Tag Archives: BFI

Silent movies on your Samsung Smart TV. Cheers, BFI

Mitchell and Kenyon's Punch & Judy Show in Halifax.
A still from Mitchell and Kenyon’s Punch & Judy Show in Halifax (1901). Copyright: BFI National Archive

So, last week, I found myself watching some early films in the BFI Southbank. Same old, same old, you might think. But these early films were being shown on massive MTV Cribs-style tellies in the BFI foyer. And while many of them were from the Mitchell and Kenyon archive we know and love, they were unseen treasures, having been gazed upon only by archivists during the past century.

This unexpected alliance of Edwardian content and 21st-century technology has come about via the BFI’s new app, developed as part of the Film Forever project. It’s an app for Samsung Smart TV and Smart Hubs, and it allows viewers access to a treasure chest of film-related content, including a free Film of the Week (kicking off with A Zed and Two Noughts), interviews with film-makers, documentaries, and a whole heap of archival delights, including the M&K films. There will  also be footage of events and interviews from the London Film Festival appearing when that all kicks off in October.

The archive goodies are separated into a variety of strands: London Calling and Cabinet of Curiosities, among them. There are silents across most of the ranges – many you’ll be familiar with, such as Daisy Doodad’s Dial or Wonderful London. It’s the Mitchell & Kenyon films that stand out though – they’re in a rather lovely collection called Edwardian Summer.  There’s an hour and a half of footage here, a good hour of which is unseen. Robin Baker, the head of the BFI archive, calls these films: “Cinematic gold – you couldn’t get much more important.” What’s so vital about these short films, he explained, is that the “humanise the past”. They certainly captivated the crowd at the BFI.

You can see Blackpool in May 1904, with formally dressed holidaymakers parading on the pier or riding trams. There’s a Punch and Judy show, captured in Halifax in 1901 – your eye may be caught by the frisky puppy getting rather too close to the puppets, but don’t miss the plume of smoke that reveals a train station in the rolling hills behind the main event. A man in drag falls off a donkey (twice) in Hipperholme, West Yorkshire in 1901; Preston celebrates its Whit Fair in 1906. Delightfully, footage of the Chester Regatta delivers shots of boats gliding elegantly down the River Dee in the long hot summer of 1901. Watch a little further and you’ll discover a few courting couples doing what courting couples do in those very boats.

BFI's Samsung Smart TV app
BFI’s Samsung Smart TV app

There’s silent London on show too – elsewhere in the package you can watch street scenes of Hoxton approximately 80 years before it became cool , for example.

I think it’s all gorgeous – I would like to sit down and watch all of the M&K treats in full, and there are some non-silent delights both sublime and ridiculous available too, including a Dufaycolor screen test featuring Audrey Hepburn and a public information film from the 70s starring Keith Chegwin. So this is wonderful news for those of you have, or are thinking of buying, a Samsung Smart TV, Hub or Blu-Ray player. It’s also good news for the rest of us. We may have to be a little patient, but as more of the BFI’s wonderful archive is digitised we can look forward to their films being made available in more ways. BFI apps for everyone please: not just on smart TVs, but on smartphones and tablets, perhaps?

Want to read more? Peruse the press release on this handy PDF.

Underground: DVD/Blu-Ray review

Underground (1928)
Underground (1928)

Underground, surely one of the greatest “Silent London” films, has been turning our heads for some time now: at festivals, at the Barbican with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 2011, and this year selling out screenings on its theatrical outing. This home video release is Underground’s latest, glossiest incarnation, and by rights should bring the film to the widest possible audience.

If you don’t know it (why?), the first thing you need to know about Anthony Asquith’s film is that it is an exercise in contrasts. Underground spins high drama out of a love story in a humble setting, pivoting from flirtation to daggers-drawn aggression. A hybrid romcom-thriller sounds like commercial gold, the elusive “perfect date movie”. Well, I wouldn’t necessarily argue with that assessment, but Underground is no popcorn flick: it’s passionate, arty, and unafraid to trip up the audience with a sudden, disconcerting shift in tone.

Getting down to brass tacks, this is a tale of love, jealousy, madness and missed connections. Pals Bill (Brian Aherne) and Bert (Cyril McLaglen) meet sweet Nell (Elissa Landi) on the tube one morning. Nell only has eyes for Bill, but nevertheless incurs the wrath of Kate (Norah Baring), a dangerously unhinged woman who carries a lonely torch for Bert. The narrative, and the tension, escalate as a chance meeting on the tube results in a violent confrontation at the now disused Lots Road power station. Asquith’s second film as director, the first he received a full credit for, is an astonishingly distinctive and inventive work. Everywhere there are bravura touches that mark him out as a great of British silent cinema: the shadows of tentative lovers embrace even while they pull awkwardly apart; a pub brawl is edited montage-style, a kaleidoscope of splintered violence.

So, the story of Underground may be simple, but its treatment is unexpectedly dark, stylised and violent – the good news is that this Blu-Ray does Asquith’s expressionist experiments proud. The slanting shadows of the tube tunnels and the boarding house are deep and black; the white-knuckle action of the final chase remains sharply defined.

You’ll want to turn this disc up loud too. If you haven’t heard Neil Brand’s orchestral score for Underground yet, you’ve been missing out. This full-bodied, stirring music is a masterclass in silent film music. It’s lush and classic, certainly, but unafraid to cling to the twists and jolts on the track: alert to the film’s many mood swings. Try watching any sequence in Underground with and without Brand’s score (I recommend that furtive shadow-kiss, or Kate’s mad scene) and you’ll notice how the music inhabits every corner of the film, animating it without smothering it. Should you tire of the music, there is an alternative option, one I found fascinating but initially, at least, harder to warm to. Recordist Chris Watson has created a soundtrack for Underground that uses noises rather than music. That fantasy kiss is here accompanied by the sound of trains rushing through tunnels; the birds sing when Bill and Nell picnic in the park, although the young boy’s harmonica is eerily silent. It’s finely crafted, and as artful as any musical score could hope to be. However, shoot me, but I miss the romance of the symphony orchestra in full flow.

