Every film is an archive. The actuality to which it is witness is embedded in every frame. All we need is are the eyes to see it and the intelligence to express it. A model example that will hopefully become an inspiration to others is Alastair H. Fraser, Andrew Robertshaw and Steve Roberts’ Ghosts on the Somme, an archaeological study of the 1916 documentary The Battle of the Somme. It is as revelatory a piece of film scholarship as you are likely to find, and this has been achieved by the simple expedient of experts from another field examining the film with the same methodological principles as they would apply to any other historial artefact.

The story behind The Battle of the Somme was covered by a recent post on The Bioscope, coinciding with its release on DVD in a digital restoration by the Imperial War Museum with both original score and new orchestral score from Laura Rossi. In short, it is a feature-length documentary recording the build up to the opening day (1 July 1916) of the Battle of the Somme, the day itself, and its immediate aftermath (all from the British perspective).It was produced by the British Topical Committee for War Films, a film trade body working at the behest of the War Office. The two cameramen were Geoffrey Malins and J.B. McDowell.

Most histories which discuss the film have chiefly considered its production and reception. The authors of Ghosts on the Somme, all military historians, have instead viewed the film itself as a piece of hisorical evidence, examining it frame by frame (in some cases literally so) to determine precisely what it shows. There has long been controversy over the authenticity of parts of The Battle of the Somme. One of the book’s major accomplishments is to confirm that the greater part of the film is quite genuine – indeed, that some scenes previously believed to be faked, or rather shot away from the front line, are not so.

In analysing the film, the authors considered seven major elements of evidence:

  • The film itself, and not just for its photographic evidence – a lip reader helped identify some conversations;
  • The Imperial War Museum’s collection of stills, many of them taken by Ernest ‘Baby’ Brooks, who worked alongside Malins (though the captions are frequently inaccurate);
  • Malins’ autobiographical book How I Filmed the War, a somewhat boastful account whose evidence needs treating with care;
  • A ‘tie-in’ book, Sir Douglas Haig’s Great Push:The Battle of the Somme (1916/17) which has photographs taken from the original film, including sequences which no longer exist;
  • The ‘dope sheet’, compiled between 1918 and 1922, a record of each of the shots from the film in caption order – now known to be highly inaccurate;
  • Assorted war diaries for the identification of men and units, plus other original documents in The National Archives;
  • The present-day landscape of the Somme battlefield.

The result is extraordinary. The authors identify not only locations, units and dates, but people. The grey figures whose faces point at the camera as they march cheerily to war and return shaken are, in a few, precious cases, given names, ages, a past history and – for some of those who survived – a subsequent history. There is such power in being able to put a name to a face. Previously, perhaps we have been guilty at times of sentimentalizing the film when we see those ghostly faces; this book humanizes it.


Men of B Company, 1 Lancashire Fusiliers, in a sunken lane in front of Beaumont Hamel, filmed by Geoffrey Malins, 1 July 1916 (frame grab from DVD)

This is a book chiefly for the military history enthusiast. The film historian will welcome the attention paid to the practicalities of the film’s production (there is a chapter on the cameras used and the limitations of orthochromatic film stock, which was not sensitive to the full spectrum, though more could have been said about lenses), while expressing surprise that the book refrains from saying anything about the film’s history once it had been released to an astonished British public (more than half the population saw it). It is pedantic in its dogged desire to identify and list every place, every unit, leaving no scene of the film unturned – a tabulation at the end of the book lists each shot (extant and lost) in order, with timing, date, camera operator, location, subject, date and caption. It is not a history for those who crave narrative.

So it may not find a place on any film studies shelf, but for the factual historian, it opens up a medium for study. As Roger Smither, Keeper of the Film and Photograph Archives at the IWM, says in his foreword, “Ghosts on the Somme sets a new standard for the examination of archive documentary film”. The convention has always been to distrust the record the actuality film provides, to emphasise film’s propensity for lying. Ghosts on the Somme shows that, ultimately, film records reality, and that we can uncover that reality, if we have eyes to see. Perhaps it really should be on a few film studies shelves.

Collegium 2009


Pordenone 2008

Application are being invited for the Collegium at this year’s Pordenone Silent Film Festival (aka Le Giornate del Cinema Muto), which takes place 3-10 October 2009. There are twelve places available for students aged under thirty and engaged in some form in the study of cinema. The idea is to involve them in a programme of activity over the week that takes full advantage of the expertise of archivists, musicians and film historians on hand at the world’s premiere silent film festival. Those attending are given free hotel accommodation and breakfast during the week, but are responsible for their own travel arrangements, meals, and all other expenses. Here is the call from the Giornate’s website:

The Collegium – whose sessions will be open to all guests of the festival and the general public – is an unconventional experiment in the technique of study. It is designed to utilise the unique conditions of the Giornate – a very concentrated one-week event; the possibility to see an extensive collection of rare archival films; the presence in one place and at one time of many (perhaps most) of the world’s best qualified experts in film history – scholars, historians, archivists, collectors, critics, academics and just plain enthusiasts.

The aim of the Collegium is to excite a new generation in the idea of cinema history and heritage, and to infiltrate these newcomers into the very special community that has evolved around the Giornate during its twenty-seven years. We want the participants in the Collegium to feel themselves members of that community, not to be awed and intimidated by the age, experience, authority or scholarship of the people they meet in Pordenone.

From past years’ experience we recognise that we derive the maximum advantage from the special conditions of this short week of concentrated activity by returning to a fundamental, classical concept of study, in which the impetus is the students’ curiosity and inquiry rather than the imposition of a formal teaching programme. Hence instead of formal lectures and panels, the daily sessions of the Collegium take the form of a series of “Dialogues”, in the Platonic sense, in which the collegians sit down with groups of experts in different aspects of the Giornate programme or in various fields of the study and techniques of film history and conservation.The object of these Dialogues is not only to elicit information and instruction, but to establish personal, social connection between collegians and Pordenone habitues, so that the former will have no inhibitions about approaching the latter, in the course of the week, for supplementary discussion. Naturally collegians are required to see as much of the festival programme as possible.

