Early reality film was all about capturing movement: people, vehicles and animals doing something or going somewhere. If the object was static the camera moved – it would be loaded onto a boat, car, tram or train to film ships, buildings, views and panoramas (link). Nothing stayed still, least of all a city. London as a spectacle and a novelty was a big deal in Victorian visual media, which celebrated the capital in illustrations, literature, phonographs, engravings and magic lantern slides. By the time film came along in 1895, people everywhere wanted to see what the biggest city in the world really looked like.
Recently, the British Film Institute (BFI) staged A Night In Victorian And Edwardian London, a programme of short films (projected on actual film) about London, shot between 1895 and 1910; it was a captivating 100 minutes, enjoyed enormously by the full house in Screen 1. The BFI’s silent film curator Bryony Dixon introduced the programme and as she said, ‘chatted’ along, telling us where and when each film was made (if known). It felt like we had our own ‘barker’; Bryony’s knowledge and brilliantly dry wit was highly entertaining and informative. But we were a much better behaved audience than she could have expected in 1910… Neil Brand provided the piano accompaniment, an unexpected treat, and his light-touch improvised playing added sparkle to the moving images.
The evening’s entertainment was neatly bookmarked by two remarkably similar films about London, made 110 years apart. To open, Londoners, a 2012 film by Joseph Ernst and to close Living London, a 1904 film by American Charles Urban; the similarities were in the reactions of the people who were caught on camera. Just as in the wonderful Mitchell and Kenyon collection (see more here http://tinyurl.com/ngxud5a), Ernst’s subjects who noticed the camera couldn’t keep their eyes off it. They waved, pointed, smiled, laughed and messed around – what my gran would have called ‘acting the goat’. Ernst used a 100-year-old hand cranked wooden camera to record scenes similar to Mitchell and Kenyon’s subjects – people at work, bustling street scenes and children playing. Urban’s truly beautiful Living London captured many scenes of daily London life, from the busy City to market porters and flower girls. Living London is held at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia so it was an extra special treat to watch it on the Southbank.
One of the gems for me was the Peak Frean (biscuit and cake company) film – gorgeous images of women at work in the factory, pin-sharp even though it was shot indoors. Some of the footage was under-cranked (the camera handle turned more slowly than usual) to make everyone look extra busy. However, this was seriously let down by one ‘worker’ in the packing department who couldn’t help looking into the lens and making a show of his ‘busyness’ – energetically shifting a pile of boxes all of, ooh maybe six inches, all the way to the next man; it was like a Monty Python sketch on work demarcation. There is a less sharp version here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4SwVK8nQqqY, fast forward to 15:00, it’s still worth a watch.
Why Girls Leave Home was a hoot. It’s an American spoof of contemporary British melodramatic theatre that plays into the fear of what dreadful errors our daughters might make, or have thrust upon them. Thomas A Edison (for it is he) made this film for the British market in 1909. It’s terribly acted (much declaiming and arm flapping), the storyline is thin, all the backdrops are rough, the stunts ridiculous. But it’s hilarious! Funniest of all was the leading lady’s ’suicide’ by jumping in to a blatantly fake River Thames only to be splashed energetically by a visible ‘someone’ hiding in the water. As Bryony pointed out, on one backdrop the various landmarks of the London skyline were jumbled up, but veracity wasn’t high on the agenda here. Artistic license anybody?
Another gem was a London compilation by the Lumiére brothers who made immensely popular city panoramas. Starting with footage of the exterior of the theatre in which their films were showing (staged and peopled by extras) the viewer was then taken on a trip around London. This format was replicated in all the major cities of the western world and was incredibly popular amongst cinema-goers. Our fascination with TV travel programmes is nothing new.
We also saw coronations and royal funerals, a little dull in content but atmospheric nonetheless; they signify how we (or some of us) have enthusiastically embraced all royal occasions ever since. Other films showed us Blackfriars Bridge in 1896, and horse drawn buses at Marble Arch, Seven Sisters Road and Euston Road two years later. It was fascinating to see the commercial vehicles plastered with adverts for Horlicks, Nestle milk and Colman’s mustard among other familiar brands. A brief trip on the London Underground (1910) looked even grubbier than it does today, and we saw the station signs before the advent of the iconic Tube symbol. It’s easy to forget how the city looked a little more than a century ago.
What I took away from this terrific event was our endless fascination for the ordinary, for sights and stories that relate to our own lives, as well as insights into other cultures. We’re still captivated by cameras, we can’t resist the flickering screen and its seductive images; there’s a great future for silent film.
Watch more of Charles Urban’s extensive catalogue at Luke McKernan’s site dedicated to the man, http://www.charlesurban.com/films.html.
The BFI’s YouTube channel has plenty of London films to please your eye and your heart.