Rowan Atkinson joins Chariots of Fire, from bbc.co.uk
Things are a little quiet at the moment here at Bioscope Towers as all at the scriptorium down their quill pens to follow the London Olympic Games. If we’re not transfixed by our TV screen, then we will be at the Games themselves, and so silent films will probably take a back seat for a while. If you saw the extraordinary ‘Isles of Wonder’ opening ceremony extravaganza devised by filmmaker Danny Boyle you may have spotted its two silent films references: a couple of clips from City Lights during a British film history montage, and (tangentially) Rowan Atkinson in Mr Bean mode playing keyboards for the Chariots of Fire music and winning the race on the sands from Hugh Hudson’s film.
I’ve written some thoughts on the inspiration for the opening ceremony provided by documentary filmmaker Humphrey Jennings over on the Moving Image blog that I write all too occasionally for the British Library: Pandaemonium and the Isles of Wonder.
As for silent films and the Olympic Games, do check out the Bioscope’s updated survey of Olympic film 1900-1928: Let the Games begin.
The Bioscope has just played host to its 1,000,000th visitor. It’s strange – I don’t feel quite as thrilled as I did when the site first passed the 10,000 barrier, but those were different days. Anyway, thank you to all those who have played their part in boosting the statistics. We aim to please.
By way of marking the milestone, we have a poem. Every now and then the Bioscope likes to bring you examples of poems inspired in one way or another by silent cinema, but here is the first poem that I’ve come across that is actually entitled ‘Silent Cinema’. It was written (date uncertain) by A.S.J. Tessimond (1902-1962), a minor British poet whose reputation has grown somewhat of late, and whose wry poem on Charlie Chaplin we reproduced here a few years ago. He wrote in particular of life in the city (chiefly London) and of the moments of illumination that touch humdrum lives.
‘Silent Cinema’ is a mysterious work. It’s not about film in the expected sense at all. Instead it seems to be trying to capture the impression of light on the screen, on the faces of the audience, and in the mind’s eye. It marries light with ideas of flora and music, and what the poet actually meant by calling the poem ‘Silent Cinema’ I don’t know (see his poem ‘Cinema Screen‘ for its similar use of imagery and ideas). But he has seen things differently, and we’re always going to champion that.
Light you have sung:
opalescent, iridescent, wineclouded,
barred and fenced with darkness,
furred with darkness (velvet
Brittle arpeggios of light,
light long wave upon wave,
pressing our eyelids backwards,
liht slow-opening a flower
(fire-rose), light unpetalling,
dusting with flakes of pollen
our upturned faces
Rondo of light on waves,
scherzo of light on leaves,
light webbed by wings to a wild toccata,
counterpoint – fugue – of light
Birth of light
blurring dark’s mirror
Death of light
broad slow fans
Measurement is fundamental to film. In the early days of the medium, films were priced by the foot, with the content of little consequence unless it was coloured or featured a subject of particular importance, in which case the price per foot went up. The business was measured in how many feet of film were sold, competition was fiercest where cuts were made by one company in the price per foot of film, and as films grew longer they would still be measured in so many reels. Quantity overrode quality. Hold up a strip of film and you could use it as a tape measure – equidistant frames arranged in a straight line.
Films may be all digital now (or virtually so), but that has only increased their propensity towards measurement. There is duration, frame speed, file size, bit rate, and still that succession of frames that are fundamental to the nature of the time-based medium.
Then things get more complicated, because films comprise multiple shots. This was a puzzle for the earliest film producers, who started off believing that a different shot became a different film, to be catalogued, priced and sold separately. But art and the market started to demand that these shots be brought together. Films might now be measured in reels, but within those reels a complexity emerged, as the number of shots, and their length, started to vary according to the type of film or producer. This was not an issue as such for the producers of the period, but decades later it has become a matter of great interest to film scholars who would like to assess the art of film not just qualitatively but quantitively. Which is where cinemetrics comes in.
