London was dangerous

It’s been a while since I posted any memoir evidence of going to the cinema in the silent era, a particular research topic of mine. This quotation from V.S. Pritchett’s memoir A Cab at the Door: An Autobiography: Early Years (London: Chatto & Windus, 1968) also serves as further evidence of the term Bioscope, and of the early cinema practice of spraying the surprisingly compliant audiences of the time with disinfectant:

London was dangerous. We had a girl to help my mother for a few weeks and her mind, like the mind of the one at Ealing, was brimming with crime. She took me to the Camberwell Bioscope to see a film of murder and explosions called The Anarchist’s Son, in which men with rifles in their hands crawled up a hill and shot at each other. When the shed in which one of them was living, blew up, the film turned silent, soft blood red and the lady pianist in front of the screen struck up a dramatic chord. In the Bioscope men walked about squirting the audience with a delicious scent like hair lotion that prickled our heads.

The Pritchett family lived in a street off Coldharbour Lane in London. The cinema he is referring to is possibly Burgoyne’s American Bioscope, at 213 Rye Lane, Peckham. The date is around 1910, when he would have been ten years old. Pritchett of course went on to become a renowned short story writer and essayist.



Sometimes some of the most interesting writing on early cinema isn’t found under the heading ‘cinema’. A case in point is Jon Savage’s new book, Teenage: The Creation of Youth 1875-1945. It’s a history of the invention of teenagers before there were teenagers, as it were. Most social histories explore the phenomenon post-1945 – Savage looks at how we got to that point by looking at the growing power and influence of adolescents, partiularly American, from the late Victorian period, not least through the pleasures that they pursued. So he has a lot to say about the cinema of the teens and 1920s (making good use of Kevin Brownlow’s Behind the Mask of Innocence), for which the audience was, we must remember, significanly young (up to 50% of the early cinema audience were children or adolescents, according to some estimates). He places the cinema as a particular pleasure of the teenaged within his larger thesis about America as a young society, giving early cinema a social context beyond the boundaries used found in a film studies book. Or at least that’s what I gleaned from half an hour’s read in Waterstone’s…

There’s an interesting review by Libby Purves in The Times which highlights the cinema aspects of the book. Jon Savage is of course the author of the definite book on punk, England’s Dreaming.