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British Silent Film Festival

British Silent Film Festival 2015: Leicester letter No 4

Tell England (1931)
Tell England (1931)

There are two ways of looking at Sunday’s programme. You might glance at the listings and say: “it’s the last day of the festival, the films finish early, it’s all winding down.” But if you were there with us, watching these films, you’d know different. Sunday at the BSFF offered a big finish, with three feature films shown: one of which was a gem, and two of which were genuine masterpieces. And there was plenty more besides.

Shall I begin with a confession? Reader, I slept in. And those extra zeds were delicious, but I did regret missing Bryony Dixon’s presentation on Gallilopi, a curtain-raiser for the screening of Tell England (1931) that was to follow.

However, Tell England was a rousing start to the day – you couldn’t ask for better. We have been on a journey with these early sound films over the weekend – from the stumbling first steps of Dark Red Roses et al, via two beguiling movies on Saturday, to this, a real masterpiece. We were warned that the soundtrack was not of good quality, but really, it was not a problem. In fact, for every mishandled piece of dialogue here, there was a sound collage that did credit to co-directors Anthony Asquith and Geoffrey Barkas. And I suppose it does help that the actors offered a parade of perfectly clipped RP accents. Asquith and Barkas fold silent film-making techniques into their exploration of sound cinema – making this a bold and visually exciting war film. Tell England follows two young heroes (Tony Bruce and Carl Harbord) from their public school in divine middle England to the trenches of Gallipoli where the horrors of war and their duties as precociously promoted officers weigh heavy on their hearts. While the characters speak with traditional English restraint and understatement, the film whirls around them to show the physical violence of warfare (with mortar shells whirring and crashing on the soundtrack), and its psychological toll too, on the soldiers themselves and Fay Compton as a distraught mother almost driven mad by grief and fear. Not a documentary record of Gallilopi, although its vivid beach landing scenes are often cut up and used in factual programmes, but a fine dramatic film that would ideally be more widely available. So, insert a snide remark about the talkies catching on here.

After lunch, a commercial break, as the BFI’s Steve Foxon gave us a  guided tour of screen advertising, from Edison’s short 1890s clip promoting Dewar’s whisky, to a bouncy Halas & Batchelor cartoon tribute to Kellogg’s Cornflakes in the1940s. All good fun, and the sort of presentation that provokes many more questions in the coffee break afterwards. Early screen advertising is both very different from and so similar to modern examples, with detergents cleaning whiter, and making easy work of tough jobs, as well as twee poetic tributes to the English countryside and even celebrity endorsements. And of course you can’t believe that anyone fell for these tricks. But we all do.

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British Silent Film Festival 2015: Leicester letter No 3

Jane Shore (1915)
Jane Shore (1915)

On Saturday, outside events threatened to intrude the sanctity of the festival – and we weren’t complaining. First, the morning’s historical presentations were timed around a break for an update on the Labour leadership decision. Is victor Jeremy Corbyn a silent movie fan? Here in “red” Leicester (that joke TM Peter Walsh) we assume he would be an Eisenstein man. And in the afternoon, we segued neatly from checking the football scores to taking our seats for The Great Game (1930), a rollicking good film, albeit a talkie, set in the world of soccer and strangely apt for the modern game. At night, we watched a film set during the Wars of the Roses, just a few feet from Richard III’s tomb. Perhaps it was all just meant to be …

Believing in fate is a double-edged sword, though. We started the day with a thoroughly intriguing film that danced with the dangers of destiny. The tale of a doomed ship, Windjammer (1930) was a haunting film that was shot as a silent documentary record of the final journey of sailing ship the Grace Harwar, but then had dramatic “talkie” scenes of life below-deck added to make it more palatable to the general public. Those fictional scenes added a plot, one that echoed the real-life tragedies that had taken place on board the Harwar on that long and difficult last voyage. The very handsome Tony Bruce plays a posh boy, Jack, who was travelling home after having his heart broken in Melbourne – and sad to say he meets a watery end. The scenes of the boat battling the waves are both beautiful and terrifying – the chat among the crew crude but naturalistic. More than a curio, but a curious beast all the same. And we were grateful to Laraine Porter’s exquisite introduction setting a complex film in its proper context.