Underground (1928)
Underground (1928)

This is a dual-format release, with plenty of room for extras (though some of them you will only find on the DVD disc). There is a brief but illuminating featurette on the restoration of the film (the short answer is that it wasn’t easy and that a French print in a Belgian archive filled in many of the gaps in the decomposing British reels) and a generous booklet featuring essays from Brand, Bryony Dixon, Christian Wolmar, Simon Murphy and Michael Brooke as well as snippets from the archive. The archive film extras are the real treat though: including glimpses of Asquith as a young boy with his notable father in tow. I was particularly taken by Under Night Streets, a 1958 documentary about the Underground network’s night workers, with its jaunty cockney narration explaining the whys and wherefores of the work done by men “hard at it, down in the hole” while the city sleeps above them.

As a souvenir of 1920s London, this is hard to beat. And it’s a damn fine treatment for a great British film. But I am greedy. This release will sit neatly on my shelf next to the BFI’s DVD of Asquith’s final silent A Cottage on Dartmoor with Stephen Horne’s brilliant score. Two out of three ain’t bad, but how about Shooting Stars to complete the set?

Underground is released on a Dual-Format DVD/Blu-Ray set by the BFI, RRP £19.99 on 17 June 2013. To pre-order, click here.

Yasujiro Ozu’s gangster youth

Walk Cheerfully (1930)
Walk Cheerfully (1930)

Yasujiro Ozu wasn’t always quite the Yasujiro Ozu we know from Tokyo Story and Late Spring. And he was certainly nothing like the film-maker you would expect if you had never seen those films, just been told about them as slow, domestic dramas on the theme of loss. Ozu has always put the fun into formalism, with playfully picturesque compositions and his famous cutaway “pillow shots” inserting frames of pure, simple cinema into his simmering narratives.

Later Ozu films are so routinely described as distinctively Japanese, as distinctively Ozu-esque that it may surprise many to learn that the director was actually a huge fan of Hollywood cinema. When he first started work at the Shochiku studio as a young man, he horrified the boss by claiming to have only seen a handful of Japanese films, and hundreds of American pictures. The twentysomething Ozu first aspired to make comedies, aping the slapstick of Harold Lloyd and the wit of Lubitsch.

The BFI collected a handful of Ozu’s campus comedies in a box set last year – and while their subject matter and setting seem very different from Ozu’s sound films, there was much that was familiar: a certain poignancy to the humour; the awkwardness of social and family situations; the sense of change and loss on growing old and leaving friends and family behind.

Dragnet Girl (1933)
Dragnet Girl (1933)

Now the BFI has brought together more of Ozu’s earlier, funnier material for a second set, but this time with a darker theme. The Gangster Films set reflects Ozu’s Hollywood influences, sure, but also a changing Japan, more urban, more hi-tech, more susceptible to western influences. In the student comedies, our slacker heroes are horrified by the brazen manners of so-called modern girls – Ozu’s gangsters embrace them, at least for a short while. The films featured in this new set are Dragnet Girl, A Straightforward Boy (fragment), Walk Cheerfully and That Night’s Wife. I don’t want to lump these films together, certainly the fragment is its own beast, but they do share some characteristics. The three features are all set in an Americanised Tokyo, accented with deep shadows and populated by Japanese gangsters straight out of US novels and films – double-breasted suits, sharp-brimmed hats and shiny leather shoes. Their molls have bobbed hair and fur collars, high-heeled shoes and glint in their eye.

The beauty of watching the gangster movies is to see Ozu’s cinematic style grow despite his influences. Or to put it in David Bordwell’s words: “The exotic and formulaic genre allows Ozu to experiment stylistically, moving toward that highly overt narration that was to become his trademark.” While the gangster films offer us Hollywood thrills in the shape of guns, girls and skulduggery, the poetics, the cutaways and composition are all Ozu’s own.

That Night's Wife (1930)
That Night’s Wife (1930)

Full disclosure: I’d quite like you to buy this box set. I contributed one of the essays in the accompanying booklet, on Walk Cheerfully. You’ll find more erudite words there too from Tony Rayns, Bryony Dixon and Michael Kerpan. The films are the thing, of course, and they are beautifully accompanied by Ed Hughes’ scores. The set has been reviewed in Film International, by Wheeler Winston Dixon, and in Sight & Sound, by Philip Kemp.

However, I’m not just writing to plug the box set, but to bring you some information about a forthcoming screening of Walk Cheerfully at BFI Southbank on 22 April. This is a members’ ballot screening, and you should know by now whether you have a ticket, though I suppose there may also be some more available nearer the date. This is a special screening and will be an experience very different to watching the DVD. First, the music will be a live improvised score that combines traditional Japanese music with electronic distortions – and a 78rpm record player. Walk Cheerfully is certainly a toe-tapping film, so I have high hopes for this. More details below:

Sylvia Hallett and Clive Bell are the two musicians improvising a live score for Walk Cheerfully. The pair have worked together for several years on projects for film, dance and theatre, as well as numerous international concert and festival performances. Their duo album The Geographers is on the Emanem label.

Clive Bell is a specialist in Japanese traditional music; he lived in Tokyo where he studied the shakuhachi (Japanese flute). Later he learned to play the khene, a bamboo mouth organ from Thailand – a bright-toned, chordal wind instrument that is an ancestor of the accordion. Sylvia Hallett is a violinist, composer and instrument maker, with a unique personal approach to live electronics.

Clive Bell writes: “Walk Cheerfully is a film full of subtle surprises, that deserves a fresh-sounding score. Our musical accompaniment will blend these Far Eastern instruments, and the more familiar violin, with electronic looping and pitch-shifting. The live orchestra which accompanied Japanese screenings in the 1930s often mixed traditional Japanese instruments such as shamisen (lute) and taiko drum with trumpet, violin, clarinet and piano. Instead of a piano, we use electronics to extend the music’s range into magic and atmospheres.

“Ozu was a keen student of American cinema, but made films that remained essentially Japanese. We hope to return the compliment by creating a rich musical mix of Western and Japanese, of contemporary and traditional. And, when the gangsters play their 78rpm records in their club, we will activate an antique 78rpm record player of our own.”

The second surprise is that the film will be accompanied by live Benshi narration – as Japanese film screenings were in the silent era. The Benshi will be performed by Tomoko Komura, who will both translate the intertitles and narrate the film.

If you want to learn more about Ozu, and his silent work, I can’t think of a more enjoyable way to begin.

Walk Cheerfully screens at NFT1 on 22 April 2013 at 6.30pm. Read more here.

