Do you remember London Symphony? It’s a project this site has long been excited about. You may even have backed it on Kickstarter, or like me, even appeared in it. The film is directed by Alex Barratt and it’s a sumptuous new city symphony for the capital – an entirely silent movie that swoops around more than 300 locations in London to the tune of a newly composed musical score by James McWilliam. And finally, you’re going to get the chance to see it.
London Symphony will have a ’boutique’ theatrical release, with a screening at the Barbican on 3 September 2017, accompanied by the Orchestra of St Paul’s playing McWilliam’s score live. You can book tickets here.
There will be further UK screenings after the Barbican event, which will be announced shortly, and the film will be distributed internationally by Flicker Alley.
LONDON SYMPHONYis a contemporary take on the ‘city symphony’, a genre of creative non-fiction that flourished in the 1920s and consisted of works that attempted to build poetic portraits of city life. As well as serving as a form of virtual tourism, city symphonies raise important and universal questions about the nature of community life – questions that have become vital within the current political climate.LONDON SYMPHONY’S September release will coincide with the 90th anniversary of Walter Ruttmann’s BERLIN, SYMPHONY OF A GREAT CITY, one of the most important examples of the original city symphonies. Ruttmann was one of the great pioneers of experimental film, and Barrett and McWilliam have worked hard to bring a similar sense of poetic playfulness to LONDON SYMPHONY, while also updating the form for the 21st Century.
The project’s September release will be launched with a special screening at the Barbican Centre, the home of silent cinema in London, where it will be presented with the live premiere of McWilliam’s musical composition, as performed by OSP (the Orchestra of St Paul’s) and their conductor Ben Palmer. Says Palmer: “It’s always a thrill to bring a new piece to life, but this promises to be an unusually interesting collaboration for OSP. We’re very excited to be premiering James McWilliam’s fantastic music forLONDON SYMPHONY, especially at the iconic Barbican Centre”.
The screening will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Barrett, McWilliam, Palmer and London history specialist Mark Rowland, chairman of Footprints of London. It will also mark the opening of the Barbican’s autumn ‘Silent Film and Live Music’ series. Tickets can now be purchased here: https://www.barbican.org.uk/film/event-detail.asp?id=21462.
After this special launch event, LONDON SYMPHONY willtour around a number of carefully selected venues throughout the UK, including conventional cinema spaces and alternative spaces such as a Parish Church and a Buddhist Meditation Centre. “In many ways,” says Barrett, “LONDON SYMPHONY is a community project, and we hope to bring it directly into those communities during our release”.
First things first – you’re all invited to a bank holiday Monday party! Some friends of mine, based in London’s most happening* postcode of E17 will be unveiling a plaque on 1 May 2017 to celebrate a slice of suburban London’s silent movie history. And you should be there!
Walthamstow was home to several movie studios in the silent era – Precision, British & Colonial, Broadwest and I. B. Davidson all had their premises on these streets. Why? Because silent film producers loved to shoot in the suburbs, beyond the “fog zone” of central London, where the air was muggy, and apparently the movie-savvy punters would try to get their faces on camera. But they liked to stay close enough to Theatreland that their actors could get back to work after shooting finished.
So on 1 May, actor Paul McGann (who you may know is a bit of a silent film fan) will be unveiling a special blue plaque to mark the sites of the Precision studios, and he says: “I am proud to be associated with this event to give the deserved recognition to the silent film pioneers of the last century.” There will be more plaques to follow, marking the site of each studio.
This is an extended version of a paper that I gave at the British Silent Film Festival Symposium at King’s College London on 7 April 2017. My book on Pandora’s Box (1929) is forthcoming from BFI Palgrave.
