100 years of newsreels in Britain

Frame still from Pathé Gazette’s The Movie Cameramen’s Derby, released 7 September 1922, which shows a race between British newsreel cameramen (with their cameras) – available to view at www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=19541

One hundred years ago, give or take a few days, a new kind of film appeared for the first time on British cinema screens. The Bioscope of those days took note of this interesting new development with this report:

There is no mistaking the smartness of Messrs Pathé, and their latest achievement — the production of a weekly cinematograph paper, The Animated Gazette — has just about beaten all records for the interest which it has awakened among the great B.P. [British Public]. The daily Press has been devoting considerable space to it, with the result that curiosity has been aroused, and people are now busily discussing the latest thing in moving pictures.

Briefly the idea is to incorporate the usual journalistic methods of writing into filming, and to portray, in lengths of about 80 odd feet, the chief items of interest that have happened during the week. Thus the illustrated newspaper is being superseded by The Animated Gazette, which depicts the actual scenes of contemporary history in living and moving reality.

Mr Valentia Steer, a well-known journalist, is editor of this moving picture periodical, and he has a staff of photo-correspondents, who are stationed in all the big cities of Europe, besides another staff at home. Last week’s news consisted of pictures of the cross-channel flight, Oxford University Eights’ trial, Peary at Edinburgh, Roosevelt at Cambridge, besides many interesting ‘glimpses’ from home and abroad.

This week’s contents bill announces motor-racing at Brooklands, the manouevres at Salisbury Plain, the departure of the Terra Nova, Chinese mission in Paris, quarrymen’s strike, Caruso in the street, Modes in Paris, and other ‘newsy’ films.

That the idea will catch on is undoubted, and it is perhaps not looking too far into the future to anticipate the time when the weekly Animated Gazette will become an indispensable ‘daily’.

The Bioscope, 9 June 1910

This piece announced the arrival of the British newsreel, in the form of Pathé’s Animated Gazette, edition no. 1 of which appeared at some point in the first week of June 1910. It wasn’t the first newsreel in the world – that honour generally goes to Pathé Fait-Divers (later Pathé Journal), launched in France in 1908. There has been film of news events ever since films had been invented, but they weren’t newsreels. Newsreels meant regularity of service, and that was dependent on a network of cinemas and an audience which could be guaranteed to come back to the cinema week after week. Before cinemas started to appear – the first ten years or so of film history – a film might be made of a news event, but it seldom could be presented as news, that is while the event was still current and with the report being understood as being part of a regular, always updated filmed news service. Cinemas supplied the loyal audience, and it is the audience that makes the news, because what is news to one person isn’t necessarily news to another – it all depends where you are, and where that news is coming from.

Pathé’s Animated Gazette main title card from 1915 (with British Pathé spoiler). Note the boast that it was reaching 20 million people (5 million is more likely for the UK) and the line about having been passed by the British Board of Film Censors – only in wartime were British newsreels subject to censorship

Pathé’s Animated Gazette was immediately recognised as an exciting innovation. It was a product of cinema, yet it had a clear relationship with newspapers. It gave a new social purpose to cinema-going. This new film form was called by a variety of names – animated newspapers, topicals etc.- but not as yet newsreels (that term didn’t begin to catch on until 1917 or so), and Pathé’s model was soon followed by Warwick Bioscope Chronicle (1910), Gaumont Graphic (1910), Topical Budget (1911), Eclair Journal and Williamson’s Animated News, all before the First World War. In the US there was Pathé’s Weekly (1911), Gaumont Animated Weekly (1912), Mutual Weekly (1912) and Universal’s Animated Weekly (1912); France added Gaumont Actualités and Eclair-Journal; Germany had Tag im Film (1911), Eiko-Woche (1913), Union-Woche (1913) and Messter-Woche (1914). Russia had Zerkalo voiny (Mirror of the World) (1914); Australia had Australasian Gazette.(Note by the way how the newsreels all emulated newspapers by taking on names like Gazette and Journal)

The form spread around the world, often as off-shoots of the French parent companies of Pathé and Gaumont. Filmed news became a product of the early film multinationals, and through means of international exchange, world news was screened in cinemas across the globe, though the time taken to transport film internationally lessened its value as news, and audiences expressed a strong preference for local news, on subjects that were news to them. ‘Foreign’ news often wasn’t news at all, in its timing or in how the audience viewed it.

The newsreels were released at regular intervals to match the pattern of cinema-going that people in their millions were starting to adopt. In Britain newsreels were very early on issued twice-weekly and stayed that way for five decades. In the US the distances were greater and so news tended to be issued weekly. Newsreels had become firmly established as part of practically cinema programme by the start of the First World War, and newsreels were to play a key part in informing audiences about how the war was progressing. Such was their importance that the British, French and American governments each took over or created a newsreel to act as a means to deliver officially sanctioned footage (i.e. propaganda) – respectively War Office Offical Topical Budget, Annales de la Guerre and Official War Review.

Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks visit Britain, from Pathé Gazette issue 679, released 24 June 1920. Available to view at www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=27815

In the 1920s newsreels built on these strong foundations and became an essential and popular element of the cinema programme. The average newsreel in the silent era ran for some 7-8 minutes and contained anywhere between four and eight stories, eached introdued by a title card with the story title and a short comment, and sometimes with further titles cut into the story as the newsreels increasingly sought to add commentary even before sound gave them their voice. The newsreels rapidly gained a repuation for light-hearted items, stunts and gimmicks, with a fascination for sport, royalty, pageantry, tradition and sensation. Oscar Levant notoriously summed up newsreels as being “a series of catastrophes ended by a fashion show”.

That’s unfair. Anyone who has looked at newsreels in any sort of depth will soon find that there was a lot more too them than fashion shows. The newsreels were acutely aware of what were the current topics of conversation (they were released after the daily newspapers, so the news agenda had been already set for them) and picked up on the personalities and issues of the day that audiences wanted to see covered with an astute eye. This propensity for the topical makes them an excellent barometer of contemporary social concerns, albeit usually sugared with that lightness of tone that the newsreels deemend necessary because they were, after all, in the entertainment business, and their audience had come to the cinema to be entertained.

The newsreels entertained, and that ultimately became the noose around their necks that condemned them. That however was in the future – our concern is with the silent era, and in the 1910s and 1920s the newsreels reigned supreme, and we cannot understand what silent cinema means if we do not take them into consideration. Indeed no other area of silent cinema is so well represented online as newsreels (such is their continuing commercial value).

Fortunately there is amply opportunity to consider them. The newsreels may have faded away in the 1950s and 60s, but their libraries live on, selling footage to television programmes. In the UK there are five major newsreel libraries and a great deal of what they hold has been made available online, either available to all or free at point of use for educational users. They are:

  • British Pathé
    Pathé operated a newsreel in Britain between 1910-1970. Its entire archive (3,500 hours) is freely available online, albeit with low resolution copies
  • ITN Source
    ITN holds the British Gaumont (1910-1959), Paramount (1929-1957) and Universal (1930-1956) newsreel libraries. A substantial amount of this is available on its site, included among other footage managed by ITN – go to the advanced search option and select ‘New Classics’ to narrow searches down to newsreels. The entire Gaumont collection is available in download form for UK higher and further education users only via Newsfilm Online
  • British Movietone
    The entire British Movietone News collection 1929-1979 is available for free, alongside non-Movietone silent material going back to the 1890s
  • BFI National Archive
    The BFI owns the Topical Budget (1911-1931) newsreel, examples of which are available on its Screenonline site (accessible to UK educational and library users only) and on its YouTube channel
  • Imperial War Museum
    The IWM holds service newsreels from the First and Second World Wars, a number of which are available through Film and Sound Online (UK higher and further educational users only)

These services has been covered by the Bioscope before now (see links below). As it is Pathé’s centenary, let’s finish with a few words about them. First of all, happy centenary! the Bioscope sends its congratulations on having achieved such a major milestone and still a significant commercial moving image presence. Pathé has changed hands several times down the years. Until a couple of years ago it was owned by the Daily Mail newspaper; now it is managed by venture capitalists.


For anyone who cares about newsreels, the British Pathé site is a mixed blessing. It is a wonderful window onto the past, the digitisation of the films having been originally funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund but kept on as a free service long beyond the original agreement with the HLF. But on the other side it has of late become a little soulless, disfigured by front page advertising, and dominated by an idea of news as gimmick and sensation, a lucky dip into the quaint ways in which our ancestors behaved rather than showing what the newsreel fundamentally was – a vehicle for the news.

One cannot get a sense of the Pathé newreels as newsreels i.e. as a set of stories released on a single reel, and for that it is necessary to cross-refer to the BUFVC’s News on Screen site (formerly the British Universities Newsreel Database) where you will find an almost complete record of issues for all British newsreels 1910-1979, together with background histories, biographies of those who worked in the newsreels, digitised documents, and links across to the British Pathé site. It is place to go if you appreciate newsreels for what they mean to the study of society and history. Newsreels matter – and the more we understand them the more we will get from viewing them.

Finding out more
These Bioscope posts have covered British newsreel collections and the use of online resources: British Pathe part one, British Pathe part two, Revisiting Pathe, Movietone and Henderson and Welcome to Newsfilm Online

Pathé editor P.D. Hugon wrote an informative booklet Hints to Newsfilm Cameraman (1915) with much information on how newsreels operated at that time. The online text has an important introduction by Nicholas Hiley.

British Pathé has a lively Twitter feed, drawing attention to exciting novelties they discover in their collection.

I’ve written lots about newsreels in the past. My history of the Topical Budget newsreel (1992) is long out of print (but you can get it dirt cheap second-hand), but there’s Yesterday News: The British Cinema Newsreel Reader (2002) which tells the history of British newsreels through texts contemporary and modern, and most recently I’ve an essay on newsreels in Richard Howells and Robert W. Matson’s Using Visual Evidence (2009).

Quebec and Québec

F. Guy Bradford (left), Joe Rosenthal (right) and the Living Canada travelling company, c.1903 (Cinémathèque québécoise)

Another day, another site goes up with unique silent film content, richly contextualised. Truly the online world is our archive. This time it is Le cinéma au Québec au temps du muet/Cinema in Quebec in Silent Era, an impeccably bilingual site giving us the history of early cinema in Quebec, Canada.

