Category Archives: Blog

Happy Halloween from Silent London

It’s the spookiest night of the year – and if you take a look at the Silent London calendar you’ll see that there are screenings of scary silents popping up all over town at the moment. There’s a gothic magic lantern show at the Last Tuesday Society tonight and The Phantom of the Opera at the brand new Hackney Picturehouse tomorrow. If you want any more inspiration for Halloween viewing, you might like to take a look at my pick of five quirky silent horror films for the Spectator Arts Blog.


Search Your Film Archives

This nifty little video is advertising a BFI project that some of you may want to try out – Screen Heritage UK. The idea is that you can search for archive film from your area, and locate the relevant footage, some of which will be available to view online.

Thanks to over £22.8 million in funding from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), this major collaboration between the BFI and regional film archives across the UK represents a historic moment for film archives, encompassing digital innovation and pioneering new methods of film archiving.

SHUK will also ensure everyone in Britain will be able to find out about their film heritage for free via a new cataloguing and online access drive – Search Your Film Archives. The national and regional film archives have created this resource to give the public online access to information about film archives across the UK.

I had a very quick root around, and found this footage of the Ripon Highland Games in Yorkshire in 1916, featuring bagpipers, wrestling on horseback and a rather incongruous Charlie Chaplin lookalike. I was also quite taken with a phantom ride taken from a tram in Glossop, Derbyshire in 1912. Fascinating glimpses of a world that bears only small resemblances to modern Britain.

Have a look for yourself, here, at the Screen Heritage UK search portal.

Silent film with live music in independent cinemas

Sherlock Jr (1924)
Sherlock Jr (1924)

If you’re interested in silent cinema it’s a fair bet that you are, or would like to be, a patron of an independent cinema. The sort of cosy neighbourhood picture palace that shows the newest arthouse and foreign flicks, as well as a solid programme of classics; where you can drink shiraz rather than a litre of cola and nibble 70% cocoa chocolate rather than crunchy nachos. The sort of place, in fact, that shows silent films with live musical accompaniment. Heaven for a film fan, and vital, many would argue, to the film industry.

Independent cinemas foster audiences for films that don’t have megabucks marketing budgets or established stars, giving new film-makers the chance to get their films seen, and to get paid. A well-programmed indie cinema can educate its visitors about world cinema and film history – through “classic” strands, double-bills and festivals – which in turn creates audiences for the kind of movies that don’t get a look-in at the multiplex. If you love your local independent cinema, or you have recently lost one, you know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s not easy to keep this kind of business afloat in the current financial climate, so I think we all feel a little protective of these lovely places.

Therefore I was interested to read a recent submission from a group of British indie cinemas (including Glasgow’s GFT, Bristol’s Watershed, Manchester’s Cornerhouse, London’s ICA and Newcastle’s Tyneside) to the UK Film Policy review, which will be overseen by a panel of industry experts, chaired by culture secretary Chris Smith. This submission is a manifesto for the independent cinema sector, and it was published on the Screen Daily website. The document sets out a list of ambitions for the sector, lists what they hope to achieve and yes, ends with a request for recognition of their value, as well as a “three to five year UK wide development strategy’, including cash and:

– A cultural exhibition investment strategy that begins with the audiences’ right to access a wider diversity of cinema. To include; an audience development fund to support initiatives that bring culturally diverse films into distribution, generate UK wide touring initiatives and alternative cultural content.

That sounds fantastic, but what does it mean? The clues are to be found earlier in the document, under the heading “What we plan to do”. I’ll quote the list in full, but with emphasis on the third item.

  • Provide a stronger exhibition platform for emerging UK filmmakers.
  • Develop cultural diversity with specific focus on developing audiences for under represented film cultures and communities e.g. African, Asian, Latin American, Caribbean and wider European.
  • Promote the heritage of cinema through archival strands and live music accompanying silent cinema – one of the ways film is becoming part of contemporary live performance and developing new audiences.
  • Engage young audiences in a wider diet of world and archival cinemas through work with schools, screenings and media literacy events.
  • Create wider engagement and participation in debate and dialogue with audiences through online publishing.
  • Provide a focus for artists moving image presentation in venue and online
  • Provide a UK wide platform and profile for the next generation of talent.

So the cinemas who have written this manifesto are pledging to continue offering silent films with live music. What’s more, they’re talking about silent film events in terms of “contemporary live performance” and “developing new audiences” – and also as worthy of government support. Between this, and certain newspapers talking up a major silent-movie revival (which of course should be taken with a spoonful of salt), we may well be on the brink of interesting times for silent film fans. It should go without saying that I appreciate the silent-film-and-live-music offerings of chain cinemas (notably, of course the Picturehouses chain), film festivals and concert venues – Silent London exists to support and encourage all of these events. But more is almost always merrier, and if independent cinemas around the country are able to offer events as thrilling as some of the screenings we have seen in London recently, that is cause for celebration. If it boosts the independent cinema sector into the bargain, that’s going to be an even bigger party.