G. W. Pabst’s Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box, 1929) is an adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s Lulu plays, but in many places a very loose one. Those German plays are about thirty years older than the film, a Weimar-era classic that marries traces of Expressionism with the late-1920s sobriety of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement. Pandora’s Box was filmed in Berlin, or at least in a former zeppelin hangar in Staaken, and its American star Louise Brooks identitfied its depiction of divergent sexualities and the sex trade with the city’s glamorous, permissive nightlife. Her evocative description of the city during the shoot, when she was staying at the famous Eden Hotel, begins: “Sex was the business of the town …”
“At the Eden Hotel, where I lived in Berlin, the café bar was lined with the higher-priced trollops. The economy girls walked the street outside. On the corner stood the girls in boots, advertising flagellation. Actors’ agents pimped for the ladies in luxury apartments in the Bavarian Quarter. Race-track touts at the Hoppegarten arranged orgies for groups of sportsmen. The nightclub, Eldorado, displayed an enticing line of homosexuals dressed as women. At the Maly, there was a choice of feminine or collar-and-tie lesbians. Collective lust roared unashamed at the theatre.”[i]
There is only one named location in the film, however, and it is in this place that the fictional narrative bumps into historical circumstance – so in this case, geography carries crucial meaning. The final act of Pandora’s Box the film, just like the final act of Wedekind’s play of the same name, takes place in London – in a slum district most likely in the east of the city. Jack the Ripper walks these streets, and our heroine Lulu, reduced to prostitution, encounters him with fatal consequences. This murder is her dramatic destiny, and to understand the film more fully, which was possibly the first cinema adaptation of the plays to feature London and the Ripper, we need to think about the British capital rather than the German one. To explore this topic I am going to examine three disappointing “misadventures” in London: the visits made by Frank Wedekind, Louise Brooks and the film itself.
So we already know that the Archive Gala will be the Irish-set thriller The Informer. And we already know that it is on the same day as Robin Hood. So that’s your first now-traditional schedule clash.* It’s also something of a shame that the Archive Gala will be at BFi Southbank, not the festival’s specially built 780-seat pop-up cinema in Victoria Embankment Gardens, where all the other galas will be held, although I assume that is to do with finding space for the band. Designers of these new-fangled cinemas always forget the orchestra pit.
However, here’s what the rest of the 60th London Film Festival has got planned for you, silents-wise. Erm, not quite as much as I would have hoped …
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:
Just a quick note to let you know about a season coming up at BFI Southbank, which promises to contain a few silent treasures. London on Film: The Changing Face of London runs from 1 July to 9 October 2015. I’m taken by the idea of a film programme devoted to our favourite city, and hoping that the BFI will make the most of the opportunity to show some great silent dramas, and actuality footage.
Here’s the official blurb:
The BFI present a three month season which celebrates London’s stories through a century of extraordinary film making from archive clips to more modern cinematic adventure. the programme will include over 200 films, from classic features to home movies, shot in London over the last 120 years. For Londoners this season will show the city they know and love, as they may never have known it before.
Already slated are screenings of Anthony Asquith’s Underground and A Night in Victorian and Edwardian London with Bryony Dixon. At the latter event, the BFI’s silent film supremo will introduce archive clips of the capital dated 1881 (!) to 1910. The evening will also include a screening of Joseph Ernst’s captivating short film inspired by Mitchell & Kenyon, Londoners.
UPDATE: Over on Facebook, BFI head curator Robin Baker tells us we can expect films including: “Passmore family films from 1902 (part of London Home Movie Night), The Right to Live (1921), London Old and New (1924), Cosmopolitan London (1924), The Fugitive Futurist (1924), The Marriage of Miss Rose Carmel to Mr Solly Gerschcowit (1925) and Piccadilly (1929)”. Plus, the sound version of High Treason (1929)
Last month, I asked you beautiful people to fill in the Silent London survey – it was a little longer and more involved than usual, but with more free choice options, so thanks all for your time, care and patience.
The results are now in, and I now know a little more about you, your silent movie watching habits and what most impressed and entertained you this year. First I want you to meet the readers. Hello you, this is you:
Where you are
Most of you are in London understandably, around 39%. But the rest of you are more likely to be found in the rest of the world (36%) than the UK (25%) Global reach!