Quebec has a distinctive early film history. It is a tale coloured by its geography, its French heritage, local regulations, audiences and enthusiasms, and by snow. Particularly, it is a tale shaped by the dedicated efforts of a hardy band of pioneers, such as James Freer, Henry de Grandsaignes d’Hauterives and Léo-Ernest Ouimet. It is a tale of travelling cameramen (Joe Rosenthal, William Paley) and travelling exhibitors (F. Guy Bradford), an adventurous cinema with a spirit of newness and discovery about it.

The site has been put together with impressive thoroughness and local pride. There are extensive, knowledgable texts on such themes as the history of cinema in the area, biographies, audiences, film companies, sponsorship (the Canadian Pacific Railway made much use of film to promote its activites), censorship and travelling cinema. There are twenty or so films, available in low and high bandwidth, mostly non-fiction, including such titles as Skiing at Quebec (Edison 1902), Mes espérances en 1908 (Ouimet 1908), The Building of a Transcontinental Railway in Canada (Butcher 1909), Put Yourself in their Place (Vitagraph 1912 – fiction film set in Quebec) and the sobering Forty Thousand Feet of Rejected Film Destroyed by Ontario Censor Board (James and Sons 1916). All have musical accompaniment by Canada’s own Gabriel Thibaudeau.

There are also three lively ‘interactive journeys’ which you can take through the ‘Rural Milieu (1897-1905)’, ‘Working-Class Milieu (1906-1914)’ and ‘Middle-Class Milieu (1915-1930)’, which is an interesting way in which to divide up cinema history. Plus you will find documents, photographs, further background texts (some in French, some in English, some in both), and educational activities and a good, eclectic set of links (where you may learn that The Bioscope is ‘Plus qu’un blogue’ – merci beaucoup). An historical timeline is also offered, though I’ve not been able to make the link work. All in all, an exceptional piece of work, lovingly constructed, with discoveries a-plenty to be made.

The site is a collaborative effort between GRAFICS, the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec and the Cinémathèque québécoise. Acknowledgments to Bruce Calvert on the indispensible silent film forum Nitrateville for information on this site.

Are you ready? Shoot!

Until now, we have not had any fictional works in the Bioscope Library (the collection of texts on silent cinema which are freely available online from assorted sources). First up, therefore, is one of the first – if not the first – novels to tackle the subject of film (it was preceded by numerous short stories on the theme), Luigi Pirandello’s Si gira, published under that title in 1915 and in revised form in 1925 as Quaderni di Serafino Gubbio operatore (The Notebooks of Serafino Gubbio, Cinematograph Operator), the latter published in English in 1927 as Shoot!.

Pirandello, one of Italy’s greatest writers, best known for plays such as Six Characters in Search of an Author), does not have much good to say about cinema. Si gira is a bitter attack on modernity, in which Gubbio, the first-person narrator, becomes one with his machine in being increasingly desensitized to true life, a denial or absence of experience which is transmitted to people through that arch-representation of modern life, the cinema. The sense of the disturbing nature of modernity as annoying, incessant noise, with the cinematograph as machine, comes out in this passage:

There is one nuisance, however, that does not pass away. Do you hear it? A hornet that is always buzzing, forbidding, grim, surly, diffused, and never stops. What is it? The hum of the telegraph poles? The endless scream of the trolley along the overhead wire of the electric trams? The urgent throb of all those countless machines, near and far? That of the engine of the motor-car? Of the cinematograph?

The beating of the heart is not felt, nor do we feel the pulsing of our arteries. The worse for us if we did! But this buzzing, this perpetual ticking we do notice, and I say that all this furious haste is not natural, all this flickering and vanishing of images; but that there lies beneath it a machine which seems to pursue it, frantically screaming.

Will it break down?

Serafino Gubbio is a cinematographer operator working the Kosmograph studio by day, and writing his absurdist journal by night, as he describes the world that appears before his camera. Pirandello doesn’t attack the cinematograph so much for its own sake as to use it as a means to broaden his target to include all that is dehumanizing. His camera alienates him from society; the act of writing helps him recover his humanity. It is a thesis that some will recognise in Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Reproduction’, and Benjamin cites Pirandello’s book as identifying the alienation inherent in the film performance – “the part is not acted for an audience but for a mechanical contrivance”. Says Pirandello (or rather, Gubbio):

Here they feel as though they were in exile. In exile, not only from the stage, but also in a sense from themselves. Because their action, the ‘live’ action of their ‘live’ bodies, there, on the screen of the cinematograph, no longer exists: it is ‘their image’ alone, caught in a moment, in a gesture, expression, that flickers and disappears. They are confusedly aware, with a maddening, indefinable sense of emptiness, that their bodies are so to speak subtracted, suppressed, deprived of their reality, of breath, of voice, of the sound that they make in moving about, to become only a dumb image which quivers for a moment on the screen and disappears, in silence, in an instant, like an unsubstantial phantom, the play of illusion upon a dingy sheet of cloth.

