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Five films I saw at the 1st Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Weekend

Silent film marathon #kenningtonbioscope

A photo posted by Katie Graham (@katiegra) on

At this time of year, a silent film fan starts packing sun cream and sandals and contemplating a journey south to enjoy some warm weather and classic cinema in the company of like-minded souls. But there will be plenty of time to talk about Bologna later. This weekend just gone, I set forth in a southerly direction on the Bakerloo line, snaking under the Thames to the Cinema Museum in Kennington, south London. What I found there was very special indeed – and long may it continue. Everyone who was there with me will relish the idea of the Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Weekend becoming a regular thing, and for the lucky among us, an amuse-gueule for Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna.

We love the Kennington Bioscope, that’s already on the record, so the Silent Film Weekend is a lot more of a good thing. The team behind the Wednesday night screenings, with the help of Kevin Brownlow and a few guest musicians, have translated their evening shows into a two-day event. And with the added bonus of delicious vegetarian food courtesy of the café at the Buddhist Centre next door. It was a triumph all round.

The programme for the weekend, which you can read here, packed in quite a few classics along less well-known films. I was more than happy to reacquaint myself with Ménilmontant (1926) and The Cheat (1915) – especially on high-quality prints projected by the genius Dave Locke and introduced by knowledgeable types including the afore-mentioned Mr Brownlow. What a joy also, to see the BFI’s Bryony Dixon proudly introduce a double-bill of H Manning Haynes’s WW Jacobs adaptations: The Boatswain’s Mate (1924) is surely destined for a wider audience. And if you haven’t seen Colleen Moore channel Betty Balfour in Twinkletoes (1926) you really are missing out.

But for this report I have decided to focus on the films that were new to me. I appreciate that’s an arbitrary distinction for other people, but this way I can fold in the element of … SURPRISE.

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The Kennington Bioscope Weekender: a silent film festival for London

The Cheat (1915)
The Cheat (1915)

Well hello there, Elephant & Castle tube station. A few months back I wrote about the many wonders of the Kennington Bioscope – a regular silent screening event held at the Cinema Musesum, south London. Short version: it’s ace.

Now the Kennington Bioscope has gone one better than brightening up our Wednesday evenings. The Kennington Bioscope Weekender will take over the Cinema Museum for two days in the summer – 20 & 21 June – to screen a mouth-watering selection of silent films.

Two things to note straight away – first, the majority of these films will be shown on film, either 35mm or 16mm. The website makes it clear which is which. And second, the films have been chosen and will be introduced by an estimable group of film historians including Kevin Brownlow.

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In praise of the Kennington Bioscope: London’s silent speakeasy

Tol'able David (1921)
Tol’able David (1921)

London is the best city in the world for silent cinema. OK, so maybe I should admit to a little bias, but really, between the BFI Southbank, the Barbican, the London Film Festival, the Phoenix cinema in Finchley, and the capital’s many film societies, rep cinemas, arthouse cinemas, orchestras, concert halls and festivals (including the many visits of the British Silent Film Festival, the Fashion in Film Festival and the recently departed Birds Eye View Film Festival) we are sitting pretty for silents. Whether it’s a symptom or a cause I don’t know, but we also have many of the world’s best silent film accompanists based right here in the Big Smoke.

It’s in this context that in the summer of 2013, two of London’s fabulous silent film musicians, John Sweeney and Cyrus Gabrysch, set up a “silent speakeasy” called the Kennington Bioscope: “a silent cinematic event dedicated to the rediscovery of forgotten masterpieces”. Since then, they have been creating silent cinema magic in South London on a regular basis. The Bioscope is cinephilia at its best – if you’ve been, you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t been, you are missing out, and I am about to make you jealous. I can’t let another Bioscope go by without telling you all how amazing it is.

The Cinema Museum is a wonderful place #britishsilents

A photo posted by pam_hutch (@pam_hutch) on

The KB (as I have never yet heard one person call it) is held once every three weeks at the Cinema Museum – a volunteer-staffed Aladdin’s Cave of cinematic memorabilia and ephemera. There are more than a few reasons why you voted this place as your favourite silent film venue of 2014. It’s a wee bit like a time machine, whisking you back to a more sedate era of cinemagoing. There’s always an interval, ushers may well be wearing natty uniforms, someone will undoubtedly strike a gong to prompt patrons to take their seats, and the adverts before the screening will remind those assembled of the proper etiquette required. Tickets, which cost just £3, are made of cardboard and ripped off a reel. Most important of all, the projection booth is staffed by an expert projectionist, showing films of all shapes and sizes as often as possible.

