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 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.

The Cinema Museum has all the right credentials for a silent film venue. To begin with, all shows are presided over by Charles Chaplin himself – in the form of Anna Odrich’s imposing sculpture, which divides the screening area from the bar. Chaplin used to live in the museum, in fact: the building was once the Lambeth Workhouse, where he spent some of his childhood.

Mare Nostrum (1926)
Mare Nostrum (1926)

While the Cinema Museum doesn’t have all the plush comforts of the multiplex, get there early enough and you can bagsy one of the vintage tip-up cinema seats, plus there’s a bar selling hot drinks, booze and snacks. On the best Bioscope nights, there’s home baking on offer too.

But what of the actual movies? Well, I told you that the Kennington Bioscope observes golden-age picture palace practice. A night at the Bioscope comprises a full programme: shorts, interval and a main feature. The films will not, by and large, be widely available on DVD or theatrical prints; they will, on the other hand, be introduced by experts who love them, and of course, there will be glorious live musical accompaniment.

My last three visits to the Bioscope have featured Stephen Horne introducing and playing for Fritz Lang’s Destiny (1921), Kevin Brownlow presenting Rex Ingram’s Mare Nostrum (1926) and Neil Brand sharing and accompanying Tol’able David (1921). And yes, I do feel spoiled – I have waited years to see some of these films. While that third evening is still fresh in my mind I can tell you that the shorts programme consisted of the mini City Symphony Manhatta (1921), Harry Langdon in Remember When? (1925), Felix the Cat at war in Felix Turns the Tide (1922), and a French film of indeterminate date that combined live action and stop-motion to tell a story about a thief’s enchanted, and sticky-fingered, gloves. How’s that for variety?

Rin Tin Tin
Rin Tin Tin

Over the Bioscope’s run we have seen stars including Rin Tin Tin, Colleen Moore, Marion Davies, Max Linder and Florence Lawrence on the big screen, and a heartening variety of collectors, archivists and experts alongside it introducing the films. And increasingly, the houses are full – the Bioscope attracts the capital’s die-hard silent fans, but more besides.

A word about the price of admission I mentioned earlier – no, it’s not a typo. Entrance to the Kennington Bioscope can be yours for a suggested donation of just £3. Two pounds goes towards the Museum’s overheads and £1 towards prints and permissions. Everything else (including the organisers, the projectionists, the musicians, the bar staff and ushers and the guest hosts) seems to run on pure passion. That’s more than a bargain, this whole undertaking is basically a gift – to you.

Long may it run, and run – the Kennington Bioscope is a cherished addition to London’s silent film scene.

Pauline Frederick and Clarence Brown on the Set of Smouldering Fires (1925)
Pauline Frederick and Clarence Brown on the Set of Smouldering Fires (1925)

The next programmed Kennington Bioscope night is on 28 January 2015, when Kevin Brownlow will present Clarence Brown’s Smouldering Fires (1925), starring Pauline Frederick and Laura La Plante. More information here.

10 thoughts on “In praise of the Kennington Bioscope: London’s silent speakeasy”

  1. Thanks for a lovely review. We were particularly keen to keep the admission price as low as possible in order to encourage people to come to a silent film who might otherwise not have done so. As a result there are always a lot of young faces and more senior audience members for whom £3 is a welcome price to pay for a fun night out. As you quite rightly say, it is a labour of love for all concerned and we are very lucky to have such a fantastic venue, musicians, speakers and film historians and collectors to hand. And it could not function without a very talented projectionist, and great CM volunteers. There’s lots more exciting stuff planned for the rest of the year and I for one am looking forward to more neglected silents.

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