Ah, poor movies, cause of such anguish and alienation among the intelligensia. How much Si gira represents Pirandello’s own point of view is a matter of debate. There is some knowledge of the workings of the film industry, and Kosmograph owes something to the great Italian studios of the period, such as Cines. But one does not read Si gira (the English title, Shoot, is the phrase so constantly used of Gubbio that it becomes his name in effect) for any documentary accuracy. Its subject is the human, or the ongoing death of the human, rather than cinema per se.

The book is freely available from the Australian branch of Project Gutenberg (oddly enough, it is not on the main Gutenberg site), in its 1927 English translation by C.K. Scott Moncrieff. The same translation is published by Chicago University Press.

The Silent Film Bookshelf

The Silent Film Bookshelf was started by David Pierce in October 1996 with the noble intention of providing a monthly curated selection of original documents on the silent era (predominantly American cinema), each on a particular theme. It ended in June 1999, much to the regret to all who had come to treasure its monthly offerings of knowledgeably selected and intelligently presented transcripts. The effort was clearly a Herculean one, and could not be sustained forever, but happily Pierce chose to keep the site active, and there it still stands nine years later, undeniably a web design relic but an exceptional reference resource. Its dedication to reproducing key documents helped inspire the Library section of this site, and it is a lesson to us all in supporting and respecting the Web as an information resource.

Below is a guide to the monthly releases (as I guess you’d call them), with short descriptions.

October 1996 – Orchestral Accompaniment in the 1920s
Informative pieces from Hugo Riesenfeld, musical director of the Rialto, Rivoli and Critierion Theaters in Manhattan, and Erno Rapee, conductor at the Capitol Theater, Manhattan.

November 1996 – Salaries of Silent Film Actors
Articles with plenty of multi-nought figures from 1915, 1916 and 1923.

December 1996 – An Atypical 1920s Theatre
The operations of the Eastman Theatre in Rochester, N.Y.

January 1997 – “Blazing the Trail” – The Autobiography of Gene Gauntier
The eight-part autobiography (still awaiting part eight) of the Kalem actress, serialised over 1928/1929 in the Women’s Home Companion.

February 1997 – On the set in 1915
Photoplay magazine proiles of D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennett and Siegmund Lubin.

March 1997 – Music in Motion Picture Theaters
Three articles on the progress of musical accompaniment to motion pictures, 1917-1929.

April 1997 – The Top Grossing Silent Films
Fascinating articles in Photoplay and Variety on production finance and the biggest money-makers of the silent era.

May 1997 – Geraldine Farrar
The opera singer who became one of the least likely of silent film stars, including an extract from her autobiography.

June 1997 – Federal Trade Commission Suit Against Famous Players-Lasky
Abuses of monopoly power among the Hollywood studios.

July 1997 – Cecil B. DeMille Filmmaker
Three articles from the 1920s and two more analytical articles from the 1990s.

August 1997 – Unusual Locations and Production Experiences
Selection of pieces on filmmaking in distant locations, from Robert Flaherty, Tom Terriss, Frederick Burlingham, James Cruze, Bert Van Tuyle, Fred Leroy Granville, H.A. Snow and Henry MacRae.

September 1997 – D.W. Griffith – Father of Film
Rich selection of texts from across Griffith’s career on the experience of working with the great director, from Gene Gauntier, his life Linda Arvidson, Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish and others.

October 1997 – Roxy – Showman of the Silent Era
S.L. Rothapfel, premiere theatre manager of the 1920s.

November 1997 – Wall Street Discovers the Movies
The Wall Street Journal looks with starry eyes at the movie business in 1924.

December 1997 – Sunrise: Artistic Success, Commercial Flop?
Several articles documenting the marketing of a prestige picture, in this case F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise.

January 1998 – What the Picture Did For Me
Trade publication advice to exhibitors on what films of the 1928-1929 season were likely to go down best with audiences.

February 1998 – Nickelodeons in New York City
The emergence of the poor man’s theatre, 1907-1911.

March 1998 – Projection Speeds in the Silent Film Era
An amazing range of articles on the vexed issue of film speeds in the silent era. There are trade paper accouncts from 1908 onwards, technical papers from the Transactions of Society of Moving Picture Engineers, a comparative piece on the situation in Britain, and overview articles from archivist James Card and, most importantly, Kevin Brownlow’s key 1980 article for Sight and Sound, ‘Silent Films: What was the right speed?’

April 1998 – Camera Speeds in the Silent Film Era
The protests of cameramen against projectionsts.

May 1998 – “Lost” Films
Robert E. Sherwood’s reviews of Hollywood, Driven and The Eternal Flame, all now lost films (the latter, says Pierce, exists but is ‘incomplete and unavailable’).

June 1998 – J.S. Zamecnik & Moving Picture Music
Sheet music for general film accompaniment in 1913, plus MIDI files.

July 1998 – Classics Revised Based on Audience Previews
Sharp-eyed reviews of preview screenings by Wilfred Beaton, editor of The Film Spectator, including accounts of the preview of Erich Von Stroheim’s The Wedding March and King Vidor’s The Crowd, each quite different to the release films we know now.

August 1998 – Robert Flaherty and Nanook of the North
Articles on the creator of the staged documentary film genre.

September 1998 – “Fade Out and Fade In” – Victor Milner, Cameraman
The memoirs of cinematographer Victor Milner.