News for 2013 from the British Silent Film Festival

Cocaine (Graham Cutts, 1922)
Cocaine (Graham Cutts, 1922)

If my email inbox is anything to go by, several of you have been wondering when we would hear details of the 16th British Silent Film Festival. After last year’s trip to Cambridge, many of you will have been anticipating the festival’s return to London, for one thing…

Well. There’s bad news – but happily there’s far more good news.

The BSFF is taking a break this year – but there will still be a BSFF, of sorts. And yes, some of the events will be in London, but festivalgoers will also be packing their buckets and spades for a trip to The Suffolk coast – and the historic Aldeburgh Cinema.

The centrepiece of the events, according to my insider sources, will be the screening of Hobson’s Choice (Percy Nash, 1920), starring Arthur PittJoan Ritz and Joe Nightingale – a very, very rarely seen film and a magnificent adaptation of the play by Harold Brighouse. You’ll also have a chance to see the full surviving fragment of Graham Cutts’s Cocaine (1922) and the only surviving reel of Monkey’s Paw (Manning Haynes, 1923). Speaking of Haynes – you’ll be able to feast on his delightful WW Jacobs comedies down in Suffolk – a treat for any British silent film fanatic. If you linger by the seaside, you’ll also catch the Dodge Brothers accompanying the Louise Brooks film Beggars of Life (1928), which is well worth sticking around for.

Over to the official announcement on the British Silents website.

There will be no British Silent Film Festival this year while the team regroup – however, we are organising three fantastic one off events , with three enthusiastic new hosts:

19th April One day British Silent Symposium courtesy of Lawrence Napper at King’s College, University of London –incorporating the Rachael Low lecture. A ‘Call for Papers’ will be coming soon.

20th April – All day event at the Cinema Museum – a programme of sensational London related film – The Yellow Claw, full surviving fragments of Cocaine, Monkey’s Paw, and rare shorts from other collections. Also the 21st century premiere of the 1920Hobson’s Choice a genuinely good silent adaptation of the Harold Brighouse classic made famous by David Lean.

4th May – join us by the sea as the BSFF are guests of the glorious Aldeburgh Cinema for an all-dayer, with a coastal theme, including the ‘east coast’ films of Manning Haynes and Lydia Hayward based on the W W Jacobs stories, a programme of Lifeboat films and others. The fabulous Dodge Brothers will be playing ‘Beggars of Life’on the 5th for those who want to make a weekend of it!

Full programmes and further details to follow.

Underground (1928): theatrical release

Excellent news for fans of British silent cinema (that’s you). Anthony Asquith’s Underground (1928) will be released in cinemas next year. It’s a romantic and thrilling film about a love triangle that sparks jealousy, madness and terrible violence. Asquith’s direction is confident – and richly expressive.

Underground (1928)
Underground (1928)

Underground is also a fascinating portrait of 1920s London, including a public transport system that has only subtly changed in the intervening 80-odd years. Indeed this theatrical release is intended to celebrate 150 years of the Tube. The film stars Brian Aherne, Elissa Landi, Cyril McLaglen, and Norah Baring in the roles the opening intertitle describes as “ordinary workaday people whose names are just Nell, Bill, Kate and Bert”. It’s no ordinary film though, Asquith uses subjective techniques inspired by European cinema to convey his character’s emotional turmoils and to make Underground both atmospheric and suspenseful. If you’ve seen his final silent film A Cottage on Dartmoor, you’ll know just what to expect.

What is particularly special about this release is that the film has been beautifully restored by the BFI and will be accompanied by a live orchestral recording of Neil Brand’s superb score – played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. You can read more about the film here on the BFI website, or read Silent London’s interview with composer Neil Brand here. Ahead of last year’s Barbican screening of Underground, Brand wrote this fascinating piece for the Telegraph about “Silent cinema and the secrets of London”.

Underground is released on 11 January 2013, screening at the BFI Southbank and selected cinemas nationwide. A special preview screening at BFI Southbank on 10 January 2013 will be followed by a panel discussion hosted by Francine Stock, with Bryony Dixon, Ben Thompson, Simon Murphy and Neil Brand.

Win tickets to watch the greatest silent films of all time at BFI Southbank

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, The Passion of Joan of Arc and Man With a Movie Camera
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, The Passion of Joan of Arc and Man With a Movie Camera

Sight & Sound’s decennial poll of the Greatest Films of All Time attracted a lot of attention earlier this summer, when the critics toppled Citizen Kane off the number one spot, using Vertigo as a battering ram. Of far more interest to us was the fact that three, yes, three silents made their way into the top 10, with Battleship Potemkin skulking just outside.

This is great news for silent fans in that airy-fairy way that we like to see our best-loved titles acknowledged – and these three films are undoubtedly classics. They are my favourite, Murnau’s sublime Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, Dreyer’s unforgettably cathartic The Passion of Joan of Arc and Vertov’s exhilarating experiment Man With A Movie Camera. There is a more substantial reason to get excited though: all the films in the Sight & Sound top 10 will be shown at the BFI Southbank in September – and you’ll find these silents already on the calendar.

The news gets better. You can win a pair of tickets to any of these screenings and all you have to do is tell me how much you want to go. Complete one of these sentences in 15 words or fewer to win a pair of tickets to the screening of your choice – as well as a pair of tickets to the Call it a Classic? panel discussion at the beginning of the month. I’ll pick the best sentences with an independent judge and our decision will be final. So make your answer as wise, witty or profound as possible!

  • I want to see Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans because …
  • I want to see Man With a Movie Camera because …
  • I want to see The Passion of Joan of Arc because …

Email your answers to silentlondontickets@gmail.com with the name of your chosen film in the subject header by noon on Sunday 2 September 2012. For your information, the Passion and Movie Camera screenings will have live musical accompaniment. The Sunrise screening will have a musical score but not live music.

Win tickets to the premiere of Guy Maddin’s Keyhole at the BFI

UPDATE: Unfortunately I have just learned that Guy Maddin will no longer be able to attend the Keyhole premiere. The competition is still running, however.

No film director in the world takes more inspiration from early and silent cinema than Guy Maddin does. From his silent short The Heart of the World, to the dreamy textures of his features, such as The Saddest Music in the World and Brand Upon the Brain!, through to his hugely ambitious “lost films” project Spiritismes, Maddin has demonstrated a career-long passion for early cinema. His newest film Keyhole is also heavily influenced by classic Hollywood. AO Scott in the New York Times described it as “a dusty attic full of battered, evocative cultural references … a perfect gateway into the bizarre and fertile world of a unique film artist.”