To focus their inquiry, the members of the Collegium are each required to write, retrospectively, a paper or essay on some theme emerging from or inspired by the experiences of the Giornate. This may be done in collaboration with one of the “mentors” – veterans of the previous year’s Collegium who return to support and assist the newcomers. The principal sources of information for the publication are likely to be interrogation of the appropriate experts present at the Giornate or study of particular aspects of the programme. THE OVERALL CRITERION FOR PAPERS IS THAT THEY COULD ONLY HAVE BEEN WRITTEN AS A RESULT OF THE GIORNATE EXPERIENCE. There are no limits – beyond readable literacy – on the style and form of the essays. The aim is that these papers will not just be a student exercise, but will provide generally useful reading even for the experts from whose experience and advice they derive, who may discover insights which may not have struck them before.

The papers will normally be published in an annual collection. For practical reasons there have been delays in producing the 2006 and 2007 Collegium Papers, but it is planned to publish a cumulative edition for 2006-2008 in time for the 2009 edition of the Giornate del Cinema Muto.

The FriulAdria-Collegium Prize
From 2008, the Collegium Papers are eligible for the annual Premio Banca Popolare FriulAdria. The prize, of 500.00 euros, will go to the paper adjudged the best of its year, and is awarded by the Banca Popolare FriulAdria. This historical partner of the Giornate del Cinema Muto, the Banca Popolare Friuladria has a long-standing engagement with the training and development of young cinema talents, alike in the field of criticism, screen-writing and film-making. With this new prize it recognises the aim of the Collegium to stimulate the interest of new generations in the history and heritage of silent cinema, and to involve them in the distinctive scientific community which has developed in Pordenone in the past 27 years thanks to the work of the Giornate del Cinema Muto.

The novel form of the Collegium means that we do not look for formal academic or age qualifications in collegians. The qualities we look for in the twelve young people invited each year are enthusiasm, energy and above all curiosity.

Prospective applicants should in the first instance simply write a letter explaining (1) who they are, (2) what is their special interest in film history, (3) what is their experience of silent films and (4) why they feel they are suited to be members of the Collegium, which involves integrating socially with the other collegians and mentors, and making positive contacts with the Pordenone population of film history experts.

Collegians and mentors are given free hotel accommodation and breakfast during the week. They are responsible for their own travel arrangements, meals, and all other expenses.

Letters of application should be e-mailed to the Collegium secretary, Riccardo Costantini, at

The enthusiastic, the energetic and the curious have until 31 May 2009 to submit applications. Copies of papers from 2005 and 2006 can be found on the Film Intelligence site.

The music of light


Kevin Brownlow and Abel Gance

Over 23-24 May, as part of the Bristol Ideas Festival, Bristol Silents is organising a special weekend event, ‘The Music of Light’: Abel Gance and Kevin Brownlow. Here are the programme details:

‘The Music of Light’: Abel Gance and Kevin Brownlow

In partnership with Bristol Silents

Special weekend ticket price for all events: £24.00 / £18.00 concs and Bristol Silents members

Bristol Festival of Ideas pays tribute to one of the greatest filmmakers and one of the best film historians. Film historian, Kevin Brownlow, and French pioneer filmmaker, Abel Gance, shared a passion for cinema when they met at the National Film Theatre in 1951. Brownlow was just a 13-year old school boy but the two forged a friendship and creative alliance that lasted until Gance’s death in 1981. Gance regarded film as ‘the Music of Light’. He is best remembered for his masterpiece epic from the silent era, Napoleon (1927). Brownlow painstakingly restored the film over two decades, and the response to its exhibition in the 1970s and 1980s initiated a complete re-evaluation of Gance’s role in cinema history.

Inspired by Gance, Brownlow spent ten years making his first feature It Happened Here with school friend Andrew Mollo. Kevin went on to become one of the foremost experts in silent cinema as a prolific writer, documentary filmmaker and film historian. His written works include the seminal The Parade’s Gone By (1968) and David Lean: a Biography (1991). In this brief season we celebrate the work of two passionate visionary filmmakers, exploring their relationship and inspirations and, most importantly, their films. Musical accompaniment is provided on the piano by Neil Brand, widely considered to be one of the finest exponents of silent film, and on violin by Guenter Buchwald.

Abel Gance: Music of Light
With Kevin Brownlow, Andrew Kelly, Paul McGann
and David Robinson
23 May 2009 11.00-12.30
Price: £6.00 / £4.50 concs and Bristol Silents members
Featuring extracts from his rarest work through to Napoleon, Kevin Brownlow, film historians David Robinson and Andrew Kelly, and actor Paul McGann explore Gance’s formidable, often underrated contribution to cinema.

It Happened Here (PG)
Dirs. Kevin Brownlow & Andrew Mollo 1964
23 May 2009, 13.30-15.05
Price: £6.00 / £4.50 concs and Bristol Silents members
The story of what might have happened had Britain been occupied during World War II.

Winstanley (PG)
Dir. Kevin Brownlow 1975
95m with introduction from Kevin Brownlow
23 May 2009, 15.20-17.00
Price: £6.00 / £4.50 concs and Bristol Silents members
The forgotten story of Winstanley and the Diggers, a Christian Communist settlement, set just after the Civil War and filmed close to the actual locations.

La Roue (PG)
Dir. Abel Gance 1922
270m with introduction from Kevin Brownlow
24 May 2009, 13.00-18.00
(with interval)
Price: £10.00 / £8.00 concs and Bristol Silents members
Filmmaker Jean Cocteau said ‘There is cinema before and after La Roue as there is painting before and after Picasso’. Long considered a cinematic masterpiece, La Roue has been unavailable for 87 years. An epic of the railways, shot among the marshalling yards (the Black Symphony) and the mountains (the White Symphony), La Roue is a powerful drama of life among the railroad workers, rich in psychological characterisation and symbolic imagery.

