Thursday, 24 December 2015

So here it is… 12 from ‘15

Miss November 1918
That was the year that was: 40+ live silent films, many dozens of gigs, plays, ballet and even talkies… how do I fit in my day job? Slowing down now... looking back and in no particular order relying on the ancient pre-internet art of memory, here are twelve silent experiences that made the World a little better over the year they still call twenty fifteen.

1.      Elvey and Eille – Sherlock at the Barbican

Early in the year, the Barbican programmed a selection of Eille Norwood Sherlock Holmes mostly directed by Maurice Elvey. Messrs Brand, Horne and Sweeney were on hand to accompany the series which proved to be an enjoyably mixed bag with two features The Hound of the Baskervilles (1921) and The Sign of Four (1923) with three shorts sandwiched in the middle. Those films proved to be anything but filler though and Norwood’s creation really came to life in A Scandal in Bohemia, The Man with the Twisted Lip and The Final Solution which, of course, proved to be anything but.

Anny Ondra
2.       Blackmail (1929) with Timothy Brock, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Saffron Hall

You don’t expect to find silent films in deepest Essex but this most-misunderstood of counties has a purpose-built concert hall in the cute market town of Saffron Walden that allowed Timothy Brock and the BBC Symphony to do full justice to Neil Brand’s stunning composition.

Perched above a wall of sound we were able to experience Blackmail with orchestral highlights that enhanced the emotional flavour of Hitchcock’s last silent film – conclusive proof, if it were ever needed, that this film works far better without dialogue.

Henry Victor in The Guns of Loos
3.       The Guns of Loos (1928), British Silent Film Festival, Leicester

My first experience of the BSFF (I know) and a number of stand-outs including Swedish polar-bear baiting Den Starkaste (1929) and the full three-hours of Michael Strogoff with John Sweeney’s accompaniment proving a triumph of style and substance over endurance. But the restored Guns of Loos took the biscuit with a super new score from Stephen Horne.

Commissioned for the battle’s centenary, the film paid moving tribute to the many Scottish lives lost in this battle about which I’d previously known little: film as history reporting history and still educating after 85 years.

4.       Buster Keaton and Carl Davis, Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall

The RFH hosts the heavy metal-end of the live silent experience with Carl Davis’ Big Band blasting out power chords over two of Buster’s best. One Week (1920) and The General (1926). As usual the concert crowd mixed uneasily with the cineasts but we were all united in the shared pursuit of getting Keaton’s gags! We all laughed and clapped as one.

Betty Compson and Raymond Griffith - Paths to Paradise (1925)

5.       Silent Laughter Saturday, Kennington Bioscope

Having missed the Bioscope’s weekender due to mountain-climbing charity commitments (we raised £18,500 for Parkinson’s UK on Snowdon) I was delighted to be able to make the comedy Saturday. With contributions from David Robinson, Kevin Brownlow, Tony Slide and others who have actually met the performers on screen, there’s a real connection with the likes of Stan and Ollie, Buster Keaton and the British Walter Forde.

It’s been a vintage year in Kennington with too many highly rewarding trips to mention – we should treasure every moment and the unique opportunity to watch silent film amongst people who know and understand!

Annette Benson, naughty white dove and Brian Aherne
6.       Shooting Stars (1928), Leicester Square Odeon, London Film Festival Archive Gala

This year’s Archive Gala at the LFF is a tie for festival highlight with Stephen’s Horne’s superbly-scored Variety . Shooting Stars edges it simply because I hadn’t seen it before and it’s another example of a classy late-period British silent film. Some lovely moments of pure cinema from Anthony Asquith and super turns from ‘andsome Brian Aherne and bubbly Annette Benson

The much-travelled John Altman scored and played along with the Live Film Orchestra matching the film’s knowing take on the business of movies and the People of Show.

Shooting Stars is out on BFI DVD and Blu-Ray on 21st March - pre-order now!

7.       Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1921), with Donald MacKenzie, Troxy Cinema

Not for the film so much as for the whole experience of art deco, Wurlitzer-fuelled, pie and mash-propelled cinema watching! This is how our grandparents watched films and whilst the organ occasionally grinds it does so authentically.

8.       We Have an Anchor (2015), Barbican

Having watched Godspeed You Black Emperor twice this year, it was interesting to see two of its members performing live accompaniment to Jem Cohen’s modern – mostly-silent – film about the beautiful isolation of Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton. The film was spell-binding and the post-rockers did it full justice – with the clear lines of Jessica Moss and Sophie Trudeu’s violins especially impressive over so much amplified clang and strum.

