The Mail on Sunday ran a news story about Charlie Chaplin last weekend. I missed it at the time, but the story came to my attention when it was featured on Have I Got News For You (for non-Brits, that’s a satirical news quiz on the BBC). Panellist Paul Merton, who knows a thing or two about Chaplin, pulled quite a face when he heard it. You may too, when you read on.
The story, written by David Wigg, who seems to be an occasional correspondent for the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, mostly on showbiz stories, is about a set of correspondence from 1912. The papers were discovered in the archive of the Grand Order of Water Rats, and concern one of the society’s most famous members, Charlie Chaplin.
The story goes, and please put down your tea before continuing, that Charlie Austin of the Water Rats, well-connected in London theatre circles, had recommended Chaplin to the Universal film studio in America. The executives there wanted to replace Buster Keaton, as he had become far too demanding. A reply from Universal voices several concerns about Austin’s suggestion of Chaplin as a potential film star. He would, the letter says, have to change his appearance, his act and his name. The year, I remind you, is 1912.
The studio wrote: ‘The moustache must go and Chaplin will have to change name. Too easily confused with another comic Charlie Chase. Also Chaplin sounds Jewish.’
The memo added: ‘Please send in new ideas and new name in case tests are successful. Also, do not allow Chaplin to walk comically. This may look alright on English Music Hall stages but for mass audience we must try to avoid offending people who are bow- legged or cripples. DO NOT let him over-act. Try other hats and caps, possibly even beret.’
Hold up. Yes, I know.
In a further letter, Austin says that Chaplin “strongly objects” to changing his makeup and style (as if he has discussed the offer with the actor). Undeterred, Universal pays for Chaplin to travel to the US for a screen test in January 1913, but finds him to be unsuitable for screen work even though he apparently changed his “act” for the occasion:
Universal’s verdict was scathing: ‘Test unsatisfactory. Very bland style, no personality and too short. Please keep looking for comics. Keaton becoming impossible.’
It’s a classic story of the star who got away, like Dick Rowe turning down the Beatles, or that possibly apocryphal MGM screen test for Fred Astaire, which summarised: “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.” It also paints an unattractive picture of Hollywood types as both absurdly politically correct (concerns about mocking “cripples”) and either anti-Semitic or at least worried about pandering to that prejudice. It’s fun to look back with hindsight at fools in days gone by who couldn’t appreciate the talent that is clear to us now.
But if you have any knowledge of the facts of Chaplin’s life or of early Hollywood, this story is pretty much bilge from beginning to end – with just a smear of truth to make it believable. It’s almost impossible to know where to start with this nonsense. But let’s begin with this:
Make more noise! More than a silent film? More noise than an Edwardian lady? No, more noise than the patriarchy.
Make More Noise! is the title of boisterous new compilation from the BFI, an anthology of films related to the British campaign for women’s suffrage. It contains newsreels of protests and personal appearances by the leaders of the movement, as well as short fiction and actuality films that reveal the changing role of women in British society. In the second category, you’ll spot Tilly films, and footage of women working in munitions factories and field hospitals. It’s a fascinating mix, beautifully programmed by Bryony Dixon and Margaret Deriaz and superbly scored by Lillian Henley.
This anthology pretty much had me at hello – the combination of early cinema and feminism is right up my street. But I’d like to think that Make More Noise! holds an appeal for people who aren’t pre-sold on the content that way. If you enjoyed Sarah Gavin’s very moving Suffragette, this programme gives you a more complete picture of the world of the characters in that movie – these are the films they would have seen at the cinema, the ideas they would have discussed at the dinner table, and just possibly, a glimpse of their future.
Attention amateur historians and nostalgic souls. The BFI has launched its Britain on Film project on the BFIPlayer, comprising around 2,5000 pieces of archive footage. It’s an incredibly easy way to lose an entire afternoon, or more of your life. But fascinating too. Simply type in a location, a decade or a subject, and the BFIplayer will throw some digitised (and contextualised) film right back at you.
So what of “Silent London”? At this link, you can find all the footage labelled “London” from 1890-1930 in the Britain on Film archive. That comes to 232 films, ranging in length from a few seconds up, but still more than a mouthful, even for someone as greedy as me.
But I did have a poke around, and I do already have a few favourites. Here are ten to try:
When you become a silent movie blogger no one tells you that you will need a hard hat. Nor that you will occasionally be handed a free glass of fizz. But those of those things happened on Wednesday afternoon when I travelled “up west” to the University of Westminster to see the venue where the first public motion picture screening in the UK took place.
On 21 February, 1896, the Lumière Brothers demonstrated their cinematograph to a paying public (admission: one shilling) in the theatre of the Polytechnic Institution on Regent Street in London. The theatre had been used for lots of things before the Lumières arrived, including very popular magic lantern shows. Subsequently, it was made into a bona fide cinema, in use until 1980. And the Polytechnic changed too, eventually becoming the University of Westminster, but notably in 1970, as the Polytechnic of Central London, it was one of the first institutions to offer an undergraduate degree in Film Studies.
As for the Lumière brothers and their cinematograph, that is another story …
Now, the University of Westminster is restoring the theatre to some of its former glories: reinstating and repairing the 1926 art deco cinema fittings, and the organ, which was a later addition. There will also be a cafe-bar in the foyer, the capacity to project DCPs as well as film (should that be the other way around?) and all manner of schools programmes and tie-ins with neighbouring bodies.