Canadian director Guy Maddin (My Winnipeg, The Saddest Music in the World) is renowned for his exploration of surreal worlds and ghosts, which most recently has manifested itself in his ongoing Spiritismes project, launched at the Pompidou this March. His latest feature Keyhole, featuring deliciously unhinged performances from Isabella Rossellini, Jason Patric and Udo Kier, is a fabulous and bizarre personal-odyssey-cum-supernatural-thriller that exposes the hidden desires of the Pick family, their phantoms and the gang of thugs who inhabit the shadows of their crumbling home.

Isabella Rossellini in Guy Maddin's Keyhole
Isabella Rossellini in Guy Maddin’s Keyhole

Keyhole will premiere at the BFI Southbank on Monday 13th August, at a special screening that will be followed by a Q&A with the director in which he will talk not just about the new film, but about his latest silent project – one that is of particular interest to readers of Silent London.

Guy Maddin’s current project Spiritismes is a unique, live production/online project that brings back to life ‘unrealised, half-finished, lost or abandoned films’ by the great masters of the cinema: Cocteau, Vigo, Murnau … BFI’s special UK Premiere Fundraiser of Keyhole is being presented, courtesy of Soda Pictures, to enable Guy Maddin to ‘channel’ Hitchcock’s lost film The Mountain Eagle. All proceeds from the screening will be donated to the production and Maddin will be in attendance to talk about Keyhole, Hitchcock and Spiritismes.

So, buy a ticket for Monday’s event and you will be helping this acclaimed and distinctive director to recreate the lost Hitchcock film The Mountain Eagle.

To win a pair of tickets to the premiere of Keyhole at BFI Southbank, simply email the answer to this simple question to silentlondontickets@gmail.com with Keyhole in the subject header by noon on Friday 10 August 2012.

  • Name Guy Maddin’s hometown in Canada, referred to in the title of one of his most famous films.

Good luck!

Win tickets to watch silent films at the BFI this summer

Don’t forget that the BFI’s Genius of Hitchcock retrospective begins in earnest this month. In fact, you can kick off the celebration with a Blackmail silent-and-sound double-bill tonight. For the other silents in the season, check the Silent London Calendar.

First off you won’t want to miss the theatrical release of The Lodger on 10 August – there’s a special screening at BFI Southbank featuring a Q&A with composer Nitin Sawhney too.

Next month, you’ll want to note some other Hitchcock dates in your diary to see the new restorations of his silent films. There’s a second chance to see The Pleasure Garden with Daniel Patrick Cohen’s marvellous score on 13 September. Downhill will screen with a live score from beatboxer Shlomo on 20 September and there’s a screening of Champagne with “boldly classical” music from Mira Calix on 27 September. There’s the restoration premiere of Easy Virtue on 28 September, too.

Plus, it has now been announced that The Manxman will be this year’s London film festival archive gala, screening at the Empire Leicester Square on 19 October with a new score from Stephen Horne. If you saw last year’s gala screening of The First Born, also with a score by Horne, you’ll know this isn’t be missed.

Back to August, the BFI is showing a fine roster of other silent films, including Greed, The Dumb Girl of Portici featuring Anna Pavlova, and Drifters, with a live score from sound artist Jason Singh. Search to find out more on the BFI website.

To win a pair of tickets to the any silent screening at the BFI this month, simply email the answer to this simple question to silentlondontickets@gmail.com with August in the subject header by noon on Friday 3 August 2012.

  • What is the name of Hitchcock’s lost silent feature film, starring Nita Naldi?

The Genius of Hitchcock season runs until October and showcases a complete retrospective of his films, from his early British silents, to his later Hollywood classics. Also included in the season is a dedicated microsite, The 39 Steps to Hitchcock, which is a step-by-step guide through one man’s genius, featuring exclusive film extracts, interviews with close collaborators (Kim Novak, Tippi Hedren and more) and a journey through his life and career through galleries curated by Hitchcock experts.

Anna Pavlova at the BFI: ballet and silent film

Dance and silent cinema have a natural affinity. Many of the earliest films were records of serpentine dances: mesmerising, rainbow-tinted swirls. And these days, when choreographer Matthew Bourne discusses his blockbuster productions with grand sets inspired by German Expressionism, he says: ”it’s almost like pure cinema. It’s like a silent film.”

It’s no surprise then that silent film-makers pointed their camera at the dance stage and the best ballerinas of the day. And the ballet world was fascinated by cinema too. This intriguing article by Henry K Miller relates the thwarted ambitions of Sergei Diaghilev, director of the Ballets Russes, to make a colour film of Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Sleeping Princess. A short season at the BFI this August celebrates one of the greatest ballerinas of all time, Anna Pavlova, who arranged for many of her dances to be filmed and appeared in a feature film too:

‘Next to seeing Pavlova in person, there is no better substitute than seeing her through the mechanism of the kinema.’ So noted a critic in The Guardian following the release of her American feature film, The Dumb Girl of Portici, in 1916. As a ballerina, Anna Pavlova (1881-1931) was as an inspiration; she was also an independent career woman and mega-star loved by the media and her audiences throughout the world. She was also the first major ballerina to truly investigate the medium of film during the 1910s and 1920s. Not only did she star in a Hollywood feature film, but also had a number of her solos filmed. At the end of her life, Pavlova travelled with two movie cameras to record her productions and travels. This season includes documentaries, recordings of dance and features indicating the range of ballets she performed and placing her screen career in context with contemporary recordings of dance.

The BFI will be showing that film, Lois Weber’s The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916), which features this beautiful sequence of Pavlova dancing with an “invisible” partner. The film will be screened with live piano accompaniment and an introduction by dance historian Jane Pritchard.

The Dumb Girl of Portici is an adaptation of the French opera of the same name. Watch out for the character Masaniello, who is played by Rupert Julian, the same man who directed The Phantom of the Opera in 1925, which opens with this gorgeous ballet scene:

You can see The Phantom of the Opera at the Volupté Lounge on 19 August with a live score by electronic duo Cipher.

In the BFI’s Pavlova season, there will also be a chance to see Evgeni Bauer’s The Dying Swan (1917), in which Vera Karalli, a Russian silent film actor and dancer with the Bolshoi ballet, performs the famous routine from Swan Lake. The film will be shown alongside an Omnibus documentary about Pavlova, and with a score by Joby Talbot.

Click here for more details of the BFI’s Anna Pavlova season.