I’m getting ahead of myself, of course. We’ll know more when the panel reports back, and crucially, decides what to do with some of the increased Lottery investment for the film industry that has come about as a result of the 2012 Olympics. Fingers crossed.

But if you were still wondering whether silent film screenings are an uncommercial, niche interest, read what Mark Kermode has to say in his recent book The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex.

As someone who’s spent quite a lot of time accompanying silent movies, I have indeed been thrilled by the resurgence of interest in these oft-forgotten works that seems to have flourished since the turn of the century. Spurred on by the retrospective fervour that attended the 100th anniversary of the ‘invention of cinema’ … many modern movie-goers were inspired to seek out reissued silent gems and to experience the wonder of a live soundtrack first-hand … So yes, I do have a powerful hankering for the days when films were performed rather than just screened, and directors understood that film (unlike theatre) is first and foremost a visual medium in which dialogue is not the driving force.

I’ll raise a glass to that.

Happy birthday Buster Keaton

Buster ... and Buster
Buster ... and Buster

Everyone loves Buster Keaton, but the readers of Silent London love him more than most. So today, on 4 October 2011, which would have been Buster Keaton’s 116th birthday, let’s pause to celebrate the Great Stone Face. After all, if it wasn’t for Buster Keaton, this blog wouldn’t exist. My first silent film and live music experience was a double-bill of Sherlock Jr and Steamboat Bill Jr accompanied by the Harmonie Band. What a treat. I was already smitten with early film before I went, but that evening turned me into an evangelist for the ‘live cinema’ experience.

I have Buster Keaton news to share, also. In the US, movie channel TCM is celebrating by showing Keaton’s films every Sunday throughout October. Sadly, that pleasure is not available on these shores, but Scottish film blogger Jon Melville isn’t going to let that stop him. He will be rewatching the same films on DVD, and writing them up for his Holyrood or Bust(er) project. Follow his progress on his blog here.

Over in LA, The Kitty Packard Pictorial blog is hosting a month-long Buster Keaton party – and everyone is invited:

Project Keaton will be a month long open forum in which writers, artists, everyday Joes and everyday Janes (like me) from all over the world are being invited to tip their pork pie to Buster. The goal is to foster a month of creative exchange, with Buster as muse, and to celebrate one of cinema’s few, true geniuses. There are no rules as to content: essays, reviews, art, critiques, tributes, prose, poetry, all are welcome. And, since this is a month long project, there are no pressing deadlines: participants may contribute as little or as much as they wish any time at all during the course of October.

Find out more, including how to contribute to Project Keaton, here.

If all this has reawakened your love of Buster Keaton, then you may want to join the Blinking Buzzards – the UK Buster Keaton society, who produce quarterly newsletters and hold regular meetings. They are even working on a clothing range and talking about a festival, too. There is not much information on their website at present, but their next meeting will be held at the Cinema Museum on 22 October. You can follow them on Twitter or Facebook, where they are far more talkative and a regular source of Buster Keaton clips and news.

Buster Keaton in The General (1926)
Buster Keaton in The General (1926)

The final titbit I’ve been keeping stashed under my pork-pie hat is a date for your diary. You may already know that The Slapstick Festival, an annual orgy of silent comedy in Bristol, will take place from 26-29 January next year. This festival is organised by the fabulous people at Bristol Silents and is always enormous fun, with an enchanting mix of silent film geekery and out-and-out hilarity. Although it’s too early for the full lineup to be revealed, the four galas, the flagship events of the weekend, have been announced.

May I draw your event to the event taking place on Friday 27 January? Comedian Griff Rhys Jones will introduce a screening of Buster Keaton’s masterpiece The General (1926), with a new score written by Günter Buchwald and performed by members of the European Silent Screen Virtuosi and Bristol Ensemble. There will also be a chance to see Laurel and Hardy in The Finishing Touch (1928) and Charlie Chaplin in The Adventurer (1916), as well as a performance by the Matinee Idles, featuring actor Paul McGann. The Gala takes place at Colston Hall in central Bristol, and tickets are available here.

Happy birthday Buster Keaton!

Neil Brand’s score for Underground: a preview

Underground (1928)
Underground (1928)

After months of work on his score for Undergound (1928), Neil Brand is still, happily, a big fan of the film. In fact he’s enthusiastic, and generous, enough to offer Silent London a preview of the music ahead of the world premiere next Wednesday and to chat about the film, and the process of scoring it too. Anthony Asquith’s film is set in London, but borrows its visual style from the European and Soviet art cinema that he loved so much: expect dark shadows, quickfire editing and geometric compositions. “Asquith was never again so bold as he was with Underground,” Brand says, and this score represents Brand’s attempt “to make music as bold as the film is”.