Details, as always, from the Bristol Silents website or from the Ideas Festival.

Opening up the Warners archive


Ramon Novarro and Enid Bennett in The Red Lily (1924), from

As some will certainly have heard by now (the Bioscope has been taking a bit of a nap of late, partly induced by faulty Internet connection), Warner Bros. has announced a made-to-order DVD service for 150 films from its archives. These are titles not currently available on DVD and which would not, in the normal course of events, have made it onto commercial DVD. Strictly speaking, they are DVD-Rs (i.e. burned rather than fully authored), produced to order, though reports are that they are of high quality.

The films are priced at $19.95 for DVD copies in the post, $14.95 for downloads, and they can be ordered from Our interest,of course, is in the silents, and those being made available are:

  • Scaramouche (US 1923 d. Rex Ingram) with Ramon Novarro, Alice Terry
  • Souls for Sale (US 1923 d. Rupert Hughes) with Barbara La Marr, Eleanor Boardman
  • The Red Lily (US 1924 d. Fred Niblo) with Ramon Novarro, Enid Bennett
  • Exit Smiling (US 1926 d. Sam Taylor) with Beatrice Lillie, Jack Pickford
  • The Temptress (US 1926 d. Fred Niblo) with Greta Garbo, Antonio Moreno
  • Love (US 1927 d. Edmund Goulding) with Greta Garbo, John Gilbert
  • The Red Mill (US 1927 d. William Goodrich) with Marion Davies, Owen Moore
  • Spring Fever (US 1927 d. Edward Sedgwick) with Joan Crawford, William Haines
  • The Smart Set (US 1928 d. Jack Conway) with Alice Day, Jack Holt
  • The Trail of ‘98 (US 1928 d. Clarence Brown) with Dolores del Rio, Harry Carey
  • The Kiss (US 1929 d. Jacques Feyder) with Greta Garbo, Conrad Nagel
  • The Single Standard (US 1929 d. John S. Robertson) with Greta Garbo, Nils Asther
  • Wild Orchids (US 1929 d. Sidney Franklin) with Greta Garbo, Lewis Stone

So, a rich collection of the obscure and the famous, and in case you are wondering why MGM titles are there, that’s because Warners now represents a large chunk of the MGM library, such are the mysteries of collection deals. Information on the films on the site is a bit scanty, but you do get a brief video clip for each one, and the quality seems excellent.

But before those outside the USA get out the banker’s card, please note that the DVDs are – for the moment – only available for purchase in the USA. Word is that this will change in the not too distant future. Also promised are many more titles, at a rate of twenty a month (not all silents, of course), with Warners suggesting that eventually its entire archive of 5,000 titles could be made available – that is, where titles aren’t given a conventional DVD release (around 1,200 titles have been issued conventionally by Warner Home Video). Priority has been given to titles where there is satisfactory transfer materials from broadcasts (and all the silents come with scores, as all have been shown on TCM), but more will follow, particularly as the project has reportedly been highly successful already (the DVDs were first offered on Monday).

This sort of initiative has long been suggested by film enthusiasts, arguing that low-cost, basic production quality releases would be better than no DVDs at all. Apparently it is the downturn in the economy which has led Warner Bros. to go down this path, though that may just be the timing, because it is reported that they have been planning this move for two years. It has also been argued as an alternative strategy in the face of market saturation – we’ve all got too many DVDs on our shelves – but this is an initiative aimed at the specialist, with sales expected to be just a few thousand per title. It’ll be interesting to see what happens if the scheme proves more successful than Warners have been expecting. Might they re-think their strategy and issue more standard DVDs of supposedly uncommercial titles?

Information on further releases, and when they become available beyond the USA, will get published here as and when we hear of it.

Electric Silents


The Ring

A programme has now been published for the festival of silent films at the Electric Palace, Harwich, UK, 7-10 May – and the festival has a name, Electric Silents. Here are the programme details:

A Festival of Silent Cinema

Thursday 7th May – Sunday 10th May 2009
A four day programme of silent films aiming to show exactly what these first films looked like and what the audience were seeing between 1896 and the late 1920s.

7 May Thursday at 7.30pm
THE RING (1927)
Duration 85 mins
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
U certificate
Live musical accompaniment by Terry Ladlow
‘One round’ Jack Sander (Carl Brisson) works in a carnival boxing ring and easily defeats his opponents. He is confident both in his ability to win and in the love of his girl (Lillian Hart-Davies). He befriends Bob Corby (Ian Hunter) a champion boxer who encourages him to take up boxing professionally. Friendship turns to rivalry over the girl and Jack finds himself fighting for everything he holds dear.

Hitchcock directs from his own script to produce a film rich in experimentation and visual innovation. Particularly impressive are the montage sequences that appear throughout the film which show Hitchcock’s growing confidence as a director.

8 May Friday at 4.00pm
A DVD screening of three rarely seen titles showing the early fascination of cinema with action, mystery and melodrama.

The Master Mystery: Chapter One (1920)
40 mins
Directed by Burton King
U certificate
Harry Houdini is a government agent on the trail of a secret society. The film features the silver screen first robot.

The Dying Swan (1913)
50 mins B&W
Directed by Evgenii Bauer
U certificate
A Russian melodrama of the relationship between a dancer and an artist.

Fantomas: Chapter One (1913)
55 mins B&W
Directed by Louis Feuillade 1913 U certificate
Can anyone capture arch criminal and master of disguise Fantomas?

8 May Friday at 7.30pm
100 mins B&W
Directed by Anthony Asquith
U certificate
Live musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne who will introduce the screening and answer questions on his experience of composing for silent film.

