Silent London

A place for people who love silent film



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:

Continue reading “Searching for Silent London: 10 highlights from the Britain on Film archive”

London on film at BFI Southbank: walking these silent streets

Flowers of London
Flowers of London

Just a quick note to let you know about a season coming up at BFI Southbank, which promises to contain a few silent treasures. London on Film: The Changing Face of London runs from 1 July to 9 October 2015. I’m taken by the idea of a film programme devoted to our favourite city, and hoping that the BFI will make the most of the opportunity to show some great silent dramas, and actuality footage.

Here’s the official blurb:

The BFI present a three month season which celebrates London’s stories through a century of extraordinary film making from archive clips to more modern cinematic adventure. the programme will include over 200 films, from classic features to home movies, shot in London over the last 120 years. For Londoners this season will show the city they know and love, as they may never have known it before.

Already slated are screenings of Anthony Asquith’s Underground and A Night in Victorian and Edwardian London with Bryony Dixon. At the latter event, the BFI’s silent film supremo will introduce archive clips of the capital dated 1881 (!) to 1910. The evening will also include a screening of Joseph Ernst’s captivating short film inspired by Mitchell & Kenyon, Londoners.

Cosmopolitan London (1924)
Cosmopolitan London (1924)

UPDATE: Over on Facebook, BFI head curator Robin Baker tells us we can expect films including: “Passmore family films from 1902 (part of London Home Movie Night), The Right to Live (1921), London Old and New (1924), Cosmopolitan London (1924), The Fugitive Futurist (1924), The Marriage of Miss Rose Carmel to Mr Solly Gerschcowit (1925) and Piccadilly (1929)”. Plus, the sound version of High Treason (1929)

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The Silent London Poll of 2014: meet the readers

Louise Brooks
A wholly gratuitous, but festive, picture of Louise Brooks

Last month, I asked you beautiful people to fill in the Silent London survey – it was a little longer and more involved than usual, but with more free choice options, so thanks all for your time, care and patience.

The results are now in, and I now know a little more about you, your silent movie watching habits and what most impressed and entertained you this year. First I want you to meet the readers. Hello you, this is you:

Where you are

Most of you are in London understandably, around 39%. But the rest of you are more likely to be found in the rest of the world (36%) than the UK (25%) Global reach!

What you watch, how and where

Most of you, 40%, watch silents once or twice a month. Hats off to the seven percent of you who watch ’em more often than once or twice a week! The rest of you more or less evenly were divided between occasional viewers and the impressive group of you sitting down to a silent film once or twice a week.

Continue reading “The Silent London Poll of 2014: meet the readers”

The rebirth of Regent Street Cinema

The cinema interior - mid-restoration (
The cinema interior – mid-restoration (

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.

Continue reading “The rebirth of Regent Street Cinema”

London Symphony: play your part



“In the early days of the cinema, there were several great City Symphonies – for Berlin, Paris, Rotterdam, but never for London. Alex Barrett is going to put that right, and his plans suggest a remarkable picture.” – Kevin Brownlow

A few months back, I promised you the chance to support the making of a new London City Symphony. Now the day has arrived, as the London Symphony team have launched their crowdfunding campaign. They need the help of Silent Londoners to turn their vision into a reality. They’re asking for your financial support, and offering you some chances to be involved in the making of the film too. If you can’t afford to help out yourself, they’d love you to spread the word about the project.

Alex Barrett, the film’s director (and Silent London contributor) explains why he wants to revive the City Symphony style for his new film: “We believe that by looking at the present through recourse to the past, we can learn something new about life today,” he says. “We won’t be parodying the style. We will be true to the spirit of the filmmakers that came before us, and we hope to capture the rhythm, the motion and the experimentation that made their films so wonderful, while simultaneously reimagining the City Symphony for the 21st Century”.

LONDON SYMPHONY is a poetic journey through the city of London, exploring its vast diversity of culture, religion and design via its various modes of transportation. It is both a cultural snapshot and a creative record of London as it stands today. The point is not only to immortalise the city, but also to celebrate its community and diversity.

Alongside making the film, the team will also be creating a new score – an original symphony – written by composer James McWilliam. Says James: “Music plays an important role in silent cinema, and our score will help take viewers on a journey through modern-day London”. The filmmakers plan to record the music with a live orchestra, but also have it performed live at special event screenings of the finished film. LONDON SYMPHONY reunites the team behind the short film HUNGERFORD: SYMPHONY OF A LONDON BRIDGE. A three-minute city symphony in its own right, the short film now serves as a pilot for the team’s intentions with the feature-length LONDON SYMPHONY.

You can visit the London Symphony crowdfunding page here. Check out the range of rewards and watch the video, in which the film-makers set our their plans for the movie.


Alf Collins and Gaumont: south-east London’s cinematic past

Gaumont Comes Home

This is a guest post for Silent London by Tony Fletcher, film historian at the Cinema Museum, about director-actor Alf Collins. Some of Collins’ Gaumont films will be shown on 30 August at a special open-air screening on the site of the original studio in Camberwell, with musical accompaniment by Neil Brand.