Cinemetrics graph for Battleship Potemkin, produced by Yuri Tsivian
Cinemetrics is the creation of Professor Yuri Tsivian of the University of Chicago. A renowned historian of early cinema (if his Early Cinema in Russia and its Cultural Reception isn’t on your bookshelf as yet, it should be), probably best known for introducing film scholarship to the marvels of pre-revolutionary Russian dramatic film, notably the work of Yevgenii Bauer. It was when Tsivian started doing an average shot analysis on the films of Bauer and his pupil Lev Kuleshov that Tsivian found evidence to show that “between 1917 and 1918 the cutting tempo of Russian films had jumped from the slowest to the fastest in the world”. What might previously have been intuited could, with patience, be demonstrated empiricially.
With patience, and some software, that is. Because Tsivian then did two extraordinary things. The first was (with computer scientist Gunars Civjans) in 2005 to build a software programme for measuring films; the second was to invite anyone in the world to take part and submit their data to a website – a model example of crowdsourcing in action.
Timing I think was my key thing. I was able to figure out the timing to close the gap between my opponent and myself and move back, and that was I think the key.
It is symptomatic of the imagination, as well as the playfulness, of Tsivian, that he should provide this quote from Chuck Norris on how he won six karate world titles. As Tsivian says, “much like martial arts, or like poetry and music, cinema is the art of timing”. Other scholars, notably David Bordwell and Barry Salt, has shown interest in average shot lengths as a means to measure film style, and Tsivian’s endeavour has demonstrated many scholars worldwide are similarly interested, and sufficiently dedicated to the cause to view and measure films (from any era, and of any kind) and submit the data online for all to study and share.
The Cinemetrics tool can be downloaded onto your PC or used online. The idea is that you then run your video and mark each change in shot with the click of a mouse on by hitting a keyboard button. This will then give you your data on the film’s length, number of shots and average shot length. You then upload the data to the Cinemetrics database, which produces graphs and publishes the data online for all to see. It’s that simple (an advanced option invites you to identify types of shot, such as close-up or medium shot). A more sophisticated tool, the Frame Accurate Cinemetrics Tool has recently been made available, for which you must rip a copy of the film you wish to analyse onto your hard drive (a tad contentious under some copyright regimes).
Video explaining how to use the new Frame Accurate Cinemetrics Tool (FACT)
Many have taken part, and there are many silent films that have been analyses. The database currently contains just over 10,000 titles, which can be sorted by date, country, director, submitter, average shot length (unsurprisingly the single shot Russian Ark comes out top), media shot length, and so forth. Many silent films are along them.
The Cinemetrics site hosts the database, software programme, articles (check out in particular Tsivian’s classic analysis of Intolerance), examples of Cinemetrics studies, a discussion board, and a lab section for comparing data. Most recently (and the reason for posting this now), a ‘conversations’ section has been added on film and statistics in which film scholars and statistical scientists come together to discuss their shared field arranged around particular themes.
The language of statistics is not one that appeals to most film viewers, and some of the debate may seem wilfully recherché. Talk of medians, means, datasets and outliers may seem to have little to do with the appreciation of film, reducing an art into a quantifiable commodity, just as those early film producers who only saw their product in terms of feet and reels.
But we cannot judge films by emotions alone, no matter how acutely attuned to artistic worth we may feel them to be. Data can quanitify what the eye may only sense or the heart feel. Of course there is more to film art than shot lengths, and new kinds of film analysis tools are starting to emerge which analyse action within and beyond the frame or shot (see, for example, the Gestus Project, which employs vector analysis; or Tim J. Smith’s acclaimed work on visual cognition, which maps where our eyes actually rove over the screen as opposed to where you think they might be looking). The important things in any sort of data analysis are relevance, consistency and range. The work of the cinemetricists is firmly relevant to how films are constructed, it is rigorously consistent in application, and the range of scholars worldwide who have conributed to this remarkable work enriches the data with every new contribution. Even if statistics leaves you cold, the ingenuity and dedication merit your admiration.
Acknowledgments to Nick Redfern of the Research into Film blog, a Cinemetrics contributor and film empiricist, whose blog alerted me to the new ‘conversations’ feature.
(Unfortunately the name ‘Cinemetrics’ has recently been adopted by graphic designer Frederic Brodbeck to create visualisations of films derived from their data. The results look beautiful, but do not quantify or analyse in the same way, and have no connection with Tsivian and Civjans’ Cinemetrics.)
