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.
Here’s a mystery – and a topical one too. To tie in with the 150th anniversary of the Tube, the BFI restoration of Anthony Asquith’s 1928 thriller Underground gets a theatrical release this week. What do you mean, you didn’t know? This happy news led Simon Murphy from the London Transport Museum to send me this intriguing photograph of what seems to be a film cast and crew at Piccadilly Circus station.
The location is Piccadilly Circus and the date is 1929 or so I think, but could be later. I used to think it was 1928 and linked to the Asquith film Underground somehow, but the station was only just being built when Underground was shot in April-May 1928 and didn’t open to the public until December. I recognise Anthony Asquith, to the right of the guy with the pencil moustache, and the woman on the left looks familiar but I can’t place her …
So we’re asking for your help. Do you recognise any famous (or not-so famous) faces from British film history? Could they be filming a short, or some publicity material for another title? Perhaps these closeups will help:
The woman with the bob must be a star, surely? And is that really Asquith with his coat collar turned up?
I’ve heard a suggestion that the lone figure in the foreground of this group may be Michael Balcon. Do you agree?
If you have any suggestions, please add your comments below – or email email@example.com.
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 the final Charlie’s London post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London. Charlie’s London is now moving to its own site!
Welcome to the last edition of Charlie’s London on Silent London. I had been thinking for a while about what would be the best goodbye post for a site I hold so very dear. Without Silent London, Charlie’s London would not have an audience and I would not have had the platform to express my love for one of the greatest artists/comedians/directors/humanitarians the world has seen.
Chaplin means something different to everyone. To me he has somehow become part of my family history! From little William in that workhouse to seeing my very own godson fall in love with his films, I can honestly say Charlie never leaves me. Recently I was lucky enough to attend the Southbank showing of The Circus and as I sat in what really is Charlie’s London I felt very honoured and emotional. It was not just because it was a Chaplin film, but because my grandmother and I had watched this film many times when I was a child. I clearly remember her singing “swing little girl” to me on more than one occasion; I wish she had been able to sit in one of those deckchairs with me and enjoy it for herself.
There has been so much written about Chaplin the film-maker, the genius of cinema. There has been even more on Chaplin the man. What has interested me throughout my time writing this blog is Charlie the Londoner. It is true that most of his london no longer exists, but his presence still lingers those streets, even if people do not realise it. Poverty is still a massive problem in inner-city areas around the world, and South London is no different. Chaplin saw all this. For him it was a different age, a different life, but not a different London. You can see this in every one of this films: Easy Street, The Kid, Modern Times and right up until Limelight, Chaplin never forgot his roots.
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.
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 for returning for another instalment of Charlie’s London! This piece is going to look at the pubs in Chaplin’s life. It has always been my intention to show Chaplin’s emotional side, and also how there we can still see the South London of his youth around us. Chaplin appears not to have been much of a drinker, but two significant incidents in his life were connected to public houses that you can visit in London today.
First, we will look at the Three Stags just off the Kennington Road, opposite the fantastic Imperial War Museum. Then we will look at The Coal Hole on the Strand, a beautiful Victorian building.
As an undergraduate student who specialised in the Great War I would often find myself in the Imperial War Museum, studying its vast collection of military artifacts and hours of video footage. It was at this time I first discovered “Chaplin’s Corner”. Myself and three friends decided that, rather than hot chocolate and scones in the museum café we would cross the road to the Three Stags pub. The pub has that hint of Victorian decadence you imagine in the pages of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories: dark, almost black interiors with perfectly preserved stained glass. Once we were seated inside, I looked over to my right and a sign caught my eye. It said “Chaplin’s Corner”. As I ventured over I could see a beautiful picture of Chaplin and Jackie Coogan from the 1921 movie The Kid and an explanation for the naming of this little area.
When Charlie was just 10 years old he happened to wander past the pub and for no reason poke his head through the open door. What he saw would go on to be an important moment in his young life. In his Autobiography he wrote:
The Three Stags in the Kennington Road was not a place my Father frequented, yet as I passed it one evening an urge prompted me to peek inside and there he was, sitting in the corner! I was about to leave, but his face lit up and he beckoned me to him. I was surprised at such a welcome, for he was never demonstrative. He looked very ill; his eyes were sunken, and his body had swollen to an enormous size. He rested one hand, Napoleon-like, in his waistcoat as if to ease his difficult breathing. That evening he was most solicitous, inquiring after Mother and Sydney, and before I left took me in his arms and for the first time kissed me. That was the last time I saw him alive. (Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography, quote reprinted courtesy of the archives of Roy Export Company Establishment)
I then remembered reading this same passage and more in Chaplin’s My Autobiography, so that night I took my well-read and very battered copy from my bookshelf once more. If you have not read this book I really do recommend it. This book has often come under scrutiny from critics for being “overly Dickensian”. I cannot disagree with that enough! What makes this an interesting read is more looking at the man behind the words, why does he mention certain things and not others? Why does he speak of some quite obscure people and now well-known individuals such as Buster Keaton whom we know he had a good friendship with?
