Thursday, 26 April 2018

Hot media… British Silent Film Symposium 2018, Day Two, Kings College, London

Kings Road, 1891

The joy of history, as my tutors never said directly, is in reconnection with the feelings of the past; looking through the dates to the actual emotion around events and change. Today’s presentations pulled us back to the moments when uncertainty fired invention and genuinely brave hearts kickstarted the medium we are all so cool about now. But nothing was inevitable and collaboration by men working on parallel courses determined the future. The birth of cinema was more along the lines of Hedy Lamarr’s spread frequencies than a single signal (and if there was one it certainly was not from Thomas Edison).


Ian Christie – The Tarnished Myth of British Precedence

Ian Christie kicked us off and introduced the man of the day, William Friese-Greene by way of the Boulting’s The Magic Box (1951) in which bemused PC Laurence Olivier witnesses the first projection of moving images, supposedly in 1890. Whilst Friese-Greene had not developed his magic to this extent, this scene is fiction based on fact only not William’s but RW Paul’s in 1895 when he and Birt Acres made so much noise celebrating running a film on a Paul Kinetoscope (Edison wouldn’t supply them with “his”) that a policeman did indeed make inquiries.

Why didn’t Paul get the credit and why were some so keen on attributing credit to Friese-Greene? The answer is in the ebb and flow of historical agendas and a rush to lay the crown on single heads. Friese-Greene’s reputation has paid many times over for the infamous film but both he and Paul deserve a balanced appreciation.

Ian Christie showed panels from a graphic novel detailing Paul’s work and has more to come with book, blog and exhibition. More details on the blog:

Peter Domankiewicz – William Friese-Greene and the Art of Collaboration

Peter also came up with genuinely jaw-dropping boost for WF-G’s with his re-animation of the latter’s film of Kings Road, London in 1891!  This was probably the first time the pictures had been shown on anything other than a Kinetoscope and we’d like to see more. In the meantime, it is on YouTube.

Friese-Greene, as with Paul, collaborated with a number of others to develop his technology, including John Arthur Rudge, inventor of the Biophantic Lantern. Together they made a sequence entitled Rudge Loses His Head, in which, examination of the slides revealed Friese-Greene played the body from which Rudge’s head seemingly detaches.

Later F-G worked with Mortimer Evans to develop a camera capable of taking a rapid series of pictures – 6-7 frames a second and potentially up to 100 all in 1890 (but not projectable onto a sheet for gasping policemen…).

William Friese-Green
Then there was Frederick Varley who had devised a machine for weighing mediums – to work out the impact of ectoplasmic discharge (ew!) – and with whom F-G came up with a stereoscopic camera.

After Friese-Greene’s reputation has been trashed until the point he was claimed to have contributed very little, it is ironic that a review of his choice of collaborators shows just how significant he actually was. Maybe he just wasn’t good at the PR aspect – and we know he struggled at business. Edison – a master at both, didn’t acknowledge Dickson’s role (and others’) in his’ company’s developments whilst even Le Prince wouldn’t have captured Leeds on film without James Langley’s camera.

Peter Domankiewicz also makes films and further details can be found on his site.

Elizabeth Watkins – Scientific Photography and the Fantastic in Polar Expedition Films: Reading the Notebooks of Fred Gent

There was collaboration on a grander scale in the pioneering films of Herbert Ponting who filmed the Scott’s expeditions and Frank Hurley who worked with Douglas Mawson and Ernest Shackleton.

Their work was not only driven by commercial imperatives but also a supplement to established methods of scientific documentation and not juts in extensive sequences of penguins. Watkins work has focused on the influence of Fred Gent, General Manager for Gaumont (Sydney) on the resultant expedition films from the selection of camera equipment even as far as lecture rights and exhibition work.

There were some gorgeous tinted and colour shots (applied colour) of polar landscapes – Arch Berg, Castle Berg and so on which used a colour-coding following Gaumont’s lead: green for wildlife and so on. The use of colour is part of the performance and I had never thought about how specific that could be.

Castle Berg, William Ponting 1911


Andrew Shail – The UK Film Market, 1907-1912

In case you didn’t know, by day I’m a marketeer and I love data – not in a Cambridge Analytica way – but as a means of understanding behaviours and better supporting customer service delivery (yes, I’m one of the Marketing Good Guys…).

I was therefore naturally in awe of firstly Andrew Shail’s – and later Nyasha Sibanda’s – data-driven analysis. Historical analysis rarely gets the chance to use a quantitative approach and Andrew’s database of some 19,000 films from 1907 to 1912 has enabled him to draw some startling conclusions about the UK film market. The data was captured from the Kinematograph Film Review and represents around 90% of the domestic film market – an over-whelming sample ration in terms of likely accuracy.

