Tag Archives: Documentary

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

The Great White Silence at the BFI and nationwide in 2011

• This post was updated on 9 May 2011

An eerie filmed record of Captain Scott’s tragic journey to the South Pole, The Great White Silence (Herbert Ponting, 1924) was rightly acclaimed as a highlight of last year’s London Film Festival. The print had been restored to great effect: allowing us to see the vivid tints of the original film, and the Archive Gala screening featured a performance of Simon Fisher Turner’s intriguing minimalist score, which incorporated the Elysian Quartet, “found sounds”, and a haunting vocal from Alexander L’Estrange.

His part-improvised score includes some pre-recorded elements and Simon Fisher Turner has gone to great lengths to include relevant ‘found sounds’. The first was a gift from a friend, Chris Watson, who made a recording of the ambient silence in Scott’s cabin in the Antarctic. Fisher Turner has also recorded the striking of the Terra Nova ship’s bell at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. He has even managed to track down the expedition’s original gramophone to play some of the records which were played by members of the expedition.

If you have satellite TV, you may have recently caught the documentary on the small screen, but if you missed it, never fear, you have plenty of chances to catch it on the big screen in May and June.

First off, there will a special screening of The Great White Silence, with a recorded version of the score, at BFI Southbank on 18 May 2011, followed by a panel discussion led by Francine Stock, which will take the scoring of silent films as its subject – participants include Fisher Turner, sound recordist Chris Watson, plus Bryony Dixon and Kieron Webb from the BFI. The following weekend, there will be screenings nationwide of the film.

You want more? The Great White Silence will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on 20 June.

The Great White Silence screens at NFT1 on 18 May at 6.20pm. The panel discussion will follow at 8.30pm. Tickets cost £13, or £9.75 for concessions and £1.50 less for members. They will be available from the BFI website.

The Great White Silence screens in the Studio at BFI Southbank several times throughout May and June 2011. The film will also screen at the Curzon Mayfair, Curzon Richmond and HMV Curzon Wimbledon, and at cinemas across the country including Broadway Nottingham, Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, Phoenix Oxford and Chapter Cardiff.

On Friday 20 May at 11am Bryony Dixon, BFI silent film curator, will give a talk entitled Films of the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration – The Restoration of The Great White Silence in NFT3. Tickets are free for over-60s, and usual matinee prices for everyone else.

At the Curzon Mayfair on Saturday 21 May at 4pm, and Curzon Richmond on Sunday 22 May at 3.30pm, Ian Haydn Smith will host an illustrated talk called The Great White Silence and Cinema’s Exploration of the World. Tickets are £12.50 or £9.50 for members at the Mayfair cinema and £11.50 or £9.50 for members at the Richmond branch. You can buy tickets here, on the Curzon website.

The Phoenix: A Century of Cinema

The Phoenix Cinema
The Phoenix, when it was the East Finchley Picturedrome

I thought you might enjoy this elegant documentary about the history of The Phoenix cinema in East Finchley. It’s a charming film, tracing the cinema from its earliest days in the 1910s and through its several reincarnations, crises and successes. You might remember that the cinema celebrated its silent era origins with a programme of Paul and Acres shorts last November. What this films reminds us, ultimately, is just how crucial independent cinemas such as the Phoenix are to the cultural life of the city, and to individual film lovers. You never forget where you first saw your favourite film, after all.

The film was made by On Par Productions and features a soundtrack by The Last Dinosaur.

Our Daily Bread with live score at the Roundhouse, 19 December

A still from Our Daily Bread
A still from Our Daily Bread

Not strictly a silent, this one, but we can’t help but feel it would be of interest to readers of this blog. On 19 December, one-man band Pevin Kinel will be performing a live score to the factory farming documentary Our Daily Bread at the Roundhouse in Camden.
Continue reading Our Daily Bread with live score at the Roundhouse, 19 December