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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 Lawrence.1.Napper@kcl.ac.uk 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.

PROGRAMME

  • 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.

TICKETS & PRICING

£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 thebioscope.net)
Jackeydawra Melford (trom thebioscope.net)

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.

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News for 2013 from the British Silent Film Festival

Cocaine (Graham Cutts, 1922)
Cocaine (Graham Cutts, 1922)

If my email inbox is anything to go by, several of you have been wondering when we would hear details of the 16th British Silent Film Festival. After last year’s trip to Cambridge, many of you will have been anticipating the festival’s return to London, for one thing…

Well. There’s bad news – but happily there’s far more good news.

The BSFF is taking a break this year – but there will still be a BSFF, of sorts. And yes, some of the events will be in London, but festivalgoers will also be packing their buckets and spades for a trip to The Suffolk coast – and the historic Aldeburgh Cinema.

The centrepiece of the events, according to my insider sources, will be the screening of Hobson’s Choice (Percy Nash, 1920), starring Arthur PittJoan Ritz and Joe Nightingale – a very, very rarely seen film and a magnificent adaptation of the play by Harold Brighouse. You’ll also have a chance to see the full surviving fragment of Graham Cutts’s Cocaine (1922) and the only surviving reel of Monkey’s Paw (Manning Haynes, 1923). Speaking of Haynes – you’ll be able to feast on his delightful WW Jacobs comedies down in Suffolk – a treat for any British silent film fanatic. If you linger by the seaside, you’ll also catch the Dodge Brothers accompanying the Louise Brooks film Beggars of Life (1928), which is well worth sticking around for.

Over to the official announcement on the British Silents website.

There will be no British Silent Film Festival this year while the team regroup – however, we are organising three fantastic one off events , with three enthusiastic new hosts:

19th April One day British Silent Symposium courtesy of Lawrence Napper at King’s College, University of London –incorporating the Rachael Low lecture. A ‘Call for Papers’ will be coming soon.

20th April – All day event at the Cinema Museum – a programme of sensational London related film – The Yellow Claw, full surviving fragments of Cocaine, Monkey’s Paw, and rare shorts from other collections. Also the 21st century premiere of the 1920Hobson’s Choice a genuinely good silent adaptation of the Harold Brighouse classic made famous by David Lean.

4th May – join us by the sea as the BSFF are guests of the glorious Aldeburgh Cinema for an all-dayer, with a coastal theme, including the ‘east coast’ films of Manning Haynes and Lydia Hayward based on the W W Jacobs stories, a programme of Lifeboat films and others. The fabulous Dodge Brothers will be playing ‘Beggars of Life’on the 5th for those who want to make a weekend of it!

Full programmes and further details to follow.

Japanese silent films at the Cinema Museum, Zipangu Fest, 15 September 2012

Crossways (Jujiro, 1928)
Crossways (Jujiro, 1928)

This is a guest post for Silent London by Jasper Sharp – scroll down for a chance to win tickets to these events.

Taking place at the Cinema Museum between 14-16 September, the UK’s premiere celebration of cutting-edge Japanese film, Zipangu Fest, returns for its third year, with a number of choice items of interest to silent film fans.

The centrepiece is the screening on Saturday evening of Kinugasa Teinosuke’s classic of the avant-garde, Crossways (Jujiro, 1928) from 35mm, with a new score performed live by Minima. One of the first Japanese films ever shown in the West, Crossways was Kinugasa’s follow up to his better-known Page of Madness (Kurutta ippeiji, 1926). Set in Tokyo’s Yoshiwara pleasure district, Crossways was described by its director as a “chambara [samurai action film] without swordfights” and was heavily influenced by German Expressionism.

This screening will be introduced by a visual presentation on the history of the film by Zipangu Fest director and author of the recent Historical Dictionary of Japan Cinema, Jasper Sharp. The evening kicks off at 7.30pm, and tickets are available from the Zipangu Fest website.

To Sleep So as to Dream (Yume miru you ni nemuritai)
To Sleep So as to Dream (Yume miru you ni nemuritai)

Crossways will be preceded by another very rare screening for those with an interest in Japan’s early cinema, To Sleep So as to Dream (Yume miru you ni nemuritai), the 1986 debut from Kaizô Hayashi (Circus Boys, Zipang, and the ‘Yokohama Mike’ trilogy).

