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Searching for Silent London: 10 highlights from the Britain on Film archive

Covent Garden Porters (1929)
Covent Garden Porters (1929)

Attention amateur historians and nostalgic souls. The BFI has launched its Britain on Film project on the BFIPlayer, comprising around 2,5000 pieces of archive footage. It’s an incredibly easy way to lose an entire afternoon, or more of your life. But fascinating too. Simply type in a location, a decade or a subject, and the BFIplayer will throw some digitised (and contextualised) film right back at you.

I learned a lot about the fashions on sale in the local Co-Op in my hometown in the 1930s, and the story of how my High School came to have a swimming pool in the 1950s (sadly it had long since been filled in before I started there). Moving to my hood in London, I was offered footage of former local MP Clement Attlee talking about William Morris and socialism in the town hall. Not a bad selection at all.

So what of “Silent London”? At this link, you can find all the footage labelled “London” from 1890-1930 in the Britain on Film archive. That comes to 232 films, ranging in length from a few seconds up, but still more than a mouthful, even for someone as greedy as me.

But I did have a poke around, and I do already have a few favourites. Here are ten to try:

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The rebirth of Regent Street Cinema

The cinema interior - mid-restoration (flickr.com/regentstcinema)
The cinema interior – mid-restoration (flickr.com/regentstcinema)

When you become a silent movie blogger no one tells you that you will need a hard hat. Nor that you will occasionally be handed a free glass of fizz. But those of those things happened on Wednesday afternoon when I travelled “up west” to the University of Westminster to see the venue where the first public motion picture screening in the UK took place.

On 21 February, 1896, the Lumière Brothers demonstrated their cinematograph to a paying public (admission: one shilling) in the theatre of the Polytechnic Institution on Regent Street in London. The theatre had been used for lots of things before the Lumières arrived, including very popular magic lantern shows. Subsequently, it was made into a bona fide cinema, in use until 1980. And the Polytechnic changed too, eventually becoming the University of Westminster, but notably in 1970, as the Polytechnic of Central London, it was one of the first institutions to offer an undergraduate degree in Film Studies.

As for the Lumière brothers and their cinematograph, that is another story …

Now, the University of Westminster is restoring the theatre to some of its former glories: reinstating and repairing the 1926 art deco cinema fittings, and the organ, which was a later addition. There will also be a cafe-bar in the foyer, the capacity to project DCPs as well as film (should that be the other way around?) and all manner of schools programmes and tie-ins with neighbouring bodies.

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London’s Hollywood: The Gainsborough Studio in the Silent Years – review

London’s Hollywood: The Gainsborough Studio in the Silent Years, by Gary Chapman

This is a guest post by Henry K Miller for Silent London. Henry K Miller is the editor of The Essential Raymond Durgnat (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). He is a regular contributor to Sight & Sound and has taught film at the University of Cambridge.

Though it was built by the grandest American film corporation, Famous Players-Lasky, no contemporary report of the film studio on the Regent’s Canal ever confused Shoreditch with Southern California. All were in agreement over its incongruous location, noting the contrast of imported glamour and native poverty – unscrubbed children, the smell of fried fish. There was less agreement, however, on what to call it, at least in the 1920s: sometimes “the Lasky studios”, sometimes “Islington” (the local telephone exchange was Clerkenwell; Hoxton is also arguable), often “Poole Street”. “Gainsborough” seems to have stuck only later, probably because of the famous Gainsborough melodramas, made towards the end of the studio’s life in the 1940s. Uncertain nomenclature notwithstanding, Gary Chapman is right to describe his subject as “a microcosm of the evolution of the British film industry during the silent era”.

FP-L established itself in what had been a power station soon after the Great War, apparently in order to exploit European locations and West End playwrights, and sent over some of its most talented staff; but the first films to emerge from N1 were poorly received, and by the time the reviews began to improve the plug had been pulled. Most of the Americans departed by the middle of 1922. They left behind the best-equipped studio in Britain – early difficulties with the London fog having been overcome – but its survival as a rental facility was not guaranteed. The practices of “blind” and “block” booking – mastered by Famous Players-Lasky itself – made it very difficult for British filmmakers to get a look-in, even in British cinemas, and production was in the middle of a five-year slump. As Chapman shows, the producers who took on the Islington studio in 1922–3 were the bravest of a new breed.

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London’s silent picture palaces

Leicester Square in 1903 (from London Filmland)
Leicester Square in 1903 (from London Filmland)

If you’re a Silent London reader, the chances are that you are already aware of the fantastic London Filmland blog, written by Chris O’Rourke. If not, there is still time to rectify that! O’Rourke researches cinemagoing in the capital in the silent era, specifically the 1910s and 20s. He publishes some fascinating snippets of what he has uncovered on the site, but I wanted to share this post with you in particular.