Though it was built by the grandest American film corporation, Famous Players-Lasky, no contemporary report of the film studio on the Regent’s Canal ever confused Shoreditch with Southern California. All were in agreement over its incongruous location, noting the contrast of imported glamour and native poverty – unscrubbed children, the smell of fried fish. There was less agreement, however, on what to call it, at least in the 1920s: sometimes “the Lasky studios”, sometimes “Islington” (the local telephone exchange was Clerkenwell; Hoxton is also arguable), often “Poole Street”. “Gainsborough” seems to have stuck only later, probably because of the famous Gainsborough melodramas, made towards the end of the studio’s life in the 1940s. Uncertain nomenclature notwithstanding, Gary Chapman is right to describe his subject as “a microcosm of the evolution of the British film industry during the silent era”.
FP-L established itself in what had been a power station soon after the Great War, apparently in order to exploit European locations and West End playwrights, and sent over some of its most talented staff; but the first films to emerge from N1 were poorly received, and by the time the reviews began to improve the plug had been pulled. Most of the Americans departed by the middle of 1922. They left behind the best-equipped studio in Britain – early difficulties with the London fog having been overcome – but its survival as a rental facility was not guaranteed. The practices of “blind” and “block” booking – mastered by Famous Players-Lasky itself – made it very difficult for British filmmakers to get a look-in, even in British cinemas, and production was in the middle of a five-year slump. As Chapman shows, the producers who took on the Islington studio in 1922–3 were the bravest of a new breed.
If you’re a Silent London reader, the chances are that you are already aware of the fantastic London Filmland blog, written by Chris O’Rourke. If not, there is still time to rectify that! O’Rourke researches cinemagoing in the capital in the silent era, specifically the 1910s and 20s. He publishes some fascinating snippets of what he has uncovered on the site, but I wanted to share this post with you in particular.
As part of the UCL Festival of the Arts this summer, O’Rourke led a walking tour of silent cinema venues around London and this video shows some of the locations he visited. There’s far more information on the original London Filmland post, of course, including a map of the tour. For those of us who regularly traipse along these same streets to see silent classics on the big screen, a trip to London Filmland shows us how it used to be done!
This is a guest post for Silent London by Jo Pugh, based on hitherto unpublished information about the military record of British film director Walter Summers.
“I did fairly well in the war – not that it would interest you very much.” – Walter Summers, interviewed by Garth Pedler in 1972
In 1924, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer went to town on the international distribution of the British war film Mons, from the British director Walter Summers. Chronicling the 1914 defeat of the British Expeditionary Force in France (but a defeat as great as any victory – to paraphrase a classic Summers intertitle) Mons was promoted alongside Ben-Hur and its director “Captain Walter Summers, D.S.O., M.C.” praised for his wartime experience. One newspaper went further, asserting that Mons had “a genuineness and a reality that could only have been achieved by a director who had actually lived and fought during the immortal retreat.”
History written by the victors is one thing, but history written by movie studio advertising executives may not meet the highest standards of evidence: Walter Summers did not fight at Mons, Walter Summers was not a Captain in the Great War, Walter Summers was not the recipient of a DSO. But the truth is not any less interesting. Walter Summers was a highly decorated war veteran but the precise details of his early life and military career have become a little mangled through a combination of hazy memory and the application of a bit of stardust. Surviving records allow us access to a little understood side of Summers and seem to place his film career in a slightly different light.
Walter George Thomas Summers was born on 2 September 1892 in the West Derby district of Liverpool. This date has become confused, probably because Summers seems so confused about it himself, writing conflicting ages on just about every official form going. His mother and father were both actors, his father (also Walter) a member of one of D’Oyly Carte’s touring companies who had a close association with Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre. He died when Summers was quite young, leaving his mother, Mary Ann, to bring up Walter and his three sisters, Mary, Beatrice and Irene in Liverpool. In the 1911 census, Walter gives his occupation as “Theatrical Property Maker” – his association with the theatre began very early. On his application to become an officer, Arthur Lawrence, manager of the Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool, testifies as to Walter’s good character for the period 1903-6, in other words from the age of about 11 to 14. In their haste to join up in 1914, many young men lied about their age. Summers was a more seasoned 22 (though, characteristically, he wrote 21 on his form) and unlike many of his compatriots was not contemplating leaving England for the first time: he had already travelled to Australia and South Africa with Thomas Quinlan’s opera company, prior to his first film work with London Film Productions. This latter role probably culminated in work on George Loane Tucker’s version of The Prisoner of Zenda, in which a certain amount of armed European conflict is treated with all the seriousness of a works outing.
London Film’s studio was a former skating rink at St Margaret’s, just over Richmond Bridge, which explains why Summers, the Liverpool boy, joined the army at Kingston. He joined up in October 1914, less than two months after the defeat at Mons. In retrospect, MGM’s claim that he fought at the battle is not very plausible: only members of the British Expeditionary Force, regular soldiers who had joined up before the war started, fought at Mons. Summers was a member of Kitchener’s volunteer army and would have been among the first significant wave of recruits to reach France. Even so, he didn’t leave England until the autumn of 1915, almost exactly a year after he had joined up. Joining as a private, Summers quite quickly rose to the rank of Sergeant in the 9th battalion of the East Surrey Regiment. This battalion is most closely associated with the playwright RC Sherriff, who used his experiences serving within it as the basis for his most famous play Journey’s End, subsequently directed on stage and then in 1930 on screen by James Whale, who had himself served in the Worcestershire Regiment. Summers and Sherriff knew each other but seemingly as comrades, not friends. Summers arrived in France a year before Sherriff and shortly after the battalion had suffered appalling losses at the battle of Loos. Subsequently, the 9th East Surrey fought at Ypres and the Somme. At the latter in July 1916, Summers was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his service at the Battle of Delville Wood. “A nightmare that men will dream again,” wrote the journalist Philip Gibbs, of the month-long conflict over the small piece of woodland believed to offer some tactical advantage. By the end of it, thousands had been killed and barely a tree was left standing.
