Friday, 17 July 2015

In the city… London in Victorian and Edwardian film (1890-1911), BFI

As our compere, Bryony Dixon, BFI’s curator of silent film, said as she surveyed the room, it was great to see the BFI’s largest cinema packed full for the sake of “some knackered old film”. Ms Dixon was on top form, showing her archive off to an appreciative crowd with expert accompaniment from Mr Neil Brand, providing not only her unique insight but also some silent stand-up to the occasional detriment of Ealing (come on, Ealing can take it!).

But the film wasn’t knackered at all, just incredibly old and in some cases jaw-dropping, 64mm of high-quality tones marking the heaving streets on Holborn and in front of St Paul’s, capturing historical events and, amazingly, your actual gun smoke from the Sidney Street siege – something I never suspected even existed.

Fleet Street with St Pauls above the smoke
From anarchist turned film-maker Wordsworth Donisthorpe’s precious ten frames of Trafalgar Square in 1890, through the repeated short bursts of 40 feet-limited Victorian film reels to the recently restored and frankly very lovely, Living London (1904) we were treated to a view of the past few of us had entirely expected. 

But the real surprise was how connected we felt to this monochrome city of relentless brick, slate and unknowable waterways. Even now, after the horses and carts have largely gone and so many buildings have crumbled under wrecking balls, bombs and planning blunders and when ruthless re-development has carelessly stabbed alien angularity across the skyline… the heart of Victorian empire feels much the same; as recognisable and atmospherically-specific as Rome.

Turns out, the London nobody knows is actually a place we all feel from the timeless song lines of tube, train, tram and Thames.

Notting Hill and Oxford Street an old-new view
As if to underline this enduring connectivity, the first film of the evening was made in 2012 using a vintage hand-cranked wooden camera: how tomorrow looks with yesterday’s glasses… Directed by Joseph Ernst, Londoners started off with workers leaving a factory and continued its Mitchell & Kenyon-inspired journey across the faces of modern London. The film is uncanny with the camera getting the same response as it would have done a century ago; the same hand waves, beaming grins and tom-foolery. Yes the subjects were amused by the antiquity but they couldn’t resist their natural response to being watched. Far more fun than a selfie.

I especially liked the sequence at legendary biker hangout, the Ace Café – it’s as if the Leather Boys never left…

2012 Leather Boys and Girls at the Ace
Then we went way back to the Lumiere Brothers showing people leaving a cinématographe showing in 1896 an occasion entirely choreographed by the film-makers – I wonder how much Victorian extras got paid?

We saw some street dancing along to a barrel organ from 1898 before viewing an RW Paul film on the Derby whose characteristic track invasion seems to have continued from 1895 to the first fiction of the night made in 1911 to modern times. Then we were treated to more sport with the all-toffs Boat Race… regrettably won by Cambridge (probably with the help of semi-pro ringers from the US).

The Queen Vic
Then we were treated to Queen Victoria enjoying (possibly) her Diamond Jubilee in 1897 in a sequence of genuinely historical content… her son, future King Edward VII appears to pause his horse for effect before carrying on and we see him again at her funeral in 1901, his coronation in 1902 and his own funeral in 1910.

Then we have the Sidney Street siege and the suffragettes London in your face a city of unease and attitude a place where things really happen.

Can you spot Winston peering out along Sidney Street?
It could have been a very bitty evening but Ms Dixon had sequenced her films well and we were treated to a build-up of images that were framed in common context, the Houses of Parliament from the Thames, Fleet Street…like a David Hockney photo collage the images tricked the mind into perceiving  deeper dimensions and we became lost in Mother London.

Vital suppliers are shipped from Bermondsey!
But it wasn’t just the West End and we were taken on a tour of the boroughs from Seven Sisters Road (always a jam up there!), down to the Peek Frean’s Factory in “Biscuit Town” Bermondsey  and out West on a Metro Land ghost train and from thence to the aforementioned Ealing.

HMS Albion hits the water - watch it on the BFI Player!
Then there was the living Thames-side, crammed with docks at Blackfriars Bridge in 1896 and then launching a warship, HMS Albion, at Blackwall in 1899 – the days when Londoners built ships rather than just insured them! Then Petticoat Lane market before the market analysts moved in and Euston Road in1899 when buses were still pulled by yer actual horse power – two in most cases.  There was the occasional shock of the odd horse-less carriage but they weren’t really moving fast enough to worry about.

The Bank of England and all that horse power...
All of this was melded together not only by Bryony’s expert commentary but by Neil Brand’s music: so many improvised themes that, as with the images, were to coalesce, forming a unity of sound and structure.  Straight from the hip: a city symphony!

Let’s have more of this please BFI and not just London; there’s a nifty film of Liverpool’s overhead railway the Lumiere’s took in 1896 and I’ll bet there’s a decent evening to be based around England’s second city – or, as my Nan might say, the first?

Most of these films are available on the  BFI Player but as a collective experience with cineastes, compere and composer, this was something special.

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