A convict (Uno Henning) escapes from Dartmoor prison and flees across the moors. Inside a nearby cottage, Sally (Nora Baring), is putting her child to bed. She goes downstairs and is confronted by the convict who has broken into the cottage. Through flashback we learn they knew each other before he was imprisoned and a story of spurned love and jealousy unfolds.

Asquith creates a simple but beautifully realised tale of sexual jealousy, that easily counters the view that British cinema of the time was theatrical and lacking emotion.

9 May Saturday at 2.30pm
90 mins B&W
Directed by Charles Reisner
U certificate
Live musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne

Tough steamboat captain Bill Canfield (Ernest Torrence) is facing competition in the town of River Junction. The return of his son (Buster Keaton) fills him with hope, but first impressions of the beret-wearing, ukulele-playing dandy his son has become are not good. Can Buster measure up to the expectation of his father?

A great comedy which combines romance, stunts and slapstick. The famous climax during the cyclone that pits Keaton against the elements.

Plus: Buster Keaton in The Electric House (1922)
16 min B&W U certificate

9 May Saturday at 7.30pm
108 Mins B&W
Directed by E.A. Dupont
PG certificate
Live musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne. Introduced by Bryony Dixon, BFI Curator of Silent Film

Shosho (Anna May Wong) works as a maid in a sophisticated London nightclub. The owner of the nightclub Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas) spots her star potential as a dancer and makes her the toast of the town. Complications arise due to his own obsessions and the jealousy of his former star dancer Mabel (Gilda Grey).

One of the true greats of British silent films, Piccadilly still oozes sophistication and captures something of its jazz-age setting. It also features an early appearance by Charles Laughton.

10 May Sunday at 2.30pm
90 mins B&W
Directed by Lotte Reiniger
PG certificate
Live musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne

An evil sorcerer tricks Prince Achmed into riding a magical flying horse. Carried far from home he falls in love with a beautiful Princess. Helped by Aladdin and a witch he must defeat an army of demons to win her heart. Based on stories from “The Arabian Nights”.
Lotte Reiniger was a pioneer of animated film, developing a beautiful delicate and elegant silhouette technique. This was the first feature-length animated film.

Plus Ko-Ko the Clown in Ko-ko Gets Egg-cited (1926) and Ko-ko the Convict (1926)

10 May Sunday at 7.30pm
SUNRISE (1927)
95 mins B&W
Directed by F. W. Murnau
U certificate
Introduced by Kevin Brownlow

Life in a quiet village is hard for a farmer (George O’Brien) and his neglected wife (Janet Gaynor). Unknown to her, his head has been turned by the attentions of a woman from the City and they are plotting to drown her.

From this simple starting point Murnau creates a film rich in poetry and a sense of fable. One where town and country life is contrasted and the audience is immersed in the fate of these simple characters. Sunrise is the swansong of the silent era and was awarded three Oscars. One for Janet Gaynor for ‘Best Actress’, one to Charles Rosher and Karl Struss for ‘Best Cinematography’ and one for its status as a ‘Unique and Artistic Picture’. This is the only time such an award has been given.

As well as the above programme, the festival will feature presentations and commentary contributions by film archivists and film historians:

Friday 8 May – Presentation session 1
11.00 Magic lanterns before film – Richard Rigby
12.00 Cecil Hepworth’s early films – Tony Fletcher
13.00 The films of Mitchell and Kenyon – Martin Humphries
14.00 The films of Arthur Melbourne Cooper – Tjitte de Vries

Saturday 9 May – Presentation session 2
17.00 ‘Pictures and Variety’: magazine shorts of the 1920s, with live variety acts featuring Julien Vincent and members of the Dovercourt Theatre Group
18.00 ‘Opening Night’: selections from the BFI National Archive – Bryony Dixon, Curator of Silent Film, BFI

Sunday 10 May – Presentation session 3
16.45 History of the Electric Palace – Chris Strachan, Chairman, Electric Palace Trust
17.30 ‘Surprising Silents’: Keynote presentation by special festival guest Kevin Brownlow

Live musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne and Terry Hadlow

Films will be shown on the Electric Palace’s Kalee 35mm projectors and, in the case of some very early films, on a specially installed Gaumont Chrono projector. All films will be projected onto the cinema’s original hand-painted screen. In addition, there will be an exhibition of early cinema technology as well as a display of pre-cinema media.


All tickets £5.50 per screening/presentation session (no concessions)
Day Pass £14.00 (to all films and presentations on one day)

Electric Palace Membership pa available from Box Office, by e-mail, or by writing. £4 adults, £2 seniors & concessions, £1 children under 15; one day membership £1.

Normal Box Office hours: Fridays 7.00 pm to 7.45 pm, Saturdays and Sundays 2.00 pm to 2.45 pm and 7.00 pm to 7.45 pm. Box office open additionally from 30mins before each screening /presentation.

Only day tickets bookable in advance: by personal application or post payable to Electric Palace (Harwich) Limited, Kings Quay Street, Harwich CO12 3ER enclosing SAE & cheque (must include £1 booking charge). E-mail reservations ( must be promptly paid for. No phone bookings but e-mail reservations may be made for the 7.30 p.m. shows on the day but tickets must be paid for and collected 30 minutes before otherwise the tickets may be sold.

The last trains to London 21.54 hours (21.53 Sunday)

All in all an excellent introduction to silent film for the lucky denizens of Harwich, and hopefully those from a bit further afield. The Electric Palace itself is one of the oldest cinemas in Britain stilloperating as a cinema, having opened in 1911. It still has its silent screen, original projection room and ornamental footage intact. You can read about the history of the cinema here.

All details, as usual, from the festival site.