Summers won his Military Medal for leading a fighting squad of eight men from the battalion in a risky daylight raid on 25 January 1917 near Hulluch, in the Pas de Calais. One of six such squads, with orders to identify the unit opposite, “inflict losses” and obtain a sample of German bread, the small force ran across no man’s land under the cover of somewhat tardy smoke bombs and a smattering of “wild and erratic” machine gun fire. With the element of surprise, the British killed a number of Germans (Summers shot at least one) before meeting “hostile resistance”. Summers’ group were among the last to withdraw from the German trenches. The force returned with three prisoners and the bread sample. By its own account it had suffered seven casualties and inflicted around 21. German records in contrast put their losses at eight. Summers was personally commended for “the determined and fearless leading of his fighting squad”. Reading the description of the attack in the unit’s war diary, it is impossible not to be reminded of the raid depicted in Journey’s End. This is because it was indeed Sherriff’s inspiration for the attack that preoccupies his characters in the second half of the play.
On 13 December this year, a more permanent memorial will be unveiled, a bona fide Westminster Council blue plaque at No 27 Cecil Court, to mark the street’s importance to the British film industry. And to celebrate the plaque, there will be an afternoon of festivities. First, at 2.30pm, a screening of early films at No 5, with piano accompaniment by John Sweeney, then Christmas carols and refreshments at 4.45pm. Later in the evening, Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy will be signing books in Goldsboro Books at No 23.
This blogpost has lots more information about the street, including an audio interview with two Cecil Court shopkeepers Etan Ilfeld and Tim Bryars.
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.
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.
This is a guest post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London.
Welcome back for another edition of Charlie’s London. This week I am going to be talking about my debut appearance on the Silent London Podcast, as well as my recent trip to the thoroughly mindblowing Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, Italy
Being a Chaplin fan you are never short of on-screen comedy capers to keep you entertained, but when someone tells you you can visit the Charlie Chaplin Archive in Bologna, Italy should you be in the area, well you don’t really have to think twice. My partner Kieran and I took a 6am flight to Bologna so that I could visit the archive, but also so we could enjoy the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival too.
At the Cineteca in Bologna we registered for the archive and the festival. All around us everyone complained about the heat, but being half Turkish I didn’t really mind. No sooner had we sat down for a coffee, my phone began to ping, it was Jenny, a fellow festival-goer who had not only made the journey to Bologna but was also staying in the same hotel as us. Pretty soon we were all together, along with Mark, another friend and great supporter of Bristol Silents looking over the festival plan.
Initially I began to look over the schedule from Wednesday to Friday, because I was due to be in the archives Monday and Tuesday, but this turned out this was a pointless exercise. In the end, I was in the archive until Friday morning and in total saw only five films at the festival. The film that left the biggest impression on me was the new restoration of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Mark had told me many times before that it was a film I would enjoy, not only because I have a soft spot for Technicolor but because I have spent a lot of time researching the first and second world wars. He wasn’t wrong! It was a feast of restored beauty, history and irony.
My biggest adventure came on Monday when I finally got to visit the Chaplin archives. Everything has been digitised to make viewing incredibly easy. The staff are so helpful and friendly, even with the busy festival under way in the grounds. Before I knew it I was engrossed, flicking through pages and pages of useful and exciting documents all relevant to a massive piece of research I am undertaking. Kate Guyonvarch, Kevin Brownlow and of course David Robinson all were there to give me a helping hand: their support was priceless. Imagine, as I have done, having read someone’s work since you were 11 years old, only to find them standing behind you in an archive and clarifying a sentence in one of their books that you want to quote in your research! That what David Robinson did, and he refreshed my memory on something I had a mental block on. After many cups of lovely Italian coffee and long chats I had more than 40 pages to take back to England: the tip of the iceberg had been scratched.
Bologna is a long way from South London! Charlie’s London had very much gone continental. Here is where my biggest conundrum lay – you can’t just take a bus to these archives. I knew I had so much I wanted to look at, but I was meant to be at a film festival, what was a girl to do? Luckily enough I have a very supportive partner who smiled and told me to book more time in the archives. So, what started as two days ended up being the whole week, and it was worth it! I discovered so much more about my hero.
This is a guest post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London.
Where can I start? First I want to talk to you about an exciting Charlie’s London adventure I am having in the next two weeks! From the 23rd to 30th June 2012 Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, Italy will be showing some amazing silent film gems including a night of Chaplin’s Mutual films accompanied by new scores by Neil Brand, written especially for the festival. And I will be there! I squealed like a child after too much sweet consumption when I heard this, I can assure you.
For me this trip will be a very personal and important journey, one that I hope will enrich my knowledge of Chaplin. I will have the fantastic opportunity of visiting the Chaplin Archives there, a first for me and a very daunting and happy prospect too. Hopefully while I am there I can find some items of interest for all you lovely Charlie’s London readers.
