James (Jim) Leahy (1951-1956)

Died on 18th May 2021, aged 82.

Jim Leahy and I arrived at Merchant Taylors’ in September 1951 and quickly became firm friends. Academically our paths never crossed – Jim was on the Science side and I was on the Modern. Whilst we were never in the same classroom, otherwise our school lives ran in parallel. We were both in Walter House. We both lived in the Amersham area, so travelled together to and from school. We shared many interests, laughed at the same things, and were easy in each other’s company. Jim played cricket and rugby for the school at various levels. In the Combined Cadet Force he was in the naval section. He acted in school plays and was an articulate participant in the 25 Debating Society and as a member of the Spenser Literary Society. Sport played an important part in our lives, particularly a shared love of cricket. As a medium paced bowler Jim’s approach to the wicket was unconventional – he described it as “a carthorse imitating Lindwall” – but he knew the value of line and length and took plenty of wickets. The highlight of his career as a batsman, during his brief spell in the 1st XI, was a stylish half century against a strong MCC side. In his final season at school, Jim was an astute and popular captain of the 2nd XI.

In our early days at Merchant Taylors’ we were not the most disciplined of pupils. A master once told us that we mixed with “the wrong set”. This amused us at the time, but perhaps we took his comment to heart because as our school careers progressed we gradually became establishment figures and by 1956 we were sitting side by side on the Monitors’ table.

In 1957 Jim went up to Cambridge where he read Archeology and Anthropology, was deeply involved in student politics and became a prominent member of the Cambridge Union. It was at Cambridge that Jim became increasingly interested in the cinema – an interest that was to form the basis of his future career. In our vacations we spent a lot of time together, but we needed to earn enough money to support our university lives. Jim found employment at Goya’s perfume factory in Amersham and would arrive at the pub after work smelling sweetly of Goya’s “Black Rose”. By 1960 Jim and I were living in bachelor flats, close to each other in north London. Jim did some teaching and worked for the Fabian Society, but we spent weekends watching rugby, football or cricket according to the season. I accompanied Jim to cinemas all over town as he pursued his interest in films, and we spent countless hours on licensed premises putting the world to rights. In our frequent political discussions it was never entirely clear to me the extent to which our views coincided. Often we seemed to start from different places only to arrive at the same destination.

Jim was to write about films for more than half a century. In 1967 his book “The Cinema of Joseph Losey” was published. He wrote for magazines such as “Movie” and “Sight & Sound” and well into retirement he continued to express his forthright views in blogs. He enjoyed a strange introduction to practical film making in 1963. His mother was a neighbour of the actors Mary Ure and Robert Shaw through whom Jim secured a job on the production team of “Carry on Jack”. However soon his career was to develop in more serious ways. In 1966 Jim went to the United States having gained a place at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, first as a post-graduate student and then as a lecturer in film studies. During this period Jim collaborated with the Hollywood director Nicholas Ray on a project called “Breathing Together”, and whilst in America he met and married Gaila Jonaitis, who was to be the love of his life.

With his reputation firmly established, Jim returned to London in 1971 to become the Director of the Slade Film Unit at University College London – a pioneering role in film studies. Unfortunately the Film Unit was closed in 1983 as a result of budget cuts, but Jim’s career took a new turn in the 1990s when he was co-writer with director Ken McMullen on the film “1871” – a feature film for Channel 4 based on the Paris Commune. Following Jim’s return from the United States, we saw each other frequently. Over the years we played cricket together for five different clubs. Jim adapted his bowling technique to reflect the passage of time, but still took over 100 wickets in his career with the Nomads. For a while there was also Sunday morning tennis. Jim’s game was a blend of frantic energy and frustration. He once announced that if the regulation height of the net were to be lowered by one inch he would win Wimbledon every year.

As time went by Jim’s health deteriorated. His mobility declined which seriously restricted his activities, but we were still able to meet for convivial lunches in restaurants near his Barbican home. The last time Jim and I met was on 17th January 2020, at lunch with our wives – an occasion full of laughter and reminiscence. Then came the pandemic and we never saw each other again, though we kept in touch by telephone and e-mail. In late February 2021, and again in April, Jim was in hospital. He recovered sufficiently to return home to Gaila’s devoted care, but on 18th May I received with great sadness the news of Jim’s death. So ended a friendship of seventy years, during which time there was never a cross word between us. I shall miss Jim for the remainder of my days, and remember him always with the greatest affection and respect.

Henry Amar (1951-1956)


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