Two private detectives hunt for an actress trapped within a frame of an ancient ninja film in this magical double-handed homage to the movie worlds of the 1910s and 1950s. Predating Michel Hazanavicius’ recent faux-silent work The Artist by 25 years, To Sleep So as to Dream is chockfull of references to Japan’s rich cinematic heritage, featuring cameos from a host of veteran talent including the benshi (silent film narrators) Shunsui Matsui and Midori Sawato, and the baroque sets of Takeo Kimura, the Nikkatsu art designer fondly remembered for his flamboyant work with Seijun Suzuki in the 1960s. Playing for the most part without dialogue, it toys with the conventions of both the silent film and hardboiled detective genres, leading the viewer through a maze of colourful locales such as a carnival fairground and a deserted film set.

The essence of celluloid – Spirit Made Flesh
The essence of celluloid – Spirit Made Flesh

Both of these titles will be screened from film. Indeed, cinema purists might want to also note Zipangu Fest’s Sunday afternoon session, beginning at 4.30pm, Spirit Made Flesh: Works from 3 Experimental Filmmakers, featuring work by Shinkan Tamaki, Momoko Seto and Takashi Makino, all of which interrogate and explore the very essence of celluloid and analogue technologies. The screenings will be followed by a panel discussion “Is There Still a Need for Film in a Digitising World?” in what promises to be a lively and fascinating event.

Competition

Zipangu Fest is generously offering a pair of tickets to all three of these events. All you have to do is sign up to our mailing list, and tell us which of the films in our 2012 lineup interests you. On submission you will be signed up to our responsibly-managed mailing list, and three names will be selected at random for a prize. The first gets a pair of tickets to the Crossways event, the second to To Sleep so as To Dream, and the third to Spirit Made FleshClick here to enter.

Zipangu Fest was established in 2010 to shatter existing preconceptions about what ‘Japanese cinema’ is, and to celebrate one of the most vibrant and dynamic moving image cultures anywhere in the world. The third Zipangu Fest, hosted by the Cinema Museum in Kennington from 14-16 September, looks set to be our most ambitious and exciting yet.

Website: zipangufest.com
Facebook.com/zipangufest
Twitter: @zipangufest

Jasper Sharp is a writer and film curator.

Charlie’s London: Lambeth workhouse

The Kid (1921)
The Kid (1921)

This is a guest post for Silent London by Ayşe Behçet

Hi everyone, again thank you for taking time out to read this instalment of Charlie’s London. This segment is going to look at the importance of family with the backdrop of the Lambeth Workhouse. Events that transpired behind the walls of that Victorian institution would change Charlie’s life; but it also holds some personal significance for me too.

I thought long and hard about how to start this piece. The answer to my prayers came in the form of my three-year-old godson Jayden, whose mannerisms and speech are so precociously adult-like you can imagine him starring in The Kid. Jayden is my cousin Em’s little boy, I was there when he was born and have never lived more than three doors away from his mother my entire life. Jay waltzed into my bedroom one afternoon after playing in our joint garden (Em’s parents live next door to us) and pointed at my wall.

“What’s that, Ayşe?” He was referring my two framed Chaplin film posters, one of The Kid and one of The Gold Rush. When I explained to him that they were posters from films made by a very funny man called Charlie Chaplin, Jayden was intrigued.

“Can we watch him?” Well! I don’t need an excuse, so I reached for one of my DVDs.

We snuggled up on the sofa to watch The Kid (I choose this one because I felt Jay could really identify with little Jackie Coogan, both cheeky and comical). I was right; Jayden loved it! He giggled and squealed at every comedy moment, until the scene when the Kid is ripped away from the Tramp. It disturbed him, you could see in his little face the terror and torment; the fear that someone could do that to him, and he would no longer see his mother and father. I have to confess, Coogan’s lips moving to the words “I want my daddy” always causes a lump in my throat. Of course, when the Tramp rescues the boy from the moving orphanage van and holds him the way only a father can, I assured Jay that all little boys have their parents in the end, if they are good little boys.

After he had gone home I sat thinking about the film. Jayden’s reaction had hit a nerve with me that I needed to explore.

Hannah Chaplin
Hannah Chaplin

Chaplin never hid the fact that he cared about human suffering, and it has been suggested the world over that his own poor upbringing left him with emotional scars. If my godson at three felt moved and distressed at he sight of this in a film, what must a young Chaplin have felt? His whole world, mother and Syd ripped apart from him by a system that was designed to protect but ultimately hindered the welfare of the poorer classes and their children. Initially, a frightened seven-year-old Chaplin, his mother Hannah and brother Sydney went of their own accord to the Lambeth workhouse, once known as the Newington Workhouse because of its location (just off Newington Butts in Lambeth). This was largely because of their mother, who struggled to cope with the financial difficulties the family had to endure. Once the family were admitted their clothes were removed and their heads were shaved; can you imagine the humiliation? I have to be honest: I think Hannah’s decision to admit her sons rather than show defeat actually showed love and strength. She admitted to herself they deserved better, what more can a mother who loves her sons do?