In today’s instalment I want to talk to you about one of Charlie’s homes that I missed out a few episodes back and promised I would return to: No 3 Pownall Terrace, Kennington Road. Why is this house so important to the Chaplin story? It seems to be the one mentioned the most in all his works and definitely the one that seems to have had the most impact on him. Chaplin recounts in My Autobiography walking the “rickety stairs” to the rooms he shared with his mother and Sydney; how the rooms always smelt of slop and wet clothes; how from the windows he could see the glamour of the wealthy music hall acts, their finery and jewels. Their room was less than 12ft square and if poor Hannah’s mental health was failing then the room would suffer too, becoming cluttered with messy cups and plates. Often Chaplin would come home from school, empty the slop bucket and run along to his friend Wally, a son of a friend of his mother from her theatrical days. Wally seems to have made a happy playmate for Charlie while Sydney was away at sea, a period that seems to have added to his mother’s worries.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Ayşe Behçet
Hi everyone, again thank you for taking time out to read this instalment of Charlie’s London. This segment is going to look at the importance of family with the backdrop of the Lambeth Workhouse. Events that transpired behind the walls of that Victorian institution would change Charlie’s life; but it also holds some personal significance for me too.
I thought long and hard about how to start this piece. The answer to my prayers came in the form of my three-year-old godson Jayden, whose mannerisms and speech are so precociously adult-like you can imagine him starring in The Kid. Jayden is my cousin Em’s little boy, I was there when he was born and have never lived more than three doors away from his mother my entire life. Jay waltzed into my bedroom one afternoon after playing in our joint garden (Em’s parents live next door to us) and pointed at my wall.
“What’s that, Ayşe?” He was referring my two framed Chaplin film posters, one of The Kid and one of The Gold Rush. When I explained to him that they were posters from films made by a very funny man called Charlie Chaplin, Jayden was intrigued.
“Can we watch him?” Well! I don’t need an excuse, so I reached for one of my DVDs.
We snuggled up on the sofa to watch The Kid (I choose this one because I felt Jay could really identify with little Jackie Coogan, both cheeky and comical). I was right; Jayden loved it! He giggled and squealed at every comedy moment, until the scene when the Kid is ripped away from the Tramp. It disturbed him, you could see in his little face the terror and torment; the fear that someone could do that to him, and he would no longer see his mother and father. I have to confess, Coogan’s lips moving to the words “I want my daddy” always causes a lump in my throat. Of course, when the Tramp rescues the boy from the moving orphanage van and holds him the way only a father can, I assured Jay that all little boys have their parents in the end, if they are good little boys.
After he had gone home I sat thinking about the film. Jayden’s reaction had hit a nerve with me that I needed to explore.
Chaplin never hid the fact that he cared about human suffering, and it has been suggested the world over that his own poor upbringing left him with emotional scars. If my godson at three felt moved and distressed at he sight of this in a film, what must a young Chaplin have felt? His whole world, mother and Syd ripped apart from him by a system that was designed to protect but ultimately hindered the welfare of the poorer classes and their children. Initially, a frightened seven-year-old Chaplin, his mother Hannah and brother Sydney went of their own accord to the Lambeth workhouse, once known as the Newington Workhouse because of its location (just off Newington Butts in Lambeth). This was largely because of their mother, who struggled to cope with the financial difficulties the family had to endure. Once the family were admitted their clothes were removed and their heads were shaved; can you imagine the humiliation? I have to be honest: I think Hannah’s decision to admit her sons rather than show defeat actually showed love and strength. She admitted to herself they deserved better, what more can a mother who loves her sons do?
Hannah Chaplin’s breakdown and the family’s arrival at Lambeth Workhouse happened in 1896. By June that same year the two boys were removed from their mother, which caused Chaplin much distress, and sent to Central London District School at Hanwell in west London. The journey seemed like a holiday to the young brothers, who travelled to their new home by horse-drawn bakery van. However, when they arrived, they spent time in an “approbation” ward where Chaplin was separated from his beloved brother and placed in the infants section of the school. Chaplin remembered in his Autobiography many years later how the older girls would bathe the younger boys, recounting in particular the cold and wet all-over flannel wash he received from a fourteen-year-old.
If you have read these blogs before you will know I’ve mentioned my great-grandmother Nanny Harris before. Her daughter Esther, my nan’s sister whom I always lovingly referred to as Auntie Etty, was born in a Lambeth workhouse. My nan’s brother, my uncle Fred, was also born in one too. Family story leads us to believe my great-grandmother literally sat upon the steps of the workhouse each time her waters broke and told them to take her in: “Or I am going to have this bleeding baby in the street.”
What’s more, a family mystery could tie us directly to Chaplin – and we didn’t realise it for many years.
There is a famous picture of Chaplin, huddled against a group of small boys, his seven-year-old face looking at the camera with the same cheeky grin that would later make him a worldwide star. Two rows back is a small boy, his jawline is strong and his face familiar, this boy we believe is the brother of my great-grandmother, who, if records are to be believed was in the Lambeth Workhouse the same time as Chaplin. Unfortunately no other photo of him exists as an adult, no photos of my great-grandmother survive either, so it really is a family mystery that will never be solved. The family would again later return to this building but thankfully in better circumstances.
In the 1960s my mother volunteered at the building when it was still a hospital and institution within the borough, she probably stood in the chapel area, famously linked to the Chaplin family, and never realised the connection that her own daughter would later write about. Now, of course, the workhouse has become the Cinema Museum. Recently it was my turn to return there, to meet David Robinson, a hero I have been reading from the age of 11, for a fantastic presentation on Chaplin, my ultimate hero – I came full circle!
This is a guest post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London.
Welcome back for the next instalment of Charlie’s London. In this segment I am looking at the Lambeth Workhouse, an institution that Chaplin spent some time as a youngster. But unlike in the previous chapters of this blog, which focus on either my connections with Charlie or the places our paths have crossed, I want to look at a fantastic event that really brought home to me the importance of keeping his memory alive.