October 1998 – no publication

November 1998 – Baring the Heart of Hollywood
Somewhat controversially, a series of articles from Henry Ford Snr.’s anti-Semitic The Dearborn Independent, looking at the Jewish presence in Hollywood. Pierce writes: ‘I have reprinted this series with some apprehension. That many of the founders of the film industry were Jews is a historical fact, and “Baring the Heart of Hollywood” is mild compared to “The International Jew.” [Another Ford series] Nonetheless, sections are offensive. As a result, I have marked excisions of several paragraphs and a few words from this account.’

December 1998 – Universal Show-at-Home Libraries
Universal Show-At-Home Movie Library, Inc. offered complete features in 16mm for rental through camera stores and non-theatrical film libraries.

January 1999 – The Making of The Covered Wagon
Various articles on the making of James Cruze’s classic 1923 Western.

February 1999 – From Pigs to Pictures: The Story of David Horsley
The career of independent producer David Horsley, who started the first motion picture studio in Hollywood, by his brother William.

March 1999 – Confessions of a Motion Picture Press Agent
An anonymous memoir from 1915, looking in particular at the success of The Birth of a Nation.

April 1999 – Road Shows
Several articles on the practive of touring the most popular silent epics as ‘Road Shows,’ booked into legitimate theatres in large cities for extended runs with special music scores performed by large orchestras. With two Harvard Business School analyses from the practice in 1928/29.

May 1999 – Investing in the Movies
A series of articles 1915/16 in Photoplay Magazine examining the risks (and occasional rewards) of investing in the movies.

June 1999 – The Fabulous Tom Mix
A 1957 memoir in twelve chapters by his wife of the leading screen cowboy of the 1920s.

And there it ended. An astonishing bit of work all round, with the texts transcribed (they are not facsimiles) and meticulously edited. Use it as a reference source, and as an inspiration for your own investigations.

From 1896 to 1926 – part 7

We return to the reminiscences of Edward G. Turner of the Walturdaw company, pioneer film distributors. Turner is now talking about their business situation in the 1900s, when they turned to production as well as distribution. As is usual with Turner, what gives him equal pleasure is the mechanical side of the business, here devices for preventing fire, and getting the better of the London County Council.

Prior to our moving to Dane Street, the three partners had not definite duties. We all put our hands to whatever was required of us during the day, and acted as operators at night. We were buyers and sellers of everything in the kinematograph Industry, new or secondhand.

There was one member, however, whose inclinations were photographically inclined, and so we took lease of Wembley Park and erected there something novel in the way of outdoor studios – a revolving platform, which allowed us to put up three sets of scenery at a time, when the wind allowed it, and each could be brought to the camera as required. Further, it was so constructed that we could always get the best of the light and sunshine.

[Ernest] Howard took charge of this department – his lieutenants being J.B. McDowell and E. Bloomfield – these latter were our cameramen.

Albert Bloomfield left Walturdaw in 1908, forming the British & Colonial Kinematograph Company, J.B. McDowell soon joining him. McDowell would go on to achieve lasting fame as a cameraman in the First World War, filming much of the documentary feature The Battle of the Somme (1916). Interestingly, one of the companies he worked for before Walturdaw was the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company, which had a revolving open-air studio (on the Thames embankment) much as Turner describes, dating around 1899.

[J.D.] Walker took over the Film Hire Department, [G.H.J.] Dawson the Entertainment Department, and myself the Sales and Accessory Department. The business thus became sectionalised, each man devoting himself exclusively to his own side of the business, whereas in the past we had been cosmopolitan in this respect. Things grew apace, and we were doing business with all parts of the world.

A Fireproof Spool

One day at Dane Street, the late Mr. Holmes, of Essex Road, who was the chief kinematograph mechanic to Levy Jones, of Horton Square, called to see me, and found me experimenting with a tin box. Instantly he said to me, ‘I see what you are after, I am working on the same thing; suppose we join forces?’

While we were discussing the point, my eye fell on a kinematograph camera film box (in those days the boxes were outside the camera). At once we had solved the problem. Why not make a copy of the camera film box in metal, fit it to the top of the kinema machine, make a similar box for the bottom spool-arm and so get fire-proof spool boxes?

The first pair were made of mahogany, and Mr. Holmes used them pretty regularly. They answered their purpose perfectly. We then had them made in metal and thus came about one of the greatest improvements in the kinema world.

A Lost Fortune

I took the model to Mr. Wrench and asked his advice as to taking out a patent, as I had done previously with the fireproof gate. I shall remember his words as long as I live:

He told me he had taken out over 100 patents on his lanterns, and never made any money out of any of them; other makers copied, and rarely was he able to stop them, except at great expense. Further, non-flam film was bound to be perfected in a month or two (it was always to be a month or two as it is to-day), and when non-flam film did come out, that would solve all our difficulties with the L.C.C., insurance companies and other authorities.

Alas! I took his advice and lost a fortune. The owner of those patents would be rolling in untold wealth to-day, as spool-boxes are compulsory all over the world.

Films, of course, were of cellulose nitrate, and were highly inflammable. ‘Non-flam’, or safety films (cellulose acetate) were often talked about, but in general they lacked the robustness of nitrate. Some safety systems were available around 1908, but cellulose acetate really only found use for narrow gauge systems designed for non-theatrical and amateur use, of which Edison’s 22mm Home Kinetoscope system, introduced in 1912, was the first.