Wonderful London: DVD review

Wonderful London
Wonderful London

This is a guest post for Silent London by Karolina Kendall-Bush

Sitting in the bowels of the BFI at Stephen Street watching the 20 or so Wonderful London travel films in silence, I often dreamed of the day when these mesmerising scenes of life in the 1920s might be restored and released on DVD with a score. Finally, ithat day has come. In autumn last year, those of us who could get tickets to a soldout performance at the BFI London film festival were lucky enough to see six of these films in all their glory, fully restored from the original coloured nitrate prints. Now the BFI has released those films, along with six “extras” (in good black-and-white prints) on DVD with music by John Sweeney and essays from Bryony Dixon, Iain Sinclair, Jude Rogers and Sukhdev Sandhu.

Wonderful London
Wonderful London

Although these films were simply shot commercial “fillers” to be shown before the main feature, they were remarkable in many ways. Most travel films of London in this period tended to flit between landmarks with a few explanatory intertiles. They were, dare I say it, ever-so-slightly dull.  Having devoted a lot of time to watching travelogues of London, I often groan as repeated shots of Buckingham Palace, Big Ben and Tower Bridge pass before my eyes. In this context, the Wonderful London films are quite treat. Paying as much attention to pet cemeteries and street performers as they do to London’s  best-known tourist destinations, they are, I think, antecedents to Norman Cohen’s The London Nobody Knows (1967) and even Patrick Keiller’s London (1994, below).

Each Wonderful London instalment goes on a thematic excursion. Barging through London charts the course of the Regent’s canal, Cosmopolitan London goes in search of the city’s diverse ethnic communities, London’s Sunday looks at what Londoners do on their day off, and so on. The conversational intertitles, which can veer between amusing and patronising, invite viewers to go on a journey through the city. In her essay, BFI silent film curator Bryony Dixon notes how these films exploited the popularity of St John Adcock’s 1922 magazine Wonderful London. In this publication, famous writers described various aspects of the capital for readers eager to discover London in all its complexity.

Continue reading Wonderful London: DVD review

The Genius of Hitchock: celebrating cinema’s master of suspense

The BFI has asked me to share some information about the forthcoming silent Hitchcock screenings with you  – so voila!

BFI - British Film Institute
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The Genius of Hitchcock
The Genius of Hitchcock
Rescue the Hitchcock 9

Our major campaign to restore all nine of Hitchcock’s surviving silent films.

Celebrating Cinema’s Master of Suspense
Gala screenings of newly restored British silent films with live scores

Starting with the London 2012 Festival, the BFI is exploring Alfred Hitchcock’s complete works with a celebration which includes gala screenings of the silent classics and a full retrospective at BFI Southbank.

One of the best British films of the 1920s, Hitchcock’s ‘Blackmail’ is a true masterpiece of the silent era. A young girl engaged to a stuffy policeman is enticed up to an artist’s studio, laying herself open to the blackmail of the title. Presented outdoors at the British Museum – the location of the film’s thrilling chase sequence – with a specially arranged score by composer Neil Brand, this is a once-in-a-lifetime film experience.
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The Ring
When boxer Bob Corby hires Jack Sander to be his sparring partner, he has no idea that he will become smitten with Mabel, Jack’s beautiful wife. A love triangle emerges in which the bouts in the ring become more than gamely sparring, leading up to the championship fight (famously set in the Albert Hall) between the two men for the love of Mabel. Features a brand new score by Soweto Kinch, multi-award winning British jazz alto saxophonist, hip hop artist, rapper and MC.
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The Lodger
A strange lodger may be a serial killer in Alfred Hitchcock’s first suspense thriller. With a new score by Nitin Sawhney, performed live with the London Symphony Orchestra at Barbican Hall. Nitin Sawhney’s score for The Lodger is commissioned by independent film distributor Network Releasing in partnership with the BFI.
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Scoring Hitchcock’s silent films

“This is for now. This is for audiences now” – Neil Brand, composer, Blackmail

Yesterday I was lucky enough to attend the press launch of the BFI’s Genius of Hitchcock season, where the summer’s blockbuster season of screenings was announced. Creative director Heather Stewart made a great case for Leytonstone’s favourite son, calling him a modernist to compare with Picasso and Le Corbusier, and a cornerstone of British culture, laying the adjective Hitchcockian alongside its counterparts Dickensian and Shakespearean. “The idea of popular cinema somehow being capable of being great art at the same time as being entertaining is still a problem for some people. Shakespeare is on the national curriculum, Hitchcock is not,” she says. Furthermore, she argued that Hitchcock’s work demands not just greater study, but wider audiences. The answer the BFI proposes is to show the films – all of them – in the most comprehensive Hitchcock retrospective ever staged – including his silent films.

“We would find it very strange if we could not see Shakespeare’s early plays performed, or read Dickens’s early novels. But we’ve been quite satisfied as a nation that Hitchcock’s early films have not been seen in good quality prints on the big screen.”

Showing the nine extant silents is of course more difficult than screening the later work. The prints require varying degrees of restoration work – and new scores. For me, the most interesting part of launch event was a panel discussion chaired by Nick James, editor of Sight & Sound magazine, which gave an insight into the process of writing new music for the films. Five composers were on stage, each of whom had been tasked with scoring a different Hitchcock silent. It was fascinating to hear about the different approaches they took, how much they felt that the project was a direct way of expressing their admiration for the director, and their readings of the different films.

Neil Brand, whose orchestral score for Blackmail will be arranged for a smaller ensemble and played at a gala screening in the forecourt of the British Museum, described the “party game” of following Hitchcock’s characters’ shifting motivations and vulnerability. His intention, he said, was “bring out the neurosis” in the film. And he was upfront about the fact that he took inspiration from some of Hitchcock’s later musical collaborators. We were shown a clip from the film that precedes the scene excerpted above. Brand wasn’t, he explained, trying to register the heroine’s desire for the artist, but for the frilly dress hanging in the studio. To that end, he “scored the dress”, with a sparkling theme every bit as frothy as the frock.

Hitchcock’s “switching empathies” were also part of the attraction and the complexity of scoring The Lodger for Nitin Sawhney. He started, he said, by working on the titles, those extravagantly designed, animated captions that decorate the film, and pulling the strands of the narrative apart. It must have been complex. Asked by James if the score was as foggy as the film’s vision of London, he replied no, but added self-deprecatingly that his brain was a little fogged during the composition process. Those who have heard Sawhney’s score for A Throw of Dice will doubtless be happy to learn that this new composition will also be performed by the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican in June.