What you watch, how and where
Most of you, 40%, watch silents once or twice a month. Hats off to the seven percent of you who watch ’em more often than once or twice a week! The rest of you more or less evenly were divided between occasional viewers and the impressive group of you sitting down to a silent film once or twice a week.
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.
“In the early days of the cinema, there were several great City Symphonies – for Berlin, Paris, Rotterdam, but never for London. Alex Barrett is going to put that right, and his plans suggest a remarkable picture.” – Kevin Brownlow
A few months back, I promised you the chance to support the making of a new London City Symphony. Now the day has arrived, as the London Symphony team have launched their crowdfunding campaign. They need the help of Silent Londoners to turn their vision into a reality. They’re asking for your financial support, and offering you some chances to be involved in the making of the film too. If you can’t afford to help out yourself, they’d love you to spread the word about the project.
Alex Barrett, the film’s director (and Silent London contributor) explains why he wants to revive the City Symphony style for his new film: “We believe that by looking at the present through recourse to the past, we can learn something new about life today,” he says. “We won’t be parodying the style. We will be true to the spirit of the filmmakers that came before us, and we hope to capture the rhythm, the motion and the experimentation that made their films so wonderful, while simultaneously reimagining the City Symphony for the 21st Century”.
LONDON SYMPHONY is a poetic journey through the city of London, exploring its vast diversity of culture, religion and design via its various modes of transportation. It is both a cultural snapshot and a creative record of London as it stands today. The point is not only to immortalise the city, but also to celebrate its community and diversity.
Alongside making the film, the team will also be creating a new score – an original symphony – written by composer James McWilliam. Says James: “Music plays an important role in silent cinema, and our score will help take viewers on a journey through modern-day London”. The filmmakers plan to record the music with a live orchestra, but also have it performed live at special event screenings of the finished film. LONDON SYMPHONY reunites the team behind the short film HUNGERFORD: SYMPHONY OF A LONDON BRIDGE. A three-minute city symphony in its own right, the short film now serves as a pilot for the team’s intentions with the feature-length LONDON SYMPHONY.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Tony Fletcher, film historian at the Cinema Museum, about director-actor Alf Collins. Some of Collins’ Gaumont films will be shown on 30 August at a special open-air screening on the site of the original studio in Camberwell, with musical accompaniment by Neil Brand.
Alfred Bromhead started the English agency for Gaumont in Britain in 1898. He distributed the films produced by the French arm of the company, which was run by Leon Gaumont, and he also attempted to produce a few films in Britain in 1899. He opened a small outdoor studio on a four-acre cricket field in Loughborough Junction in south-east London. The open-air stage measured 30ft x 15ft However, this venture was short-lived and lasted for only one summer.
In 1902, Bromhead decided to make another attempt at producing films. Alfred Collins came on board as stage manager, and Gaumont continued producing short films over the next seven to eight years. These were often shot in the streets of south-east London – pioneering chase comedies and dramas. Alf Collins had already had some film experience working with Robert Paul, as well as at the British Biograph Company. He had started performing at the Surrey Theatre under George Conquest, later joining the William Terris Company at the Lyceum Theatre. He also performed in Drury Lane Pantos playing The Copper in the Harlequinade. His full-time job between 1902 and 1932 was as the stage manager for the Kate Carney Company, which gave him opportunities to make films when they were appearing in London and the provinces.
During 1904, Bromhead moved studios from Loughborough Junction to a 14-acre site at Freeman’s cricket field, Champion Hill. Thomas Freeman was a local builder and decorator living at 127 Grove Lane. In 1891, he had acquired a site at the rear of Champion Hill House and Oakfield House (roughly where Sainsbury’s superstore and Dulwich Hamlet FC are now situated). Freeman built three wood and iron cricket pavilions which were hired out during the summer to the Champion Hill Cricket and Lawn Tennis Club and during the winter to Dulwich Hamlet FC. These appear in some of the films. Bromhead constructed an open-air stage to film interior shots as no artificial lights were available.