Letter from Alexander Korda to Adoph Zukor, 16 June 1920, letter in the Margaret Herrick Library
… I am twenty nine years of age and am ten years in the prospection moving picture. Of this period I spent 3 years as an advertisement manager with the Projectograph Co. Ltd. in Budapest, for one year I was in Paris and since the last 6 years I am a stage manager. For the last five years and a half I was the administrative and stage manager of the Corvin film factory of Budapest. It was I who founded the said factory and it was under my management when it was taken over by an Hungarian bank with a capital of 8 millions of crowns, which subsequently got increased to 10 respectively to 20 millions of crowns. Budapest however offers by far no scope enough for an ambitious man to settle down there for a lifetime …
It’s a standard letter seeking employment written to a man in a position of power from a man in a humble siutation. The man of power is Adolph Zukor; what makes this such a compelling document is that the man doing the begging is his fellow Hungarian Alexander Korda, then only just establishing himself in Austrian film after having left the narrow (and politically hazardous) confines of the Hungarian film business. In a few years’ time Korda would be the man of power, though not in America but rather Britain.
The letter is just one example of the extraordinary riches to be found in the digital collections of the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. You would expect the Margaret Herrick Library – one of the world’s leading film study centres – to put on a good show when it came to presenting its collections digitally, and how well they have done so.
Margaret Herrick Library Digital Collections is an online database of digitised materials from the Margaret Herrick Library (named after the Academy’s first librarian – how rare it is for libraries to be named after those who care for them). It represents only a tiny proportion of the Library’s holdings, but the 2,500 or so items on offer are richly varied and presented in quite exemplary fashion. They include correspondence, photographs, periodicals, sheet music and star ephemera, along with complete copies of more than 250 Academy publications, dating back to its founding in 1927.
The site is broken down into these individual collections:
Academy Awards Collection
Selected Academy Awards photographs, rule books, programs and ephemera from the Library’s extensive holdings.
Full text issues of member newsletters, annual reports, technical articles and other publications produced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Alfred Hitchcock Papers
Selected items from the Alfred Hitchcock papers. The collection mostly comprises photographs, including several from Hitchcock’s silent film period.
Motion Picture Periodicals
Complete issues of various publications from the library’s collections. The library’s periodical holdings include industry trade publications, fan magazines, technical and scholarly journals, and studio house organs.
Movie Star Ephemera
Examples of movie star and fan ephemera and collectibles from across the library’s collections. Items include fan magazine covers, fan club publications and movie star memorabilia, as well as products endorsed by or featuring images of movie stars. The earliest materials date back to the silent era.
William Selig Papers
Selection of release fliers and correspondence from the William Selig papers. “Colonel” William N. Selig (1864-1948) was an American producer active in film from 1896 to 1938. He founded the Selig Polyscope Company and co-founded the Motion Picture Patents Company.
Sheet Music Collection
Selection of items from the Robert Cushman collection of sheet music. Robert Cushman was an American photograph curator. He was on the staff of the Margaret Herrick Library from 1972 until his death in 2009. He was an avid collector of silent film sheet music, which he mostly obtained from East Coast sheet music dealers.
Adolph Zukor Correspondence
Selected letters and other items from the man who founded Famous Players Film Company and became head of Paramount Pictures.
The documents are presented superbly, with full descriptions, transcripts, assorted display options, download and print options, even the facility to view text and image alongside on another from transcribed documents. It’s a model presentation in every way.
Of particular note, given our interest in documenting digitised journals of the silent era wherever they can be found, is the collection of motion picture periodicals. Those available are Cinema Chat (1919-1920) (74 issues), Movies (1930-1934) (8 issues), Movie Monthly (1925) (3 issues) and Silver Sheet (1920-1925) (18 issues). An example of the latter series, with a mind-boggling image promotiong the 1924 film The Galloping Fish, is illustrated to the left. So far as I am aware, none is available anywhere else online, and all have been added to our ever-growing list of silent film journals available online. The journals are presented as single PDF pages (in some cases double-pages), rather than as full PDFs of the complete issue (correction – you can download a full issue), with thumbnails images arranged in a column alongside any one digitised page to aid browsing. There is full text uncorrected OCR, with word-searching within the single page, though the main site offering word-searching across all documents in any case.