It was then that I stumbled across another familiar place, a name I had seen before and could not place, The Coal Hole in the Strand. Well, if I felt the Three Stags screamed Victorian thriller then this pub most definitely howled its heritage from the rooftops. The beautiful glowing red sign above the door reminds you of gas lamps and empty gin beakers. Unlike the Three Stags, which no doubt held sad memories for Chaplin, the Coal Hole was the setting for a very touching moment in which he realised his brother Syd’s true affections for him. Chaplin wrote in his Autobiography:
I had been in the Provinces for six months. Meanwhile Sydney had had little success in getting a job in a theatre, so he was obliged to descend from his Thespian ambition and apply for a job as a bartender at The Coal Hole in the Strand. Out of one hundred and fifty applicants he got the job. But he had fallen ignominiously from his own graces as it were.
He wrote to me regularly and kept me posted of Mother, but I seldom answered his letters; for one reason, I could not spell very well. One letter touched me deeply and drew me very close to him; he reproached me for not answering his letter and recalled the misery we had endured together which should unite us even closer. “Since Mother’s illness,” wrote Sydney, “all we have in the world is each other. Do you must write regularly and let me know I have a brother.” His letter was so moving I replied immediately. Now I saw Sydney in another light. His letter cemented a brotherly love that has lasted throughout my life. (Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography, quote reprinted courtesy of the archives of Roy Export Company Establishment)
It has always been a belief of mine that Syd gets overlooked when we talk about Chaplin. Well thanks to Lisa K Stein and her truly wonderful biography of Syd Chaplin we can now all see the full story. This book is another must-read, alongside David Robinson’s definitive biography of Chaplin, which I have also mentioned before in my little blog. If you can find My Trip Abroad by Chaplin himself, first published in 1922, I also highly recommend that as another look at this great Londoner’s feelings about his home town.
People often ask me why Chaplin never came back to England to live. Of course, I can’t answer that. Only the great man himself could explain and unfortunately we will never have his answer. That is also only one of the questions I get asked. Half the people I talk to about Chaplin don’t even realise he was English, which to me is extraordinary! The only thing I can say is that in my humble opinion Chaplin didn’t need to make constant pilgrimages to the place of his birth, it never really left him.
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.
More than 100 years ago, film-makers Mitchell and Kenyon advertised their services to the public with the line: “See yourselves as others see you.” A new film, shot last summer in London, offers us the opportunity to see ourselves, now, as Mitchell and Kenyon might have seen us. Londoners is a 21st-century “actuality”, comprising film shot on the streets of the capital, outside Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, in Hyde Park and at the Notting Hill Carnival. The twist is that the footage was filmed on a 1915 vintage camera, an old-school hand-cranked machine.
Director Joseph Ernst discovered the camera in a warehouse filled with old film-making equipment, and taking the Mitchell and Kenyon films as his inspiration, set out to record London circa 2011, but at 18 frames per second. As he told Wired.com, the people he photographed with the vintage camera were just as happy to be filmed as the customers of his Edwardian predecessors, and just as astonished by the technology. “Modern society finds no comfort in the digital camera. We shy away from them. We complain if someone points it in our direction. But if you bring out some spectacular relic from the past, people forget all that. They’re surprised that such a thing still exists and that it actually still works.”
And you can see that amazement in the film, which I was lucky enough to be granted a preview of. Londoners who might well be expected to be unmoved by the sight of a cameraphone, camcorder or iPad pointing in their direction, smile, point and nudge their neighbours when they see Ernst’s vintage machine. A Hell’s Angel dances an old-timey jig, a football fan guffaws and a wag at Speaker’s Corner mimics the cameraman’s movements – the the hand-cranking motion we all recognise from games of Charades. A group of photographers on Millennium Bridge snap the camera from all angles with their hi-tech DSLRs. The dancers at Carnival put on a display too, one that would probably have made the Edwardians blush.