As part of the UCL Festival of the Arts this summer, O’Rourke led a walking tour of silent cinema venues around London and this video shows some of the locations he visited. There’s far more information on the original London Filmland post, of course, including a map of the tour. For those of us who regularly traipse along these same streets to see silent classics on the big screen, a trip to London Filmland shows us how it used to be done!

Walter Summers at war: ‘the Service has got into my blood’

The Battles of the Coronel and Falkand Islands (1927)
The Battles of the Coronel and Falkand Islands (Walter Summers, 1927)

This is a guest post for Silent London by Jo Pugh, based on hitherto unpublished information about the military record of British film director Walter Summers.

“I did fairly well in the war – not that it would interest you very much.”
– Walter Summers, interviewed by Garth Pedler in 1972

In 1924, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer went to town on the international distribution of the British war film Mons, from the British director Walter Summers. Chronicling the 1914 defeat of the British Expeditionary Force in France (but a defeat as great as any victory – to paraphrase a classic Summers intertitle) Mons was promoted alongside Ben-Hur and its director “Captain Walter Summers, D.S.O., M.C.” praised for his wartime experience. One newspaper went further, asserting that Mons had “a genuineness and a reality that could only have been achieved by a director who had actually lived and fought during the immortal retreat.”[1]

Mons (1926)
Mons

History written by the victors is one thing, but history written by movie studio advertising executives may not meet the highest standards of evidence: Walter Summers did not fight at Mons, Walter Summers was not a Captain in the Great War, Walter Summers was not the recipient of a DSO. But the truth is not any less interesting. Walter Summers was a highly decorated war veteran but the precise details of his early life and military career have become a little mangled through a combination of hazy memory and the application of a  bit of stardust. Surviving records allow us access to a little understood side of Summers and seem to place his film career in a slightly different light.

Walter Summers' birth certificate
Walter Summers’ birth certificate

Walter George Thomas Summers was born on 2 September 1892 in the West Derby district of Liverpool. This date has become confused, probably because Summers seems so confused about it himself, writing conflicting ages on just about every official form going. His mother and father were both actors, his father (also Walter) a member of one of D’Oyly Carte’s touring companies who had a close association with Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre. He died when Summers was quite young, leaving his mother, Mary Ann, to bring up Walter and his three sisters, Mary, Beatrice and Irene in Liverpool. In the 1911 census, Walter gives his occupation as “Theatrical Property Maker” – his association with the theatre began very early. On his application to become an officer, Arthur Lawrence, manager of the Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool, testifies as to Walter’s good character for the period 1903-6[2], in other words from the age of about 11 to 14.  In their haste to join up in 1914, many young men lied about their age. Summers was a more seasoned 22 (though, characteristically, he wrote 21 on his form) and unlike many of his compatriots was not contemplating leaving England for the first time: he had already travelled to Australia and South Africa with Thomas Quinlan’s opera company, prior to his first film work with London Film Productions. This latter role probably culminated in work on George Loane Tucker’s version of The Prisoner of Zenda[3], in which a certain amount of armed European conflict is treated with all the seriousness of a works outing.

Arthur Holmes-Gore as Duke Michael of Strelsau in The Prisoner of Zenda (1915).
A thorougly Prussian baddie: Arthur Holmes-Gore as Duke Michael of Strelsau in The Prisoner of Zenda (1915). Holmes-Gore was killed at Gallipoli

London Film’s studio was a former skating rink at St Margaret’s, just over Richmond Bridge, which explains why Summers, the Liverpool boy, joined the army at Kingston. He joined up in October 1914, less than two months after the defeat at Mons. In retrospect, MGM’s claim that he fought at the battle is not very plausible: only members of the British Expeditionary Force, regular soldiers who had joined up before the war started, fought at Mons. Summers was a member of Kitchener’s volunteer army and would have been among the first significant wave of recruits to reach France. Even so, he didn’t leave England until the autumn of 1915, almost exactly a year after he had joined up. Joining as a private, Summers quite quickly rose to the rank of Sergeant in the 9th battalion of the East Surrey Regiment. This battalion is most closely associated with the playwright RC Sherriff, who used his experiences serving within it as the basis for his most famous play Journey’s End, subsequently directed on stage and then in 1930 on screen by James Whale, who had himself served in the Worcestershire Regiment. Summers and Sherriff knew each other but seemingly as comrades, not friends. Summers arrived in France a year before Sherriff and shortly after the battalion had suffered appalling losses at the battle of Loos. Subsequently, the 9th East Surrey fought at Ypres and the Somme. At the latter in July 1916, Summers was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his service at the Battle of Delville Wood. “A nightmare that men will dream again,” wrote the journalist Philip Gibbs, of the month-long conflict over the small piece of woodland believed to offer some tactical advantage. By the end of it, thousands had been killed and barely a tree was left standing.