The L.C.C. Butts In

No more was heard of fireproof spool-boxes until the demonstration which was given at the London Hippodrome, on December 17, 1908, when no fewer than ten firms exhibited, before the representatives of the London County Council and insurance bodies, their machines, showing how they had tackled the question of making the machines safe.

Incidentally, I claim to have had a good deal to do with this demonstration. It came about in this way. Passing the Hippodrome about a fortnight previously, I found that a demonstration of fire extinguishing apparatus for kinematographs was being given inside the Hippodrome. I walked in to see what was moving, and discovered that the apparatus was similar to an ordinary water cistern, such as are used in w.c.’s, fitted on four rods and suspended over the machine; this was the ingenious arrangement that the trade had been called together to see.

The apparatus was so arranged that if a piece of film caught fire it released a spring and the water supposed to come down and put the fire out. I, with a number of other exhibitors, saw this absurd apparatus, and laughed it to scorn, but certain members of the County Council were strongly in favour of foisting this wretched thing upon the trade.

The Test that Failed

Mr. Brandon (one of the oldest exhibitors) and myself, stepped into the ring and challenged the efficacy of this absurd invention, and I, as spokesman, asked that a fair test might be given, first to the apparatus which the various makers were selling, and secondly, that the County Council would call us together to demonstrate. The test was to be under the same conditions that we would have if we were actually showing, and this challenge was accepted.

Frank Allen kindly granted us the use of his ring, and on December 7 the demonstration was given, and proved the death knell of the water cistern, for when the film was set fire to by means of the rays from the arc lamp, the wretched invention failed, the water instead of coming down all over the spool and putting the fire out, simply fell over the bottom spool and damaged the film – and let the rest flare away.

All the other machines were tested very severely by the judges, and each came out triumphant. Some of the tests were really severe, inasmuch as they fired the film on the top sprocket, the bottom sprocket, and in the gate, and yet in no instance did the fire enter into the spool cases.

Stay turned for the next episode, when Turner tells us about ‘Flicker Alley’ and discusses the rise of the exclusive.

When the Movies Began…


The latest feature to be added to the Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema web site is When the Movies Began. This is a chronology of the world’s film productions and film shows before May 1896. It was originally compiled by Stephen Herbert and published as a booklet by The Projection Box in 1994. This updated and redesigned version incorporates new research, in particular the work of Deac Rossell, and it will be regularly revised and updated. There is also a full introduction and list of references.

Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema is a biographical reference guide to 300 or so people involved in the production of motion pictures before 1901, both behind and in front of the camera. It includes a wealth of supporting resources on the subject of Victorian film (i.e. film during the time of Queen Victoria’s reign), with a growing number of special features, such as When the Movies Began.

Education, education, education

Some new additions to The Bioscope Library. A prominent theme in the silent era was the use of films in education. It was driven by a mixture of idealism and commerce, but mostly by the evident appeal that motion pictures had for children – a challenge to authorities in every sense. An enthusiastic period in the 1910s, when many advocated the motion picture as an essenial tool for educating the young was followed by a period of experiment and analysis in the 1920s, determining the pedagogic value and the pitfalls. Many specialist producers in educational film then sprang up, exploiting the new 16mm film format for non-theatrical exhibition, riding on the bandwagon of what was labelled Visual Education.

Ernest Dench’s Motion Picture Education (1917) is a rambling but enthusiastic guide, which considers the potential for film to teach history, arithmetic, natural history, domestic science, even handwriting. There is some grasp of the theoretical side, and warnings that film is no substitute for text. Dench reveals how the great passion for films among young audiences was taxing authorities, which sought to master a medium they did not fully understand. It’s available from the Internet Archive in DjVu (5.3MB), PDF (43MB) and TXT (351KB) formats.

Don Carlos Ellis and Laura Thornborough’s Motion Pictures in Education: A Practical Handbook for Users of Visual Aids (1923) is one of the standard guides of the period. It is designed as the essential handbook for the teacher needing to the how and why of using film in the classroom. In good common-sense fashion it covers the history of educational film, the objections raised against its use, the advantages of using the medium, the kinds of films available, the practicalities of exhibiting them, and examples of their successful use. It’s available from the Internet Archive in DjVu (7.2MB), PDF (34MB) and TXT (515KB) formats.

Also in an instructional vein are two further books added to the Library. The year before his book on education, Ernest Dench wrote Advertising by Motion Pictures (1916), a fascinating, if discursive guide to the potential of the motion picture for purposes of advertising. Dench covers the selling of railroads, food products, agricultural machinery, shoes, real estate, newspapers and dry goods through motion pictures. He covers different approaches for different kinds of audience (working classes, farmers), and different media, with particular attention given to the use of advertising slides. Some of it is aimless speculation, like the chapter on naming soda fountain concoctions after movies, but its enthusiasm is appealing and it paints a useful picture of they ways in which the cinema industry engaged with the American audience in the early years of cinema. It’s available from the Internet Archive in DjVu (5.2MB), PDF (23MB) and TXT (207KB) formats.