For me, who had grown up in South London, loving Chaplin, knowing this very building was the old Lambeth Workhouse and of course reading Robinson’s biography of Chaplin since I was 11 years old, this event was really the final piece in the jigsaw. I was 10 when I first saw the biopic Chaplin starring Robert Downey Jnr. I had wanted to read more about Chaplin’s life, and so ventured to the local library with my nan, where I uncovered Robinson’s book. I can remember sitting on a stool in the library stool while my nan browsed, my elbows rested on the table while my hands were placed firmly on my jaw line, head transfixed in the book. Everyone always tells me they know when my concentration level is at its highest: I swing my legs like a crazy person or bite my bottom lip as I read. Well, according to my nan this is exactly what I did.
I borrowed the book for two weeks and read the whole thing. I was hooked. For my birthday I asked for my own copy – Mum couldn’t quite understand why, especially as I had not long finished the library copy. I just knew, even at that age that I would want to read it over and over again. Now, 18 years later, it’s still sitting there on my shelf. I have used it for references, quotes, even to solve arguments – it has always been my true companion on my Chaplin journey. Of course, I understand the book very better now as a grown woman than I did as a child, with life comes greater understanding. Yet I will never forget asking my nan what certain words meant and if she had heard of the actors and actresses mentioned in the books. Did she remember any of the events and of course what was it like to actually see a Chaplin film in the cinema? Her stories always fascinated me!
The first time I met David Robinson was at the 2012 Slapstick Festival in Bristol. It was January and traditionally cold and miserable, but the festival cheered up every dreary day. Robinson gave two presentations that weekend, one on Chaplin’s life and one showing shorts and clips from some of his most memorable films. I watched in fascination at the first event, which I remember being 9am on the Saturday morning. It was everything I loved and adored about Chaplin, his London and how it affected him; his controversies and how he reacted to them. Well, after nearly 20 years and quite a bit of courage I finally got to talk to Robinson, and if I ever felt his book was an inspiration I can promise anyone who reads this that the man himself it so much more. Through him I have met some amazing and interesting people: I have continued a journey I started as a small child and I have felt very privileged in many ways. I wouldn’t have half the material I have in my blog without him, that’s for sure.
So this blog post has been rather sentimental, not that the others have really been anything else! And of course I have quoted Robinson and mentioned him before. But it is no exaggeration that you cannot possibly research Chaplin without having his biography constantly on hand. For me, being sat in the very room where Charlie and Sydney Chaplin spent such hard times, listening to David and remembering my roots, I truly felt I had come home. London never leaves you. Getting off the tube at the Elephant and walking down towards Renfrew Road; seeing the Imperial War Museum in the background; remembering the stories I grew up on – all these things remind me of the person I really am. Your home and your birth make up a large part of who you are. My nan always taught me that, and just as Robinson said in his reminiscence that Chaplin had always been in his life because of his father’s love of his films, so has he (and Robinson) very much always been in mine. I truly hope that this will always continue!
Thank you so much for taking time to read this blog spot, normal Chaplinesque service will be resumed in two weeks’ time when we will venture back to the workhouse once more to give some context to our hero and his life in London, as well as its use now as a fantastic gem of a museum.
This is a guest post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London.
Thanks again for returning to Charlie’s London with me. First, I want to wish Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin a very happy 123rd birthday! It really is a coincidence that my latest blogpost falls on the anniversary of his birthday, but hopefully it’s a very good blessing.
Today I’m going to be looking at some of the houses in and around Lambeth that Chaplin lived in, and some of those in the same area that my family have called home, too. Unfortunately I can’t say I have ever lived in a house that he graced, but who knows what may happen in the future?
Family was very important to Chaplin, just as it is to me. He entrusted much of his business to Sydney Chaplin, his half-brother who acted wisely on Charlie’s behalf. He was also incredibly close to his mother Hannah, whom he idolised. Contrary to popular belief, he even had a relationship with his father – when he was around. Chaplin spoke fondly of his first meeting with his father during that period in his autobiography.
“The prospect of living with Father was exciting. I had seen him only twice in my life, on stage, and once passing a house in Kennington Road, as he was coming down the path with a lady. I had paused and watched him, knowing instinctively he was my father. He beckoned me to him and asked my name. Sensing the drama of the situation, I had feigned innocence and said ‘Charlie Chaplin’. Then he glanced knowingly at the lady, felt his pocket and gave me half a crown, and without further ado I ran straight home and told Mother that I had met my father.” (Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography, quote reprinted courtesy of the archives of Roy Export Company Establishment)
Family continued to be important to Chaplin throughout his life, and as you may have realised, I too am very devoted to my own family. The fond memories I have of my own grandmother will never leave me. This is why this personal journey, walking the streets of South London reminiscing, has been a wonderful and emotional experience for me. My grandmother Florence Boakes died on 12 May 1997, and from that time on, it became very painful for me to watch the great silent films, such as Chaplin’s, that we had enjoyed together. If the films were on television or I came across one of our old videos, it was too painful to watch without her there. I had bought her a Chaplin tile on a stand when I went to Hastings for a school trip, and that had to be kept out of sight too.
So what brought me back to Chaplin? In short, my husband-to-be Kieran, and our first date almost 12 years later. We had agreed to meet in a Starbucks in Charing Cross and he was early, which is nothing new. When I arrived I was nervous as we had only met a handful of times before. As he was reading a book, that the topic of conversation we used to break the ice.
“It’s about Buster Keaton, I’m a big silent film fan,” he confessed. I smiled as he showed me the front cover and I handed it back to him.
“I grew up watching Chaplin, I was a Chaplin fan,” I answered. He smiled back.