The collection will no doubt grow, and certainly has opened up an important collection to those of us who are not able to visit Beverly Hills quite as often as we might like.
My thanks to David Pierce for alerting me to the site.
There is a section of the Bioscope Library devoted to online catalogues and databases. One major database missing from the list that of the British Film Institute, because we knew that the BFI was planning to upgrade the database quite significantly, and so it was best to wait for the new rather than produce any sort of disquisition on the old.
Well, they’ve started introducing the new, but we’re not quite there yet. The BFI is in the process of changing its online presence quite radically, onto a more unified and simplified platform. Many familiar and useful pages have disappeared, such as the guide to distributors, the list of researchers working in film studies, and the PDFs of digitised film reference guides. One hopes that such losses are temporary. [Update: They’re still there, on the old version of the site being maintained for the time being – see comments]
You will also look in vain for somewhere on the new site that says database. That’s because it is now called Explore film (interestingly Explore is the British Library now uses for its unified catalogue – we’re all so keen to be user friendly and not scare off the timid with words like catalogue or database). It’s a link on the main menu, and the front page makes striking use of film images which are links to catalogue records.
Once the website has settled down we will review it properly. There is much there that is new and of great interest, including stills, extensive hyperlinking, see also suggestions, and filtering by country, genre, subject and date, which open up the records to all manner of new kinds of enquiry and discovery. Like the old database, it still doesn’t distinguish between films that the BFI has and films about which it merely holds information, but the bringing together of filmographic and technical information has ben a major goal of the database development plans, so presumably we’ll see this in time (such unified data is avalable in the version of the database accessible in the BFI’s new library at its Southbank complex).
Some things are missing however, most significantly the shotlists or longer synopses which accompanied many archive records, particularly for older films – meaning predominantly silent – which are invaluable for the serious researcher. The synopses haven’t disappeared – they are on the version of the database in the BFI library) but they are not available online on the new database, as yet.
But the BFI continues to make the old version of its database available, though the link for this in not published anywhere on the new site. However, you can find it at http://old.bfi.org.uk/filmtvinfo/ftvdb, and there you can search all of its records as before, and find the fuller synopses where available. All of the links to BFI database records on the Bioscope (and there are many) still link through to these database records. The old version also has an Advanced Search option which the new one has jetisoned in favour of filtering. Both have their virtues – and as a researcher I’d rather have both.
How long the old database will remain available has not been said. Presumably once everything has been transferred across to the new site, then the old will be shut down – and all of the old links will become dead overnight, which is just a tad annoying. It’s also worth checking carefully between the two databases while we still have them, because they are bringing up different research results, which appears to be on account of some fields not having been copied across as yet (for instance, I searched for ‘Henville’, the donor of an important collection of early films whose name had appeared on several alternative titles, and found two records on the new database, sixteen on the old – which is not to say that those records are missing, simply that I can’t currently find them under the search term I was able to use previously).
So, to recap – the old BFI database can be found at http://old.bfi.org.uk/filmtvinfo/ftvdb. The new BFI database will be found at http://explore.bfi.org.uk. The new one has lots of exciting new features, but appears to be a work in progress. Meanwhile it’s strongly recommended that you keep referring to the old one, while you can.
King Edward VII meeting the aviators Orville and Wilbur Wright at Pau in France, Tyler’s Topical Slides series 11 (March 1909), from the LUCERNA database
A while ago we told you about the LUCERNA database, a directory of information on the magic lantern and home to digitised copies of lantern slides held in public and private collections. The site – a joint project by Universität Trier, Screen Archive South East, the Magic Lantern Society, UK; and Indiana University, but chiefly a labour of love by media historian Richard Crangle – demonstrates the range and depth of the magic lantern, not only in terms of subjects covered (fictional and non-fictional) but in the period of time it covers. The magic lantern continued well into the twentieth century (one of the leading British film trade papers was known as the Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly up to 1919) and arguably has never gone away, going through such incarnations as the slide carousel for family photos of a couple of generations ago through to the PowerPoint presentations of today.