Hannah Chaplin’s breakdown and the family’s arrival at Lambeth Workhouse happened in 1896. By June that same year the two boys were removed from their mother, which caused Chaplin much distress, and sent to Central London District School at Hanwell in west London. The journey seemed like a holiday to the young brothers, who travelled to their new home by horse-drawn bakery van. However, when they arrived, they spent time in an “approbation” ward where Chaplin was separated from his beloved brother and placed in the infants section of the school. Chaplin remembered in his Autobiography many years later how the older girls would bathe the younger boys, recounting in particular the cold and wet all-over flannel wash he received from a fourteen-year-old.

If you have read these blogs before you will know I’ve mentioned my great-grandmother Nanny Harris before. Her daughter Esther, my nan’s sister whom I always lovingly referred to as Auntie Etty, was born in a Lambeth workhouse. My nan’s brother, my uncle Fred, was also born in one too. Family story leads us to believe my great-grandmother literally sat upon the steps of the workhouse each time her waters broke and told them to take her in: “Or I am going to have this bleeding baby in the street.”

The Cinema Museum in south London
The Cinema Museum in south London (formerly Lambeth Workhouse)

What’s more, a family mystery could tie us directly to Chaplin – and we didn’t realise it for many years.

There is a famous picture of Chaplin, huddled against a group of small boys, his seven-year-old face looking at the camera with the same cheeky grin that would later make him a worldwide star. Two rows back is a small boy, his jawline is strong and his face familiar, this boy we believe is the brother of my great-grandmother, who, if records are to be believed was in the Lambeth Workhouse the same time as Chaplin. Unfortunately no other photo of him exists as an adult, no photos of my great-grandmother survive either, so it really is a family mystery that will never be solved. The family would again later return to this building but thankfully in better circumstances.

In the 1960s my mother volunteered at the building when it was still a hospital and institution within the borough, she probably stood in the chapel area, famously linked to the Chaplin family, and never realised the connection that her own daughter would later write about. Now, of course, the workhouse has become the Cinema Museum. Recently it was my turn to return there, to meet David Robinson, a hero I have been reading from the age of 11, for a fantastic presentation on Chaplin, my ultimate hero – I came full circle!

Ayşe Behçet

Neil Brand: The Silent Pianist Speaks at the Cinema Museum, 19 May 2012

Neil Brand – and friends
Neil Brand – and friends

Who do you watch silent movies with? Your friends? Your partner? Toute seule on the front row taking notes? The answer is that we all watch silent films in the company of the musician, who is not just accompanying the movie, but guiding the audience through it as well. Whether composing a score or improvising on the fly, silent cinema musicians are arguably closer to and more involved with the film then anyone else in the auditorium. Which is why it’s always fascinating to hear what they have to say about the movies.

Neil Brand does more to share his wisdom than most, with regular appearances on TV and radio discussing film history and film scores – as well as his work with the British Silent Film Festival too. But for the real skinny on silent cinema as he sees it, you need to catch him on stage, with a projector and a piano, holding forth. The good news is that Brand’s The Silent Pianist Speaks show is back in London on Saturday, at our beloved Cinema Museum.

From the earliest, earthiest comedies and thrillers, through a silent cine-verité classic scripted by a young Billy Wilder, to the glories of Hollywood glamour and the sublime Laurel and Hardy, Neil provides improvised accompaniment and laconic commentary on everything from deep focus to his own live cinema disasters. He investigates how music works with film by inviting the audience to score a love scene, and the show culminates with Neil accompanying a clip ‘sight unseen’ whilst simultaneously describing his reactions to it. The result is a hilarious, sharp and ultimately moving show about cinema and music which pays tribute to the musicians of the silent era through the observations of one the world’s greatest improvising accompanists.

You don’t want to miss this, do you?

The Silent Pianist Speaks is at the Cinema Museum on Saturday 19 May 2012 at 7.30pm. To read more about this particular event, and to buy tickets at the bargainous price of £8.50 or less for concessions, click through to the Cinema Museum website here. Read more about The Silent Pianist Speaks here. If you don’t live in the capital, you;ll be pleased to know that the Silent Pianist Also Speaks Elsewhere. Visit Neil Brand’s website for details of shows around the country (there’s one coming up in Ipswich on 27 May).