“Silent films never leave you, you’re still a Chaplin fan.”
Of course, he was right. Our next date involved a bottle of wine, some very good food and The Kid, which at first I was worried about watching. For the first time in years I watched the Tramp and I smiled – then I realised my love affair with Chaplin was very much back on. In January 2011 I found myself watching The Gold Rush with Carl Davis conducting the London Philharmonia orchestra, a wonderful Christmas present from Kieran. And this year he took me to the Slapstick festival – anyone who knows me knows how that has changed my life!
Mum was really happy I’d found Chaplin again, so when I decided to start writing this blog the three of us spent a day wandering around, taking pictures of all the sights involved.
We walked from Waterloo towards the Imperial War Museum and down Lambeth Road, cutting down George Road to find West Square. Children were playing in a communal garden; it really is the most beautiful little piece of London. Mum told me my great uncle Fred had a friend who lived in West Square and they would also play around there as children. In his autobiography, Chaplin remembers the family’s time in West Square as being “moderately comfortable; we lived in three tastefully furnished rooms”. The square itself was built in 1791 and you can see it was considered a plush place to live.
Coming back towards the Imperial War Museum, cutting down Kennington Road, we found ourselves at 287 Kennington Road. This was the home Charlie and Syd shared with their father in 1898. Their mother Hannah was unable to support the family and was institutionalised in Cane Hill Asylum, so Charles Chaplin Senior had care of the two boys instead, along with his very reluctant mistress Louise. What a relief it must have been when their mother finally sent for them. Outside 287 Kennington Road now is a plaque, privately paid for and dedicated to Charlie, reminding passersby that he once lived here. Apparently, the door number is in itself under dispute and even the plaque unfortunately is incorrect. It says that Charlie died in 1978 when he actually died on Christmas Day 1977.
We decided to head back towards the Walworth Road. Getting off the tube at Elephant and Castle we walked to the Walworth Road and of course we couldn’t resist stopping for some pie and mash. I had double of everything and claimed it all as research! Crossing the road we headed down towards Methley Street, another residence for the young Chaplin. No 39 Methley Street was Chaplin’s home between 1898 and 1899. It might look nice now but back then it was a desperate residence with the surrounding area consisting of pickle factories and slaughterhouses.
Looking around this area it is easy to see where Chaplin’s inspirations for films such as The Kid actually came from. To this day, Lambeth is littered with old Victorian streets and houses only recently made fashionable and picturesque. There is a plaque on Methley Street dedicated to Charlie, this time with correct dates, also acknowledging that he was a Water Rat. A Water Rat was a name given to a member of an acting guild who, if in times of hardship could go to the Grand Order of the Water Rats and seek refuge and help. Stan Laurel was a Water Rat too. It is when they were living at Methley Street Hannah began to sew again and for a while they seem to have been quite happy, until her health took a turn for the worse again and she had to send her sewing machine and various garments to the pawnshop to make the rent. Without her sewing machine she could not work, which plunged the little family into further chaos. Charlie would later use a pawnbroker as the backdrop of one of his 1916 films The Pawnshop.
We headed home at this point, and yes, you’ll notice that I haven’t covered the famous Pownall Terrace, the most famous of Charlie’s homes in Lambeth. There is a reason for this, and all will be revealed in a future instalment!
Thanks for reading everyone, and I hope you’ll join me again for next instalment of Charlie’s London in two weeks’ time.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Ayşe Behçet.
Thanks for returning for part three of Charlie’s London; this edition will look at the tradition of the English music hall, the same stages that would form the backdrop to Charlie’s early years. Unfortunately, these such wonderful places do not really exist any more, except for seasonal events or moments of fleeting fashionable curiosity. Happily, those of us who love silent cinema have a greater appreciation for them.
Last week, I looked at the Walworth Road, Charlie’s supposed birthplace. This week looks at the music hall tradition, where both of Chaplin’s parents worked. And I’ll be throwing some family stories into the mix that will hopefully make you all chuckle along the way.
Charles Spencer Chaplin Senior was a butcher’s son who found his niche on the music hall stage with a certain degree of success and credibility. His specialist skills were as a vocalist and actor, talents that no doubt his famous son would inherit. However, Charlie Junior appears to credit his mother Hannah Chaplin as a larger theatrical and musical influence over his life. Hannah Harriet Pedlingham Hill was a smaller star who went by the stage name Lilly Harley. In the late 19th century, the Lambeth and Kennington area was a hotbed for music hall entertainers, including fresh-faced talents looking for their first taste of the stage, just like Hannah and Charles.
Music hall was already a tradition rooted in the working class history of London. Initially established in back rooms of public houses they provided entertainment from songs and plays to recitals and dance troupes. In a future instalment I will be talking about the Coal Hole public house in the Strand as a future place of work for Sydney Chaplin – that pub too had a back room known as a song and supper room. Offering light entertainment and a meal for a set price, song and supper rooms offered a bargain night out for most.
In fact, the very first musical hall was established in little old Lambeth. 143 Westminster Bridge road in fact! The theatre was called the Canterbury and designed and built by Charles Morton in 1852. Charlies seem to feature a lot in this little walk around don’t they? Other, large-scale theatres followed, including the South London Music Hall in 1860, and the London Pavilion, which appeared in 1859 and then gave its name to a grander west end establishment in 1885.
Chaplin’s parents separated when he was just three years old, yet throughout his young life he did occasionally have contact with his father who had turned to drink many years before. In his autobiography Charlie blames the music hall culture for his father’s aggressive alcoholism, which would cut his life short at the age of just 37. Drink and song were always hand-in-hand partners in the music halls. My great grandmother used to enjoy both, and the stories live on in family tales to this day.