New slides continue to be added to the site, and recently a set was added which is of huge interest to this enthusiast for historical news media, because it provides evidence of something I had felt certain had to have existed somewhere but had never seen, a sort of missing link between news photography and newsreels – the topical lantern slide.
Tyler’s Topical Slides, series 5, showing the visit of Basuto Chiefs to London in February 1909, where they were challenging the decision of the British government to include their land Lesotho within the Union of South Africa
The collection is Tyler’s Topical Slides, a set of lantern slides reporting on current events put out by Walter Tyler, a renowed lantern manufacturer whose business subsequently (after his death in 1909) diversified into motion picture equipment and film distribution as the Tyler Film Company. There are some 370 slides, arranged in 40 sets that date 1909-10. Each set is numbered, the highest number being series no. 87, from which it can be extraopolated that the slides were issued weekly. The number of slides ranges from 1 to 20 per set, but that is a reflection of what survives. Each slides has a photograph, supplied by the Topical Press Agency, a well-known photograph agency of the period (no connection with the Topical Film Company, which produced the Topical Budget newsreel). Each has a one-line caption describing the story. They would have been shown in sequence, long enough for an audience to take in the news item before the next slide would follow. They are exactly like newsreels – before there were newsreels.
The first newsreel in Britain, Pathé’s Animated Gazette, was first issued in June 1910. Newsreels had existed earlier in France, and of course films of news events were as old as film itself, but a newsreel as a collection of topical news stories gathered on a single reel was something new. What has been understood until now is that the inspiration for newsreels was photo-illustrated newspapers (such as The Daily Mirror and The Daily Sketch) which were interested in the visual impact of stories (other newspapers, such as The Times, did not carry photographs until some years later). What was not known, at least by me, was that there was another, direct precursor, the news or topical slide.
Tyler’s Topical Slides appear to have been issued from January 1909 – so a year and a half before the first newsreel was shown in Britain. They ran until at least September 1910, when the growing popularity of newsreels probably rendered them unviable commercially. We don’t know for certain, but it seems highly like that the slides were shown in cinemas, as well as variety theatres and town halls putting on mixed public entertainments (including films). In subject matter, style and adress, the topical slides are effectively identical to the first newsreels, which would open with a title and simple description of the action, followed by 30 seconds or so of film (withour further intertitles cut into the film), followed then by the next news story.
Tyler’s Topical Slides, series 11, showing Lieutenant Shackleton’s ship The Nimrod (Shackleton’s party arrived in New Zealand following their failed attempt to reach the South Pole on 23 March 1909 – this is therefore a photograph of the Nimrod before it sailed south)
The subject matter is the same as well – the popular news stories of the day, with an emphasis on personalities, especially royalty, sport, tradition and diverting incidents of the day, light-heartedly expressed with little overt political comment. In audience impact the slides would have worked in the same way as newsreels, because newsreels depended on the audience’s prior knowledge of the news story. They would have read about these topical subjects in their daily newspapers – now the weekly topical slides, or the weekly newsreel (newsreels started out weekly in the UK before becoming bi-weekly), showed them the pictures to supplement what they already knew, what had become common knowledge. The pictures completed the picture.
Winston Churchill (when President of the Board of Trade) as featured in Tyler’s Topical Slides, series 9 (February 1909)
How widely were such news or topical slides shown? Did any other company produce them apart from Tyler? It would be important to know, because either we are looking at a one-off freakish anticipation of the newsreel, or it is evidence of a significant news medium not hitherto written about in news media histories (to the best of my knowledge). The importance could lie not just in the ‘missing link’, but because it would be supporting evidence for the thesis that with the rise of the different news media at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries came a vital element of what makes up the news – consumer choice. The news does not exist in any one medium. It lies in the mind of each and everyone one of us who goes out looking for news, and finds it relayed through a variety of media, from which we pick and choose what we understand the news to be. It’s a part of what it is to be modern. Tyler’s Topical Slides show that the choice on offer in 1909-10 was that much greater than previously thought.
Tyler’s Topical Slides can be found on the LUCERNA database, simply by typing in “tyler” into the search box, then by ticking the box marked “show” next to the text that reads “88 sets with title containing ‘tyler’”. Being in series order they are in chronological order, and it would not take too much research to identify dates for many of the events depicted, and from that to extrapolate on what day of the week the series was released (assuming it was always the same day of the week) and what gap there was being an event occuring and Tyler being able to include this on the slides that it distributed.