Lastly, there’s Hugh C. McClung, Camera Knowledge for The Photoplaywright (1920). This pamphlet offers a simple guide to the technology and practice of cinematograph for the would-be writer of screenplays. McClung was a cinematographer himself, with Gaston Méliès, Willian Fox, Triangle, Douglas Fairbanks and Famous Players-Lasky. The chief intent of the booklet is to make writers “think in pictures,” and in between the general pleas for appreciation of the hard work that went behind the making of pictures, there are some interesting anecdotes which bring to life the practicalities of the business. Available from the Internet Archive in DjVu (604KB), PDF (2.2MB) and TXT (37KB) formats.

A Girl Cinematographer at the Balkan War

Jessica Borthwick

Jessica Borthwick, from The Bioscope

Having promised more on early war films, in recognition of Stephen Bottomore’s recent work, and the posts on British women filmmakers and the collection of women’s writings on cinema, Red Velvet Seat, I’m going to combine these interests by writing something on Jessica Borthwick, cinematographer of the Balkan War of 1913. Red Velvet Seat, in its otherwise excellent author biographies, says of Borthwick “no information found”. Well, I think we can do a little better than that.

Jessica Borthwick was twenty-two years old when she set out to film and photograph the second Balkan War (essentially the Bulgarians were fighting the Turks, Serbians and Greeks) in 1913. She filmed there for a year, not on behalf of any film company, but purely for her own interest, with the aim of exhibiting films and photographs on a lecture tour around Britain on her return.

Good connections enabled her to take this unusual step. She was the daughter of General George Colville Borthwick (1840-1896), who had been commander-in-chief of the army in Eastern Roumelia (part of Bulgaria after 1885). His brother was Sir Algernon Borthwick (1830-1908), 1st Baron Glenesk, a prominent figure in Victorian society as owner of The Morning Post, a position that by 1913 was occupied by his widow, Alice. The Hon. Miss Borthwick therefore found many doors open to her, particularly in Bulgaria, but that does not explain the remarkable determination and enterprise shown in an interview she gave for The Bioscope, published as ‘A Girl Cinematographer at the Balkan War,’ 7 May 1914. Here’s an extract:

… I took out with me to the Balkans one small plate camera and one cinematograph camera, which was made for me by Mr. Arthur Newman, who taught me in three days how to use it. This cinematograph camera of Mr. Newman’s lasted me the whole twelve months, in spite of the fact that it underwent terribly hard usage and received no repairs whatever except for my amateurish effort to mend it with bits of wire …

The difficulties of taking cinematograph pictures on the battlefield, especially when you are alone and unaided by any assistant, are, as you can imagine, tremendous. The use of a tripod is a particular embarrassment. Things happen so quickly in time of war that, unless one can be ready with one’s camera at a few seconds’ notice, the episode one wishes to record will probably be over. During the Servian [sic] war in Macedonia, my tripod was smashed by a shell, and although the camera was intact, the film which I was taking at the time got hopelessly jumbled up and had to be cut away from the mechanism with which it had become entwined.

Another great difficulty was the want of a dark room. One day, while taking films in the Rhodope Mountains, I came to a strange village of wooden huts inhabited by a nomadic race called Vlaques. Something went wrong with my camera, and I tried to make the people understand that I wanted some place which would serve as a dark room. It was impossible to get them to grasp what I meant, however, until eventually I found a man making rugs out of sheep’s wool. After much persuasion, I induced him to cover me up with his rugs, and in this unusual and very stuffy ‘dark room’ I managed to open my camera in safety. Having no film box with me at the moment, I wrapped the negative up in pieces of paper and stowed it away in my pocket, carrying it thus for fifteen days until I returned to Sofia. Occupied with other matters, I forgot the film and handed my coat to a servant who, being of an inquisitive nature, unwrapped the negative, and finding it uninteresting, put it back in the pocket without the paper, afterwards hanging up the coat to air in the sun. Subsequently I developed the film – and found it one of the best I had.

The want of a technical dictionary, combined with the natives’ ignorance of photography, brought about several rather amusing situations. On one occasion, in Adrianople, I lost a screw from my tripod. There were shops of most other kinds, but no ironmongers, and at last, in despair, I tried to explain to an officer what I wanted in dumb show, not knowing the word for ‘screw.’ Having followed my actions for some moments with apparent intelligence, he suddenly hailed a cab and bundled me hastily in. We drove right across the city, until eventually we entered some massive gates and drew up – inside the prison! However, I turned the misconception to advantage by securing some excellent snapshots and having some very interesting talks with the prisoners. One convict – a German of considerable education – invited me to go and see him hanged the next morning. I saw two executions in that prison.