My Nanny Harris as we called her was, as my grandmother would say, “a blinking nightmare”. She was born in a workhouse, and had two of her children in one, but she was without a doubt the comic of our family. My grandmother would die every Sunday at the sight of her climbing the steps to her Peabody flat in Southwark Street looking like a scene from Chaplin’s film One AM. My grandmother was an amazingly proud person who took care of her home and who looked after her two girls with all the love in the world and never drank. However, my Nanny Harris would sit at the dinner table slightly inebriated and slyly place her false teeth into the gravy boat, waiting for some poor unsuspecting Sunday guest to tip them innocently on to their food. These scenes almost sound like something out of one of Chaplin’s early Keystone comedies, with a poor woman who is really a man in drag unfortunately being the brunt of all the jokes.
Anyone who has seen the Richard Attenborough film Chaplin or more importantly read David Robinson’s definitive biography will know the sad yet almost heroic story of his mother’s ill-fated performance on an Aldershot stage. She lost her nerve and her voice, and her small son Charlie took fearlessly to the stage in an attempt to calm the crowd. After much cheering and coins being thrown in support (Charlie paused and apologised to the crowd while he picked up the coins, leading to further cheers) he felt the rush of performing, admitting he felt completely at home on stage.
Music seems to be a very big part of the working-class community, it definitely can be found in my mother, grandmother’s and my childhood. Four generations of my family play the piano by ear, me included. I remember sitting with my nan, her on the piano and me sat next to her singing The Band Played On. The conversation would turn to Chaplin more times than not as she sat there, her fingers hitting away at the keys. We’d usually end up singing Champagne Charlie in his honour. Looking back on it now it’s hard to believe it was such a long time ago, life always seemed simpler sat on her knee on a cold winter’s afternoon. We’d watch a Chaplin film, usually followed by a bit of Laurel and Hardy, but we always returned to our favourite, good old Charlie! As Nanny would say: “The London boy done good”.
Thanks for reading, everyone! See you all next time, on 16 April.
Walthamstow is at the very heart of the British film industry, or at least it used to be. Between 1910 and 1930, 400 movies were made in London’s E17 postcode at four studios, including a very grand establishment on Wood Street that was built by the Broad West Film Company in 1914. Nowadays, the suburb is more associated with a 90s boyband than film pioneers, but that doesn’t mean that the locals have turned their back on the area’s cinematic heritage. This summer, for example, the BFI will be showcasing the silent work of a little-known local film-maker called Alfred Hitchcock.
Check out this picture of the Wood Street Studio in the silent era. And do read this interview by Kevin Brownlow with Tilly Day, a woman who worked there as a Continuity Girl at the time. Her memories of a sharing a scene with Kenneth McLaglen, being frightened by the horses on location shoots in Epping Forest and watching Walter West directing silent films are all fascinating.
The Wood Street Pop-up Picture Palace will celebrate the days when Walthamstow was in the movie business in grand style on Friday night, with a special event that includes live music and the chance to dress up like a vintage film star. There’ll also be a screening of a new silent film, which incorporates animation and live action, and was filmed with help from the children of Woodside Primary School. I haven’t seen the movie myself, but the artists involved in the project are Elizabeth Hobbs, who makes animated films, and Emily Tracy, who produces beautiful light sculptures and collaborative art projects.
I popped down to the project’s offices at the new Wood Street Indoor Market on the weekend, but sadly they were closed. However I did spot a few sketches of the old Wood Street Studio that certainly intrigued me. Do get along to the special event on Friday 30 March, if you can. It’s free and promises to be very interesting and a lot of fun.
To read more about the indoor market, and other cultural events in E17, visit the very hip and happening Walthamstow Scene website.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Ayşe Behçet.
Hello again everyone! First, thank you for coming back for part two of my personal guide to Charlie Chaplin’s London. The journey is hopefully going to be interesting and fun with many unknown treasures along the way.
When I was thinking about the best way to write this blog I pondered the structure for quite a while. Should I group places together by theme? Should I piece them together by their visual representations within Chaplin’s films? Finally I realised the best way was the start at the very beginning. Ironically this was never how Chaplin made his movies; he would often think of a scenario and work on the beginning and end at a later time. Yet Chaplin’s background in London helped to set the scene for some of his best visual work.
Charles Spencer Chaplin was born in Lambeth, South London on 16 April 1889, supposedly in Walworth, an area not far from East Street Market. Walworth and Lambeth officially lie within the borough of Southwark. The Walworth Road is a rather long stretch: all the way from Westminster to just beyond Camberwell. Charlie often described open-top tram journeys towards Westminster and even though he referred to his home as Walworth and Lambeth its position just beyond the north of Lambeth was also close to Waterloo. I was born at one end of the Walworth Road, the end closest to London Bridge, but I’m still from Southwark/Lambeth.
Are you confused? I don’t blame you! I believe this is why Charlie always referred to Lambeth as his birthplace – it’s easier! Phonetically, us Londoners are a very strange bunch, immigration had helped create a shift in the dialect over the years and certain words do not spell as they sound, and we also speak rather fast. For instance, if Charlie had commented that he was born in Southwark no doubt a journalist somewhere would have heard “Suffolk”, can you imagine where the myths would have ended up then?
Today the East Street Market still stands on the same site and at the entrance a blue plaque is posted on a wall above a clothes shop to mark the suppose birthplace of Charles Chaplin. In fact, no one really knows if this is true. There has been a lot of speculation about his origins, especially with the recent release of the MI5 file stating no birth certificate exists. Well apart from the fact that this was common in Victorian England. I would like to throw something else into the mix. Has anyone here actually dealt with Southwark Town Hall? I rest my case!
