Interview with the Marchioness Townshend

Gwladys, Marchioness of Townshend

Returning to the theme of British women filmmakers in the silent era, meet Gwladys, Marchioness of Townshend. The humble British film industry was more than a little flattered when the Marchioness Townshend (1884-1959), born Gwladys Ethel Gwendolen Eugénie Sutherst, later Mrs Bernard Le Strange, agreed to provide scenarios for the Clarendon Film Company. The films for which she supplied stories were Behind the Scenes, The Convent Gate, The House of Mystery and A Strong Man’s Love, all made in 1913. Sadly, none survives.

The Marchioness of Townshend was a playwright, novelist and poet, as well as a celebrated socialite. Her plays included The Story of an Actress (1914) and The Fold (1920), and her novels Married Life: The Adventures of Herbert and Mariana (1914) and The Widening Circle (1920). She wrote an autobiography, It Was – and it Wasn’t (1937) and a collection, True Ghost Stories (1936), which was still in print in the 1990s.

We can only speculate about the films with which she was involved, but her opinions are interesting. This interview with her, from The Bioscope in July 1914, hints at someone who had possibly turned to the lowly cinema through frustration at not getting her plays produced on the stage, but she was alert to the potential of the medium, and claims to have been inspired by early films of waves breaking on a sea coast, no less. Whatever her actual abilities, it was unusual at this time for a film scenarist to be given any credit at all, and it indicates a new significance which was being given to the craft.

In view of the great interest aroused by the announcement of three new dramas by the Marchioness Townshend, to be shown to the Trade next Friday, we begged her ladyship to favour our readers with a few of her ideas on the subject of writing for the film, and were kindly granted an interview at the offices of the Clarendon Film Company, where Lord and Lady Townshend had called to inspect the recently completed films. Lady Townshend’s views are of partiular interest, not only on account of the great success achieved by “The Convent Gate,” “The House of Mystery,” and “A Strong Man’s Love,” but by reason of the cordial reception given to the one act play now running at the Coliseum.

In answer to our question as to what first turned her thoughts to writing for the cinematograph, Lady Townshend said she had been deeply interested in moving pictures ever since her childhood, when she first saw a picture at the Palace Theatre of waves breaking on the sea-shore.

“As far as I can remember,” said Lady Townshend said, “it must have been quite a bad picture, but I immediately realised the possibilities of this new medium, and fully believed that the time would come when its range would be enormously increased. I have always taken a keen interest in the stage and have written many plays which have been produced for charitable purposes. I felt the fascination of this new form of silent drama, partly because of its great advantages in the way of stage setting and realism, and partly perhaps, because when writing for the stage I always seem to see thesituations as I create them. Another advantage is the extent of its appeal, for although the nature of that appeal is in some respects more restricted than that of the stage, and must necessarily be more simple, it reaches a far greater public, and if nothing can equal the power of human speech, on the other hand, nothing can equal the eloquent silence of the cinematograph.”

“Then you are not in favour of the speaking picture, Lady Townshend?”

“Not of the mechanical speaking picture. I am too fond of the stage to wish for the cinematograph to enter into direct competition with it. For the same reason I do not care to see the stage adaping itself to the film, for neither great plays not great actors can always be represented adequately on the screen. I think that youth has its chance in the film play, and it is better to build up a reputation as a film actor than to give an inadequate record even of a world-renowned success.”

“What do you consider the most suitable subjects for the film play?”

“As far as my own experience goes, I believe that the public requires melodrama, though not that class of melodrama which merely consists in piling up of impossible situations as a test of it’s [sic] author’s ingenuity in evolving a successful happy ending. I think a plot should contain more of a problem than the abstraction of some papers of ambiguous value and the chase over two continents for their recovery. By problem I don’t mean the morbid dissection of some social question which is left involved at the end. In my new play, “The Story of an Actress,” for example, the problem is whether a young peer should marry an actress who is a thoroughly good girl or sacrifice his happiness and hers out of consideration for the feelings of his relatives. The moral is the foundation of the play, but its main object, of course, is to interest the public, and that object, I believe, is best gained with the help of melodrama, which is an ingredient of nearly every great play.”

“Then I believe also in absolute realism. If I write of the doings of the people of the slums, I want them to look and behave like real slum people; just as when I bring in members of the aristocracy, I want them to look and behave like ladies and gentlemen. That is the kind of realism which appeals to the public and also has a certain educational influence.”

“You believe, then, in the educational value of the cinematograph?”

“Most decidely, and have always taken the greatest interest in that branch of the subject. I think the time is certainly coming when much more will be done in that direction, in which, at present, we are rather behind other countries. I heard only yesterday that the Crown Prince of Siam had a private theatre in which he gives his soldiers practical instruction in manoeuvres and military matters, a notable example to come from so small a state. With regard to dramas, I believe that every good play which is true to life has a certain educational influence, and I should like to think that the influence of my plays will be a good one. I have written one or two costume plays, but they have not been produced as yet, as there seems to be not great demand at present for that class of work, though certainly the Clarendon Company has produced some very successful costume dramas.”

“Have you written plays for any other company, Lady Townshend?”

“No, the Clarendon Company produced my first work, and so far I have written exclusively for them. Indeed, I have been so pleased with the result of my first works, that I have no wish to change, and have, in fact, just signed a contract for six new plays. Everybody concerned has worked hard to ensure success, and I hope that the new ones will be received as well as the earlier ones.”

“You find no difficulty in inventing original plots?”

“Is there such a thing as an original plot? I certainly have no difficulty in weaving stories, and I think I have always been in the habit of doing that in dramatic form, but, after all, I think originality of treatment is the main thing, and that is essential in all classes of literary work. I find time to write a good many magazine articles, and have even contributed articles dealing with the cinematograph.”

It is gratifying to learn that the company engaged to play in these new dramas has the advantage of Lady Townshend’s personal supervision and advice.

The Bioscope, 30 July 1914, pp. 430-431.

Nothing seems to have come of the six new ‘plays’ she was to have written for Clarendon, and so far as is known she had nothing further to do with the film business.