It hasn’t been an easy task. At first, he says, he was intimidated by the task ahead: the difficulty about writing for Underground, as opposed to Blackmail, which Brand scored for the BBC Symphony Orchestra last year, was that Asquith’s film requires snatches of lighter music. Blackmail is like an “icicle to the heart”, but Underground has wry, comic moments, at least towards the beginning of the film, before the characters make some disastrous decisions, and the film’s romantic triangle becomes an “Expressionist nightmare”. “Those first 20 minutes were horrendous to write,” he says. But four months later he has a complete score, which will be played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Timothy Brock, at the Barbican Concert Hall next month.

Brand is of course known for his piano scores, often improvised, for silent films, and here he has incorporated a piano into an orchestra score for the first time. He tells me this is partly because he wanted to use the love theme he had written for the film when he accompanied it at the London Film Festival with the Prima Vista Social Club two years ago. He also wanted to use the piano’s percussive bass sound and he enjoys the sound of a solo piano, at moments, over a quiet orchestra. “It’s almost a Morricone effect.”

Other than that though, Brand tackled the score as he always does, from the beginning to the end. This means that every morning, before starting work on the next segment of the film he would play through the existing score from the start. So he has heard the opening of the score, on his home computer setup, many, many times.

Continue reading Neil Brand’s score for Underground: a preview

The First Born on the Guardian film blog

Miles Mander and Madeleine Carroll in The First Born (1928)
Miles Mander and Madeleine Carroll in The First Born (1928)

The London Film Festival‘s archive gala is rapidly becoming a highlight of London’s silent film calendar. This year continues the theme, presenting Miles Mander’s edgy melodrama The First Born in the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the Southbank, with a new score by Stephen Horne. I spoke to Horne about his composition, and to Bryony Dixon of the BFI about the film, and wrote this short piece for the Guardian film blog.

Silent London: beyond the blog


Last week, the Silent London Twitter account passed a milestone of sorts as it reached a total of 1,000 followers. Hurrah! In case that doesn’t mean anything to you, a little context: Lady Gaga has 12.7m followers, the British Film Institute has around 40,000 and the Prince Charles Cinema has nearly 5,000. Well, perhaps that hasn’t made things any clearer, but the point is that around 1,000 people could, if they all turned on their computer or phone at the right time, read some London-based silent film related tweetings – but they’re far more likely to be reading about Lady Gaga’s latest excursions in millinery. And the Silent London Twitter crowd are a marvellous bunch. Just a few weeks ago, @susan_carey designed this beautiful Buster Keaton postcard in honour of my invaluable incessant tweets. It’s gorgeous, isn’t it?

However, it’s worth mentioning, because Twitter, like Facebook, is a good place to share news. So they are where I will pass on news as I discover it, about DVD releases, silent film shows around the country and early cinema related happenings on TV and radio. So far, Facebook is lagging behind in followers, or ‘Likes’, a little, but there is still time for things to even out.

So if you want to keep up with Silent London and breaking silent film news beyond the confines of the blog, you can follow Silent London on Twitter here, or Like Silent London on Facebook here. You’ll occasionally find a sophisticated debate, or just some convivial banter, on both those two places – but don’t be shy of using the comments feature on the blog either. Us silent film fans are a talkative bunch!

Culture Critic Guest Guide to Silent Cinema

Sunrise (1927)
Sunrise (1927)

The best thing about writing Silent London is not the international prestige or the six-figure salary*, it’s the opportunity to evangelise for silent cinema, to spread the word about the films that I love and the experience of watching them with live music. So many people have seen a few scratchy clips of Chaplin films, a glimpse of Nosferatu or a Paul Merton documentary and they’re intrigued to find out more about these films that seem both like and utterly unlike the movies they’re familiar with. So when the Culture Critic website asked me to provide a very short introduction to silent cinema I jumped at the chance.

You may well disagree with some of the things that I say, and I’ll admit that choosing five “essential” silent films was a near-impossible task, but it’s online for all to see now. There’s a brief intro to my blog, with a list of five first films for newbies and a short interview too. Click here for the Guest Guide, and here for the interview.

*I always forget that irony doesn’t work on the internet

Happy Easter from

As we are about to break up for the Easter weekend, I couldn’t resist sharing this egg-cellent 1902 trick film by George Méliès, L’Oeuf du Sorcier, with you. And as Easter is the festival of rebirth and new life, you will surely have noticed that Silent London has shelled out for a new web address. Point your browsers at in the future. It’s shorter, snappier and easier to remember than the old address – so chick it out. And that clunky old URL will still work anyway, so even if your brain is a little scrambled, you should be able to find the site with ease.

