From 1896 to 1926 – part 8

Let us return once more to the memoirs of Edward G. Turner, British pioneer film distributor, who in 1926 wrote a series of articles for the Kinematograph Weekly on his thirty years in the film business. Turner here describes how the ealy British film business in the late 1900s started to gather in one area of London, soon to be affectionately named ‘Flicker Alley’:

“Flicker Alley”
We had splendid premises at Dane Street, but as the industry grew, it was necessary to have a common centre, where customers from the provinces could make their purchases easily and not have to travel all over London to visit the different firms, and so the trade began to drift west, and Cecil Court, where Gaumont’s had so long been established, became the centre of the trade – so much so that the court lost its proper name and became known as “Flicker Alley”.

We reluctantly decided to go West, and did establish ourselves at 40, Gerrard Street. I always think it was a mistake for the Trade to setle upon the most expensive quarter in London for their offices, showrooms and stores, as our trade demands plenty of space, and the West is very expensive; that is why nearly all of us, even to-day, are cramped for room.

By this time the old showman had given up travelling and had opened permanent kinemas; others had followed, and everywhere the picture Industry was booming, and kinemas were springing up like mushrooms all over the country. This was good for houses like ours, which dealt not only in films and machines, but in all other requisities for the kinema. Those were good days indeed – and profitables ones.

Simon Brown has written an excellent essay on the history of Flicker Alley, which identifies all of the film businesses based there, for the latest issue of Film Studies (issue 10, Spring 2007). This specially-themed issue on cities just so happens to have an essay by me on children’s cinema-going in London before the First World War as well, so all the more reason for the dedicated to seek it out. Cecil Court is now London’s home for second-hand and antiquarian booksellers.

The Exclusive

About this period saw the introduction of the exclusive. Which firm introduced this system I am afraid will never been known definitely. They say great minds think alike, and it is a debatable point as to which was actually the firm, Jury’s, Andrew’s, or ourselves, but all exhibitors will remember our first one, namely: “Fools of Society”, as it brought golden records to their pay-boxes. The idea caught on with the Trade, and so a new era was started in film renting.

About this time we represented nearly all the German film producers, two of the stars being Henny Porten and the great Asta Nielsen, and the time came when we had to leave 40, Gerrard Street for larger and more commodious premises at 46.

This, I think, was in the year 1913, just at the time when the Famous players Producing Company began to put their films on the English market, and we purchased from them the first long Mary Pickford films ever made: “A Good Little Devil” (6,000 ft.), “In the Bishop’s Carriage” (6,000 ft.), and “Caprice” (5,000-6,000 ft.). We originated the phrase “The World’s Sweetheart” for this great little artist.

A bold and most unlikely claim!

About that time also we put the Clarendon Film Co’s big film, “The Great Fire of London”, and Barker’s big creations, “East Lynne” and “Jane Shore”, the latter being one of the most ambitious that any English producer had ever made.

What visions of full houses these names must conjure up to those exhibitors who played them!

(To be continued.)

The ‘exclusive’ film system was a break away from a uniform pricing policy for any kind of film (so much per foot) to the marketing of higher quality films on an exclusive basis, usually determined by territory or time period. The most notorious example was Will Barker’s marketing of his Henry VIII (1911), which he made available to exhibitors for a short period only (six weeks) at high prices, then publicly burned all the prints. No one else pursued such a drastic policy, but the introduction of exclusive hire for quality films caught on quickly, as was an important development for the British film trade, cementing the renting sector of the business, and impressing on everyone for the first time the idea of film as (occasionally) art.