The legendary intransigence of Mrs Helen Hubbard


Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, from

In 1921, after three trials, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, popular film comedian, was acquitted of the manslaughter of Virginia Rappe at an archetypal wild Hollywood party. The Arbuckle case, because of its lurid features, continues to attract prurient interest, while solid information on what actually happened in what was undoubtedly a key moment in Hollywood history becomes ever harder to find, such is our thirst for conspiracy and lowering tales of human fallibility.

A one-woman mission to unpick fact from fiction is being conducted by Joan Myers (aka Frederica Merrivale), whose investigations into the Arbuckle case and the background of the little-known Rappe, have been highlighted here before. Now she has published a lengthy piece on the New Research in Feminist Media Art/Theory/History blog. Entitled The Case of the Vanishing Juror, it traces the the story behind the first Arbuckle trial (there were three – the first two ended in hung juries, at the third he was acquitted) and the legend that grew up that there was a hung jury at the first trial owing to the intransigence of one stubborn female juror, Mrs Helen Hubbard.

I won’t recount the details here – you should read Joan’s article instead – but essentially she re-examines in depth the newspaper record to recover Mrs Hubbard’s reputation (see this account for an example of how she has been described in the past, supposedly with fingers in her ears during the defence’s case) and to go in pursuit of the ‘missing’ juror (Thomas Kilkenny), because the first trial was hung by a vote of ten to two. Kilkenny was similarly convinced of Arbuckle’s guilt, but he was not subjected to the insinuations about his motives as was Mrs Hubbard. It’s an exemplary piece of work, well grounded in in an understanding of legal procedure (women had only begun serving on juries in California in 1911, and their presence was still controversial for some). Its primary achievement is to make us reject the muddle of myth and innuendo that surrounds the case and makes us yearn for a historiographically rigorous account of the trial (Myers is scathing in her assessment of David Yallop’s The Day the Laughter Stopped, which is considered the standard work on the Arbuckle story). The method has been convincingly displayed – now let’s have the history.

Early sounds

The programme for the Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain conference has been announced. Organised by the Institute of Musical Research, the conference takes places 7-9 June 2009 at Senate House and the Barbican Centre, London. The conference is intended to complement the British Silent Film Festival, which is taking place at the Barbican 4-6 June and has the theme of music and British silent film.

This is the provisional programme for the conference:


Sunday 7 June 2009: Barbican Centre, Cinema 1

3–3.15 Introduction to conference: Julie Brown
Introduction to D.W.Griffith and Way Down East: Professor David Mayer

3.15–6.15 Way Down East: original score by William Frederick Peters and Horace Silvers, reconstructed and conducted by Gillian Anderson (prog. includes short interval)

6.30–7 Gillian Anderson in conversation with Professor Ian Christie

7pm Depart for dinner

Monday 8 June 2009: Institute of Musicological Research

9am Registration

9.15 Welcome

9.30–10.45 Film Lecturers

  • Film Lecturers in the UK, pre-1907, Dr Joe Kember, University of Exeter
  • ‘Sound’ and silent cinema in Scotland, Dr Trevor Griffiths, University of Edinburgh


11.15–1 Early musical practices

  • ’Motivated Music’: the evidence for accompaniment practice in London cinemas, 1896–1913, Prof Ian Christie, Birkbeck College, University of London
  • Music in Mitchell and Kenyon shows, Dr Vanessa Toulmin, National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield
  • Music for A Trip to the Moon? A Probable English Film Score for a French Film Fantasy, Prof Martin Miller Marks, Mass. Institute of Technology


2–3.45 The 1910s: UK and US practices

  • Entertainment licensing in the UK during the ‘silent’ film era, Dr Jon Burrows, University of Warwick
  • The Sound of the City: Music, The Show, and the Picture Palace, Dr Jim Buhler, University of Texas at Austin
  • “The efforts of the wretched pianist”: Fiction as Historical Resource, Prof Andrew Higson, University of York


4.15–5.15 Resources 1: Film and Documents
Dr Phil Wickham, The Bill Douglas Centre, University of Exeter
Luke McKernan, Curator, Moving Image, British Library
Bryony Dixon, Curator, Silent Film, British Film Institute
Prof David Sanjek, University of Salford

End of day discussion, followed by Buffet (at IMR)

8pm Barbican Centre, Cinema 1
The Flag Lieutenant: original score by Albert Cazabon. Arranged and performed by Philip Carli (pno.) with Gunter Buchwald (vln.) and Paul Clarvis (perc.)

Tuesday 9 June 2009: Institute of Musicological Research

9.30 -10.45 Music and/as transition practice

  • Another mystery from the pen of Mr. Edgar Wallace? The case of the vanishing part-talkie, The Crimson Circle (British Talking Pictures, 1929), Fiona Ford, University of Nottingham
  • Live music and the transition to sound in Britain, Dr Julie Brown, Royal Holloway, University of London


11.15-12.30 Retrospective Research: Early Sound Films and Silent Practice

  • Scores in early sound film as sources for silent film accompaniment practices, Dr Ian Gardiner, Goldsmiths College, University of London
  • The Development of Dialogue Underscoring in Sound Films in the Early 1930s, Prof David Neumeyer, University of Texas at Austin


1.30-2.45 Resources 2: Technology and Ephemera
Phil Wickham, Curator, The Bill Douglas Centre, University of Exeter
Dr Mike Allen, Birkbeck College, University of London
Len Rawle, Cinema Organ Society
Other panel members tbc.


3.15 – 4.30 Musical Performance on Film

  • Silent Mancunians: Overcoming Silence in Silent Operas, Dr Chris P. Lee, University of Salford
  • Variety Performance as Captured in Early Film, Prof Derek B Scott, University of Leeds

The conference closes at 5.30 pm after a short open forum.

The Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain research network is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, under their Beyond Text programme. The research team is Dr Julie Brown (Royal Holloway, University of London), Principal Investigator, and Dr Annette Davison (University of Edinburgh), Co-investigator. They describe the conference aims thus:

The aim of this interdisciplinary conference is to bring together researchers from widely divergent fields to share perspectives on the sonic practices associated with early film exhibition, particularly in Britain. The first decades of film exhibition in the UK were characterized by flux and experimentation. Musical and sonic practices were often improvisatory, but always contingent upon the resources available, their stage of technological development, and the exhibition venue itself, which might have been a music hall, fairground, theatre, or purpose-built venue. Elements of performativity and contingency continued well into the sound era; live musical performance long remained a key part of film exhibition in many cinemas. This conference is the first of four events organised by the AHRC-Funded Beyond Text Network “The Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain” to enable, encourage, and consolidate research and practical activity in this field, and is particularly concerned with the nature, limitations and potentialities of the sources available for studying these practices.

Programme and booking form can be found on the Institute of Musical Research site. Information on the British Silent Film Festival can be sound at

The 13th statue


Charlie Chaplin meeting Mahatma Gandhi in Britain in 1931

A while ago you may remember there was a news story about a statue being erected to Charlie Chaplin in Kazakhstan. The news reports said that it was the twelfth such statue of Chaplin worldwide, and so the Bioscope put on its reporter’s hat and sought out the other eleven – in London, Vevey, Waterville, Oslo, Shanghai, Mérida, Alassio, Gabrovo, Paris and Los Angeles (two statues). You can read that report and see photographs of eleven of the twelve, but now news emerges of plans for a thirteenth statue – plans that, however, seem fated to come to dust.

It was last week that the Indian press reported that film director Hemanth Hegde was planning to build a 62-feet high statue of Chaplin at Maravanthe beach, Karnataka, some 400km away from Bangalore. The statue was to be built as a backdrop to Hegde’s film House Full, starring Hegde himself, Diganth, Vishaka Singh and Girija Oak. The director was quoted as saying:

We are shooting a song sequence in Maravanthe Beach where this 62-feet statue of Charlie Chaplin is being shown. It will remain a tourist attraction after we finish the film’s shoot …We have applied for recognition from the Guinness Book of World Records. David Brown from the Guinness Book is expected to arrive in India to scrutinise our claim.

The statue was to be built by the film’s art director, Chethan Mundadi, at a cost of 3.5 million rupees, subject to permission from the Karnataka government. Installation was expected to take place on 28 March, and the BBC was reportedly going to film the event.

That was last week. Not long after Hegde has announced his plans, furious objection was made by proestors, said to be members of the radical Hindu Jagarna Vedike group, arguing that the statue of Chaplin should not be built because he was a Christian. The existence of some important Hindu temples near to the proposed site had compounded the sense of insult. They have demanded that the filmmakers instead erect a statue of the 19th-century Hindu missionary Swami Vivekananda.

The row is growing, and has wider political ramifications. Protests have been made by the film and theatre communities, while Hegde has expressed his bemusement and says he is now looking for another site. But, as The Times of London reports, the Hindu Jagarna Vedike protest is part of a wider revolt from ‘extremists’ opposed to Western cultural imports, raning from Valentine’s Day celebrations to cheerleaders and Indian Premier League cricket matches.

Chaplin, an avowed agnostic, would undoubtedly have been very surprised to find himself held up as a symbol of Christianity – indeed, probably no less surpised to learn of a giant statue of himself featuring in a light Bollywood comedy about “two happy-go-lucky youngsters who are always stumbling into new ideas to please their girlfriends”. The Times of India, which puts the blame for the protests on BJP activists, has this to say on the row:

Hindutva brigands attacking a statue of Charlie Chaplin on the grounds that he was a Christian and having his statue close to a temple was offensive to Hindu sentiments may appear too bizzare to be taken seriously. It is indeed ludicrous. But unless such groups are dealt with summarily and the nuisance nipped in the bud, what seems farcical today could become tragically real tomorrow. The state government must show that it will not allow such lumpen activity to go unpunished. It must crack down hard to deter potential imitators of such trends.

Maybe Hegde will be able to build his statue elsewhere, free from local offence. We will keep an eye on developments. Meanwhile, a final word from Jayamala, actress and president of the Karnataka Film Chamber of Commerce:

How can anyone discriminate against an artist on the basis of religion or caste? Chaplin belongs to all.


The British Silent Film Festival returns


The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain

After a prolonged period in the shadows, while dark and pressing operational matters were sorted out, the British Silent Film Festival is back. No longer based in Nottingham, the festival this year moves to the Barbican Cinema, London. It is taking place 4-6 June, and the theme is ‘Music and the British Silent Film’. It will therefore run harmoniously alongside the Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain conference, which is taking place at the Barbican from 7-9 June.

A blog has been set up as a temporary online home for the festival. It says:

Our theme this year is Music and the British Silent Film which will encompass all aspects of music and sound relating to silent film. The theme will encompass experimental sound systems before 1930, contemporary music and silent film and the visual depiction of sound in film. We have less time for papers this year but if you have specific suggestions for a presentation please email us at

The Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain conference which runs alongside the British Silent Film Festival is one output of the Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain project, funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council and based at Royal Holloway, University of London, which is examining “sound’s and music’s roles as practised in the exhibition of early and ‘silent’ cinema in Britain”.


The Dodge Brothers

There’s no programme for the festival as yet (clearly, since suggestions for presentations are still invited), but “a very exciting public event” on 4 June is promised, featuring the Dodge Brothers, who include one Mark Kermode – film critic, double bassist, TV personality and defiant haircut; and the universally worshipped Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.

More information on the festival as and when we receive it, but at least you can now fill that gap in your diaries.

Update: The full programme has now been published.

A hero of the valleys


The young David Lloyd George’s dream of David and Goliath. All images in this post are frame grabs from the DVD of The Life Story of David Lloyd George

How do we judge a film that no one saw? The audience gives a film meaning, or at least historical specificity. There are many examples of films that have never been seen (quite a few from recent British cinema history) because they were deemed uncommercial, and other grand projects that were never completed, such as Sergei Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico or Orson Welles’ Don Quixote. But the completed film that stands up as an exceptional work of art, that was a strong commercial possibility in its time, and whose exhibition could have changed film history (in a modest way) – such examples are rare.