But perhaps the Edwardians weren’t as stuffy as we think. There’s a uncanny, out-of-time quality to Londoners, with its faded, flickery footage of people who dress, stand and gesture just like us, but walk, thanks to the lower frame rate, with a hint of the jerky stiffness we associate with people from days gone by. It’s a reminder, if we needed one, that people don’t change very much at all over the years. Yes, the people in Londoners are more casually dressed, less formal, and overwhelmingly more racially mixed than in those Mitchell and Kenyon films, but they’re just as likely to hurry past or pose for a close-up, to smile or leer at the camera. The faces are the same. In a scene of commuters hurrying down the steps to a tube station, we’re drawn to a man who’s taking the descent a little slower, clutching on to the handrail, struggling to contain the tremors that are running through his body. It seems as if only the film-maker notices, as the crowd streams past him unaware, that the rush-hour journey is not the same for everyone.
In fact, even when the film is joyous, as when primary school children are bouncing in front of the lens, Londoners strikes a mournful tone. The music, which is taken from a gorgeous Bat For Lashes track, sets the mood. But there’s more to this movie. At a time when we’re losing our grip on real film, and apps from Hisptamatic to Silent Film Director offer us to the chance to remodel our snaps and home videos as relics from another time, Londoners’ deliberately archaic, lo-fi construction offers a more powerful blast of nostalgia. In another hundred years, the technology this documentary uses will seem irredeemably quaint, but so too will its subjects’ clothes, their junk food and even their risqué dance moves. But a project such as this compresses the years and shrinks the distance between us and our forebears. Mitchell and Kenyon would feel right at home, and I hope we see something just like it in 2112.
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.
Cecil Court is a tiny turning off Charing Cross Road in the West End of London. Nowadays it is packed with bookshops, boutiques and ‘psychic advisers’, but back in the beginning of the 20th century it was “the heart of what was new in the British film industry, attracting young companies who clustered together to learn from one another” (Simon Brown, Film Studies, 2007). Following last year’s summer film festival, these ‘blue plaques’ have been posted in the shop windows of Cecil Court, as a reminder of the time when it was known as ‘Flicker Alley’. Read more here.
Disappointing news this week, as Birds Eye View announced that it will not be putting on a festival in 2012, due to a cut in its public funding. You can read more about the announcement here. This is a real shame for many reasons, not least the festival’s track record of commissioning cutting-edge scores for silent films from some wonderful musicians.
To tide us over while we wait for the festival’s no-doubt triumphant return in 2013, Birds Eye View will be staging some one-off events, including a touring programme of highlights from its fantastic Sound & Silents strand. You’ll see these popping up on the Silent London calendar, and on Facebook and Twitter as they are announced, but here are a couple for your diary straight away.
Blue Roses will perform her score for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde at the Arnolfini in Bristol on 18 February 2012. Tickets will be on sale soon.
Imogen Heap and the Holst Singers will present their soundtrack to The Seashell and the Clergyman at the Roundhouse in London on 26 February 2012 and at the Sage, Gateshead on 27 February 2012. Tickets for the London show are on sale now.
For more information, visit the Coming Soon section of the Birds Eye View website.
This review is a guest post for Silent London by Ewan Munro of the Pubology blog.
Among the many wonderful restorations in the Treasures from the Archives strand at the London Film Festival this year was a programme of silent short films, nine- to 12-minute long travelogues from a series made in the early 1920s by film producer Harry B Parkinson, and entitled Wonderful London. The BFI National Archive chose six of these films to restore and present at what turned out to be a packed-out screening (attributed by silent film curator Bryony Dixon to a resurgence of interest in historic London).
The subject of these quirky little screen-fillers is, of course, London. And while there are certainly occasional shots of the tourist London we’re all familiar with, perhaps more interesting is the time spent looking around the corners, into the back streets and out into the suburbs of the working-class city. Street markets and grimy housing, docks, shops, scenes of daily life, and even a few pubs all show up in these films. The East, the North, the West End and the City all show up, though the South is represented by only a few shots of streets around the site of the Globe.
There’s Petticoat Lane market (still bustling today) and Club Row market (no longer), where live animals of all kinds are traded under the still-familiar railway arches down by Sclater Street (arches which now hold the lines leading to Shoreditch High Street station). There are grand West End theatres alongside street performers and Punch & Judy shows. There’s Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub, just off Fleet Street, one of the few views that hasn’t changed at all, even as we briefly spot the drays of long-defunct brewers such as Truman Hanbury Buxton and Mann Crossman’s. There are the flower sellers usually at work underneath Eros on Piccadilly Circus, but moved from this attractive spot due to London Underground construction works (little change there, though back then it was for the station’s grand booking hall). There are the canals around Mile End, Islington and Hackney (with a brief cutaway to show Broadway Market), mules working along their towpaths to pull the barges. This is just one example of perhaps the greatest change since these films were made: the extent to which the London shown is a city of industry and manufacturing, where the canals are still busy with freight and the docklands still bustling with ships.
