Since 1998, the British Silent Film Festival has been flying the flag for the British silent film. The Festival was established by a group of enthusiasts determined determined to overturn the traditional prejudices that had been all to evident two years before in Kevin Brownlow’s television series Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood, which had been scathing of British silents. For Brownlow, the mean and badly-made British films of the silent era were not just of negligible aesthetic interest, but the idea of them had helped establish the sort of general prejudice against silent films which he had dedicated his career towards fighting.
The Festival (which located itself in Nottingham after a first year at Leicester) wanted not just to screen the best and most interesting of British silent films, but to encourage research, publication, and innovative presentation. Academic papers were welcome, but they had always to be accompanied by film clips, for which the resources of the BFI National Archive were effectively at their disposal. A speciality was made of musical accompaniment, with such regulars as Neil Brand, Phil Carli, John Sweeney and Stephen Horne. The Festival also welcomed non-fiction film quite as much as fiction.
From humble beginnings, this ever-inventive combination of festival and academic conference has built up an international reputation, and has undoubtedly done much to encourage the revival of interest in British silent film, which has found welcome outlet in DVD releases, festival screenings and television programmes. Throughout the festival has been organised and programmed by Bryony Dixon and Laraine Porter, always on a shoestring, and frequently on half a shoestring. Political events, the outcome of which is still uncertain, have cast a cloud over the future of the Festival – I’ll report more on this once the dust has settled – but meanwhile in September the BFI Southbank (the National Film Theatre as was) is putting on a season of highlights from the Festival’s past.
Creatively entitled The Best of the British Silent Film Festival, this is the programme:
26 September 18.20
The Olympic Games on Film 1900-1924
Luke McKernan present a programme of archive film on the early Olympic Games, from chronophotographs of American athletes at the Paris Games of 1924, to Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell of Chariots of Fire fame at the Paris Games of 1924. The programme has a special focus on the London Games of 1908.
26 September 20.40
The Ware Case (1928)
Dynamic and surprisingly cinematic adaptation of a famous stage courtroom drama. Directed by Manning Haynes, with Stewart Rome, Betty Carter, Ian Fleming. Adapted by Lydia Hayward, one of many female screenwriters now beginning to be rediscovered as a result of the Festival’s interest in women film-makers.
27 September 16.00
When All Films Were Short
Lucky-dip programme of short films – quirky, funny, macabre, sensational, persuasive – of the kind that the Festival has made a special point of championing.
27 September 18.45
The Battle of the Somme (1916)
Special preview screening of the Imperial War Museum’s new restoration of the outstanding feature-length ‘documentary’ of the First World War, filmed by Geoffrey Malins and J.B. MacDowell and edited by Charles Urban. The music will be played by Stephen Horne and Martin Pyne, recreating the original musical suggestions from the film’s 1916 screening.
27 September 20.40
The Lure of Crooning Water (1920)
The quintessential British pastoral film, and example of the sort of rediscovery which as helped demonstrate that there was a strengthening tradition of filmic storytelling in the silent period concerned with the British landscape. Directed by Arthur Rooke, with Guy Newall and Ivy Duke.
28 September 16.00
True Crime on Film
An illustrated history of true crime in film, featuring execution films, terrorists and assassins, murderers and embezzlers, with a particular focus on the stories of Charles Peace (William Haggar’s 1905 The Life of Charles Peace is illustrated above) and Thomas Goudie. Presented by Michael Eaton, Vanessa Toulmin and Bryony Dixon.
28 September 18.20
The Triumph of the Rat (1927)
Ivor Novello, most popular British star of the 1920s, in the second of the hugely popular Rat trilogy, directed by Graham Cutts.
28 September 20.40
The First Born (1928)
Miles Mander’s fluid, cinematic masterpiece (illustrated at top of post), on the double-standards of the English upper classes, has emerged from obscurity to enjoy increasing acclaim as one of the finest of British silents. Starring Mander and Madeleine Carroll.
Members’ priority postal booking opens 4 August; members’ priority online and phone booking opens 11 August; public booking opens 15 August. Hope to see some of you there.