Charlie’s London: David Robinson at the Cinema Museum

The Cinema Museum in south London
The Cinema Museum in south London

This is a guest post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London.

Welcome back for the next instalment of Charlie’s London. In this segment I am looking at the Lambeth Workhouse, an institution that Chaplin spent some time as a youngster. But unlike in the previous chapters of this blog, which focus on either my connections with Charlie or the places our paths have crossed, I want to look at a fantastic event that really brought home to me the importance of keeping his memory alive.

I have always sworn by the events calendar Silent London offers its readers, and three months ago was no exception. While browsing, I came across a presentation by the much loved and highly accredited film expert and Chaplin scholar David Robinson. Robinson on Robinson, as it was called, promised to be a fascinating insight into a career spanning many years, with many stories. The event, on Saturday night, did not disappoint, with brilliant anecdotes and wonderful tales of the Hollywood elite, and Robinson’s own career as the backdrop. For me this experience meant so much more. The event was held at the Cinema Museum, which holds masses of film memorabilia and regularly hosts film screenings and lectures – and the Cinema Museum is housed in the building that was once the Lambeth Workhouse.

David Robinson with Ayse Behçet
David Robinson with Ayşe Behçet

For me, who had grown up in South London, loving Chaplin, knowing this very building was the old Lambeth Workhouse and of course reading Robinson’s biography of Chaplin since I was 11 years old, this event was really the final piece in the jigsaw. I was 10 when I first saw the biopic Chaplin starring Robert Downey Jnr. I had wanted to read more about Chaplin’s life, and so ventured to the local library with my nan, where I uncovered Robinson’s book. I can remember sitting on a stool in the library stool while my nan browsed, my elbows rested on the table while my hands were placed firmly on my jaw line, head transfixed in the book. Everyone always tells me they know when my concentration level is at its highest: I swing my legs like a crazy person or bite my bottom lip as I read. Well, according to my nan this is exactly what I did.

I borrowed the book for two weeks and read the whole thing. I was hooked. For my birthday I asked for my own copy – Mum couldn’t quite understand why, especially as I had not long finished the library copy. I just knew, even at that age that I would want to read it over and over again. Now, 18 years later, it’s still sitting there on my shelf. I have used it for references, quotes, even to solve arguments – it has always been my true companion on my Chaplin journey. Of course, I understand the book very better now as a grown woman than I did as a child, with life comes greater understanding. Yet I will never forget asking my nan what certain words meant and if she had heard of the actors and actresses mentioned in the books. Did she remember any of the events and of course what was it like to actually see a Chaplin film in the cinema? Her stories always fascinated me!

The first time I met David Robinson was at the 2012 Slapstick Festival in Bristol. It was January and traditionally cold and miserable, but the festival cheered up every dreary day. Robinson gave two presentations that weekend, one on Chaplin’s life and one showing shorts and clips from some of his most memorable films. I watched in fascination at the first event, which I remember being 9am on the Saturday morning. It was everything I loved and adored about Chaplin, his London and how it affected him; his controversies and how he reacted to them. Well, after nearly 20 years and quite a bit of courage I finally got to talk to Robinson, and if I ever felt his book was an inspiration I can promise anyone who reads this that the man himself it so much more. Through him I have met some amazing and interesting people: I have continued a journey I started as a small child and I have felt very privileged in many ways. I wouldn’t have half the material I have in my blog without him, that’s for sure.

So this blog post has been rather sentimental, not that the others have really been anything else! And of course I have quoted Robinson and mentioned him before. But it is no exaggeration that you cannot possibly research Chaplin without having his biography constantly on hand. For me, being sat in the very room where Charlie and Sydney Chaplin spent such hard times, listening to David and remembering my roots, I truly felt I had come home. London never leaves you. Getting off the tube at the Elephant and walking down towards Renfrew Road; seeing the Imperial War Museum in the background; remembering the stories I grew up on – all these things remind me of the person I really am. Your home and your birth make up a large part of who you are. My nan always taught me that, and just as Robinson said in his reminiscence that Chaplin had always been in his life because of his father’s love of his films, so has he (and Robinson) very much always been in mine. I truly hope that this will always continue!

Thank you so much for taking time to read this blog spot, normal Chaplinesque service will be resumed in two weeks’ time when we will venture back to the workhouse once more to give some context to our hero and his life in London, as well as its use now as a fantastic gem of a museum.

Ayşe Behçet

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