How did such a business work when news subjects go so rapidly out of date? How extensive would the distribution have to have been to make it economical? How did distribution work, and how widespread was it? So many questions worth researching.
If anyone knows of any other examples of topical lantern slides which were released in series form, please do get in touch. There’s more to be found out – there has to be.
The Gaumont studios in Lime Grove in 1915, with the former Urania Cottage to the left
OK, it’s a bit of a catchpenny title for a post, but here’s an intriguing bit of history. I’ve been reading Jenny Hartley’s Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women. It tells the story of Urania Cottage, which was established in 1847 by the novelist Charles Dickens and the banking heiress Angela Burdett-Coutts. It was designed as an alternative refuge to the workshouse and usual reformatories for homeless young women whose lives were being ruined through poverty, imprisonment and prostitution. The intention was to show kindness where most regimes stressed guilt and punishment, inculcating its inhabitants with domestic virtues before shipping them off to the colonies in the hope that they would settle down happily in new lands.
Urania Cottage was located in the Shepherd’s Bush area, then farmland to the north-west of London. It operated as a women’s home for around fifteen years before changing hands, and Hartley tells us that just a single photograph exists of the building, taken in 1915. And there next door to the house is a huge building with glass walls and roof, which is instantly recognisable as the Gaumont film studios at Lime Grove, founded in 1915.
One is thrilled at the discovery and eager to demonstrate connections between the two. Did Gaumont produce any Dickens-based films at this time? Sadly no. The studio (which stayed glass-roofed only until 1917) went on to play a notable part in British cinema and television history. It was home to Gaumont and some Gainsborough productions (when Gainsborough wasn’t using its Islington studio), where Hitchcock filmed The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, and where Gainsborough ladies like Patricia Roc, Margaret Lockwood and Phyllis Calvert formed a curious echo (“a new set of inmates” as Hartley puts it) of Urania’s inhabitants. There don’t seem to have been any Dickens-related films ever made at Lime Grove, though David Lean, future director of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, did start out at Lime Grove as a tea boy and then cutter. Then the BBC took over the studios and made programmes there from 1950 to 1991, including Nineteen Eighty-Four, Steptoe and Son, Dr Who, Tonight, Top of the Pops and The Late Show.
Producer George Pearson in his office at Gaumont’s Lime Grove studios around 1915, very probably in one of the bedrooms used by the inhabitants of Urania Cottage, from his autobiography Flashback
Urania Cottage wasn’t just next door to the studios: it was a part of them. George Pearson, the first director to work at the studios in 1915, writes in his autobiography:
Offices and dressing-rooms were available in an adjacent house attached to the main building.
This was Urania Cottage. It was used as studio offices, dressing-rooms and apparently even bedrooms for performers staying over at the studio during the Blitz, though the original cottage was soon converted (it is unclear when) and replaced by a new house on the same site. Despite what Hartley says, there is at least one other photograph of the studios in 1915 (reproduced at www.gaumontbritish.com) which shows Urania Cottage, though at such a sharp angle and so obscured you would have to know it was there to recognise it tucked behind the building in front of it. Judging from the large Gaumont logo, this probably dates from a few months later, with the photograph at the top of this post depicting the studios still under construction.
The building that now fills the space where Urania once stood can be seen in photographs of the studio in its BBC days, as in this one from www.bbctv-ap.co.uk. The studio was demolished in 1993, and the space is now filled by housing. Urania Cottage was a well-intentioned initiative albeit with rather fixed ideas about what was good for its inmates (those who signed up had to agree to the emigration plans, which put off many would-be applicants who found it hard to see the difference between emigration and transportation). Those who lasted what was usually a year at Urania were then shipped out to Australia, South Africa and Canada, with mixed results it would appear from the available evidence.
Rather appropriately, on the site where Urania Cottage once stood there is now a hostel for the homeless, run by the St Christopher’s Fellowship. Thus film production comes and goes, but charity lives on.
