Do you remember if those early days of the Web, when businesses and organisations would proudly announce that they had just launched a website? Apart from start-ups, you don’t get so many such announcements these days, particularly for well-established businesses. But some move at more casual pace than others, and so it is that Photoplay Productions – established 1990 – has just launched its first website, which also marks its twentieth anniversary.
Photoplay is the independent company, run by Kevin Brownlow and Patrick Stanbury, dedicated to film history and in particular to reviving and sustaining interest in silent film. It was formed in 1990, but as the About Us section recounts, the history goes back to 1955, when Kevin Brownlow first entered the film industry as an editor. While working on documentaries and feature films (notably editing Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1968) and directing his own distinctive features (It Happened Here, 1964, and Winstanley, 1975) Brownlow was building on his childhood passion for silent film. His extensive interviews with people from the then sorely neglected silent era of film helped make up his classic 1968 book, The Parade’s Gone By.
The book encouraged the UK’s Thames Television to commission a television series, Hollywood – The Pioneers (1980), made by Brownlow and TV director and former ballet dancer David Gill (left, with Brownlow). The series teamed Brownlow and Gill for the first time with composer Carl Davis, whose sweeping scores came to be synonymous with the silent film revival. That revival took the form of eye-opening screenings of restored silents, shown in optimum conditions and correct running speeds with live orchestral accompaniment. The first and most spectacular of these was Abel Gance’s Napoleon, first shown at the London Film Festival in 1980. Its success led Jeremy Isaacs, then setting up the new UK television channel Channel 4, to commission a series of restorations and broadcasts under the title of Thames Silents. Those of us around at the time sat awestruck as The Wind, Ben Hur, The Crowd, The Thief of Bagdad and others were returned to the screens large and small. Thames Silents also led to three exemplary television series, Unknown Chaplin, Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow and Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius.
Thames Television lost its franchise at the end of the 1980s, which meant the end of Thames Silents (Channel 4 Silents followed it for a while). The changes in the UK broadcast landscape encouraged the formation of independent production companies to chase commissions, and one of these was Photoplay Productions, formed in 1990 by Brownlow, Gill and finance expert Patrick Stanbury. The new company continued to undertake restorations and to produce television series on aspects of film history, notably D.W. Griffith: Father of Film (1993) and Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood (1995).
David Gill died in 1997, but Brownlow and Stanbury have carried on, in the face of increasing difficulty in obtaining commissions or funding restorations for the ‘difficult’ subject of silent film. The distribution of their ‘live cinema’ titles is a major part of the business, and the website lists all of their productions, with full technical details and information on disribution services and licensing. The site also has information on Kevin Brownlow’s book publications, and its News and Upcoming Shows section lists screenings of Photoplay productions and restorations around the world. In particular, for those in the UK, there are three screenings being held at the Barbican in London to mark Photoplay’s 20th anniversary – Orphans of the Storm (7 February, above), The Chess Player (11 April) and The Iron Mask (30 May).
It’s is great to seen the new site, which makes clear all of the tremendous work undertaken by Brownlow, Gill, Stanbury and colleagues in support of the undying medium that is the silent film. A few dud links need to be sorted out (how curious it is that the link for Napoleon – rarely-screened owing to technical complications, expense and legal issues – isn’t working as yet), but this is not just a guide to the industriousness of one company but a primer on the appreciation of silent film. Congratulations, and many happy returns, to Photoplay Productions.