Alfred Hitchcock was born in the far east of London, in Leytonstone. So far east in fact, that it was Essex then, I think. But Hitch is still one of London’s most famous film directors, and it is fitting that one of his most famous films to be both set and filmed in the capital will be screening in his home borough of Waltham Forest this summer. The Barbican are showing the silent version of Blackmail, with Neil Brand’s tremendous score played by the Forest Philharmonic, at the Assembly Hall in Walthamstow, London E17. Be there or find yourself kicking your heels in a West End Lyon’s Corner House, rejected and alone.
Blackmail is a classic crime thriller, laden with Hitchcock’s signature suspense tricks, about a nice young girl (Anny Ondra) who commits a violent act one night in dire circumstances, and has to live with the consequences. Famously shot as both a silent and sound film, Blackmail reveals Hitchcock as a confident director revelling in the themes of murder and guilt that would become his home turf. In classic Hitchcock style, Blackmail also climaxes with a setpiece at a famous landmark – one slightly closer to home than Mount Rushmore. Every film fan in London should see this film, and the best way to see it is like this, with an orchestra and Brand’s wonderful music.
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 beautiful short, Hungerford: Symphony of a London Bridge, is a mini city symphony directed by Alex Barrett in 2010. It has won several awards, appeared at many festivals, and here at Silent London we have long admired it. Barrett, a writer, film-maker and regular Silent London contributor, has a more ambitious project in the works, though: London Symphony, a feature-length silent film about our fair capital. Barrett is a huge admirer of European silent cinema, and the city symphonies of the 1920s avant-garde. He plans to start shooting London Symphony later this year. Here’s how he describes the project:
London Symphony is a poetic journey through the city of London, exploring its vast diversity of culture and religion via its various modes of transportation. It is both a cultural snapshot and a creative record of London as it stands today. The point is not only to immortalise the city, but also to celebrate its community and diversity.
He’ll be asking for your help though – Barrett and his team want to crowdfund their movie, and you’ll be hearing more about that in the summer on these very pages.
Film-maker Simon Smith has made another silent cinema mashup to delight any Londoner. His previous film spliced scenes from Friese-Greene’s The Open Road (1927) with the same London streets filmed in 2013. The new clip embeds scenes from the Wonderful London actuality into vistas of the capital in 2014. The effect is stunning – it’s fascinating to compare London as it is and as it was, and as the 1920s city-dwellers step out of their fuzzy sepia frames they become ghosts haunting our 21st-century streets.
As much as London has been rebuilt and redeveloped over the past century, this clip reminds us that its past has not been erased, just sunk below the surface.
A drink, a snack and a temptingly toothsome silent movie? Perhaps with some live music too? And all in one of the coolest venues in London? I am super-excited to announce that Barts Pathology Museum (as promised, here on these very pages) is hosting a short silent film season in January. The films have been chosen because we think they are fabulous, and because they also have some relation to the research and study that goes on at Barts.
First, a recap. If you don’t know Barts Pathology Museum, that is because it is one of the capital’s best-kept secrets – a stunning Grade II listed 19th-century hall where quirky medical specimens are displayed. The hall has a glass roof, because once upon a time medical students would dissect cadavers there. You can read more about the history of the museum and its many fascinating artefacts on the museum blog, here. Entry to the museum is by appointment only, but the doors are open on selected evenings for a series of lectures and events on subjects ranging from film noir to taxidermy to dentistry. Your humble scribe was there last November, giving an illustrated talk on silent cinema.
The January screenings are supported by Hendrick’s Gin, and entry to each film includes a G&T and some delicious, freshly popped popcorn as well as the film. I will be there to introduce the screenings and the the first movie in the series features live musical accompaniment, too. Here’s what’s coming up in the new year.
