Lillian Hall-Davis

British Silent Film Festival Symposium 2016: two days in movie-geek heaven

Sometimes you can fight it. You can keep those thoughts at bay, and resist your deeper impulses, urging you to indulge that secret side of yourself that you usually keep hidden. On other days, what the heck, you just need to geek out.

Thank nerd heaven, then, for the British Silent Film Festival Symposium, now in its fourth year – and more specifically, thanks to Lawrence Napper of King’s College London who organises this impressive event.

For the first time, we had two days in which to sympose. First, a long afternoon (2pm-9pm) of screenings with a couple of presentations thrown in, then a full day of papers. I like this new arrangement, which gives you a bit of choice as to how deep your geekery will run. In case you really need to ask, I was there for both days …

Knocknagow (1918)
Knocknagow (1918)

The three features on the Thursday all had much to recommend them. It’s a little unfair to single out my least favourite, because it was an ambitious ensemble drama, a literary adaptation made in Ireland at a time when that country barely had a film industry at all – and it had scenes missing. But do look out for a forthcoming restoration of Knocknagow (1918), which has a fascinating history and sumptuous landscapes. And we were lucky enough to have Neil Brand at the keys, so those landscapes became even more lush.

The most awe-inspiring film of the day was The Somme – not the very well-known documentary The Battle of the Somme (1916), but a 1927 feature, which nevertheless borrows some documentary tricks, and archive footage, to tell the story of the famous offensive of 1916, with painstaking detail and high drama. It is impossible not to be moved by the bravery and stoicism of the men involved, and the scene in which our lads first see a tank wreaking destruction on the trenches is nothing less than awe-inspiring. Slow tracking shots along the mighty beast’s riveted hide create an impression of looming, sinister dominance that Stanley Kubrick would salivate over. And Stephen Horne’s accompaniment was astonishingly good – and often unexpected. Do seek this out if you ever get a chance to see it, especially if you have a particular interest in world war one. And you can read a little more about the film in Lawrence Napper’s excellent book, excerpted here.

Maisie's Marriage (1923) (BFI)
Maisie’s Marriage (1923) (BFI)

My favourite film of the day was Walter Summers and Alexander Butler’s Maisie’s Marriage (1923) – a heartwarming drama starring the always wonderful Lillian Hall-Davis. The fact that this film is a loose adaptation of Marie Stopes’ Married Love may make it sound more like a lecture than a feature film, but this tale of a young woman from a large family in a slum who is terrified of being trapped in drudgery and poverty has much to recommend it. There is charm here, and humour; sentiment and action and a little romance: all of which John Sweeney made the very most of in his excellent accompaniment. Hall-Davis is brilliant, and a young Roger Livesey (yes, really) plays her oikish little brother with unexpected aggression. His uncle/stepdad Sam plays their father with more of the same. I enjoyed spotting Kew Bridge and environs in one especially memorable scene. The nightclub sequence is impressively sleazy. And yes, yes, there is a dog in the film and at one point that dog really does carry a baby on its back down a ladder. You have to see it to believe it, quite frankly. Don’t miss this more detailed rundown of this excellent film.

On the Thursday we were treated to presentations from two silent cinema heroes: David Robinson illuminated the life of a neglected film pioneer, Leopoldo Fregoli, before showing a reel of his quirky, funny films. And Tony Fletcher has unearthed (and resynchronized, with the help of Glenn Mitchell) a set of early British sound-on-disc films. You’ve seen The Rollicking Rajah I am sure – there’s more where that dubious pleasure came from, I can assure you.

Space and time and your patience are finite, so I can’t tell you about all of the papers in Friday’s session – they were a fine bunch, and I hope you will hear more from all the speakers in due course. Here are a few of my highlights, however.

Iris Barry
Iris Barry

The mysterious story of The Life Story of David Lloyd George just gets more and more interesting, thanks to Lucie Dutton’s dogged and imaginative research. Now, thanks to her latest paper, we know a little more. And we have villains too. But you will get no spoilers from me – this excellent work should be published somewhere very soon, in my humble opinion. Charles Barr asked some excellent questions about why early Irish cinema is so often excluded from histories of early British cinema. Esther Harper’s fascinating presentation showed us how female jockeys were popular on screen decades before the powers-that-be allowed women to ride in races. I would love to see some of Broadwest’s films in this vein, all starring Violet Hopson, though sadly only one is known to be extant.

Not For Sale (1924)
Not For Sale (1924)

Papers by Stephen McBurney and Nyasha Sibanda gave us an insight into how silent era cinemas were run, from moral panics influencing the programming, to managers spending extortionate amounts on Belgian violinists. Amy Sargeant reminded us of many enjoyable screenings from the history of the festival in her interrogation of the tropes and themes found in Boarding House films. Henry K Miller saluted Iris Barry, who championed art cinema, even while imprisoned in “Northcliffe jail” – that’s working for the Daily Mail to you and me. Geoff Brown and Laraine Porter offered hugely entertaining research of the first days of the talkies in Britain. And animator Joe Evans pointed out exactly how animation’s beginnings in the silent era influenced its style to this day.

If any of this sounds like the sort of thing you like, don’t hesitate to come along next year, whether you are an esteemed professor or just an interested fan like myself.

2 thoughts on “British Silent Film Festival Symposium 2016: two days in movie-geek heaven”

  1. That sounds magnificent Pam and I was sorry not not to able to make it – something came up at last minute. I think Briony mentioned the Knocknagow restoration to me in Pordenone – I assume its the BFI. Any idea when or if its got new elements?

    1. I don’t know much, except that they hope to reinstate some tinting. Charles Barr is the man to ask, I think.

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