Military Artist drawing of the Battle of Delville Wood
Military Artist drawing of the Battle of Delville Wood, The Somme. July 1916. First published in “The Great War” Ed. H.W. Wilson, 1917

Summers won his Military Medal for leading a fighting squad of eight men from the battalion in a risky daylight raid on 25 January 1917 near Hulluch, in the Pas de Calais. One of six such squads, with orders to identify the unit opposite, “inflict losses” and obtain a sample of German bread, the small force ran across no man’s land under the cover of somewhat tardy smoke bombs and a smattering of “wild and erratic” machine gun fire.[4] With the element of surprise, the British killed a number of Germans (Summers shot at least one) before meeting “hostile resistance”. Summers’ group were among the last to withdraw from the German trenches. The force returned with three prisoners and the bread sample. By its own account it had suffered seven casualties and inflicted around 21. German records in contrast put their losses at eight.[5] Summers was personally commended for “the determined and fearless leading of his fighting squad”. Reading the description of the attack in the unit’s war diary, it is impossible not to be reminded of the raid depicted in Journey’s End. This is because it was indeed Sherriff’s inspiration for the attack that preoccupies his characters in the second half of the play.[6]

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Celebrating Flicker Alley, 13 December 2012

Cecil Court, AKA Flicker Alley
Cecil Court, AKA Flicker Alley

I have written before on this blog about Cecil Court, a small street in London that used to be known as Flicker Alley. It’s a turning off Charing Cross Road, crammed with bookshops – and in the windows of those shops you will find circular blue labels commemorating the pioneering film businesses that established themselves here in the earliest days of the cinema.

On 13 December this year, a more permanent memorial will be unveiled, a bona fide Westminster Council blue plaque at No 27 Cecil Court, to mark the street’s importance to the British film industry. And to celebrate the plaque, there will be an afternoon of festivities. First, at 2.30pm, a screening of early films at No 5, with piano accompaniment by John Sweeney, then Christmas carols and refreshments at 4.45pm. Later in the evening, Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy will be signing books in Goldsboro Books at No 23.

This blogpost has lots more information about the street, including an audio interview with two Cecil Court shopkeepers Etan Ilfeld and Tim Bryars.

To keep up with news about the event on 13 December and other goings on at Cecil Court, you can like the Facebook page here.

Wonderful London: DVD review

Wonderful London
Wonderful London

This is a guest post for Silent London by Karolina Kendall-Bush

Sitting in the bowels of the BFI at Stephen Street watching the 20 or so Wonderful London travel films in silence, I often dreamed of the day when these mesmerising scenes of life in the 1920s might be restored and released on DVD with a score. Finally, ithat day has come. In autumn last year, those of us who could get tickets to a soldout performance at the BFI London film festival were lucky enough to see six of these films in all their glory, fully restored from the original coloured nitrate prints. Now the BFI has released those films, along with six “extras” (in good black-and-white prints) on DVD with music by John Sweeney and essays from Bryony Dixon, Iain Sinclair, Jude Rogers and Sukhdev Sandhu.

Wonderful London
Wonderful London

Although these films were simply shot commercial “fillers” to be shown before the main feature, they were remarkable in many ways. Most travel films of London in this period tended to flit between landmarks with a few explanatory intertiles. They were, dare I say it, ever-so-slightly dull.  Having devoted a lot of time to watching travelogues of London, I often groan as repeated shots of Buckingham Palace, Big Ben and Tower Bridge pass before my eyes. In this context, the Wonderful London films are quite treat. Paying as much attention to pet cemeteries and street performers as they do to London’s  best-known tourist destinations, they are, I think, antecedents to Norman Cohen’s The London Nobody Knows (1967) and even Patrick Keiller’s London (1994, below).

Each Wonderful London instalment goes on a thematic excursion. Barging through London charts the course of the Regent’s canal, Cosmopolitan London goes in search of the city’s diverse ethnic communities, London’s Sunday looks at what Londoners do on their day off, and so on. The conversational intertitles, which can veer between amusing and patronising, invite viewers to go on a journey through the city. In her essay, BFI silent film curator Bryony Dixon notes how these films exploited the popularity of St John Adcock’s 1922 magazine Wonderful London. In this publication, famous writers described various aspects of the capital for readers eager to discover London in all its complexity.

