Thursday, 31 May 2018

Nevertheless, they persisted… The Suffragette (1913), Make More Noise with Wendy Hiscocks, Barbican

These films were being shown as part of the Barbican’s Nevertheless, She Persisted: Suffrage, Cinema and Beyond - the Art of Change – a season to mark the centenary of some women first getting the vote. Very few films survive documenting either the suffragette movement in action or fictional depictions and those that do, tend to have a negative view of the disruption.  This was a point made by researcher, writer and performer Dr Naomi Paxton in her introduction and even when the films were sympathetic they had to overcome censorship. Naomi researches the performative propaganda of the suffrage movement and it was fascinating to hear her thoughts on this selection of shorts, newsreel and the main feature: more noise was being made and by a mass movement across society.

By 1914 there were over fifty suffrage societies with the Women’s Social and Political Union (whose colours were the iconic purple, white and green), the Women’s Freedom League (green and gold) and the National Union Woman’s Suffrage Society (red, white and green) who were the oldest and largest.

The men of Widnes, where my grandfather lived, supporting suffrage
These groups were adept at using media as it was to get their point across… whether it was those colour ways of their branding, the use of photographs taken in the heart of protest marches or post cards of suffragette leaders doing routine household tasks to show they weren’t distracted from the daily tasks of motherhood. They were fighting a propaganda war but, unlike the movement satirised in our main feature, never aimed at injury and assassination – the only lives lost being their own.

The first part of the programme included a series of short films that were drawn from the BFI’s Make More Noise compilation: the cinema of suffrage. They were a mix of newsreel, comedy and reportage from 1901 to 1918 including two reports on the Derby day death of Emily Davison. In the first the race was shown with no comment on the incident but in the second we could clearly see her step out and be smashed down to the ground as she attempted to pin a rosette on the King’s horse… Footage of her funeral followed; clearly a major event with tens of thousands lining the route.

A democratic revolution
There are crowds throughout this footage, Trafalgar Square rammed with tens of thousands with banners showing support from across the country in largely peaceful process. There’s anxiety in the air though as the police look on anxiously in Whitehall and scuffles break out forcing a quick exit for Sylvia Pankhurst in one sequence. It’s amazing to have history captured so eloquently on screen especially at a time when the capitol’s streets are once again full of protest, for the NHS, against Donald Trump and Brexit… the vote wasn’t the ultimate aim of democracy and “noise” continues to be made.

The fiction in this mix is mostly comedic – a reaction against the disruption and one picking up on contemporary bemusement as well as anxiety. But this is Britain and so the idea of strong, independent women is both a funny thing as well as an odd idea… things being always as they seem to be anyway.

Chrissie White shows that wife is not the weaker...
Thus we have Wife the Weaker Vessel (1915) in which a man gains revenge on his pal for accusing him of being hen-pecked by lining him up with a fitness instructor for his wife – played by Chrissie White (aka Tilly) who was in so much British film at this time. Here, as elsewhere, she demonstrates a keen feel for comedy as well as some impressive physicality, eventually having her husband cowering as she raises her fists. These moments do cut both ways though and in Milling the Militants, a man called Brown dreams of abolishing the suffragettes only to wake and have to face up to his fatherly responsibilities. 

Anarchy in the UK: Alma Taylor and Chrissie White as Tilly
Then in the Tilly series, Alma Taylor and Chrissie White play merry havoc with social norms by cheeking their way through anarchic adventures which must have made the women in the audience feel just that bit more amused than the men. The girls disrupt a gathering at their parent’s house, lead the angry guests on a merry chase sat on the handlebars as their boyfriends cycle away. 

The women’s movement was so ingrained in society and so many women went to the pictures… perhaps cinema was more subtly supportive than the government may have thought?

Asta Nielsen rising up!
Now onto the main feature, a tricky proposition in which the Danes and the Germans pass comment on the matter of the British suffrage movement.