Now, in the most recent edition of his book My Autobiography Chaplin states that he was born in East Lane, Lambeth at 8 o’clock in the evening. Here is another sign his origins show through even when he may not have meant them to! In his introduction, the eminent Chaplin historian and biographer David Robinson says that only south Londoners refer to East Street as East Lane, and I for one can vouch for that. My grandmother always called it this and people living in the area still do to this day.
As a child I frequently visited the Walworth Road, the treat was pie and mash in Arments and Sarsaparilla in Baldwins. In winter the Sarsaparilla was warmed with slices of orange and apple and served from barrels. When Charlie was a boy, Arments was located on the Walworth road itself, but it was relocated in 1914 to its current position just behind it. Baldwins has always been in the same spot; maybe as a child Charlie too drank warm Sarsaparilla there? Not far from where Arments was originally situated is a fishmonger’s, which has been there since the Victorian era. My mother would always buy fish there on a Friday and remembered always buying my grandmother bloaters that she would proceed to smoke. Charlie also fondly recollects his mother buying penny bloaters on a Friday while they lived at 3 Pownall Terrace, Lambeth, most probably at the same shop.
Along this journey I aim to find out as much as I can about not only my film hero but also about myself and my heritage. I have always been a proud South Londoner and knowing I walk in Charlie’s footsteps is an immense honour!
Thank you so much for reading. The next instalment will appear on 2 April.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Greg Ward, author of Blogtanic.
Working on Blogtanic, my Titanic centenary blog – I was looking for stories about chairs on the Titanic, but let’s not go into that – I stumbled across this intriguing snippet of movie history, in the New York Evening World of April 27, 1912.
At this point, it’s still less than two weeks since the Titanic went down. Three theatres in Bayonne, New Jersey, 10 miles from downtown Manhattan, announce that they’re going to show moving pictures of the sinking. Knowing that no such footage exists, the local police chief declares he will only allow them to show genuine images. And so the audiences riot. “Having been led to believe they were to see something sensational [they] uttered loud protests. Seats were torn loose …”
Only in New Jersey did the police take it upon themselves to censor such shows. All over the world, moving picture houses were presenting fake “newsreel” images of the Titanic. Typically they’d include actual film of the Titanic’s Captain Smith, shot the previous year but captioned as though it had been taken on the fatal voyage, cobbled together with close-ups of other liners and scenes of icebergs bobbing in the ocean.
Cinema-goers placed a heavy premium on genuine footage – even though there was none of the disaster itself. In this advert, from Tacoma, Washington, a theatre promises to pay out $5,000 if its pictures aren’t genuine.
Meanwhile, the same week as the New Jersey riots, and in the same state, director Etienne Arnaud had already started shooting the first-ever Titanic feature film, Saved From The Titanic. A mere ten days earlier, 22-year-old bona-fide movie star Dorothy Gibson had escaped on the first lifeboat to leave the sinking ship. Now, working to her own script, she re-enacted her ordeal wearing the self-same clothes, and then segued into a fictional story about finding love with a sailor. Two scenes were even filmed in colour, using the Kinemacolor process, and it was released on 14 May.
By the time the German feature film In Nacht Und Eis was released that August, four months after the tragedy, the public appetite for sensational images seems to have been sated. Trade papers solemnly reported that Titanic films “don’t attract audiences any more”.
Tell that to James Cameron.
Blogtanic.wordpress.com is written by Greg Ward, the author of the new Rough Guide to the Titanic. Read more about the BFI’s film screenings to commemorate the Titanic centenary on Blogtanic here.
Introducing a new series of guest posts by Chaplin expert and south Londoner Ayşe Behçet: a personal journey through Charlie Chaplin’s London.
Firstly, I want to say thank you for taking the time to read my first blog and what I hope will be an interesting journey through some unknown gems connected with one of the geniuses of early cinema, Charlie Chaplin.
My fascination with Chaplin started at a very young age. My grandmother and I would watch his films on a Saturday afternoon and thinking back on it now it was always raining. It was always about three in the afternoon too! With so many other comedians and great silent films circulating, at first I didn’t understand why we mostly watched Chaplin, but soon it all became clear.
My grandmother, my mother and myself were all born just off the Walworth road, so was Charlie. We had meandered around the back streets of Southwark, Camberwell, Lambeth, East Street Market and Kennington, so had Charlie. We had all seen the beautiful buildings and yet the depravity and roughness of the streets, and of course, so had Charlie. Sitting with Nan one day I found all this out, and suddenly I learned more about her through him than I had ever known before. From an early age I felt this immense pride that this hero, icon and pioneer had started life in the same humble beginnings as so many members of my family and he proved that anything was possible.
The images most people associate with Chaplin are the Little Tramp and his glamorous and often debauched escapades in in Hollywood – but I want to look at something more. I want to look at the real Chaplin. The houses, streets and community he knew are all gone, but the signs of his times still linger on in small near-forgotten landmarks scattered across the city. The Three Stags pub where he last saw his father, The Coal Hole Public House, a first steady job for Syd, East Lane and of course 287 Kennington Road, his home while he lived with his father are all still very much there. These buildings still tell tales, as do many other spots in London, and this blog aims to show you all of them, proving that Charlie was always a London boy – despite the glitz of Hollywood.
Hope you enjoy the instalments, the first blog spot will be Monday 19 March and will run fortnightly from that point on. Keep in touch.