Changes in source of origin. Hard work and copyright Andrew Shail
It reveals a huge growth in the number of production companies issuing films in the UK, from just 7 in the first quarter of 1907 to 78 in Oct-Dec 1912. What’s more the country of origin, whilst being surprisingly varied with film from Italy, Denmark and even Japan part of the regular imports.
UK and France dominate until the start of 1912 when US output accelerates away, a few years before I expected with the Great War. Italian production also come in a healthy third (not unexpected perhaps) which Nordisk consistently contributes a steady flow of increasingly lengthy films. A fascinating glimpse of the size and scale of the new media as it matured during its second decade.

Lucie Dutton – From Glib-Smooth-Tongued Travellers to Cabbages: Maurice Elvey and British Distribution in the 1910s

Now for another of the traditional highlights of BSFFS, Lucie Dutton’s revelations on our most prolific film-maker and a maker of grand cinema almost the equal of Griffith (without the, you know…). In a day when so many themes interlinked, Lucie had analysed cinema advertising in Derby that showed up to 70% of films shown to be of US origin with just 21% being British.

It was therefore crucial for Mr Elvey to establish good relationships with renters and much of the director’s early film-making was shaped more by distributors than production companies: he saw himself as the producer of “the cabbage” reliant on the wholesaler to deliver to the greengrocers – i.e. the cinema. Even in the case of Elvey’s passion project – some cabbage! – which he sold to Apex for £15,000, they enabled him to make a “director’s cut” that had more action (re-shoots after some sequences were lost), educational content (the moving plans of the battles), illustrated intertitles and those stirring shots of modern warships.

It's that man again. Courtesy of Lucie Dutton
Another lovely snippet was the schools essay competition of which four entries survive detailing the pupils’ responses to the films. General agreement was that we’d love to read their reviews!

Neil Parsons – American movie-maker Harold Shaw as an agent of British Influence 1916-1920

Harold Shaw was born in Kentucky but came to work in Britain where he perhaps surprisingly produced a string of films that supported our role in the world.  Shaw seemingly succeeded in making a pro-Boer film that kept the British onside, Winning a Continent (1916) and went on to wrote a pro-Empire, Anglo-Zulu epic, The Symbol of Sacrifice (1918). He eventually made his own film, The Rose of Rhodesia (1918) and from there an anti-Bolshevik romance about a character called Lenoff (geddit?), The Land of Mystery (1920) which was immensely popular, re-assuring in the turbulent times…

He appears to have grasped the counter-intuitive notions of influential propaganda: giving the benefit of some doubt to the opposition.

The Imperial Film Company Ltd presents...


Chris Grosvenor – ‘Wake Up!’: British Cinema, the Outbreak of War, and the Voluntary Recruiting Movement, 1914-1916

Before the huge hits of The Somme (1916) and The Battle of the Ancre (1917) which showed those at home exactly what life was life on the front line, there were other films which were filmed on training grounds and were aimed at encouraging volunteers before the introduction of conscription in 1916. Long before the War Office set up its own committee for war-related film production, the British film industry was already doing its bit with a host of “invasion” films such as Wake Up! Or a Dream of Tomorrow (1914).

Is it to our credit that our government didn’t “industrialise” this propaganda process from the outset? Chris Grosvenor’s research highlights how – mostly - united in thought Britain was at this time.

A story book produced to accompany the film, Wake Up!

Ellen Cheshire – The Lads of the Village: From Stage to screen to court

Now for one of the day’s most shocking revelations… The Lads of the Village was a hugely popular stage play that was made into a film in 1919 (you can watch it on the BFI Player here). It was written by Clifford Harris and a man known simply as Valentine with music from James Tate. Ellen blew Valentine’s cover; his real name was Archibald Peachy, who also used the writer’s nom-de-plume of Mark Cross and who just happened to father Fany Craddock probably the UK’s first TV chef and a legend beyond her own lunch and dinner time.

Ellen is involved with Portsmouth’s Kings Theatre and as part of a research initiative, the Great War Theatre project, she discovered that it’s position in the busy naval port had meant it premiered a number of First World War propaganda plays including “Lads…” which the team re-staged in 2017.

The film turned out to be controversial, at least with the three original creators who sued Joe Peterman, the producer of both play and film, for using the story which he clearly felt, stripped of its 14 songs, was not their copyright.

Those Lads and that pig.
Christina Hink – Wonderful London in the 1920s

Harry B. Parkinson and Frank Miller’s 1924 travelogue series, Wonderful London provides a precious insight into London in the midst of change and, thankfully a BFI DVD is available of the twelve surviving films. Christina looked at the history and form of two of the films, London’s Sunday and London Old and New to show existing tensions in a city stuck between ancient and modern. It was ever thus with change the only guarantee as indeed is contrast whether between East and West, rich and poor or the future and the past.

