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.
Update: the Flowers of London interactive goes live on 7th February, otherwise known as tomorrow.
A dangerous opportunity for silent movie fans this: time to put one’s money where one’s mouth resides and customise a film soundtrack of your very own. Arts website The Space, together with the BFI and The New Radiophonic Workshop, has built an interactive online player that allows users to mix different audio elements to accompany a film. The title they have chosen is Flowers of London (1924), from the Wonderful London series of 1920s travelogues.
Flowers of London will be published on The Space on February 7. Part of a series of silent shorts, Flowers of London is a poignant evocation of London – the city’s dirty streets contrasting with images of flowers, a symbol of hope throughout the film. The New Radiophonic Workshop, led by composer Matthew Herbert, brought in sound-effects experts alongside award-winning writer Laura Wade to add new dimensions to the film. Viewers have complete control of their listening experience and can choose their own combination of sound-effects, music and narrative … audiences can customise their own experience by deciding which soundtrack or combination of soundtracks the film should have, choosing to hear the New Radiophonic Workshop’s full mix or to use the player to select from the seven different combinations.
It’s not the first time that The Space has got involved with silent film: you may remember its live stream of the Champagne restoration last year, and the site currently hosts a collection of silent titles, including some very precious Shakespeare adaptations. The Flowers of London interactive is being touted as part of the site’s coverage of the art of silent film scoring in particular. You can watch a video in which Daniel Patrick Cohen discusses his score for The Pleasure Garden – and we’re promised similar insights from Simon Fisher Turner on his score for The Great White Silence.
The Flowers of London interactive goes live on 7 February so I haven’t had a chance to play with it yet. If you have a go, do let me know what you think in the comments below – particularly whether it enhances your enjoyment or understanding of the film. With sound-effects, voiceover and samples, you’re unlikely to make what we would think of as a “traditional” silent film score. Whatever that means.
I must also share you with this intriguing snippet from the press release. Matthew Herbert, director of The New Radiophonic Workshop, “is constantly exploring alternative ways to listen and think about how we create and listen to sound and music … He has made records out of 3,500 people biting an apple at the same time, the sewers beneath London, the Houses of Parliament and most recently, the entire life cycle of a pig.” But has it got a good beat?
Before you go, enjoy this clip from another of the Wonderful London films, currently available on DVD. Avnd don’t forget that a second batch of Wonderful London shorts screens at the BFI Southbank on 15 February with musical accompaniment from Stephen Horne and an introduction by Bryony Dixon.
Visit The Space from 7 February onwards to mix your own soundtrack to Flowers of London.
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.