More terror at sea in a very poignant presentation from Bryony Dixon on the films that tell the story of the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. From newsreels of the aftermath of anti-German riots, to Winsor McCay’s stunning propaganda animation, this was an engrossing selection of films, rendered all the more powerful by the witness testimony Dixon read as the films played, and Stephen Horne’s sensitive accompaniment.

Continue reading “British Silent Film Festival 2015: Leicester letter No 3”

British Silent Film Festival 2015: Leicester letter No 2

Not For Sale (1924)
Not For Sale (1924)

Get it together, people! We’re only on day two of the festival and it seems a collective mania has already descended. Call it camaraderie, call it cinephilia, call it cabin fever, but there was a feverish mood on Friday, for sure. I won’t criticise something that I admit I was part of but we should all know that somewhere the ghost of Ivan Mosjoukine is raising an immaculately painted eyebrow in our direction. He’s judging us, but silently, of course.

So the residents of Leicester may have heard wicked cackles emanating from the Phoenix art centre on Friday morning, because there were laughs a-plenty to be had, for the right and wrong reasons both. Forgive me for taking the films out of sequence, but I would like to introduce you to the second film first.

As I took my seat for Not For Sale (1924) I was whispering under my breath “Please be good, please be good …” And it was. This film is an out-and-out joy, with a classically British delicacy in its sentiment, humour and satirical bite. Those good vibes I was sending out were partly due to sisterly pride: the script is by Lydia Hayward, who wrote the H Manning Haynes adaptations of WW Jacobs stories that have so delighted previous iterations of this festival. I suppose I wanted a little more proof that she was crucial to their success. And Not For Sale, which is adapted from a novel by author and journalist Monica Ewer, provided it. This is a charming comedy, with an elegant structure, strongly written characters, sharp dialogue and yes, even a skein of feminism woven into its fabric. Toff Ian Hunter is slumming it in a Bloomsbury boarding-house run by the kind-hearted Anne (Mary Odette), and they fall in love … gradually. But when he offers a proposal, sadly he shows he has not left his old world and its shoddy values behind him. The central couple are adorable, but it’s the supporting characters (Anne’s lodgers, her rascally little brother and her theatrical sister) who make this a real ensemble treat. Plus, we had beautiful piano accompaniment from John Sweeney, so we were feeling incredibly spoiled. It boils down to this: the plot is preposterous but the characters, by and large are not, and so it has a grace and a truth often absent in romcoms …

The Rocks of Valpre (1919)
The Rocks of Valpre (1919)
Or romantic dramas, such as today’s opening act The Rocks of Valpré (1919), a Maurice Elvey directed adaptation of an Ethel M Dell novel. The plot, the characters and even the location (Torbay doubles for coastal France) were all preposterous here. I couldn’t really understand anyone’s motivation: it was all rash promises, damaging misconceptions, wild coincidences and needless noble sacrifices. Nice to see Basil Gill again, here playing a younger man: one with a “European reputation” who “has an intimate knowledge of men” and who still gets the girl at the end of the story. Certainly it’s pretty, but not enough to distract me from the flaws I am afraid. I chuckled, and I sighed. Fair play to Elvey – this is the only existing film from his Stoll period, when I am reliably informed he was “churning them out” out a rapid pace and the problems in the film do mostly stem from the source novel. Still, it’s enough to make one throw one’s violin off the terrace and fall into a swoon, it really is.

Continue reading “British Silent Film Festival 2015: Leicester letter No 2”

British Silent Film Festival 2015: Leicester letter No 1

The Guns of Loos (1928)
The Guns of Loos (1928)

Comfort zone be damned. Here I am in Leicester, an hour or so north of the Big Smoke and the first movies that the British Silent Film Festival chooses to show are all talkies … OK, OK I am not going to pretend that they are a novelty to any of us, but kicking off the festival with early British sound films seemed initially to be either a bold move or an acknowledgment that a few of the delegates would still be on the train/in the office at the start of play.