9.       Written in Dust (2014), Rio Cinema, Dalston

I got to see the last of Gareth Rees’ absorbing modern silent made in Beijing without necessarily the full range of permissions from the authorities. The result is a simple tale of love and ambition told very well by an exceptional young cast. Freed from dialogue, the narrative pulls you in to this desperately-optimistic world, aided by a live score from Ling Peng and Andrew Middleton which mixes old and new, as with the film, to create something that does justice to both.

Hopefully we’ll see more of this performance cinema in 2016.

Janet Gaynor & Charles Farrell - Seventh Heaven (1928)
10.   7th Heaven (1927), with KT Tunstall, Mara Carlyle and, BFI

Apparently KT Tunstall has been studying film composition out in California and it showed as she worked splendidly with a team including composer Max de Wardener and singer/saw-player Mara Carlyle in playing a hugely supportive live score for Frank Borzage’s 7th Heaven.

Heart-warming fun all round and my daughter was delighted to see that whilst pop form is temporary, musical class is permanent. Lovely all round as I think I said several times to anyone who would listen.

Regents Street Birthplace
11.   The Regent Street Cinema

Sometimes the venue itself makes the experience… and the re-birth of the birthplace of British cinema was to be celebrated in its own right. A great venue with comfy seats, a cosy bar and easy access to the Victoria Line and next to a plaque celebrating the fact that various Pink Floyds attended the former Regent Street Poly in the days before the Azimuth Coordinator and the mother with the atom heart (ask your Granddad!).

Laura Rossi and Orchestra Celeste - Jane Shore (1915)
12.   The past restored and re-scored…

This is a total cop-out because I just can’t decide! Laura Rossi wrote a most excellent score for Brit proto-epic Jane Shore (1915) and performed it superbly at the BFI with Orchestra Celeste.

Then the Shona Mooney Trio re-patriated the cod-celtic Annie Laurie (1927) at the Barbican with considerable verve – they should have let us dance!
Shona Mooney + Lillian Gish - Annie Laurie (1927)
Lillian Henley helped the suffragettes make more noise with her score for the BFI’s Make More Noise: Suffragettes in Silent Film compilation celebrating the movement that changed our society for better and for ever. Now available on DVD from the BFI, all good retailers and Amazon

Just buy it!
All this and I still didn’t make Pordenone… next year! Thank you so much to everyone who puts these events on, all those who play along and to everyone who reads! May your days be merry and bright…and may all your Christmases be black and white.


  1. Phew, it's been a busy year, hasn't it, Paul?! Very entertaining & edifying to read your regular editions of what I think of as 'The Silent Companion', & your top 12 rundown is also making my mind reel over (ahem) the bounties of silent cinema I've taken in this year...

    I absolutely agree with your final sentiment 'may all your Christmases be black & white', but just wished to add that that is unless of course they've had their original tints found & restored!

    Merry Christmas & a Happy New Silent Year!

  2. Thank you very much Michelle - here's to a lot more of the same in 2016 and with as many tints as possible!

    Best wishes.


  3. What a great set of screenings and events! It's been a pleasure reading your blog and getting to know you a little this year. All the best for 2016 :)

    1. The same from me too SP! Thanks for reading and for your excellent blog. Currently reading Angela Dalle Vacche and trying to work out Malombra!

      Have a grand New Year!


  4. Dear Paul, many thanks for your blog over the last year; when reading your comments about films that I know I always learn something, and when I don't know the films, I feel a strong desire to see them you always mention the music, such a crucial part of any silent film screening - have a great New Year!

    1. Thank you very much John! I look forward to more evenings of exploration and home-made flan in Kennington next year! Thank you for reading and especially for playing! Best wishes Paul

  5. Dear Paul,
    A beautiful list of screenings and events, I envy you! Keep up the good work, I'll keep reading you in 2016!
    Very best wishes and happy New Year, Caroline

    1. Thank you very much Caroline - all the best for 2016 and I'll keep reading you too! Best wishes Paul

  6. Blimey, I dunno how you do it: always gadding about and prolifically posting about your adventures, yet the quality is always top notch... Isaluteyou Paul!

    1. And Ithankyou Mr Reid!! Look forward to seeing you without my disguise! Best wishes Paul