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.

Alf Collins in drag in How Percy Won the Beauty Competition, 1909
Alf Collins in drag in How Percy Won the Beauty Competition, 1909

According to Percy Collins, one of Alf’s two sons, his father was illiterate. Alf’s wife, Maud, wrote down the scripts for Alf, who usually got his ideas from comics and penny dreadfuls. The open-air wooden stage was used only for interior sets and Alf would get upset with Bromhead on occasions when he refused to allow him to change the scenery and furniture for the sets from one film to the next. This was because Bromhead wanted to save both time and money. Actors who were appearing locally at the Camberwell Palace were often employed. They received 2s/6d a day plus 4d for train fares. For the chase films, crowds were collected from outside pubs and street corners. They were usually paid with free beer.

Alf and his family lived locally in a number of rented houses. During 1908/9 they occupied three different addresses in Cutcombe Road. In 1910, with the re-financing of the company in order to make longer and more expensive films, Alf Collins was pushed aside and was offered a job as “ideas man”. However, he decided to return to performing, and as late as 1920, he was a member of Sir John Martin Harvey’s company.

Alf Collins in Chronophone film It Was a Nice Quiet Morning
Alf Collins in Chronophone film It Was a Nice Quiet Morning

Between 1904 -1908 Gaumont also produced a number of sound-disc films known as “Chronophones”. One of these – It Was A Nice Quiet Morning – has survived and has now been synchronised with an original recording provided by local film collector Bob Geoghegan. As far as we know, this is the only surviving British talking film made prior to WW1.

On 30 August we will be showing a number of the silent shorts that have been digitised by the Friends of Dog Kennel Hill Wood, mainly from the BFI archive. Some of the films only survive on paper prints from the Library of Congress. The four dramas being shown are The Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight, which is set in Cromwellian times and The Blacksmith’s Daughter, one of the earliest British films to contain intertitles. The Child Stealers tells the story of a Gypsy woman who takes children in order to turn them into beggars – she is a sort of female Fagan. The Railway Tragedy takes place at two local train stations (Denmark Hill and North Dulwich). The highlights, though, are the chase comedies through the streets. My favourites are It’s Not My Parcel filmed in wintertime and How Percy Won the Beauty Competition, which has Alf Collins as a female impersonator, five years before Chaplin took on a similar disguise at Keystone.

Around 1908, Bromhead cut off his ties with the parent French company and decided to expand. Gaumont dispensed with the outdoor film studio and made plans to build a large, indoor, glass-house studio at Lime Grove, Shepherd’s Bush, which was opened in 1915.

By Tony Fletcher

The performance on 30th August will take place on part of the site of the original studio with live piano accompaniment by Neil Brand. The programme has been curated by William and Jasia Warren who will describe where each film was shot. Come along and enjoy an evening to celebrate the legacy of Alf Collins and Gaumont. For further information see www.friendsofdkhwood.org/filmnight. Below is a list of films showing on the night

  • The Adventures of a Roll of Lino
  • Tommy the Tin Pot Hero
  • Curfew Must not Ring Tonight
  • The Electric Shock
  • The Apple Woman
  • When Extremes Meet
  • How Percy Won the Beauty Competition
  • The Tale of a Coat
  • Missing Legacy
  • The Blacksmith’s Daughter
  • It’s not my Parcel
  • A Railway Tragedy
  • It Was a Nice Quiet Morning
  • The Child Stealers

 

 

 

 

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