After a day of dialogue films I was desperate for a real silent movie, and Thursday’s finale was worth the wait by any stretch. But more of that anon. While “talkie Thursday” was occasionally grating, it was always fascinating.

Laraine Porter introduced the first two films of the day with a fun whistlestop tour of the British film industry’s transition to sound. She showed us possibly my favourite talkie of the day, Up the Poll (1929), a short political satire featuring Donald Calthrop as a newly elected MP bungling a victory speech that was essentially a string of very funny gags, with “canned laughter” and heckling off-screen. Up the Poll used a combination of synch and non-synch sound, and I’d be intrigued to know whether the balance was as it seemed, ie synch for Calthrop and non-synch for everything else. I assume so, which is usually a dangerous move …

The W Plan (1931)
The W Plan (1931)

Porter also introduced our first feature, an ambitious war movie starring Brian Aherne and Madeleine Carroll called The W Plan (1930). At first it seemed that this one just wouldn’t catch fire, lots of awkward pauses and odd emphases, but boy did it start to blaze when Aherne was on the run in enemy territory. Punching German officers, hallucinating during a firing squad, leading a team of POWs to sabotage an enemy plan using a not-so elaborate code based on whist … Aherne was a dashing hero in a strange and exciting movie. Shame about Carroll – perhaps she will get another chance to show us what she can do.

After lunch, Geoff Brown took to the stage with a massively entertaining, not to mention informative, presentation on, yes, the first British talkies made in 1929. Was Blackmail really the very first? You can guess that the answer is both yes and no, can’t you? Yes, it was first to be released, but it had far less synch dialogue than its main rival High Treason, so go figure. Hitchcock v Elvey: fight! More interesting than the lead question was Brown’s exploration of those first homegrown talkies, which were a rather rum bunch. We went in for melodrama and thrillers, as a nation, it seemed, where the US favoured musicals and such. So these films, many of which we saw clips from, were a heady brew. Miscegenation and damp rot featured in White Cargo; a murderous epileptic led To What Red Hell. It made one long for the simpler pastoral pleasures of Under the Greenwood Tree, or Elsa Lanchester larking about on the old joanna in Mr Smith Wakes Up! 

Continue reading “British Silent Film Festival 2015: Leicester letter No 1”

Don’t miss the British Silent Film Festival

High Treason (1929)
High Treason (1929)

Are you currently perched on a plump suitcase, train tickets in hand, perusing the Leicester Phoenix listings and counting the days on your fingers until the British Silent Film Festival begins on Thursday? Well why not?

The four-day event is nearly upon us, and this is your friendly reminder to get your gorgeous selves to Leicester next weekend for some hot silent film action. This year the festival is back in the city of its birth, and most of the films will be shown at the Leicester Phoenix cinema and art centre. The schedule is out now, and the selection looks fantastic, with everything from rare historical footage of the sinking of the Lusitania to a programme devoted to Buster Keaton; the splendour of Michel Strogoff starring Ivan Mosjoukine and the antique charm of early screen advertising. If you read Charles Barr’s recent Hitchcock Lost and Found, you’ll no doubt be intrigued that a film the young Master of Suspense worked on that had previously been thought lost, Three Live Ghosts (1922) has been unearthed in a Russian archive and will play at this year’s festival.

Michel Strogoff (1926)
Michel Strogoff (1926)

There is a focus on the transition to sound in Britain, so there are some early talkies in the mix as well as the silents, and there are fancy-dan screenings in the evenings, with the chance to hear brand new scores by some of our favourite musicians.

