As initiatives such as the Crazy Cinematographe show and DVD are showing, the cinema came out of the fairground and its displays were seen by many as at one with freak shows, waxworks and performing animals. Just as many would probably say that this remains the case. Anyway, published this week is fascinating evidence of this parentage. The Society for Theatre Research has published The Journals of Sidney Race, 1892-1900: A Provincial View of Popular Entertainment. Sidney Race was a gas company clerk, living in Nottingham, who started writing down what he saw of life in the city, including its many public entertainments, notably the Nottingham Goose Fair.
From 1892 to 1900, Race recorded his impressions of bearded ladies, armless wonders, performing seals and dancing bears, with a keen eye for ordinary detail. And so, naturally enough, he took note of the cinematograph when it arrived in Nottingham. His first impression was one of scant glamour:
It was a dirty canvas tent with the sheet arranged by the entrance and the apparatus on an old box or two opposite it where it was worked by a grim looking individual as black as a stoker.
Later he recorded seeing a ‘Living Pictures’ in Long Row, Nottingham, where he recorded that:
an enormous number of photographs, taken consecutively, are whirled with the speed of lightning, before your eyes.
He saw films shown on the Edison Kinetoscope, trick films, dramatised scenes depicting the Greco-Turkish War (made by Georges Méliès), and numerous ‘exceedingly improper’ films’. He describes one film which evidently made a particular impression. It was called The Model’s Bath.
A woman – we could detected a large smile on her face – divested herself of her skirt and other outer objects of clothing and appeared in her white drawers and chemise … The girl was in a large white night dress which had fallen down from the breast disclosing a well developed ‘frontage’ … It was a dirty and suggestive exhibition though we really saw no indecency … I am very glad it was late at night when I saw the thing and that no lady was with me.
This remarkable find was made by theatre historian Ann Featherstone, University of Manchester, who came across the journal in the Nottingham Archives. It’s not unknown to film historians, as Vanessa Toulmin of the National Fairground Archive has used the journals, and cites several passages in her essay ‘The Cinematograph at the Nottingham Goose Fair, 1896-1911’, in Alan Burton and Laraine Porter (eds.), The Showman, the Spectacle & the Two-Minute Silence: Performing British Cinema Before 1930 (2001). She notes Race’s scepticism, indicating that early audiences were not always taken in by the trickery of some films as some have suggested, being able to tell a dramatised war scene from the likely reality, for instance.
I’ve not yet seen a copy of the publication, and it’s not easy to find information on it, not least because there’s nothing as yet on the Society for Theatre Research’s web site. There’s a citation for the original journal on the Nottinghamshire Heritage Gateway. I’ll put up more information when I find it.
Update (March 2008):
This message has come from the Journals’ editor:
Hello, I’m Ann Featherstone. I edited the Journals of Sydney Race, published by the Society for Theatre Research. I’ve been working on and around these fascinating journals for about 10 years (!), and I was really glad when the STR agreed to publish the selection. They are absolutely fascinating. Sadly, the book hasn’t appeared on the STR website – I don’t know why. But if anyone wants a copy, please email me. The cost is £11.50 (inc. p & p).
Email Ann at a.featherstone3 [at] ntlworld.com