The end of the first world war was marked with a variety event, including films, at the hall. Subsequent presentations, running from October to December 1919, celebrated Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia. Antarctic and Everest expeditions were commemorated in benefit screenings. In 1926, the RAF band contributed to a programme including a lecture by the aviator Alan Cobham, the film recording his arrival back in London after his flight to Australia, and an address from the prime minister of Australia: of course, the Imperial Institute was a close neighbour, perhaps influencing the selection of items recorded in the archive. European films screened included Murnau’s 1926 Faust and Turzhansky’s 1926 adaptation of Jules Verne’s Michel Strogoff. A lavish souvenir pamphlet (above) was published to accompany the trade show of Graham Cutts’ 1925 TheBlackguard, an adaptation of Raymond Paton’s novel, featuring a romance between a Russian princess and a violinist. A special attraction at the event was a dance performed by Serge Morosov “of the Imperial Russian School of Ballet”.
The novelist Naomi Mitchison, sister of JBS Haldane (a founding member of the Film Society) recalled in her memoirs the long run of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen in the summer of 1924. The London Symphony Orchestra performed a Wagnerian prelude and a sub-Wagnerian score for the film (commented upon by Picturegoer critics as derivative), composed by G Huppertz.
In addition to orchestral accompaniments, programmes give details of songs and soloists. Furthermore, for Frank Lloyd’s swashbuckler The Sea Hawk (1924), the prow of a ship was installed in front of the screen, while for Southern Love (Herbert Wilcox, 1924), balcony decorations and special effects were provided.
Indeed, a brief survey of Royal Albert Hall programmes confirms a more general observation to be drawn from the trade and general press: in the 1920s, performance and staging manifestly contributed much to the cinematic experience in London and to British audiences’ enjoyment of films, even outside regular cinema venues.
The Artist screens at the Royal Albert Hall on 30 & 31 December 2013, with the London Symphony Orchestra and composer-pianist Ludovic Bource, conducted by Ernst Van Tiel. There is no official dress code for this event but anyone who wishes is encouraged to celebrate the elegance and style of Hollywood’s Golden Age of Glamour, and not just for the New Year’s Eve performances.
This a fledgling idea, but a fantastic one. Amran Vance has sent up a London-silent-film-going group on Meetup.com. The plan is that silent film enthusiasts can register to join the group and then arrange trips to see silents together. It’s sociable, and there should be some chewy post-screening discussions to savour. Over to Amran:
I hope that we can attract real enthusiasts such as those who read the Silent London and Bristol Silents websites.
The point of all this is partly to introduce a social element into silent film-going in London but primarily to encourage interest in silent film, share knowledge and to support the venues that show silent film.
Clever, huh? Outings are already plotted for Sunrise and Blancanieves, so they’re off to a good start.
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.
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.
Birds Eye View is one of Silent London’s favourite film festivals – a celebration of female film-makers with an exceptionally strong and musically adventurous silent cinema strand. Last year, even though the festival was on haitus, the Sound & Silents programme brought us a selection of newly scored Mary Pickford films. This year, in keeping with the overall theme of the festival, the screenings have an Arabian flavour.
The two films in the Sound & Silents segment are, to be frank, German – but the first, Lotte Reiniger’s trailblazing cutwork animation The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) is based on a story from 1,001 Arabian Nights, as also, perhaps more loosely, is the second, Ernst Lubitsch’s boisterous harem farce Sumurun (1920). Achmed, widely acknowledged as the first animated feature film, and still as elegantly beautiful today as in the 1920s, probably needs no introduction from me.
The latter film is a slightly guilty pleasure of mine – a rather well-made romp, enlivened by the sinuous presence of the young Pola Negri, and the more demure charms of Swedish ballerina Jenny Hasselqvist. Lubitsch himself appears as a leery clown with hunchback, but his real star turn is behind the camera, crafting a fast-paced and vivacious comedy out of unpromising material. Sumurun had been a stage hit for Max Reinhardt’s company in Berlin, and Negri had starred in both that production as well as one back in her hometown of Warsaw – perhaps it’s therefore no surprise that this film is so slick, with such larger-than-life performances, including Paul Wegener as a bully-boy sheik. I will concede, of course, that it is rarely, if ever, politically correct.