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The Silent London Podcast: Festivals, firsts, a favourite and Flesh and the Devil

Flesh and the Devil (1926)
Flesh and the Devil (1926)

Back to the studio for a full-length edition of the Silent London Podcast. I’m joined by Pete Baran to talk about the festival scene, discuss the first silents we ever watched and catch up on the news. We’re joined by London Symphony director Alex Barrett, who tells us about his favourite silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and we preview the British Silent Film Festival as well as reviewing the great Hollywood silent Flesh and the Devil.

We also make inappropriate comments about Greta Garbo, and I get a little bit over-excited about Pordenone. Just another day in the office really.


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Highlights of the British Silent Film Festival, 10-13 September 2015


I had to share this news as soon as it landed: booking is now open for the British Silent Film Festival, which takes place from 10-13 September this year at the Leicester Phoenix. See you there!

Originally posted on british silent film festival:

cropped-bfi-00n-sc3.jpg The Guns of Loos (1928)

The 18th British Silent Film Festival features some stunning highlights, re-discoveries and rareties gleaned from the BFI Archive and international collections. Highlights include the British premiere of Stephen Horne’s new musical score for The Guns of Loos (1928) and Laura Rossi performing her new score to British cinema’s first epic Jane Shore (1915) at Leicester Cathedral which recently saw the reinternment of Richard III who features in the film as a key protagonist.

A missing-believed-lost early Hitchcock collaboration, the comedic Three Live Ghosts (1922) will be featured after recently being re-discovered in the Russian film archive. We’ll also have the British premiere of a brilliant new score by Bronnt Industries Kapital for the Soviet classic Arsenal (1929)

51473-1 Michel Strogoff (1926)

Our theme of ‘heroes and villains’ will be explored in stunning masterpieces of European cinema including Michel Strogoff, (1926) featuring the charismatic Russian star,

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The British Silent Film Festival returns to Leicester in 2015

Estelle Brody and John Stuart in Hindle Wakes (1927)
A weekend away … Estelle Brody and John Stuart in Hindle Wakes (1927)

According to the website of the Phoenix independent cinema in Leicester, the British Silent Film Festival is moving back northwards this year! The BSFF began in the East Midlands town back in 1998 and has subsequently been based at the Barbican and the Cinema Museum in London, in Cambridge and Nottingham. It will return to the Phoenix in Leicester from 10-13 September 2015, so mark it in your diaries now.

Here’s what the Phoenix has to say about the event.

Formed in 1998, the Festival fulfils an important role – presenting a wealth of treasures from the silent period to audiences who would not otherwise have access to their own film heritage and to the wealth of international silent cinema.

The Festival is curated, organised and presented by Laraine Porter, Bryony Dixon and Neil Brand and a team of UK experts and advisors in this field.

Open to all, the films are presented with live music from the world’s leading professional silent film accompanists (and we hope, local guest musicians) in a variety of entertaining and accessible ways.

Hat-tip to Jenny Stewart for the news – more details to follow as soon as they arrive.

The Woman he Scorned (1929)
Pola Negri in The Woman he Scorned (1929)

Meanwhile, back in the capital, the popular British Silent Film Festival Symposium will take place again this year at King’s College London. The one day event will be held on 24 April, and proposals for presentations should be sent to Lawrence Napper at King’s by 20 March 2015 – email

Drawing on the success of our previous events, we again seek to draw together scholars and enthusiasts of early British cinema. This one-day symposium is intended as a forum for the presentation of new research, scholarship and archival work into film culture in Britain and its Empire before 1930.

As such we would like to invite presentations from people working in all aspects of this field, including cinema in the wider context of theatrical, literary and popular cultures; cinema and World War I; cinema and technology, exhibition, reception and critique.

In the light of a recent AHRC award investigating the transition between silent and sound cinema in the UK (1927-1933), we would be particularly interested to include papers on this topic.

Excitingly, the day will be topped off with a screening of one of my very favourite British silent films: Paul Czinner’s The Woman he Scorned (1929), starring the wonderful Pola Negri.

Read more on the British Silent Film Festival.

