Last week, I recommended a new Buster Keaton box set. Well, there’s an evergreen sentiment. I remain a devotee of physical media (and in the interests of full disclosure, also make part of my living from it), but I realise it’s getting a little trickier for people to get hold of news discs right now, whether that’s because of distribution difficulties or lack of funds. I hear you.
Is it too late to tell you about the BFI’s Victorian Film Weekender? Not quite. There’s still time to book for this weekend’s three days of screenings, debates and talks – including a reprise of the magnificent Great Victorian Moving Picture Show, first seen at the London Film Festival. So hurry – go do that – and then mark another date in your diary: Monday 13 May.
That’s when a cavalcade of Victorian cinema will appear online, on the marvellous BFI Player. And it’s all in honour of a bicentenary: it’s coming up to 200 years since Queen Victoria was born, on 24 May 1819. In Canada, they celebrate that date every year as Victoria day. Now we can join in by watching vintage cinema in the great monarch’s honour.
Here’s Bryony Dixon, BFI silent film curator, telling you why you should watch.
“Early British film is a legacy to be proud of, these rare moving pictures document the last years of Queen Victoria’s long reign with a vividness that no other kind of historical artefact can bring. These incredibly rare, fragile film fragments speak volumes, adding colour and texture to our understanding of the Victorians vibrant and rapidly progressing world”
More than 700 British films made between 1895 and 1901 will be available to watch, entirely free of charge, on the streaming site, including those astonishing 4K digital restorations of the 68mm large-format films. That’s around 200 Victorian-era titles from the Mitchell & Kenyon collection and 500 newly transferred films.
The filmmakers responsible include: including RW Paul, Birt Acres, WKL Dickson, James Williamson, Walter Booth, GA Smith, Cecil Hepworth and Walter Gibbon. The quality of many of these films is incredible and the range and variety breathtaking.
Subjects include the Boer War, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the Boat Race, travelogues, boat launches, football, theatre, agriculture and working life. And you’ll be able to spot figures including Queen Victoria, Edward VII, the Duke of Windsor, Tsar Nicholas II, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Pope Leo XIII, WG Grace, Prince Ranjitsinhji, Herbert Campbell, Lil Hawthorne and Herbert Beerbohm Tree. There’s even sound and colour – so hold on to your hats!
I’ve had a little advance peek at some of this, and I can tell you that it’s a fascinating collection – offering glimpses of public and private life from the century before last as well as some seriously experimental filmmaking.
- Watch the films here on BFI Player.
- Look out for Victorian cinema on your TV too: the BBC Four series Victorian Sensations and a CBBC Horrible Histories special featuring films from the BFI archive.
- Read Bryony Dixon on large-format Victorian cinema here, and buy this month’s Sight & Sound for more.
- Book for the Victorian Film Weekender now!
- Want to know more about RW Paul in particular? Head to the ANIMATOGRAPH! How cinema was born in Haringey exhibition at Bruce Castle Museum in Tottenham.
- If you’re a BFI Player fan (and why wouldn’t you be?) and you’re not going to be at the BFI this weekend, why not head to the British Life on Film Conference on Saturday 11 May? In this one-day event, scholars from a variety of disciplines will consider how their work has been informed by encounters with archive films recently made available online.
- Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page
“You guys have a lot of excruciating RP in your archive.” Director Sandhya Suri is at BFI Southbank describing the joys and pains of making her fascinating new compilation film Around India with a Movie Camera. In a Q&A session after the premiere of the film, Suri explains that while the BFI offered her a selection from its stash of films of and about India up to 1947, she insisted on watching it all herself. That meant viewing more than 130 films, all of which had been digitised as part of the Unlocking Film Heritage project. At least, until the clipped, plummy accents became too much to bear.
Suri’s film is really remarkable, making use of some occasionally beautiful films to tell a complex story. Some of the most breathtaking silent footage features includes a lushly stencil-tinted film of Villenour or the famous 1899 Panorama of Calcutta, which, a caption tells us, was actually shot in Varanesi.
Deadlines done? Laundry basket empty? Dinner in the oven? Sure? Then prepare to fritter away some time. The British Film Institute has launched a new collection on the BFI Player. Animated Britain presents more than 300 animated films from the UK. There are some nostalgic favourites from my own childhood here, and also a fine set of films from the infancy of cinema.
Browse the “Early Animation” set on the BFI Player (or the BFI YouTube channel) and you can watch, for free, gems such as WR Booth’s 1909 trick film Animated Cotton, or the Shakespeare spoof Oh’phelia: a Cartoon Burlesque, from 1909. You’ll build up a mental picture of Britain in the early 20th century while you you titter. There is plenty of Great War Propaganda here, lots of cricket-comedy and a couple of shorts produced on behalf of the Conservative Party.
I was especially taken with an episode featuring Giro the Germ, made for the Health and Cleanliness Council, a rather haunting warning about hygiene hazards. In this sinister short, germs hop on fly-taxis right out of dustbins and into the mucky homes of hapless Brits. It’s rather repulsive, but may well encourage you pass the duster around after you’ve had your cartoon break.
Best of all, though, is Running a Cinema (1921), which offers a few quirky insights into what a trip to the pictures was like nearly a century ago.
Hey silent cinephiles. This is a quick note to tell you about the treasures to be found in the BFI Player’s freshly launched collection 1917 on Film. The footage collected here paints a striking portrait of a world at war and a nation doing its best to stay strong, conserve resources, fight its foes and keep the country on track. From celebrity philanthropy to citizen volunteers helping to work the land and feed the country; reports from the grim events in continental Europe to morale boosting cartoons and celebrations. I’d love to talk you through the lot, but I lost a few crucial hours watching the films myself. So why not explore for yourself?
Seriously, this is great stuff, and I have had the teeniest, tiniest involvement in putting it together so I felt a burst of pride to see it online and ready to stream. Silent London is a big fan of the BFI Player – a truly fantastic historical resource and the most diverting use of a rainy day lunchbreak I can imagine. So dive in to 1917 – and watch out for future additions to the site. Don’t tell anyone, but there are good things ahead .
That said, please don’t miss my favourite … ‘Coster Comedienne’ Kate Carney stepping out of the music hall and on to the streets of London to deliver fresh veg and fruity jokes.