Sunday, 1 May 2016

Studying the silents… British Silent Film Festival Symposium, King's College, London

The Somme (1927)
This was my first time at the BSFFS and the event looks to be going from strength to strength now being spread over two days with screenings on Thursday and presentations on the Friday.

Whether you are an academic or just a hobby-ist, this is an irresistible opportunity to learn more and to mingle with like-minded people: where else can you share your favourite Lilian Hall-Davis moments, learn about the suppression of The Man Who Saved the Empire and hear the latest research on the importance of smell in silent cinema?

I’ve already told you about Married Love/Maisie’s Marriage but that wasn’t the only highlight from the screening day.

Charles Bignell music hall entertainer
We were treated a programme of early sound-on-disc shorts that Tony Fletcher has assembled, painstakingly synchronising a variety of short films with their original sound discs. We were treated to variety star, Vesta Victoria singing Waiting at the Church (1906) then a skit featuring Charles Bignell singing Are We Down-Hearted? (1911) – turns out we’re not! There was the outrageous The Rollicking Rajah (1913) now with its original Vivaphone sound, Al Santa on saxophone and, the most impressively synced fiddling of Albert Sander.

An interesting curio these films with sound but I can’t see it catching on; you’d need fifty discs for one of Mr Griffith’s epics for a start.

Knockagow - even the interior sets were built outside to catch the best of the Irish sunshine
Until 1921 British films included those made in Eire too and, released on the second anniversary of the Easter Rising, Fred O’Donovan’s Knockagow (1918) must have had an even harder time than Marie Stopes in smuggling its meanings past the London censors. Produced by the Film Company of Ireland – “made by Irish Men and Women” – it couldn’t fail to connect with national sentiments at that febrile time.

Set in 1848 Tipperary, and filmed there on location in open-air sets, the story was based on Charles J. Kickham’s 1873 novel of families torn apart by the land-clearances of the time (there’s a reason we Joyces left Galway…) spanning years and two continents. There are chunks missing which explained the disjointed narrative but a restoration is being worked on which will hopefully put this film in its rightful context.

Some of the cast performed live accompaniment at screenings
A huge hit, the Dublin Freeman’s Journal reported that “…no picture was ever shown in the country that secured anything like the enthusiastic support of Knockagow. It is probably the only picture that is given repeats in every village and town in Ireland.” The film also played well overseas – not the first Irish feature but certainly a major statement of independent creative intent.

Charles Barr’s talk the following day revealed more of the cast and crew’s background. Arthur Shields who played Phil Lahy, had fought in the Easter Rising being involved in the occupation of the Post Office, Barry Fitzgerald’s younger brother he went on to enjoy a long career and appeared in The Quiet Man (of course) as well as John Ford’s The Plough and the Stars. Remarkable people…

Neil Brand accompanied the film with trademark flourishes – it’s clearly not such a long way from Tipperary to Sussex!

Leopoldo Fregoli, a man of many faces
David Robinson told the fascinating tale of Leopoldo Fregoli, an Italian Stage performer who not only integrated films into his stage act but also may well have invented montage with his Fregoliograph. He was a consummate quick change artist who mastered Protean theatre in which he played all of the parts, male and female, old and young – on and off screen.

For the evening we were treated to MA Wetherall’s epic and occasionally harrowing, docudrama, The Somme (1927) which was made to mark the tenth anniversary of the battle. It features some footage from the two documentaries made in 1916 as well as actors playing both sides and veterans, VC winners, re-enacting the brave deeds that won them their medals.

Stephen Horne threw the kitchen sink at this one using every sound at his disposal from synthesized menace, brooding gothic organ and the eerie sound created by his accordion "breathing". All combined with impeccably-timed bang and crash as the bombs rained down... if Keith Emerson ever accompanied silent film it might have sounded a little like this.

Mr Punch's national service for all featured suggestions for Chaplin and other notables not in active combat
Day two and we’re crammed into King’s Nash lecture room for a sold out show…King’s is a very impressive venue and I had my usual (very) post-graduate pangs before making notes in time-honoured penance for all those lectures missed.