Alfred Bromhead started the English agency for Gaumont in Britain in 1898. He distributed the films produced by the French arm of the company, which was run by Leon Gaumont, and he also attempted to produce a few films in Britain in 1899. He opened a small outdoor studio on a four-acre cricket field in Loughborough Junction in south-east London. The open-air stage measured 30ft x 15ft However, this venture was short-lived and lasted for only one summer.

Alf and Maude Collins in Coster outfits in When Extremes Meet, 1905
Alf and Maude Collins in Coster outfits in When Extremes Meet, 1905

In 1902, Bromhead decided to make another attempt at producing films. Alfred Collins came on board as stage manager, and Gaumont continued producing short films over the next seven to eight years. These were often shot in the streets of south-east London – pioneering chase comedies and dramas. Alf Collins had already had some film experience working with Robert Paul, as well as at the British Biograph Company. He had started performing at the Surrey Theatre under George Conquest, later joining the William Terris Company at the Lyceum Theatre. He also performed in Drury Lane Pantos playing The Copper in the Harlequinade. His full-time job between 1902 and 1932 was as the stage manager for the Kate Carney Company, which gave him opportunities to make films when they were appearing in London and the provinces.

During 1904, Bromhead moved studios from Loughborough Junction to a 14-acre site at Freeman’s cricket field, Champion Hill. Thomas Freeman was a local builder and decorator living at 127 Grove Lane. In 1891, he had acquired a site at the rear of Champion Hill House and Oakfield House (roughly where Sainsbury’s superstore and Dulwich Hamlet FC are now situated). Freeman built three wood and iron cricket pavilions which were hired out during the summer to the Champion Hill Cricket and Lawn Tennis Club and during the winter to Dulwich Hamlet FC. These appear in some of the films. Bromhead constructed an open-air stage to film interior shots as no artificial lights were available.

Continue reading “Alf Collins and Gaumont: south-east London’s cinematic past”

Hitchcock’s coming home … Blackmail at the Walthamstow Assembly Hall

Spotted in an #e17 pub window … Can't wait. #silentfilm #hitchcock9

A photo posted by pam_hutch (@pam_hutch) on

Alfred Hitchcock was born in the far east of London, in Leytonstone. So far east in fact, that it was Essex then, I think. But Hitch is still one of London’s most famous film directors, and it is fitting that one of his most famous films to be both set and filmed in the capital will be screening in his home borough of Waltham Forest this summer. The Barbican are showing the silent version of Blackmail, with Neil Brand’s tremendous score played by the Forest Philharmonic, at the Assembly Hall in Walthamstow, London E17.  Be there or find yourself kicking your heels in a West End Lyon’s Corner House, rejected and alone.

Blackmail is a classic crime thriller, laden with Hitchcock’s signature suspense tricks, about a nice young girl (Anny Ondra) who commits a violent act one night in dire circumstances, and has to live with the consequences. Famously shot as both a silent and sound film, Blackmail reveals Hitchcock as a confident director revelling in the themes of murder and guilt that would become his home turf. In classic Hitchcock style, Blackmail also climaxes with a setpiece at a famous landmark – one slightly closer to home than Mount Rushmore. Every film fan in London should see this film, and the best way to see it is like this, with an orchestra and Brand’s wonderful music.

Continue reading “Hitchcock’s coming home … Blackmail at the Walthamstow Assembly Hall”

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!

A modern city symphony for London – and how you could get involved

This beautiful short, Hungerford: Symphony of a London Bridge, is a mini city symphony directed by Alex Barrett in 2010. It has won several awards, appeared at many festivals, and here at Silent London we have long admired it. Barrett, a writer, film-maker and regular Silent London contributor, has a more ambitious project in the works, though: London Symphony, a feature-length silent film about our fair capital. Barrett is a huge admirer of European silent cinema, and the city symphonies of the 1920s avant-garde. He plans to start shooting London Symphony later this year. Here’s how he describes the project:

London Symphony is a poetic journey through the city of London, exploring its vast diversity of culture and religion via its various modes of transportation. It is both a cultural snapshot and a creative record of London as it stands today. The point is not only to immortalise the city, but also to celebrate its community and diversity.

He’ll be asking for your help though – Barrett and his team want to crowdfund their movie, and you’ll be hearing more about that in the summer on these very pages.

For now, the best way to follow the progress of London Symphony is to sign up to the mailing list here . You can also follow London Symphony on Twitter @LondonSymphFilm and Facebook too.

Wonderful London 1924 & 2014

Film-maker Simon Smith has made another silent cinema mashup to delight any Londoner. His previous film spliced scenes from Friese-Greene’s The Open Road (1927) with the same London streets filmed in 2013. The new clip embeds scenes from the Wonderful London actuality into vistas of the capital in 2014. The effect is stunning – it’s fascinating to compare London as it is and as it was, and as the 1920s city-dwellers step out of their fuzzy sepia frames they become ghosts haunting our 21st-century streets.

As much as London has been rebuilt and redeveloped over the past century, this clip reminds us that its past has not been erased, just sunk below the surface.

Continue reading “Wonderful London 1924 & 2014”

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