Asta Nielsen plays socialite Nelly Panburne, a thinly veiled Pankhurst, who has her pick of suitors from the upper echelons and yet who opts for the unobtainable Lord William Ascue (Max Landa) ...not a million miles from Lord Asquith, Britain’s PM at the time. Nelly’s mother, Mrs Panburne (Mary Scheller), is an aristocratic wife who has decided to join the struggle… even though she could presumably find other entertainment. (By contrast her counterpart, Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), was middle class and from solid Lancastrian socialist stock.)

There's no denying that Asta's character is bored of expected behaviours
She and her “sisters” suck Nelly into their world by showing her people in poverty (hey, sign me up too!!) and, overcome by their zealous fervour, she decides to become a suffragette. Nelly’s first bit of civil disobedience is to smash a shop window for which she is imprisoned. In jail she goes on hunger strike and there is a fairly uncomfortable demonstration of the attempt to force feed her with a rubber tube.

Under Asquith’s odious “Cat and Mouse Act” from 1913, suffragettes were allowed to go on hunger strike and then released when they were too unwell to take part in any further protest… giving the women enough rope to starve themselves. Here Nelly manages to avoid the feeding and is released in good health to a hero’s welcome from the suffragettes. 

Meanwhile Lord Ascue is the driving force behind an attempt to outlaw the suffragette movement. But, being a Liberal, he was having a relationship with one Lola Rodrigues who – scorned – gives her love letters over to the suffragettes so they may use them to blackmail her former lover and stop the legislation.

Book nibbling: so seemingly casual...
Nelly is given the task of delivering the ultimatum to Ascue but, before she leaves, her mother gives her a time bomb which she is to place in his study. Still ignorant of who her enemy is, Nelly plants the bomb and then realises to her horror that her intended victim is also the love of her life…

Once home Nelly tries to draw Ascue away to an assignation, but he already has a meeting planned in his house at precisely the time when the bomb is due to go off. Nelly finally breaks free of the hold the suffragettes have on her and goes to try rescue the Lord. The film is genuinely thrilling for this last section as Nelly struggles to get past the men of officialdom as the clock ticks down on their leader 's meeting… 

At the end there’s a sly intertitle saying “she who rocks the cradle rules the World” which cuts to a picture of Asta and her husband surrounded by four babies… this is so over-the-top it has to be pointed. We’ll never know for sure but I wouldn’t be surprised if Asta felt that cradle rocking wasn’t necessarily the be all and end all…

She is such a relaxed and empowered performer, streets away from anyone else in the film in terms of technique in front of the camera. It’s little moments that make her appear so genuine and relaxed, picking up her mother’s pen on the desk as she talks with her or biting the corner of her book as she thinks. If a group of people were able to go back from the future to view her, they’d be hard pressed to know if she was acting. That’s us that is. Asta Nielsen, the future of cinema performance… you heard it here last.

Asta is also glammed up for this role and in addition to blonde highlights in her enormous hair, wears a range of quote outrageously opulent gowns that show just how extravagantly stylish the 1910s could be… how could she be so willing to give up these posh frocks for the poll box?
Asta Nielsen
Composer-pianist Wendy Hiscocks accompanied and brought her considerable experience to bear on the changing tones brought by the mix of news reportage, genuine tragedy and the complexity of Asta’s comedy.  She’s one of those pianists who has absolute surety on the keyboards and gracefully anticipated and responded to every change up on the screen.

Make More Noise is available on BFI DVD  (cheaper at BFI Shop than the other place...) with Lillian Henley’s lovely accompaniment whilst The Suffragette is on the EditionFilmuseum set, Four Films of Asta Nielsenwhich is essential for all those fascinated with the actor who at the very least, co-invented naturalistic film performance half a world away from Hollywood and with foresight and style all of her own.

She persisted and she took control.

* Even the granting of suffrage in 1918 was very limited - women over the age of 30 were given the vote in provided they also met certain property qualifications. It wasn’t until 1928 that suffrage was extended to all women over the age of 21, equal with men… That was the year Emmeline Pankurst passed away, having helped change British society for ever.

She who rocks the cradle?
Good question!

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