Fog or no fog, young composer Daniel Patrick Cohen showed every enthusiasm for the task of soundtracking Hitchcock’s first film. As a long-term fan of the director he described The Pleasure Garden as “a blueprint for all the wonderful films that Alfred Hitchcock went on to make”. Happily for us, we saw a glimpse of the film with Cohen’s score. It was the opening scene in fact, which sets up so many of Hitchcock’s enduring fascinations: blondes, voyeurism and a ribald, but very British sense of humour. Cohen knows his audience will have been brought up on Hitchcock’s grisly thrillers, and that we know where all these fascinations can lead, and so the music was deliberately playful, but with a steely, sinister edge. When it came to the humour in the film, Cohen promised us “one amusing sound effect” in his score. Just one, and he wasn’t telling where it was to be found. Tease.

Can you imagine Betty Balfour as the pinup of the Occupy movement? Mira Calix can, perhaps. She offered an audacious reading of Champagne, which screens in September, as a critique of celebrity culture and a comment on the financial crisis. I see her point, but can’t quite imagine idle heiress de nos jours Paris Hilton with soot on her face, or indeed flying a plane. Still, Champagne is a film with a great deal of style and Calix quite rightly noted that while 1928 may seem to be the long-distant past, this is a film obsessed with modernity, in all its art-deco, cocktail-sipping, drop-waisted deliciousness. Calix aims to bridge the 84-year age gap with a score for Champagne that incorporates traditional instruments alongside the electronica she is renowned for. I think this will be most of the most distinctive scores in the season, and I am certainly intrigued.

Soweto Kinch didn’t just discuss his score for The Ring, he put his saxophone where his mouth was and accompanied a short clip from the film. His finished score will be played by a five-piece band at the Hackney Empire, but he performed solo in NFT1, his sax lines underscoring each small but significant gesture in one of The Ring’s quieter scenes – and drawing a fantastic response from the audience. Like Calix, he is keen to bring out the elements of the film that feel new. Watching The Ring, he said he was suprised to see such a racially hetereogenous vision of 1920s, pre-Windrush London, and impressed by the films’ treatment of sexuality and gender identity. “It reframed how I thought relationships were in the early 20th century,” he said, adding that he would look a little differently on his own grandparents’ courtship from now on! He was confident, that he would be able to “twin the old and the new” in the film, just as he combines jazz and hip-hop in his music. Hip-hop Hitchcock? Bring it on.

Read more about the Genius of Hitchcock season on Silent London here, and on the BFI website here.

The Cinematic Race to the South Pole – competition

The Great White Silence (1924)
The Great White Silence (1924)

If you’ve seen The Great White Silence, Herbert Ponting’s devastating film of RF Scott’s Antarctic expedition, or Frank Hurley’s South, which follows Ernest Shackleton’s voyage through the same freezing waters, you’ll know this is an exciting piece of archive programming. The BFI’s Cinematic Race to the South Pole season features footage of expeditions by Scott, Shackleton and yes, Amundsen too, in three themed packages. You can read more about it here.

Thanks to the touching generosity of the BFI, I’m giving away a pair of tickets to a screening in the season along with a gorgeous poster for The Great White Silence. To enter, all you have to do is send an email. No question this time!

To win a pair of tickets to the BFI Southbank’s season commerating the race to the South Pole PLUS a copy of the BFI poster for the film The Great White Silence, simply email filmcompetitions@bfi.org.uk with Silent in the subject header by 10 March 2012.

Decasia and The Fall of the House of Usher at BFI Southbank, March 2012

Decasia, Bill Morrison’s haunting 2002 tribute to film and its fragility, screens at the BFI Southbank in March, in an expertly matched double-bill with the terrifying, elusive The Fall of the House of Usher (Jean Epstein, 1928). Don’t miss.

The double-bill screens at 8.30pm on Sunday 4 March 2012 and at 6.10pm on Tuesday 6 March. Both screenings are in NFT2. The Fall of the House of Usher will have live piano accompaniment. The Tuesday screening will be introduced by Dominic Power, the head of screen arts at the National Film and Television School. Tickets will be available here.

Charles Dickens on silent film: part two, BFI Southbank, February 2012

Jackie Coogan as Oliver Twist
Jackie Coogan as Oliver Twist

Charles Dickens’s 200th birthday party continues in formidable style with the second part of the BFI’s Dickens on Screen season. Happily, the silents were not confined to the first run of screenings and February brings much to get excited about. First off is the famous 1922 adaptation of Oliver Twist. Frank Lloyd directs, while The Kid star Jackie Coogan plays the young orphan and Lon Chaney contorts his features into a suitably grotesque Fagin. With Coogan’s winsome pluck and Chaney’s gift for playing a villain, this was always going to be a classic Twist. It’s a spirited romp through the novel and a particular treat as this is one of the famous “lost” films of the silent era, which was found and restored in the 1970s, with some input from Coogan himself. To learn more, read Silent Volume’s appreciative review here or watch this clip, featuring one of the novel’s most melodramatic flourishes. Why not do both?

Oliver Twist screens at 6pm on Friday 3 February and at 8.45pm on Wednesday 8 February 2012 at NFT2, BFI Southbank. Both screenings will feature live piano accompaniment. Tickets are available from the BFI website.

The Only Way (1925)
The Only Way (1927)

The final silent Dickens film and the next screening in the season is The Only Way, a lavish and rather free adaptation of The Tale of Two Cities. This is a British production and John Martin Harvey reprises his stage role as Sydney Carton, despite his advancing years. His wife Madge Stuart plays Mimi his maid. Don’t remember Mimi from the novel? That’s cinematic licence for you. The famous director and producer Herbert Wilcox is at the helm and The Only Way was a smash hit, taking more than twice its £24,000 budget at the box office.

The Only Way screens at 3.50pm on Saturday 11 February and 8.40pm on Monday 27 February 2012 at BFI Southbank. Tickets are available from the BFI website.

• Don’t forget that there will be an exhibition to accompany the Dickens on Screen season in the Mezzanine at BFI Southbank from 12 January to 25 March. Also, during February, BFI members can watch The Pickwick Papers, an Anglo-American co-production from 1913, free online. The 15-minute fim stars the comedian John Bunny.