This “unofficial” view of London is matched by the narration, with the intertitles frequently offering humorous asides and boundless sarcasm, especially in the Barging Through London film (any given intertitle card makes reference to dizzying speeds, as the film cuts to, say, a barge moving languorously under a bridge alongside Regent’s Park, while befrocked and behatted tourists on the way to London Zoo stop to watch). A personal favourite is the introduction of Southwark Bridge, newly constructed at a cost of £3 million and “sometimes it gets VERY busy”, cutting to show a few hackney carriages trundling across while a handful of people walk along the outside.
The titles remain fairly light-hearted, but this only exposes some of the period’s unpleasant attitudes, communicated with an at times disarming frankness, especially in the Cosmopolitan London short. In what must be a staged scene, the film’s “white trash” are swiftly kicked out of a “negro club” on Whitcomb Street, while the film is unsparing in its negative judgment on the poverty and unfriendliness of the Chinese population of Limehouse. When the film returns pointedly to scenes on Horse Guards Parade, it expresses greater relief at their comforting Englishness than perhaps the modern audience can muster. Nevertheless, the scenes of Limehouse provide interest when compared to similar ones staged for the roughly contemporaneous Piccadilly (1929).
Through it all, piano accompaniment is sensitively provided by Neil Brand, an accomplished master of the art. The tone is largely jaunty as befits the films, though he sensibly opts for a quieter register at key points towards the end of the Cosmopolitan London short, and a briefly uncomfortable silence within the auditorium at one point further brings into focus the discomfort engendered by the film itself (not to mention highlighting the very rarity of silence at screenings of silent films).
The restoration has been handled magnificently, and Scott Starck from the restoration team speaks before the film, rattling off a quick account of the process, along with dizzying statistics on the number of frames that needed repair. Colour tinting has been retained as per the original films, and this is used to good effect to depict the passing of the day in London’s Sunday, or the colours of the flowers in Flowers of London. One can only hope that the success of this screening leads to further such archival restorations and that the Wonderful London series may one day be available in its entirety.
We all have powerful memories of visits to the cinema – your first trip, as a child; the first time you saw your favourite film; your first cinema date; maybe even your first silent film. And if Alfred Hitchcock were here to share his memories with us, they would surely involve a few educational afternoons at the EMD cinema in Walthamstow, north-east London, where he watched silent films as a boy. We can’t all claim to have come away from the cinema as inspired as Hitchcock, but we all know what it’s like to stumble out of the foyer with images reeling around our heads, thinking: “I’ve got to see that again.”
Well, the EMD Cinema has fallen sadly out of use and into disrepair, but there is a thriving, celebrity endorsed campaign to get it up and running again. And the Save Our Cinema group wants to collect your cinema memories, not just of the EMD, but of other “characterful” independent picture palaces, all in the name of art. The stories will be collated and turned into an exhibition at the E17 Art Trail in September.
There are two strands to our special storytelling project – as well as written or recorded voxpops of YOUR OPINIONS, we’re looking for PERSONAL ANECDOTES about going to the pictures in a cinema with character. We hope to make sound and video clips of people telling their own stories, along with written pieces, photos, music and drawings. Whatever way you’d like to tell your story about why a distinctive cinema matters to you, we’re interested. If you have special memories of childhood matinees, first dates, first kiss!, wild nights at concerts or just a warm feeling about the place, we want to hear about it. If you missed the chance to visit the EMD before it was closed but you have first-hand stories of a cherished cinema somewhere else, please share them with us.
So if you have a cinematic story to tell, do get involved – you might even help to save Hitchcock’s cinema. If you want inspiration, here’s Ryan Gilbey, film critic of the New Statesman, showing us how it’s done. More details about the history of EMD Cinema can be found here, and details of the Storytelling project can be found on Facebook here. Maybe this is why they call it “awesomestow”.
To get involved, or to send your anecdotes, images, videos or audio clips, contact firstname.lastname@example.org, tweet @saveourcinema or send post to Save Walthamstow Cinema, 39-41 High St, London E17 7AD