Ellen Cheshire, freelance film writer and Associate Lecturer at University of Chichester, was first up with details of what Mr Charles Chaplin was up to in the last week of April 1916. Apart from Charlie’s ongoing litigation with the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company his film The Floorwalker was about to be released and there was a great deal of debate about whether or not he should enlist in the war as exemplified by an Evening News article about “the Tramp who is too busy to fight…” By now the most famous man in the World – Chaplinitis in full bloom – opinion eventually swung in favour of his being kept alive as a morale booster… helped by timely Charlie PR.

Staying with the Great War and mysterious case of The Man who Saved the Empire aka The Life Story of David Lloyd George, Maurice Elvey expert, Lucie Dutton, presented her latest research into the reasons this film never saw general release. This was compelling stuff, as she took us on a tale involving back-office shenanigans at the highest levels, inappropriate press manoeuvring (cheers Lord Beaverbrook and your legacy lives on…) and pragmatism that would be scarcely out of place in modern politics.

If they ever make a TV series of silent movie mysteries we may have found its presenter!

Marie Doro a star at BC after decades of theatrical success
Had Lloyd George been released at the time, it would have struggled to find success in the US as did so many British films. Film historian Gerry Turvey told the tale of the British & Colonial Kinematograph Company’s efforts to break into the American market with a series of bigger budgeted features with enticing titles such as The Black Spider (1920), 12.10 (1919), The Temptress (1920) and Queens Evidence (1919). In spite of featuring star leads from theatre and film, such as Lydia Kyasht, Marie Doro, Unity Moore and Yvonne Arnaud BC was unable to sustain success in the face of block-booking and bigger budgets.

Professor Charles Barr was next explaining the frequently over-looked on-purpose, Irish contribution to British film before independence. Many films were produced in Ireland by Us and “mainland” companies but the Film Company of Ireland broke the mould with subversive subtlety. I loved his list of what they did next for the Knockagow cast: from eight-year old Cyril Cusack, Arthur Shields, Brefni O'Rorke crafting their long careers to director Fred O’Donovan’s TV innovations, these men took their talent and ran with it.

Knockagow's star Brian Magowan with Frances Alexander in Willy Reilly and his Colleen Bawn (1920)
I started feeling old at approximately 11.30 when four impossibly young post-grads got up for their turns. The next-gen showed how vibrant film research is with Glasgow University’s Stephen McBurney who told us of his research into the Serpentine Dance films and the reaction of conservative Inverness to the “serpents” and cinematic representation.

George Barker of the University Of Amsterdam then took our senses in an unexpected direction with a talk on the role of smell in cinema. Decades before Smellovision, Aromarama and now, 4DX, artificial smells were introduced into picture halls synchronized with the action. But there are other accidental and incidental aromas that cause an olfactory response – instantly evoking emotional response more than even visual and aural stimuli.

Annabelle Moore dances like a serpent in 1895 - not all folk would approve
Mara Arts of UCL discussed the royal family on London screens from the first media monarch – Queen Victoria – to George V and his son Edward VIII - The Unconvinced. All subjects as well as watchers of cinema.

Finally Nyasha Sibanda of De Montfort University gave us the intimate details of the Kingsway Cinema in Birmingham which opened on 2nd March 1925 with Clara Bow in Down to the Sea in Ships and Max Linder in Circusmania. Through primary research using the management committee’s meeting minutes he has been able to track the cinema’s commercial fortunes into the sound era.

The Kingsway is still standing but faced with "re-development" following a fire
All gave admirable presentations and my interest was matched only by my jealousy.

And then I had to take my leave… painfully missing out on the afternoon’s papers as family duty called. But I will be back next year and I would urge anyone with an interest in British film and the emerging stories behind it to do the same.

Watch for details at the BSFF site and King's College Film Studies Department for whom Doctor Lawrence Napper did a tremendous job in organizing everything (including biscuits!).

King's College, London


  1. Fantastic sum-up as ever! I appreciate it as I missed the Thursday fun and the first set on Friday

    1. Thank you! It was a really good programme with a lot of food for further thought!

  2. This all sounds just fascinating. Thanks for writing up this recap, Paul! :)

    1. It was good to go back to college!

      Thanks for reading and hope is all well over at Silents Please!