One such example has just found its way to a DVD release after a remarkable history of idealism, political intrigue, slander, subterfuge, disappearance, rediscovery and restoration. The Life Story of David Lloyd George was made in 1918, vanished before any cinema audience had a chance to see it, and re-emerged to astonished acclaim in 1994. Its place must be in virtual history rather than actual film history, because its story is one of if onlys and maybes. But what a story it is.


Norman Page as David Lloyd George, Alma Reville as his daughter Megan

The story begins with the Ideal Film Company, formed by the brothers Harry and Simon Rowson in 1911 to distribute films, before moving into production in 1915. Excited by the interest shown by the public in official films of the war, the Rowsons decided to make an epic drama about the origins and purpose of the war, employing none other than Winston Churchill – then in the political wilderness following the Dardanelles disaster – to furnish ideas which would be turned into a scenario by Eliot Stannard. When Churchill returned to the cabinet in summer 1916 the original project was dropped, only to transmogrify into a biography of the new Liberal prime minister, David Lloyd George (the Rowsons were strong supporters of the Liberal party). Conceived as an epic story of a man who from humble beginnings rises to lead his country through to victory in the greatest war known to man, it was an undertaking unlike anything attempted in cinema to that date, nor would it have any subsequent parallel until the American and Soviet biopics of the 1930s onwards (Young Mr Lincoln, Wilson, Lenin in October etc.). But those conform to the classical dramatic conventions of their time, and their subjects were long dead – Lloyd George was, and remains, unique in subject and form.

The script was written by a noted historian (though without film experience) Sidney Low. The director was Maurice Elvey, gradually rising to the top of his profession, at least in British film terms. The cast were a mixture of Ideal stalwarts and lookalikes, most notably in the latter case the stage actor Norman Page, whose uncanny performance as Lloyd George carries the film (Page watched Lloyd George in full flow in the House of Commons and gives us what is probably a highly accurate record of his mannerisms). Alma Reville, later to marry Alfred Hitchcock, plays Lloyd George’s daughter Megan, and Ernest Thesiger can be spotted as Joseph Chamberlain. Helen Haye (not credited on the DVD but recently identified) plays Lloyd George’s mother.


The Birmingham Town Hall riot scenes

The film’s production was announced to the trade press in February 1918, under the title The Man Who Saved the Empire. It was not the only propagandist feature film epic to be made in Britain at this time, with American directors brought in by British official film interests to make Hearts of the World (D.W. Griffith) and Victory and Peace (Herbert Brenon), but it was the only one made on such a scale with private money only. Filming proper began towards the end of August and astonishingly was completed by the end of September. It took place in several of the historical locations, including the north Wales of Lloyd George’s childhood, Birmingham and London. Shaping up to be two-and-a-half hours long, there were suggestions that the film could be released as a serial, but excitement was high at what promised to be the outstanding British film release of the year.

In October the trouble started. Horatio Bottomley, the rabble-rousing, influential owner of the nationalistic journal John Bull, began a campaign against the film. Essentially his line was that the film was a disgrace because it was being made by Germans. The Rowsons were Jews, real name Rosenbaum, and in Bottomley’s nakedly bigoted mind, Jews were equated with Germans. Bottomley’s campaign against the film (Ideal won a libel suit against him) brought a lot of unwelcome publicity, and may have added to a sense of awkwardness felt by some in the government at the production of a film lauding the achievements of the prime minister at the time of an impending general election (one took place in December 1918, just after the war ended).

In the end, none of the evidence that we have really explains what happened next. The Ideal company were paid off, to the sum of £20,000 (around half a million pounds in today’s money), which was the cost of the film’s production – though no recompense for the anticipated returns. Lawyers for the government turned up, paid Ideal in twenty one thousand pound notes, took the negative away with them in a taxi – and that was the last that anyone saw of it, publicly at least. Someone in power thought it worth a lot of money to prevent the film from being shown, but to this day no one can really say why, and the documentary record (including a memoir written by Harry Rowson) is tantalisingly vague.


Symbolic illustration of a theme from one of Lloyd George’s speeches, showing the Allies learning to pull together

The only evidence we have for the film after this date is a reference in the diary of Frances Stevenson – Lloyd George’s secretary and mistress – over a year later. On 24 February 1920 she wrote:

Last night went to see a film of D’s life which Captain Guest had put on the screen in No 12 [Downing Street] – a perfectly appalling thing. The idea was all right but the man who was supposed to be D. was simply a caricature. I begged D. not to let it be shown. Mrs Ll. G. very angry with D. because she said I had put D. against it because I had objected to the domestic scenes in it!

Were there plans to show the film in 1920? Is Stevenson referring to this time, or 1918, when she says “I begged D. not to let it be shown”? Might she be speaking of a different film entirely? We do not know. The Life Story of David Lloyd George was no more, unseen by anyone, little more than a footnote in a history or two. British film historian Denis Gifford interviewed Maurice Elvey in 1967, shortly before he died, when Elvey said (with remarkable sang froid in the circumstances):

This I suppose must have been one of the best films I ever made or ever shall make … It is such a shame it has disappeared.

