Silent film on Radio 4: Hollywood – the Prequel, 18 January

Cabiria (Giovanni Pastrone, 1914)
Cabiria (Giovanni Pastrone, 1914)

In 2011, many people use Hollywood as a synonym for the film industry as a whole, but in the early days of cinema, California was a long distance from the heart of the action. Hollywood – the Prequel traces the geographical shifts of the silent film industry across Europe – at different times, Britain, France, Denmark and Italy could all claim to be the centre of the cinematographic world. This absorbing documentary is presented by Francine Stock and features contributions from film historians including Kevin Brownlow, Ian Christie, Kristin Thompson, Neil Brand (with his piano) and Frank Gray. The experts take a chronological approach to early cinema, but focus on different genres in turn:

If you think the stick-em-up, the rom-com and the sword-and-sandal epic began life in the United States, then think again. The French gave the world a kinetic form of film comedy, and not only did the Danes perfect the art of the thriller, they gave the world its first bona fide movie star, Asta Nielsen, who scandalised cinema-goers everywhere with her erotic dance in 1910’s The Abyss.

And when you’ve listened to the programme, you may well want to watch that scene:

Britain’s contribution to early cinema is dwelt on, including the development of Kinemacolor and its brief dominance as a hub for film distribution. But all too soon, Hollywood hoves into view and the programme examines the stylistic and business reasons why America came to claim the heart of the film industry – including the work of directors such as D W Griffith and the nascent star system.

Other likely highlights of Radio 4’s Film Season include Barry Norman’s documentary Going to the Flicks, about how a visit to the cinema has changed over the past century, Asif Kapadia on the Exploding Cinema collective, Matthew Sweet on the influence of mobile phones on film-making and an episode of The Film Programme in which Francine Stock attempts to set up her own “pop-up” cinema. Full details of the season are available here.

If you enjoy Hollywood – the Prequel’s clip of an interview with Mary Pickford, you will be pleased to know that the BBC archive has uploaded radio interviews with classic film stars to its Hollywood Voices page. There are several silent stars included in the collection, such as Buster Keaton, Louise Brooks, Charlie Chaplin and Gloria Swanson as well as Pickford. It’s fascinating to hear such famous faces speak.

Hollywood – the Prequel will be broadcast at 9am on Tuesday 18 January on Radio 4. Hollywood – the Sequel, all about whether the US will maintain its supremacy in the market in the digital era, is broadcast the following week.

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