Ensemble Amorpha silent film shows, December 2011

Ensemble Amorpha
Ensemble Amorpha

Ensemble Amorpha are a contemporary chamber music group that puts the emphasis on contemporary. Primarily, they play music by living composers, and in some of their upcoming shows they are championing the art of modern silent film-making as well.

Shorts Amorpha at the BFI Southbank is a programme of contemporary silent films, which will be shown not in a gallery, but on the big screen at NFT1. Ensemble Amorpha will play music by Dominic Murcott, Luke Styles, Christopher Mayo, Marc Yeats, Damon Lee, Alwyn Thomas Westbrooke, Philippe Kocher, Naomi Pinnock, Phil Vennables and Yoav Pasovsky to accompany films by Pavla Sceranková, Jan Pfeiffer, Sebastian Schmidt, Daniel Bisig, Gabriela Lang, Damon Lee, Nicolas Wiese and Zoe Payne. The music will be played on strings, woodwind, percussion and electronically too. This promises to be a fascinating and experimental evening – plenty here to inspire musicians and film-makers alike.

Shorts Amorpha screens at BFI Southbank on 1 December at 8.45pm. Tickets are available here, on the BFI website.

Later in the month, at Kings Place, the ensemble are putting on programme called Modern Silence. This will include scores for modern silent films by Alwyn Westbrooke and Damon Lee, as well as Luke Styles’s beautiful music for Rene Clair’s Entr’acte (1924). It’s great to see Kings Place continuing to support silent film, both here and with its Not So Silent Movies shows.

Modern Silence will be performed in Hall Two of Kings Place on 12 December at 8pm. Tickets start at £9.50 and are available here on the Kings Place website.

To find out more about Ensemble Amorpha and to listen to samples of their performances, visit their website.

Silent Hitchcock films at the London 2012 Festival

The Pleasure Garden (1925)
The Pleasure Garden (1925)

The 2012 Olympics are not just about sport. The London 2012 Festival will bring hundreds of cultural events to the capital as well. Music, dance, art and literature all get a look-in, but of course, the strand that really catches my eye is The Genius of Hitchcock. The sound films of Leytonstone’s favourite son will be shown at a complete retrospective at the BFI in August, September and October 2012. Before that, and more importantly, Hitchcock’s wonderful silent films – all nine that survive – are in the process of being restored by the BFI, and will be screened across London next summer, with live, specially commissioned scores. These special events will be must-sees for silent film fans, so I’ll be keeping you updated as the tickets go on sale.

The Lodger (1927)
The Lodger (1927)

The exciting news for readers outside London is that The Lodger will also receive a theatrical release – and the performances of The Ring and Champagne will be streamed live online too.

The first screenings have now been announced, and you can even start booking tickets. I will update this post as more details and dates are announced

  • 28 & 29 June 2012: Hitchcock’s first film, The Pleasure Garden (1925) will be shown in the gorgeous, and apt, Wilton’s Music Hall in Limehouse, with a score written by rising star composer Daniel Patrick Cohen and performed by the Royal Academy of Music’s Manson Ensemble. Tickets cost £21.50 and you can book them on the BFI website.
  • 6 July 2012: The wonderful silent version of Blackmail will be accompanied by Neil Brand’s magnificent orchestral score when it screens at one of its most celebrated locations – the British Museum. Tickets here.
  • 13 July 2012: The Ring (1927) is a love triangle with rival boxers trying to win the heart of the same woman, and is one of the most recognisably Hitchcockian of his silents. It is screened here at the magnificent Hackney Empire in East London, with a jazz score by Soweto Kinch, performed by a five-piece band. Tickets start at £15 and you can buy them here.
  • 21 July 2012: Probably Hitchcock’s most famous silent film, and his first suspense thriller, The Lodger (1926) will be shown at the Barbican Concert Hall. The score, composed by Nitin Sawhney, will be performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. Tickets are on sale now.
Watch this space, Hitchcock fans. And don’t forget, you can still donate to support the restoration of Hitchcock’s silent films:

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.

The First Born: London Film Festival review

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

When you’re watching a silent film and the whole audience gasps in horror and surprise at the same time, you know it’s not a museum piece you’re looking at. The First Born was released in 1928, just as Britain was first being seduced by those new-fangled “talkies”, but it has more than enough tricks up its sleeve to tempt moviegoers in any decade.

Chosen as this year’s Archive Gala for the London Film Festival, The First Born is a disarmingly frank story of sex and love among the aristo set, shot with precocious flair. Actor Miles Mander directs, and also plays the lead: a scoundrel of a baronet named Hugo Boycott, whose marriage is inevitably in crisis. Hugo and Maddie’s relationship runs hot and cold. One day they’re falling into each other’s arms, the next they’re having one of their rows – and real shoe-flinging, bag-packing, door-slamming humdingers they are too. Maddie (Madeleine Carroll) blames the arguments on her own jealousy, which is to say her pain at Hugo’s philandering. But there is another reason for the couple’s unhappiness: their childlessness. Whether this is anything more than the baronet’s old-fashioned desire for an heir is open to question, but Maddie certainly believes a baby will solve her marital woes. Hugo’s behaviour is fairly abominable at every turn, but his wife’s decision to deceive him in order to save their marriage provides the drama’s fatal twist.

And this is a complex story, with the truth about the Boycotts’ marriage and the outward appearance of it constantly at odds – a conflict that comes to the fore horribly when Hugo runs for parliament and a distraught Maddie is forced to stump for him at a public meeting. We can’t hear what Maddie is saying, and there are no intertitles to help us, just her pained expression, and superimposed cheers of encouragement from the crowd: “Good old missus!” They think she’s a sweetheart, Hugo thinks she’s a monster. Fans of The Graduate (1967) will note the speed with which their faces fall in the cab journey home. It’s delicately done, but it’s a heartbreaking moment.

The First Born is a wonderfully well directed film, in fact, eliciting a tremendous, anguished central performance from Carroll, and a sizzling one from her irresistibly dashing “noble admirer”, David (John Loder). Both actors, like Mander himself, went on to further success – Carroll most notably in The 39 Steps (1935) and The Secret Agent (1936), and Loder in another Hitchcock film, Sabotage (1936). Mander’s only venal directorial sin is vanity: he gives himself far too many lip-curling closeups, and risks turning Boycott into a pantomime villain. Mander’s performance is enjoyable, but it is not a tenth as sophisticated as his co-star’s. His virtue on the other hand, is his audacious use of camera movement, dissolves and overhead angles to disorient and excite the narrative. There’s one prowling handheld tracking shot that plunges the audience straight into the psyche of a suspicious husband, running his hands over ruffled bedsheets. Elsewhere, a sequence of dissolving closeups of Carroll and her manicurist Phoebe shows the transferral of one idea between two minds: a folie à deux in the making. We’re in the latter stages of the silent era here – Mander had made short sound films before but this was his debut feature – and The First Born is the work of a confident director on top of his material and with creativity to spare.