During the cholera rage in Adrianople, everything connected with that terrible disease was painted black. The carts in which the dead bodies were carried away were black, for example, as were the coffins in which cholera victims were buried. While the scourge was at its height, I went down into the gipsy quarter to take a film. The people in this part of the city had never seen a camera before, and when they saw me pointing my black box at various objects they thought I was operating some wonderful new instrument for combating the disease which was destroying them. Quickly surrounding me, they came and knelt upon the ground, kissing my feet and clothing, and begging with dreadful pathos that I should cure them. It was a task as sad as it was difficult to explain that their hopes were mistaken, and that I was impotent to help them …

What are my present and future plans? Well, in a few days time I hope to start a month’s engagement at the Polytechnic to lecture twice daily on the war … With regard to the future, I shall leave England in June next for the Arctic regions, where I want to start a colony for the cure of consumption and other diseases. This is the dream of my life. The great open spaces of the North are God’s sanatorium, and I believe that, when once their possibilities are known, their value will be recognised. I have been in the Arctic regions before. Yes, I shall take two or three cameras with me, induding Mr. Newman’s wonderful new hand cinematograph camera. When shall I return? That I cannot say. Perhaps at the end of a year – perhaps never.

Her lecture ambitions appear to have been thwarted. A court case followed in which she accused her projectionist of incompetence and having ruined her lecture engagements. Nor did she return to the Arctic. The First World War intervened, and she is next heard of as an ambulance worker on the Western Front, where she was wounded by shell and decorated by the Belgians.

Then what happened to her? She appears not to have married, but to have been a society figure, mentioned from time to time as having attended august gatherings of London society, into the 1940s. In 1946 she is recorded as having given a talk to the Sailors’ and Airmen’s Families Association, on the problems of life. She may be the same Jessica Borthwick who is occasionally referred to as a sculptress. We have no record of her death. Her films, alas, are not known to survive. Because they were never commercially released, there does not even seem to be a review of them, or any stills. Nor does it seem that her photographs exist. Perhaps this post will have brought together sufficient information for someone else to go in pursuit of her and discover more. It would be a worthwhile investigation.

By the way, the interview with her from The Bioscope is reproduced in full in Red Velvet Seat, while a lengthy abstract is given in Kevin Brownlow’s The War The West and the Wilderness.

How I Filmed the War

Geoffrey Malins

The latest addition to the Bioscope Library is Geoffrey Malins’ How I Filmed the War: a record of the extraordinary experiences of the man who filmed the great Somme battles etc. (1920). Malins was one of two British Official cameramen who filmed the Battle of the Somme in the summer of 1916 (the other was J.B. McDowell). The film that they shot was considered so outstanding that it was compiled into a feature length documentary (earlier Official war films had been much shorter), entitled The Battle of The Somme. It was first shown in London in October 1916 and was unquestionably a sensation. It is estimated that half the British population saw its unprecedented scenes of life for British troops on the Western front, with scenes of battle, troops going over the top, and the wounded. Malins’ book is vainglorious but rich in detail, a unique document of the making of what Nicholas Hiley has called the most socially significant British film of the twentieth century.

It’s available for free download from the Internet Archive, in PDF (24MB), DjVu (6MB) or TXT (532KB) formats. The film itself has been recently digitally restored by the Imperial War Museum, with remarkable effect, and a DVD release with new score is promised.

‘Tiger’ Sarll

Tiger Sarll

Strolling about the second-hand bookshops, on a beautiful warm Spring day, I chanced upon Adventurer Extraordinary: The Tiger Sarll Story (1961), by Godfrey Lias. His is a tall story well worth telling, if not always believing. Thomas Henry William Bang-fee Sarll (Bang-fee came courtesy of the Chinese minister to London, a family friend) was born in 1882, and originally trained as a doctor. In 1899 he enlisted with the South African Light Horse in the Anglo-Boer War, where he was wonded and lost the sight in his left eye. He next became a big game hunter in Africa (a curious choice for someone who was a life-long vegetarian), then joined the Royal Canadian Dragoons. He returned to London, where he became an actor, including films. He next dabbled in journalism, travelling to Morocco in 1907, and after further world travel (including Argentina and the Mexican revolution) became a cameraman for the British newsreels Warwick Bioscope Chronicle, Pathe’s Animated Gazette and Williamson’s Animated News. He seems not to have been very good as a cameraman (having just the one eye may not have helped), but nevertheless was sent off by Pathe to film the Balkan War in 1912. Reports suggest that his expedition cost £600 without obtaining any good footage, though the BFI database lists one film taken by him at this time of a Turkish retreat (the date of 1915 is an error). He was sacked by Pathe, but clearly had a persuasive gift as he was taken on by Williamson, for whom he filmed the 1913 Derby, then on the outbreak of the First World War he was taken on by Transatlantic and filmed scenes in Belgium, though his footage was never used.

Sarll was the archetypal English eccentric, dressing in spats and monocle, and dominating everyone with his 6′ 4″ height and powerful personality. After the war he returned to Morocco to report on the rebellion against the Spanish, then went Mexico to capture pythons and alligators for zoos. On his return, he started up a circus act, handling snakes and alligators. He was a fire-fighter during World War, and ended his extraordinary career as security officer at a nuclear power station. His biography was published after an appearance on the TV programme This is Your Life, where he notably failed to recognise some of his grown-up offspring (“You’re not one of mine, are you? Which one are you?”).

There’s more about him in his biography on the British Universities Newsreel Database. The picture above is from The Bioscope (5 December 1912) and shows him with his Pathé camera stationed with the Turkish army at Chorlu. [Update: The site is now called News on Screen and the link has been changed to http://bufvc.ac.uk/newsonscreen/search/staff/detail.php?id=33189]