Sound & Silents is as much admired for its musical commissions as its programming, and it’s intriguing that these German Arabian pastiches will be accompanied by scored from musicians whose roots lie in both Western Europe and the Middle East – British-Lebanese Bushra El-Turk and Sudanese-Italian Amira Kheir.
Multi-award-winning contemporary classical composer Bushra El-Turk creates a new work for a chamber ensemblecombining classical Western and traditional Middle Eastern instrumentation, accompanying The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the world’s first feature-length animation. Currently on attachment to the London Symphony Orchestra’s Panufnik Programme, British-Lebanese El-Turk’s acclaimed work has also been performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and London Sinfonietta.
Singer, musician and songwriter Amira Kheir blends contemporary jazz with East African music for a multi-instrumental 5-piece band, scoring landmark fantasy-drama Sumurun (One Arabian Night). Kheir has recently won acclaim for her ‘beautiful and fearless’ (Songlines) first album and her BBC Radio 3 and London Jazz Festival debuts.
Controversially, I have been known to say that London is the centre of the silent film universe. You may think I’m biased – and you would be right. But this November, I will be feeling pretty smug. The most audacious of all silents, Kevin Brownlow’s restoration of Abel Gance’s epic Napoléon, will screen at the Royal Festival Hall in London – accompanied by the Philharmonia orchestra, conducted by Carl Davis as they play his masterful score.
It couldn’t be more convenient for me. I’ll hop on the tube for 25 minutes, grab a coffee and spend all day absorbed in a cinematic masterpiece. But I’ve already heard whispers from fellow silent film fans in the States, in Canada, in continental Europe and yes, even places-in-Britain-that-are-not-London, that they may want to sample the Napoléonexperience too. It’s a dream come true – a world of silent cinema aficionados in this fair city, under one roof.
This video, advertising last year’s California screenings of Napoléon, should help you to understand why it’s worth the airfare.
You’re tempted, aren’t you? Therefore, in the spirit of welcome, for those of you who haven’t been to the Big Smoke before, or at least not since Napoléon last played here in 2004, here’s my 10-point guide to making the most of your trip, Silent London-style.
If you are travelling from the continent, bear in mind that it’s no longer the place where the Eurostar arrives though – that’s Kings Cross St Pancras (take the Victoria line southbound and change on to the Bakerloo line at Oxford Circus).
The Southbank is really quite a groovy part of London, so if you’re around for a few more days, you may want to explore further – stroll along the front, and visit the amazing Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe, the National Theatre or the Hayward Gallery. There’s lots of sleek but brutal concrete, gangs of youthful tousle-haired skateboarders and pop-up artisanal food markets to admire also. And those daft living-statue things. They give me the creeps.
Of course, the BFI Southbank, formerly known as the National Film Theatre, is another neighbour. Pop in here to watch a film, visit the library, browse the museum displays, shop in the filmstore (DVDs, books, magazines, T-shirts) or just lounge in one of the trendy cafés with a cappuccino. If you’re wearing the film-buff uniform of black polo neck and chunky glasses while carrying a copy of Film as Art, you’ll fit right in.
The best thing about the Southbank for many film fans is that it’s a stone’s throw from where a little-known film-maker called Charlie Chaplin grew up. Feel the vibe, take a detour into Lambeth, commune with his spirit, and if you are feeling flush, take a trip to the London Film Museum further down the river where you can browse their permanent exhibition on the Great Londoner.
Happily, seats for Napoléon start at a very affordable £11, but they do go up to £60 for a “premium experience”, which may tempt you to push the boat out. Tickets are available here, and you’ll be able to pick and choose where you want to sit. For more information, especially if you have not been to the RFH before, try the very useful website TheatreMonkey, which will explain where the best (and worst) bargains are to be had.