East is East and West is Best...
Llewella Chapman – Government Policy on Filming at Hampton Court Palace, 1910-1930

As with precious architectural heritage, sometimes the powers that be just don’t understand what they’ve got until, regrettably, it’s gone…

Also, suspicious of the new-ish medium the Governments of the day were always cautious about allowing their precious property to be used as a backdrop for cheap shot entertainments. But gradually, as is our hallmark, they allowed more access, specifically to Hampton Court as Llewella’s research shows. In spite of films such as Hampton Court Palace (1926) – available on theBFI Player right now - the landowners were still not fully understanding the purpose of the films and their power in promoting their architectural wares.

Oh, the goings on in Hampton Court...


John Izod – Arthur Dulay and John Grierson: fitting Drifters (1929)

Sarah Neely read Mr Izod’s words as he was sadly unable to make it and she did a grand job. The research has uncovered a fascinating instruction sheet for musicians to help them play along appropriately to John Grierson’s Drifters (1929).

The film was accompanied by an orchestra for its premier and thereafter was “fitted” both tonally and prescriptively with the themes and tunes on this instruction sheet. On the right were instructions for disc operators – the disc jockeys of their day – and on the left was a list of music and playing styles for live accompaniment. I especially liked some of the instructions: “stormy agitated” and “flowering involvement” sound grand!

Not surprisingly The Clarion reviewed the film in 1930 as “a poetry of sound”.

Arthur Dulay's sinister agitations...

Geoff Brown – Did Britain Really Invent Film Sound?

Geoff Brown gave yet another of his witty talks and his humour so perfectly suited the subject matter of hurt Great British pride as those American’s took our baby and made it run. Returning to Mr Christie’s discussion of “first-ness”, Geoff explained how domestic efforts were made to claim the breakthrough of “sound” as well as vision. No doubt there were sound commercial reasons for this and the need to remain competitive, but it does feel a little… unreserved.

It was war, ladies and gents, a war against the impending invasion of high-tech American sound especially as viewed by those who viewed talkies as Hollywood’s revenge for the British quota system introduced in 1927. Bringing the day full circle, it was around this time when the “legend” of William Friese-Greene began to develop along with other British pioneers such as Eadweard Muybridge. As Geoff intimates thought, it doesn’t matter who came first just why exactly they were suddenly supposed to have been.

White heat of Brit-talkie invention
Nyasha Sibanda – Sound Arrives at the Tudor 1927-1931

Back to data and the rewards of a good spreadsheet well defined, maintained and interpreted! Nyasha has applied tremendous method to the ledgers of Leicester’s Tudor Cinema by data capturing tickets sold, revenue receipts, films screened over the silent era and into sound.

His findings were most enlightening showing the most popular films from 1927-29 with Ben-Hur just pipping Chaplin’s The Circus to top spot with 9,573 tickets sold. Maurice Elvey features twice with the most excellent Hindle Wakes (1928) and Mademoiselle from Armentieres (1927). The latter wasn’t the only feature I’d not heard of with something called Johnny Get Your Hair Cut staring Jackie Coogan in at number six!

British films do better in the silent era and, proving Geoff’s points about British defensiveness, after sound, Hollywood becomes ever more dominant. That said analysis of the audience feedback forms showed that they did prefer British voices but then you didn’t get many US films without an English accent…

Leicester's Top Ten: how many have you seen?

Laraine Porter – Elstree melodies and ‘the charm of the English voice’: musical moments in early British talkies

Laraine picked up on that “English voice” – seriously good programming! – and discussed the emergence of home-grown musicals which at one point made up a third of the total output from British studios featuring stars such as Jan Kiepura, one of Laraine’s favourites. Chasing what they saw as popular tastes and much to the distaste of the snobbish Close Up magazine (honestly, did they like anything?!) there was even a pop song in Blackmail with Miss Up to Date as sung by the grabby artist himself, Cyril Ritchard. The curse of the “theme song” struck the shadowlands of so many shandy silent/talkies with Sonny Boy the dubious template before full-scale musicals such as Elstree Calling (1930) all trying to emulate American successes. Despite the emergency of home grown talents such as Jessie Mathews and, later Gracie Fields and George Formby the British musical failed to compete with Americana much beyond the end of the decade. Maybe it was just not our style?

Cyd sings
By now the sun had heated our Kings College lecture room to levels that would parch a camel. It was time to re-locate and the Edgar Wallace pub awaited eager drinkers…

This was another highly successful event from the KC and BSFF team and today’s talks the most impressive of the three I’ve attended. More next year please Dr Napper!


  1. One of those fabulous BSFF serendipitous moments occurred in the panel after the Grierson/Drifters paper; one of our number suggested that musical director Arthur Dulay was worthy of further study, as he could be seen as the forerunner of today's musical accompanists....when asked if he had seen him play, the member revealed that he saw him play the Festival of Britain Telekinema in 1951..... !!!!! Made of stern stuff, the BSFF crowd.

    1. It's still in living memory - we need to download that man's datastore!

  2. Thanks so much for doing this- it's a really useful record of great day. And if anyone is a glutton for punishment, I have now put my talk on "William Friese-Greene and The Art of Collaboration" up on YouTube,complete with animated and removable heads: