Sunday, 3 August 2014

BOOK NOW for... A Night at the Cinema in 1914

It’s 1914 and picture houses have taken over Britain’s high streets with greater ferocity than even  the most tax-effective multi-national coffee houses. London has almost 500, Manchester over 100 and Liverpool just 30-odd – what did my great grandparents do with their time?! – for  working  men and women the great escape was well and truly underway. With programmes starting at various points in the evening there was a place to seek imaginative refuge for all shifts.

BFI Silent Film curator Bryony Dixon set the scene as she introduced this special programme aimed at replicating a typical night’s viewing for Britain on the cusp of the Great War. So much film is lost from this period, with as little as 11% surviving from  this year of catastrophic global destruction. We are lucky to have what remains and  all 14 films (natch) provided a good sampling of the information and entertainment available from fly-away balloons, to un-submergable submersibles via face-pulling competitions and a rajah rollicking...

The Rollicking Rajah
All were sound-tracked by the fleet-fingered Stephen Horne who skilfully interwove contemporary themes with his own trademark energetic invention. Stephen knows the musical sensibilities of the period like few others and he also brings his own rich flourishes. When Pauline’s in peril you might expect generic jeopardy themes but Mr Horne also adds an element of romance as the hero relentlessly pursues his stricken love as she’s torn from frying pan to fire and back again.

Sadly Stephen wasn’t playing live tonight but there’s a reason for that as this show goes on the road playing in over 40 venues across the UK and his music has been recorded including, he told us, the odd bum note for added authenticity... I didn't hear any!

This is an excellent initiative from the BFI and we owe it to ourselves to go see and support as much as possible and, after 1914, I can’t wait for the follow up, rumoured to be 1915!

Palace Pandemonium
The programme features fascinating snippets such as Emmeline Pankhurst being rather forcefully escorted by the Police to present a petition to Buckingham Palace – a moment of genuine historical drama and significance. You felt like shouting out - don't worry you're going to win! More was to follow as we saw the wedding of Archduke Karl , successor to his murdered brother Franz Ferdinand as ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as the war began.

There were flying demonstrations from Hendon and  a viewing of the dogs Shackleton was to  use for his expedition to Antartica – there was a good deal of product placement with adverts for their reliable dog feed plastered all around… the golden age of advertising had begun.

German troops parade through Louvain
The great war obviously changed the tone of 1914 but the documentaries remain upbeat showing Egyptian soldiers, our helpful boy scouts and soldiers relaxing at Christmas. There was also remarkable footage showing the German occupation of Louvain in Belgium – clearly not filmed by a British camera.

A sharp political edge was delivered by the fascinating stop-motion  water-colouring of Laurence Speed: General French’s Contemptible Little Army. German military aggression was the target and the soldiers of the Empire gradually joined forces to trap the Hun before the Russian Bear…drawn to life with quick-drying alacrity by Speed's unerring brush-strokes.

Florence Turner
Daisy Doodad’s Dial was a frankly bizarre comedy short from the Amercian comedienne Florence Turner who was based in  Britain. It concerns the efforts of Ms Turner and her hubbie to win a face-pulling competition - whatever happened to those? They’re both very adept but Florence's facial flights of fancy end up getting her arrested before she finally wins out with her gentile gurning.

Fred Evans and his special effects
If Daisy's daft Lieutenant Pimple is off the scale silly. Fred Evans character featured in something like 200 films and in this episode, Lieutenant Pimple and the Stolen Submarine, he overcomes a potentially crippling micro-budget to help the Royal Navy save a secret submarine from being snatched by spies. The enemy manages to submerge the supposedly unsinkable sub but Pimple goes after them with the aid of low-tech diving gear and his ability to seemingly breath underwater and to send messages via carrier carp/homing perch...

Up, up and away...
There was more believable jeopardy in The Perils of Pauline in which Pearl White's queen of the serials survives being cast adrift in a balloon, kidnapped by baddies and is left tied up in a burning house. Can the hero ride to the rescue in time? No spoilers...

Throughout Mr Horne's accompaniment kept pace with the diverse moods of drama and documentary but he was faced with perhaps his most entertaining challenge with The Rollicking Rajah.... This film originally came with a synchronised soundtrack on disc using the Vivaphone sound system.Sadly the disc no longer survives by Stephen was able to recreate the music with the aid of splendid vocalisations from the BFI's own Tim Everett. It was superbly done and there's something supremely unsettling about seeing a talking movie from 1914: it has to be heard to be believed - something like the missing link in re-connectivity.

The evening climaxed with a thunderous comedy from an English music hall star making big waves across the pond; Mr Charles Chaplin in A Film Johnnie. This Keystone comedy has Charlie in his spiteful drunk phase getting hopelessly confused about the nature of reality when he falls in love with the Keystone Girl, Virginia Kirtley and setting off to rescue her from her cinematic enemies...

It was the slickest offering on show and points the way forward to the eternal dominance of Hollywood but Johnnie was not necessarily the funniest and the very British quirks on view resonate more: we haven't changed at all.

A Night at the Cinema in 1914 plays across the UK throughout August and beyond. I would urge you to go and see it if you can and, please, don't forget to remove your hat once the screening begins.

Showtimes and venues are detailed here on the BFI site.

The most poignant clip showed British troops celebrating Christmas at the front. Optimistic expectations that the show would be over by that point had been dashed as the two sides dug themselves deeper into their infernal trenches. How many of these men saw out the war?


  1. Thanks for the lovely review. The singer on The Rollicking Rajah is Tim Everett, 'head of technical delivery' at the BFI. Recruited for duty beyond the call!

    1. He delivered technically very well! Thanks for revealing the Rajah's identity. A super evening and I look forward to 1915!