That’s not to say that he was not ably assisted. The screenplay for The First Born was co-written by Alma Reville, a woman with many years’ experience in the film business, but yes, better known to us now as the wife of Alfred Hitchcock. It’s tempting to credit her with some of the film’s sophisticated touches – from its elegant structure, to its sparse use of intertitles and the sensitive portrayal of Maddie as far more than just a wronged wife. The First Born is never afraid of emotional complexity, from the ambiguities of Maddie’s friendship with David, and her betrayal by a close friend, to a brisk montage of painfully contradictory telegrams.

The quality of the film should stand for itself, and those who have seen it at festivals over the years have long championed The First Born as a lost British classic. Critics at the time of its release thought it was a bit “sordid”, but they said pretty much the same thing about Pandora’s Box (1929), so there’s no reason that a film this accomplished, and entertaining, shouldn’t be embraced by a wider audience in the 21st century. And that is why the BFI has showered so much love on it. We see it now in a more complete state than before – frames from a 16mm print found in the George Eastman House in New York have been spliced in where there were gaps in the BFI’s 35mm copy, reinstating an expression here, an exit there, to make the film a more smoothly satisfying experience. Cue marks, scratches and holes have been erased and the original, delicate tints restored. The film also now benefits from a fresh score – composed by Stephen Horne and performed live at the gala screening. It’s melodic, and elegant, but fantastically adept at ramping up the tension in the crucial moments. There’s a haunting theme, played on the oboe and underscored by percussion and piano, that seems to appear when Hugo’s own jealousy gets out of control; there’s a humorous use of the accordion when Maddie’s friend Nina raises a sardonic eyebrow; and a thunderous combination of piano keys and strings during an unexpected violent catastrophe.

The exquisite new score is the finishing touch in the rebirth of The First Born – a fascinating film, ripe for rediscovery.

Wonderful London: London Film Festival review

Cosmopolitan London (1924)
Cosmopolitan London (1924)

This review is a guest post for Silent London by Ewan Munro of the Pubology blog.

Among the many wonderful restorations in the Treasures from the Archives strand at the London Film Festival this year was a programme of silent short films, nine- to 12-minute long travelogues from a series made in the early 1920s by film producer Harry B Parkinson, and entitled Wonderful London. The BFI National Archive chose six of these films to restore and present at what turned out to be a packed-out screening (attributed by silent film curator Bryony Dixon to a resurgence of interest in historic London).

The subject of these quirky little screen-fillers is, of course, London. And while there are certainly occasional shots of the tourist London we’re all familiar with, perhaps more interesting is the time spent looking around the corners, into the back streets and out into the suburbs of the working-class city. Street markets and grimy housing, docks, shops, scenes of daily life, and even a few pubs all show up in these films. The East, the North, the West End and the City all show up, though the South is represented by only a few shots of streets around the site of the Globe.

There’s Petticoat Lane market (still bustling today) and Club Row market (no longer), where live animals of all kinds are traded under the still-familiar railway arches down by Sclater Street (arches which now hold the lines leading to Shoreditch High Street station). There are grand West End theatres alongside street performers and Punch & Judy shows. There’s Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub, just off Fleet Street, one of the few views that hasn’t changed at all, even as we briefly spot the drays of long-defunct brewers such as Truman Hanbury Buxton and Mann Crossman’s. There are the flower sellers usually at work underneath Eros on Piccadilly Circus, but moved from this attractive spot due to London Underground construction works (little change there, though back then it was for the station’s grand booking hall). There are the canals around Mile End, Islington and Hackney (with a brief cutaway to show Broadway Market), mules working along their towpaths to pull the barges. This is just one example of perhaps the greatest change since these films were made: the extent to which the London shown is a city of industry and manufacturing, where the canals are still busy with freight and the docklands still bustling with ships.

Flowers of London (1924)
Flowers of London (1924)

This “unofficial” view of London is matched by the narration, with the intertitles frequently offering humorous asides and boundless sarcasm, especially in the Barging Through London film (any given intertitle card makes reference to dizzying speeds, as the film cuts to, say, a barge moving languorously under a bridge alongside Regent’s Park, while befrocked and behatted tourists on the way to London Zoo stop to watch). A personal favourite is the introduction of Southwark Bridge, newly constructed at a cost of £3 million and “sometimes it gets VERY busy”, cutting to show a few hackney carriages trundling across while a handful of people walk along the outside.

The titles remain fairly light-hearted, but this only exposes some of the period’s unpleasant attitudes, communicated with an at times disarming frankness, especially in the Cosmopolitan London short. In what must be a staged scene, the film’s “white trash” are swiftly kicked out of a “negro club” on Whitcomb Street, while the film is unsparing in its negative judgment on the poverty and unfriendliness of the Chinese population of Limehouse. When the film returns pointedly to scenes on Horse Guards Parade, it expresses greater relief at their comforting Englishness than perhaps the modern audience can muster. Nevertheless, the scenes of Limehouse provide interest when compared to similar ones staged for the roughly contemporaneous Piccadilly (1929).

Through it all, piano accompaniment is sensitively provided by Neil Brand, an accomplished master of the art. The tone is largely jaunty as befits the films, though he sensibly opts for a quieter register at key points towards the end of the Cosmopolitan London short, and a briefly uncomfortable silence within the auditorium at one point further brings into focus the discomfort engendered by the film itself (not to mention highlighting the very rarity of silence at screenings of silent films).

The restoration has been handled magnificently, and Scott Starck from the restoration team speaks before the film, rattling off a quick account of the process, along with dizzying statistics on the number of frames that needed repair. Colour tinting has been retained as per the original films, and this is used to good effect to depict the passing of the day in London’s Sunday, or the colours of the flowers in Flowers of London. One can only hope that the success of this screening leads to further such archival restorations and that the Wonderful London series may one day be available in its entirety.

Ewan Munro