Romaine Hart: an inspiring figure who reinvigorated cinema in the UK

Hart gave me my first break in the industry and stood out as a beacon of hope for those who followed

  • Romaine Hart obituary

Last modified on Mon 3 Jan 2022 09.09 EST

Romaine Hart gave me my start in the film business, hiring me as usher at the Screen on the Green cinema in Islington, London, when I was 18; alongside the programmer Roger Austin she taught me fundamental lessons about cinema management that inspired me through the Other Cinema, Scala and later Palace years.

As a teenager I had witnessed the transformation of my local, the Rex cinema on Upper Street, a downmarket fleapit that was part of a declining chain owned by the Bloom family (Romaine’s maiden name), to the Screen on the Green, with its progressive and clever programming. It showed critically acclaimed, mainly US second-run classics by day (the first double bill I attended as a 15-year-old was The Graduate and The Thomas Crown Affair). From 11.15pm the late-night cinema club showed cult films such as Performance, audacious double bills featuring Chabrol, Kurosawa and other greats of world cinema and obscure but daring fare like Henry Miller’s Quiet Days in Clichy. The Friday all-nighters of the Marx Brothers and Humphrey Bogart classics were usually packed to the rafters.

To keep this challenging programme viable in newly gentrified Islington, Romaine kept overhead costs to a minimum (I can still feel the weight of those heavy metal 35mm film cases, running them up and down the narrow stairs to the tiny projection box). Sales of Kia-Ora squash drinks and boxes of Maltesers were pushed to the maximum, with all of the ushers doing ice-cream breaks with a tray between films. Even at 1am in the morning.

It was tough in the 70s: cinema audiences were at a low ebb and the Screen was barred from showing first-run films, which instead went to the Odeon Angel, ABC cinema on Holloway Road and Essoldo Caledonian Road. Romaine was a shrewd, incisive and – beneath the occasionally gruff but glamorous business exterior – generous person who gave me a fundamental grounding not just in exhibition but also distribution with her company Mainline Pictures.

With Roger she distributed movies by Alan Rudolph, Monte Hellman, Billy Wilder and John Waters at a time when distribution costs were at a premium; later on I released Eraserhead with her at the Scala. Programming an all-nighter of films interspersed with live performances from the then unknown Sex Pistols, the Clash and Buzzcocks was just one more brilliant coup that inspired a new generation of punk fans into the cinema. It was an unforgettable event to have been an usher at and another example of thinking outside the box against the oppressive shackles that the film industry had imposed on exhibition at that time.

Romaine’s attributes are too numerous to list but, as a woman in the quite frankly sluggish and male-dominated 70s British film industry, her acumen, good taste, quick wit and infectious sense of humour stood out as a beacon of hope for so many who followed. Later I took her values with me into production – her principles of acquiring high quality or challenging films combined with reasonable budgets remain with me as a producer. I personally owe a lot to Romaine and Roger, and to try to put that into words is difficult, but she transformed cinema-going in that little part of London where I grew up and brought excitement back in a pre-home video, pre-multichannel TV time period, when most people were pronouncing the film industry as dead in the water.

Stephen Woolley is a film producer, whose credits include Carol, Made in Dagenham and The Crying Game.

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