Poster for The Plank (1967 version), from bbc.co.uk
So farewell then to Eric Sykes, one of Britain’s best loved funny men. He was a natural comic performer, generally playing someone confident that he knew what he was doing while demonstrating time and again that he had no reason to be so, best exemplified by the long-running TV sitcom Sykes. He was also one of the most talented comic writers of his time, writing for Educating Archie, Tony Hancock, The Goons, Frankie Howerd and his own shows.
Like many of his generation of comedians, he had an immense affection and respect for the great silent comedians. Some, such as Bob Monkhouse and Michel Bentine, presented compilations of silent comedies on television to bring them to new audiences. Others, such as Ronnie Barker (with A Home of Your Own, Futtock’s End, The Picnic, By the Sea), Benny Hill (The Waiters, Eddie in August), and in recent years Paul Merton, David Schneider (Uncle Max) and Rowan Atkinson (Mr Bean) have continued the tradition, with varying degrees of homage to the past – and with varying success.
Eric Sykes made a number of silent, or near-silent slapstick comedies, of which the most famous and still fondly loved is The Plank, of which three versions were made. It started out as a wordless, black-and-white episode of his BBC TV series Sykes and a …, the episode being Sykes and a Plank (tx. 3 March 1964), in which the two protganists were Sykes and regular co-star Hattie Jacques. In 1967 Sykes remade it as a 54-minute colour cinema release, co-starring himself and Tommy Cooper. This was then re-released in 1974 cut to 45 minutes, before a third version (30mins) was made for Thames Television in 1979, with Arthur Lowe replacing Cooper. It is the 1967 film that is the most familiar.
Sykes (who lived in a silent world himself – he was almost completely deaf) made other silent shorts for cinema and television: Rhubarb (1969, remade as Rhubarb, Rhubarb in 1980) in which the characters utter just the one word (guess what it is), It’s Your Move (1969, remade in 1982), Mr H is Late (1988) and The Big Freeze (1993) among them. But it is The Plank that has retained a classic status of a kind. The story is simple – two builders purchase a floorboard for the house they are working on, and encounter all manner of hazards trying to transport it across town. Judged by the standards of the comedy greats of the 1920s, it is average stuff, but Sykes and Cooper have the right deadpan delivery in the face of absurdity, and in its scenario of an inanimate object geting the better of two men it merits some comparison with Laurel and Hardy’s travails with a piano in The Music Box. The simple plank (much like the large plane of glass) is a silent comedy staple in any case. The twist is that here the plank gets star billing (literally so in the 1967 film’s opening credits).
The Plank and its creator show a continuity of laughter down the years. Slapstick itself no longer has the popular appeal that it once enjoyed, but Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd et al (themselves inspired by an earlier generation of theatre comics) inspired the next generation of comedians such as Eric Sykes who flourished on radio and television, whose works then made the next generation laugh when young and inspired them to make others laugh in their own time (as the many affectionate tributes to Sykes from today’s comedians has demonstrate). It’s a continuous process of inheritance and gratitude. Comedy dates, but laughter is eternal. Thank you Eric.
There have been many warm tributes recently to the late Andrew Sarris, the great film critic. Sarris was renowned for his advocacy of the auteur theory, in which the director of a film is judged to be its primary author when considering a film’s status as a work of art. Not all film directors can be auteurs, however, or so the argument goes – it is predominantly an elite whose distinctive stamp marks out those films that are truly great.
Well, may be so, but if there are film auteurs out there I do not think that they have always to be directors, or creators of fiction films, or indeed exclusively filmmakers. A case in point is the late Dai Vaughan, who died last month, to somewhat less recognition from the film world. Vaughan was a film artist – or perhaps more properly an artist who worked within film – whose commitment to that art was every bit as notable as a Hitchcock, a Ford or a Hawks. But Vaughan was a documentary film editor, and consequently an invisible man, to use the phrase that employed for his outstanding study of the editor behind Humphrey Jennings’ documentaries, Stewart McAllister, Portrait of an Invisible Man (1983).
Dai Vaughan (1933-2012) worked in the heart of film for over thirty years. He discovered the medium at the National Film Theatre in London in the 1950s, and joined the London Film of School Technique, going on to make films for the Labour Party, including the documentary Gala Day (1963) and a number of party political broadcasts. Establishing himself as a documentary film editor, he worked on some of the most notable British television series of the 60s and 70s: Granada’s social affairs World in Action and the great anthropological Disappearing World, the BBC’s arts series Omnibus and Roger Graef’s pioneering fly-on-the-wall series The Space Between Words (1972) and Decision (1975-76).