British Silent Film Festival: 2014 style

Betty Balfour in The Vagabond Queen (1929)
Betty Balfour in The Vagabond Queen (1929)

Just like last year, the British Silent Film Festival hits London town, but not in its traditional form. Very much as was the the case last year, actually, the festival proceeds in a slightly cut-down version, comprising a symposium at Kings College London on Friday 2 May 2014 and a full day of screenings at the Cinema Museum on the next day.

There’s a loose theme to those screenings at the Cinema Museum – runaway women or some such. I like. More to point: Betty Balfour fans – fill your boots. And if you want to submit a proposal for a paper to the symposium, you have until 31 March – so hurry up, clever clogses.

Here are the full details for each day:

The British Silent Film Festival Symposium 2014 will take place on 2nd May 2014 at King’s College, London.

Following the success of last year’s symposium, this one-day event again seeks to draw together scholars and enthusiasts of early British cinema, and operate as a forum for the presentation of new research, scholarship and archival work into film culture in Britain and its Empire before 1930. Possible areas may include but will not be confined to: Cinema in the context of wider theatrical, literary and popular culture; Empire and cinema; Cinema and the First World War.

An early evening screening of The Wonderful Story (Graham Cutts, 1922) will be included in the day’s events.

Proposals (around 200 words in length) are invited for 20 minute papers on any aspect of new research into film-making and cinema-going in Britain and its Empire before 1930. Please submit them to by 31st March.

Read more on Facebook & register for the symposium here

Betty Balfour
Betty Balfour

Put-upon ladies take on the world in this programme of rarely seen silents from the BFI National Archive.

A double bill from talented Hungarian director Geza von Bolvary, stars Britain’s favourite actress Betty Balfour as the stand-in princess in The Vagabond Queen (1929) and besotted bottle-washer in Bright Eyes (1929). Also yearning to break free, an oppressed wife hangs her hopes on a typewriter in J.M. Barrie’s The Twelve Pound Look (1920) and a programme of shorts continues the theme.


  • 10.00-11.30 The Twelve Pound Look
  • 11.30-12.00 Break
  • 12.00-13.30 The Vagabond Queen
  • 13.30-14.30 Lunch
  • 14.30-16.00 Shorts programme
  • 16.30-18.00 Champagner/Bright Eyes

Doors open at 09.00 for a 10.00 start.

Refreshments will be available in our licensed café/bar.


£25 for the full day, £15 for a half day, £8 for one session. Sorry, no concessions.

Advance tickets may be purchased from WeGotTickets, or direct from the Museum by calling 020 7840 2200 in office hours.

UPDATE: tickets on sale now

Read more on the Cinema Museum website

The British Silent Film Weekend 2013 – reporting back

Betty Balfour
Betty Balfour

As you know, this year the British Silent Film Festival has taken a year off – but luckily for us, it’s the kind of year off where two all-day events still go ahead. Just to keep things ticking over, as it were. So last weekend there was a symposium on British silent cinema, held at King’s College London and organised by Dr Lawrence Napper. The following day the Cinema Museum hosted an all-dayer of screenings, themed on the tantalising idea of “sensation-seeking”.

I attended both events and while it didn’t feel like the festival was running, it was a real treat to be immersed in British silent film in this way. Let’s hope the festival returns back to full strength next year.

The papers at the symposium were limited to 20 minutes apiece, but covered a wide range of topics, from Edwardian theatre to state censorship to international co-productions to saucy novels. One hardly knows where to begin.

There were two papers with a theatrical bent: Ken Reeves’s dip into musical comedy theatre and its links to silent film concluded with some ideas for “crossover” events that would mix theatre, film and audience participation to spread the love about early British cinema. Audience participation? Reader, I sang. Very badly. Theatre historian David Mayer’s unforgettable presentation played and replayed the same baffling scrap of film as he uncovered the truth behind its creation. The scene of a waterfall bursting its bank and bringing down a bridge (and a couch and four) was, it turned out, not shot on location but on stage at the London Hippodrome in 1902, where a collapsible stage could be dropped and filled with water to create watery scenes. There was more – involving elephants on a slide. Elephants. Read more here.

