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British Silent Film Festival 2015: Leicester letter No 4

Tell England (1931)
Tell England (1931)

There are two ways of looking at Sunday’s programme. You might glance at the listings and say: “it’s the last day of the festival, the films finish early, it’s all winding down.” But if you were there with us, watching these films, you’d know different. Sunday at the BSFF offered a big finish, with three feature films shown: one of which was a gem, and two of which were genuine masterpieces. And there was plenty more besides.

Shall I begin with a confession? Reader, I slept in. And those extra zeds were delicious, but I did regret missing Bryony Dixon’s presentation on Gallilopi, a curtain-raiser for the screening of Tell England (1931) that was to follow.

However, Tell England was a rousing start to the day – you couldn’t ask for better. We have been on a journey with these early sound films over the weekend – from the stumbling first steps of Dark Red Roses et al, via two beguiling movies on Saturday, to this, a real masterpiece. We were warned that the soundtrack was not of good quality, but really, it was not a problem. In fact, for every mishandled piece of dialogue here, there was a sound collage that did credit to co-directors Anthony Asquith and Geoffrey Barkas. And I suppose it does help that the actors offered a parade of perfectly clipped RP accents. Asquith and Barkas fold silent film-making techniques into their exploration of sound cinema – making this a bold and visually exciting war film. Tell England follows two young heroes (Tony Bruce and Carl Harbord) from their public school in divine middle England to the trenches of Gallipoli where the horrors of war and their duties as precociously promoted officers weigh heavy on their hearts. While the characters speak with traditional English restraint and understatement, the film whirls around them to show the physical violence of warfare (with mortar shells whirring and crashing on the soundtrack), and its psychological toll too, on the soldiers themselves and Fay Compton as a distraught mother almost driven mad by grief and fear. Not a documentary record of Gallilopi, although its vivid beach landing scenes are often cut up and used in factual programmes, but a fine dramatic film that would ideally be more widely available. So, insert a snide remark about the talkies catching on here.

After lunch, a commercial break, as the BFI’s Steve Foxon gave us a  guided tour of screen advertising, from Edison’s short 1890s clip promoting Dewar’s whisky, to a bouncy Halas & Batchelor cartoon tribute to Kellogg’s Cornflakes in the1940s. All good fun, and the sort of presentation that provokes many more questions in the coffee break afterwards. Early screen advertising is both very different from and so similar to modern examples, with detergents cleaning whiter, and making easy work of tough jobs, as well as twee poetic tributes to the English countryside and even celebrity endorsements. And of course you can’t believe that anyone fell for these tricks. But we all do.

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