Vaughan’s social and political commitment, and his deep interest in how film can document, came out equally in his films and in his writings. His study of Stewart McAllister (practically his alter ego) is an inspired recovery of a lost life and a buried art, demonstrating as it does with what subtle artistry McAllister turned the wartime documentary inspirations of Humphrey Jennings into such exceptional works of arts as Listen to Britain and Fires were Started. However his greatest work is a collection of essays, For Documentary (1999). Were I to be restricted to just ten books on film in my library, then For Documentary would be one of them; and were I then only allowed to keep one, For Documentary might be it. For ideas that grip you and stay with you, fine style, knowledge based on practical experience and depth of undertanding, there is little in the field that surpasses it.
The book covers such subjects as ethnographic film, films of the Olympic Games, fabriciation in documentary and a prescient essay from 1994 on the digital image bringing about the death of cinema. But my favourite piece, and the reason for writing about Vaughan in a blog concerned with silent cinema is the opening essay, ‘Let there be Lumière’.
This exquisite piece of writing is concerned about the beginnings of cinema, specficially that extraordinary moment at which point cinema came into being, something which for Vaughan is equivalent to “what happened to the universe in the first microseconds after the big bang”. Vaughan analyses one film in particular, the Lumières’ Barque sortant du port (A Boat Leaving Harbour) (1895), a film whose mysterious beauty Vaughan unpicks by reference to its absolute spontaneity, a moment on film before film understood itself to be an art, before the arts of fiction (and of editing) intruded, before rules are introduced that make the mysteries of film comprehensible. He writes (also referring to the fascination leaves moving in the background had for audiences of the the first Lumière films):
As audiences settle for appearances, according film’s images the status of dream or fantasy whose links with a prior world are assumed to have been severed if they ever existed, film falls into place as a signifying system whose articulations may grow ever more complex. True, the movement of leaves remains unpredictable; but we know that, with the endless possibility of retakes open to the filmmaker, what was unplanned is nevertheless what has been chosen: and the spontaneous is subsumed into the enunciated. Even in documentary, which seeks to respect the provenance of its images, they are bent inexorably to foreign purpose. The “big bang” leaves only a murmur of background radiation, detectable whenever someone decides that a film will gain in realism by being shot on “real” locations or where the verisimilitude of a Western is enhanced, momentarily, by the unscripted whinny of a horse.
A Boat Leaving Harbour begins without purpose and ends without conclusion, its actors drawn into the contingency of events. Successive viewings serve only to stress its pathetic brevity as a fragment of human experience. It survives as a reminder of that moment when the question of spontaneity was posed and not yet found to be insoluble: when cinema seemed free, not only of its proper connotations, but of the threat of its absorption into meanings beyond it. Here is the secret of its beauty. The promise of this film remains untarnished because it is a promise which can never be kept: a promise whose every fulfilment is also its betrayal.
‘Let there be Lumière’ is a standard text on some film studies courses, and it has been much quoted down the years since it was first written in 1991. Yet its insights remain as fresh as ever, and its analysis of the workings of the first films as hypnotically entrancing as the endlessly watchable Barque sortant du port.
You can find the full essay reproduced on World Cat, but I warmly recommed the complete book. Vaughan knew his silent films, and throws in references to E.J. Marey, Laurel and Hardy, The Battle of the Somme and Charles Urban, alongside such diverse artists (film and non-film) as Federico Fellini, Adrian Cowell, David Hockney and Dorothy Richardson. Film for Vaughan is related to everything else in our culture, and all that we are may be illuminated through film.
Vaughan was also a poet and an experimental novelist, who with works such as Cloud Chamber, Moritur and Totes Meer, explored the mysteries of recovering the past in a form profoundly analogous with that of the filmmaker (the protagonist of Moritur is a film editor). As filmmaker, editor, essayist, reviewer, critic, novelist and poet, Vaughan’s work was consistent, interconnected, profound, auteurist.