You’ll probably need somewhere to stay: Napoléon begins at 1.30pm and doesn’t finish until 9.30pm, which means you can probably get a late train home, but you’ll more than likely be a bit dazed and in need of a liedown. London is one of the most expensive cities in the world, which means that hotels are not cheap, I’m afraid. So, if your budget doesn’t stretch to the Ritz or the Savoy, check out one of the economical chains such as Travelodge, Premier Inn or Holiday Inn; book in advance and look for a location that is handy for public transport rather than dead central. If you’re watching the pennies, commuting in as a tourist from Zone 3 or 4 of the tube network really doesn’t take very long and needn’t be stressful in off-peak hours. Cast your eyes eastwards, where hotels that sprang up in time for the London 2012 Olympics may be looking to fill up their empty rooms. Alternatively try the YHA, or Couchsurfing. You know about lastminute.com too, right?
You’ll want to eat before Napoléon, during Napoléon, or after Napoléon. Possibly all three. There is a 100-minute interval for a reason and a person can’t live on coffee and cinematography alone. Not a problem though. There are cafés and bars in the Southbank Centre, and quite-posh restaurant called Canteen too (book ahead). There’s also a pizza place opposite and all kinds of food from sandwiches to noodles to burgers available nearby on the Southbank. The RFH itself is licensed too, if you want to accompany your viewing of a French cinema classic with un petit vin rouge.
Some of the nearby bars will open late, if you want to party like it’s 1927 after the movie, and the tubes run until around 1am, with nightbuses and black cabs to scoop up the wilder ones among you.
We’ve all read Oliver Twist and learned that London is crammed with grubby-faced urchins with their eyes on your pocket watch. Sort of. Pickpocketing and other crime does happen, but not really as often as you may think. Keep hold of your valuables in crowds, think twice before walking home somewhere quiet late at night, and don’t jump into an unlicensed minicab. Just like you’d do at home.
English innit. Just like what the Queen talks. But if you want to mingle with ease among the British silent film crew, just drop in a few references to “Porders”, the carrier-bag rustlers in NFT2, your intimate friendship with Kevin Brownlow, the LFF archive gala, that time you got lost on the way to the Cinema Museum/inside the Barbican, the latest issue of Sight & Sound, where you think next year’s BSFF should be held and, of course, your devotion to a certain marvellous silent cinema website, whose name briefly escapes me.
Seriously, this should be a very social occasion, and hopefully between this site, the Bristol Silents site, Nitrateville and the wider world of Twitter and Facebook, we should be able to make quite a party of it and meet lots of new and old faces. Don’t be a stranger.
Obviously, this is another popular topic of conversation. If you’ve not been to the UK before, you need to know that London in November will be cold. Not properly cold, not Norway cold, but definitely nippy. Bring your coat and your umbrella too, because the English skies love to rain. Unfortunately, however, you have been lied to by the movies and there is very little chance of you being caught in a “right old pea-souper”. That’s a good thing, really, as the views down the Thames from the Southbank are gorgeous.
7. Being a tourist
Apparently there is more to do in London than just watching old movies. News to me. If you’re staying for a few days, and you have exhausted all the possibilities here, then you’ll want to look further afield for entertainment. An official tourism website such as this one should keep you busy with palaces, museums, West End shows, abbeys and graveyards, but for something a little more quirky, cultural or off the beaten track, try the dispatches from Londonist or the listings from Time Out. The Vintage Guide to London may well be your cup of char too.
And to get you in the mood for the big show in November, anyone based closer to London should book now for Modern Times in March and The Thief of Bagdad in June – both Photoplay presentations with Carl Davis and the Philharmonia, just like Napoléon, and showing at RFH too.
Your loved ones will no doubt be delighted that you went all the way to London just before Christmas and brought back lots of Region 2 DVDs from the BFI shop for their stockings. I can just imagine their happy faces now. On the off-chance that that isn’t true, London has lots more to offer shops-wise. Covent Garden, Camden Market, Marylebone High Street and the gift shop at any of the big museums should sort you out and keep your rellies happy. The London Transport Museum gift shop in Covent Garden is particularly good for retro souvenirs of Laaaahndan Town. Alternatively, you can buy some Edinburgh shortbread at the airport. No one will know the difference.