which is a title I find it impossible not to love, is all about radioactive crustaceans carving up an island and stealing the voices of visiting scientists. It’s bizarre and certainly isn’t an example of great cinema, but it holds a special place in my heart.

My favourite novel is less controversial. I adore Latin American magical realism, so Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is my obvious winner.

Albums are more tricky (not least since nobody really buys complete albums anymore, do they?) That being said, I’ll still pick up a physical copy of Belle & Sebastian albums. They are all good, but Dear Catastrophe Waitress has my favourite song on it, so perhaps I’ll be loyal and say that is my favourite album.

What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)?

A bear walks into a bar and says: ‘Bartender, I’d like a…………………pint of beer.’

The bartender looks at him and says: ‘Sure, but why the big paws?’

Who would be your dream dinner guests?

Audrey Hepburn, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Watch less Dawson’s Creek.

What would it surprise people to know about you?

In my early teenage years I desperately wanted to be a film critic. That in itself might not be entirely surprising, but I eventually decided I’d rather be an actor and, for a while, forgot all about film. It was only shortly before submitting a doctoral thesis on 1950s cinema that I realised I’d unthinkingly accomplished my forgotten childhood ambition in a roundabout way.

What is your favourite place?

Hearst Castle near San Simeon, California. It was built in 1919 by the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and is a bizarre pleasure palace in a mismatching collection of European styles. 

Many of the roofs originally belonged to much older buildings in Europe, meaning that the floor plan of the new building in California was not designed to produce a cohesive structure, but had to be made to match pre-existing ceilings. 

It served as the inspiration for Kane’s home, Xanadu, in Citizen Kane, which was itself based on the life of Hearst. The architecture is confusing and disorientating, the structures labyrinthine, and the history uncomfortable at best – but the views across the Pacific are astonishing.