Elisabeth Risdon on the cover of The Picturegoer July 1915
Elisabeth Risdon on the cover of The Picturegoer July 1915

Lucie Dutton, sometimes of this parish, also talked about the stage, presenting a history of film director Maurice Elvey‘s early career – in theatre in London and New York, before moving into the pictures with his star Elisabeth Risdon. She was followed by John Reed from the National Screen and Sound Archive in Wales, who took us through the production, loss, rediscovery and restoration of Elvey’s landmark film, The Life Story of David Lloyd George. Intriguingly, Reed pointed out a few instances in which Elvey could be seen in the film, waving a handkerchief and appearing to direct the action. Could this be because in these scenes the prime minister was played not by Norman Page but by Lloyd George himself? It’s an enticing thought.

Another famous British director was under the spotlight – one even more renowned than Elvey. Charles Barr presented on what we do know, and what we don’t, about the first film that Hitchcock ever shouted action on: Always Tell Your Wife. It’s an adaptation of a stage comedy starring theatre veterans Seymour Hicks and Ellaline Terriss and it seems the director fell out with his inflexible actors and therefore a “fat youth” from the props room was elevated to the job. You may struggle to see bold Hitchcockian strokes in what we have left of the film (which screened at the Cinema Museum on the Saturday), but we do have the director’s handwriting, unmistakably, in an insert shot of a telegram.

Jackeydawra Melford (trom
Jackeydawra Melford (trom

Far less well known than Hitchcock, but fascinating to hear about, was showman-turned-film director Mark Melford. His name, just like most of his films, may be lost to time, but Stephen Morgan attempted to flesh out his story, taking his cue from a Bioscope blogpost of 2007 that posed the pertinent question: “Who needs films to write film history anyway?” We did see a clip from the recently rediscovered romp The Herncrake Witch, directed by and starring Melford (amended, see comments) as well as being based on one of his own comic operas and also featuring his daughter (Jackeydawra, named thus due to her parents’ love of Jackdaws. True story). The story of the Melfords was hugely entertaining, but Morgan concluded by making the hugely important point that the study of lost films and forgotten film-makers is vital to a full understanding of the silent film era as a whole.

And of course, one never knows when a lost film will suddenly become an un-lost film. It happened to The Herncrake Witch and The Life Story of David Lloyd George after all. And it wasn’t so long ago that a treasure trove of Mitchell & Kenyon works was unearthed, giving us an invaluable glimpse of (mostly working-class) Edwardian Britain. In one of the day’s most diverting 20-minute segments, Tony Fletcher played a selection of Mitchell & Kenyon’s fiction films, while explaining a little more about them. The films were comedies, often chases and knockabout stuff, all with a backdrop of industrial northern England – factory gates, brick kilns and terraced streets. I particularly liked the mischievous snow comedy and the animated intertitles in a short called (I think) Driving Lucy.

The Battles of the Coronel and Falkand Islands (1927)
The Battles of the Coronel and Falkand Islands (1927)

More comedy, but this time of the you-couldn’t-make-it-up school: Alex Rock put recent Leveson revelations in the shade with a paper on the Metropolitan Police’s tangled relationship with the film industry. Its rather heavy-handed Press Bureau, founded in 1919, was popularly known as the Suppress Bureau. You can guess why. Rock’s paper traced the development of an official documentary film, supported by the Met, called Scotland Yard, and the squashing of another, based on the memoirs of a former detective.

The correspondence of public servants baffled, outraged or simply dismissive of the “movies” is unexpectedly entertaining, and never more so than in Jo Pugh’s paper on the official military response to Walter Summers’ The Battles of the Coronel and Falkland Islands. I could barely keep up with the information he was imparting, partly because I was giggling so much. Really. The good news is that we should hear more from Jo’s research and more about the film too as a little bird tells me a full restoration (possibly in time for next year’s Great War centenary) is in process.

Continue reading “The British Silent Film Weekend 2013 – reporting back”

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