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Charlie’s London: from the archives to the airwaves

The Charlie Chaplin Archive, Bologna
Heaven for a Chaplin fan … the archive in Bologna

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

Welcome back for another edition of Charlie’s London. This week I am going to be talking about my debut appearance on the Silent London Podcast, as well as my recent trip to the thoroughly mindblowing Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, Italy

Being a Chaplin fan you are never short of on-screen comedy capers to keep you entertained, but when someone tells you you can visit the Charlie Chaplin Archive in Bologna, Italy should you be in the area, well you don’t really have to think twice. My partner Kieran and I took a 6am flight to Bologna so that I could visit the archive, but also so we could enjoy the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival too.

At the Cineteca in Bologna we registered for the archive and the festival. All around us everyone complained about the heat, but being half Turkish I didn’t really mind. No sooner had we sat down for a coffee, my phone began to ping, it was Jenny, a fellow festival-goer who had not only made the journey to Bologna but was also staying in the same hotel as us. Pretty soon we were all together, along with Mark, another friend and great supporter of Bristol Silents looking over the festival plan.

Ayse and Charlie
Ayse and Charlie

Initially I began to look over the schedule from Wednesday to Friday, because I was due to be in the archives Monday and Tuesday, but this turned out this was a pointless exercise. In the end, I was in the archive until Friday morning and in total saw only five films at the festival. The film that left the biggest impression on me was the new restoration of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Mark had told me many times before that it was a film I would enjoy, not only because I have a soft spot for Technicolor but because I have spent a lot of time researching the first and second world wars. He wasn’t wrong! It was a feast of restored beauty,  history and irony.

My biggest adventure came on Monday when I finally got to visit the Chaplin archives. Everything has been digitised to make viewing incredibly easy. The staff are so helpful and friendly, even with the busy festival under way in the grounds. Before I knew it I was engrossed, flicking through pages and pages of useful and exciting documents all relevant to a massive piece of research I am undertaking. Kate Guyonvarch, Kevin Brownlow and of course David Robinson all were there to give me a helping hand: their support was priceless. Imagine, as I have done, having read someone’s work since you were 11 years old, only to find them standing behind you in an archive and clarifying a sentence in one of their books that you want to quote in your research! That what David Robinson did, and he refreshed my memory on something I had a mental block on. After many cups of lovely Italian coffee and long chats I had more than 40 pages to take back to England: the tip of the iceberg had been scratched.

Bologna is a long way from South London! Charlie’s London had very much gone continental. Here is where my biggest conundrum lay – you can’t just take a bus to these archives. I knew I had so much I wanted to look at, but I was meant to be at a film festival, what was a girl to do? Luckily enough I have a very supportive partner who smiled and told me to book more time in the archives. So, what started as two days ended up being the whole week, and it was worth it! I discovered so much more about my hero.

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Charlie’s London: No 3 Pownall Terrace

Charlie Chaplin
‘Humour and courage saved Lambeth’ … Charlie Chaplin

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

Where can I start? First I want to talk to you about an exciting Charlie’s London adventure I am having in the next two weeks! From the 23rd to 30th June 2012 Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, Italy will be showing some amazing silent film gems including a night of Chaplin’s Mutual films accompanied by new scores by Neil Brand, written especially for the festival. And I will be there! I squealed like a child after too much sweet consumption when I heard this, I can assure you.

For me this trip will be a very personal and important journey, one that I hope will enrich my knowledge of Chaplin. I will have the fantastic opportunity of visiting the Chaplin Archives there, a first for me and a very daunting and happy prospect too. Hopefully while I am there I can find some items of interest for all you lovely Charlie’s London readers.

In today’s instalment I want to talk to you about one of Charlie’s homes that I missed out a few episodes back and promised I would return to: No 3 Pownall Terrace, Kennington Road. Why is this house so important to the Chaplin story? It seems to be the one mentioned the most in all his works and definitely the one that seems to have had the most impact on him.  Chaplin recounts in My Autobiography walking the “rickety stairs” to the rooms he shared with his mother and Sydney; how the rooms always smelt of slop and wet clothes; how from the windows he could see the glamour of the wealthy music hall acts, their finery and jewels. Their room was less than 12ft square and if poor Hannah’s mental health was failing then the room would suffer too, becoming cluttered with messy cups and plates. Often Chaplin would come home from school, empty the slop bucket and run along to his friend Wally, a son of a friend of his mother from her theatrical days. Wally seems to have made a happy playmate for Charlie while Sydney was away at sea, a period that seems to have added to his mother’s worries.

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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

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