Have a wonderful Easter break dear readers and I will see you back here next week for egg-citing announcements about silent film shows, cracking competitions and, hopefully, no more of these terrible yolks.

The British Silent Film Festival: reporting back for the Guardian

Beggars of Life (1928)
Beggars of Life (1928)

The 14th British Silent Film Festival was held at the weekend, in the Barbican, the Cinema Museum and the BFI Southbank. A full report of the films, the lectures, the music and the gossip* will be forthcoming on this blog shortly. Meanwhile, here’s a piece I wrote for the Guardian Film Blog. It’s not quite a roundup of the festival, but it brings together some of the things we learned about silent film and music over the weekend – and I hope you enjoy it. If you were at the festival, let me know what you made of it, too.


Thank you from Silent London

Little Blog Award prizes
Little Blog Award prizes

This has been a surprise from start to finish. At the beginning of last month, I learned that Silent London had been nominated for a Dorset Cereals Little Blog Award. I still don’t know who nominated me – if it was you, then thank you very much.

You might have noticed me asking for votes on Twitter and Facebook, and happily lots of you didn’t think I was being too cheeky, because the votes kept coming in all month. Last week, I received a very nice email telling me that I had won the Little Blog Award for February 2011! And yesterday, the prizes arrived: a certificate, a box of granola and cereal bars – and this dinky egg cup, complete with egg cosy.

So in this post I would like to say a big thank you to everyone who voted for me. Silent London hasn’t been going very long, and this is a big confidence boost. Hopefully it’s another small sign of the growing popularity of silent film in this city, too. I’ve got big plans for this blog, believe me – and from now on I will be going to work on an egg.

International silent film festival diary from The Bisocope

Sunrise (1927)
Sunrise (1927)

You undoubtedly know The Bisocope, an exhaustive, eloquent blog about everything related to silent film, and much more besides. If by some chance you aren’t already familiar with the site, you can expect to lose the next few hours to exploring its scholarly articles. Enjoy. However, I wanted to draw your attention to one particular post, which will definitely be of interest, and may also have the power to change your holiday plans. The Bioscope has compiled a calendar of the 2011’s silent film festivals – from Kansas to Finland. The list includes some very exciting events and all of them are worthy of your support. You can find the post here – but if you find yourself buying plane tickets, don’t blame me, blame The Bisocope.

If, on your travels, you are looking for silent film screenings outside London, let me point you towards the Nitrateville Silent Screenings forum and the US website Silents in the Court.

Hamlet (1920) at the BFI, 27 January – a change to the advertised programme

Asta Nielsen as Hamlet

Asta Nielsen as Hamlet, Lilly Jacobson as Ophelia in Hamlet (1920)

Look what I found tucked into my copy of Shakespeare on Silent Film: A Strange Eventful History by Robert Hamilton Ball. It’s not a “vintage” postcard, but was bought for me by relatives on holiday in Berlin when I was writing a dissertation on silent Shakespeare. Asta Nielsen as Hamlet also graces the cover of the book, and looking at these pictures again I am reminded why I am so excited about the BFI screening of Hamlet next week. I’ve not seen this 1920 film directed by Sven Gade before, as it was not available on DVD when I was at university, and it still isn’t.

The BFI screening will be a chance to see a restored print of the film, and this event was also to be the premiere of a new score by Claire van Kampen – but unfortunately, that is no longer the case. However, I’m sure that Neil Brand’s improvised piano accompaniment will be up to his usual high standards.

Hamilton Ball says of the film that: “by adaptation and acting appropriate to pictures in motion, the least Shakespearean Hamlet becomes the best Hamlet film in the silent era”. He also quotes from a contemporary review in the periodical Exceptional Photoplays:

Rare is it indeed to see so complete a suggestion of all physical means – appearance, gesture, even the movement of an eye-lid – to the sheer art of showing forth the soul of a character as that which Asta Nielsen accomplishes in her role of Hamlet … For here is a woman whose like we have not on our own screen. Asta Nielsen’s art is a mature art that makes the curly headed girlies and painted hussies and tear-drenched mothers of most of our native film dramas as fantastic for adult consumption as a reading diet restricted to the Elsie books and Mother Goose … It is well … to put Shakespeare resolutely out of mind in seeing this production and take it on its own merits, though that is a mental feat made harder than it need have been by the frequent use of Shakespeare’s words in subtitles … Taken all in all, Hamlet reaches a level not often seen in our motion pictures.

Hamlet (1920) screens at the BFI Southbank on 27 January at 6.45pm. There are still a few tickets available here.