In 1994 the film was discovered. It was in a barn at the home of Viscount Tenby, David Lloyd George’s grandson. It was in pristine condition, though in an unassembled form. Considerable effort and ingenuity effort was required from the only recently-formed Wales Film and Television Archive to piece the film together. As the first sequences were constructed and shown to film historians and Lloyd George experts, the general reaction was astonishment. Instead of the quaint drama that, to be honest, we had been expecting, here was a film of skill and power, possessed of a fervour and a commitment to the issues of the day that were electrifying. The film had its premiere – literally so – on 5 May 1996 (precided by a showing on 27 April for an invited audience) at the MGM cinema, Cardiff, accompanied by the Cardiff Olympia Orchestra playing a score by Welsh composer John Hardy. Since that time it has had screenings around the world, usually with Neil Brand accompanying on piano, and it gained recognition as a unique classic. But there has been a huge struggle on the part of the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales (as they are now called) to get the film issued on DVD. Now, at last, with pseudo-orchestral score by Brand, it is available for all to see – and it is a film that demands to be seen.


Elderly inhabitants of the workhouse, freed by Lloyd George’s introduction of an old age pension scheme, materialise outside the workhouse walls

The Life Story of David Lloyd George tells the story of its subject from childhood to wartime victory (the film was completed before the war was won), relayed in key scenes selected to demonstrate a calling to national duty and a desire to overturn injustice. The early scenes, showing Lloyd George’s upbringing in Wales, have not been given the praise that should be their due. They capture an atmosphere of modesty, devoutness and dedication towards one’s fellow man which is moving in its general effect, and deeply touching in its detail, grounded as it is in an affectionate portrait of late Victorian Welsh society.

Lloyd George is shown triumphing in the law and local politics through his oratory and commitment to noble causes. He gains notoriety through his anti-Boer War (1899-1902) stance, illustrated by a speech he gave at Birmingham Town Hall which occasioned a near riot in the streets, which the film recreates with truly extraordinary newsreel-style realism, helped by many hundreds of extras. If these scenes impress by their documentary quality, the film’s greater power comes in how it illustrates the revolutionary effect of Lloyd George’s time as Chancellor of the Exchequer, introducing old age pensions and and the National Insurance Act (1911). The very rightness of the actions moves us now, and surely must have had – or would have had – an overpowering effect on a contemporary audience, for whom these great changes were recent occurrences.


While most celebrate the homecoming of loved ones after the war, one woman represents those mourning the dead

Other vigorous tableaux follow, clearly inspired by the newsreels (Lloyd George himself was a consumate performer for the news cameras), notably the Queen’s Hall suffragette riots. The film makes much use of an impressive House of Commons interior set, peopled by lookalikes, shot and perfomed with an easy realism that could fool some into thinking they were watching actuality. The film dips somewhat in its second half when the First World War begins. Lloyd George served brilliantly as minister of munitions before becoming prime minister in 1916, but there is paradoxically less drama on show once the film has arrived at the climactic stage to which its first half has been building. The battle scenes are convincing, likewise Lloyd George’s visit to the Front, and there is a prolonged sequence inside a munitions factory which may lack dramatic interest but as a seemingly documentary record is superbly shot. But our emotions are not re-engaged until the film’s final scenes, when the war comes to an end. Troops line up on the parade ground in their hundreds, fall out, then run to their waiting loved ones, at which point they materialise into civilian clothes. Amid all the happiness, one woman turning her head and weeping stands for all those whose loved ones were not returning home. Shown live, it catches the audience’s breath every time.

It is not a film for every one. Those hoping for either a more conventional human interest story, or a political drama, may be disappointed. Its newsreel-style – a deliberate aesthetic choice to reflect the way in which many of the audience were most familiar with Lloyd Geoge as a public figure – lessens the emotion while it heightens the sense of living history. It is unlike any other silent film in intent and form. But watch The Life Story of David Lloyd George, and then try and take seriously one of the conventional dramas of the war made duing the war – Hearts of the World for example – and they come across as pitiable, not so much in their execution or use of dramatic convention as in their absence of real social and political feeling. The Life Story of David Lloyd George is not realistic as such, despite its newsreel inspiration. It is pure hagiography. But more than any other film of the period it manages to articulate what people were fighting for. Which is what the Rowsons had wanted for their epic war film, right from the beginning.


Lloyd George addresses the camera in the film’s final scene: ‘There must be no “next time”‘

The film runs for 152 minutes. Viewers will see from time to time sequences which clearly do not quite fit. Titles referring to Moses are followed by film of Boadicea (the film has several such emblematic sequences); Lloyd George’s vision of his prime ministerial predecessors has obvious re-take shots; longueurs in the latter half would undoubtedly have been edited down had the film been completed for release. The film had to be pieced together without a running order, and a place found for every extant shot, somehow. Tinting records came with the film, the colour richly but sensitively reproduced by the Wales archive.

On the DVD you get 47 mins of extras, including an interview with composer Neil Brand which goes beyond the thinking behind his sumptuous score to consider the value of silent film generally. It is a tour de force from Neil which I would recommend showing to anyone wanting to understand what the silent film means for us today. Kevin Brownlow is interviewed, stating that the film would have changed film history (particularly in Britain) had it been shown – Britain’s The Birth of a Nation. Would it have been a huge financial success though? I think Ideal may have ended up with a problem on their hands – a long film, without stars, partisan in politics, perhaps too reliant on the patriotic uplift occasioned by the war. But we’ll never know.

The DVD is available for purchase online from the National Library of Wales’ shop, price £18.99, or if you are passing through Aberystwyth, visit the shop in person. Those intrigued by the history should certainly check out David Berry and Simon Horrocks’ book David Lloyd George: The Movie Mystery (1998), which includes Harry Rowson’s memoir, and essays from Lloyd George’s biographer John Grigg, Nicholas Hiley, Sarah Street, Roberta Pearson, John Reed (who restored the film) and others. Information on the film, the archive that restored it, and a short video clips can be found on the Moving History website. Finally, on my personal site, there the text of a talk I gave on the British epic film of the silent era which puts The Life Story of David Lloyd George in that particular context.

The Life Story of David Lloyd George will never fit easily into film history, because it was never seen, and because there has never been anything else like it. But it is a major work irrespective of film history, and the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales have done us a great service in making available to all.