The London Project

Next up for Catalogue Month (our survey of online catalogues and databases, selected for inscription in the Bioscope Library) is The London Project. I did write about this in the very early days of the Bioscope, in a very cursory manner, and it is high time that we returned to it. It’s a work I know quite a bit about, since I produced half of it, and it’s something of which I’m quite proud, even if the database has become a little compromised since the time when it was published in 2005, because it has not been possible to update it since. Databases should never be allowed to stand still. It is contrary to their nature.

The London Project database documents the film venues and film businesses to be found in London during the period 1896-1914 – around 1,000 venues and 1,000 businesses all told. It was the major output of a year-long project (2004-05) sponsored by the AHRB Centre for British Film and Television Studies, hosted by Birkbeck, University of London, and managed by Professor Ian Christie. The two researchers were Simon Brown (working on film businesses) and myself (working on cinemas and audiences). As well as the database we produced several essays, conference presentations and a touring exhibition (‘Moving Pictures Come to London’). But the star of the show was the database.

Interior view of Hale’s Tours (a film show set inside a mock train carriage) on London’s Oxford Street, which first opened May 1906

The London Project documents film businesses in London 1896-1914 and film venues (a more inclusive term than cinemas) from the date of the first identifiable cinema in London (The Daily Bioscope, opened May 1906), again to the start of the First World War. The information is taken from a wide range of sources, including film and stage year books, film trade papers, street and business directories, the records of the London County Council, local newspapers, published and unpublished memoirs, police reports and company records. The database allows searching by name of venue or business, address, London borough (as they were pre-1914), by business type (e.g. production, distribution, production, exhibition, venue), and by person (including notes relating to people).

A typical film business record will give you name, address (and any secondary addresses), category and tp of business, original share capital, trading information, the names of directors, and sources. Names and sources are hyperlinked to other records, making the pursuit of such links a fascinating business as you discover that, say, Cecil Hepworth was not only the managing director of the Hepworth Manfacturing Company, but a director of Film Agency (Russia) Ltd. You find all sorts of unexpected additional business interests and alliances in these lists of directors, especially as we chosen to interpret the film business quite broadly and to include equipment manufacturers, cinema uniform suppliers, electrical engineers, vending machine suppliers, musical instrument suppliers, and so on, reflecting the larger picture of what the cinema business really was (as indicated by the lists of such companies provided by the film trade year books of the period).

Film venues covers every sort of entertainment place in London which showed film on a regular basis betwen 1906 and 1914. That means cinemas, of course, but also theatres, music halls, town halls, sports arenas, converted shops, public baths and amusement parlours. The records are not as extensive as those for businesses (more’s the pity) but they do give you name, address, audience capacity, notes, related businesses and people, and sources of information. So it is possible to trace every cinema managed by Montagu Pyke or by Electric Theatres (1908) Ltd, or to pursue every film show surveyed by the Metropolitan Police in 1909 at a time of social alarm at these new dens of vice which allowed the young of either sex to mix unchaperoned in the dark.

The Bioscopic Team Rooms, aka The Circle in the Square, the first true cinema in Leicester Square, opened June 1909

One feature we were particularly pleased with is the map of London boroughs, which allows you to search for businesses and venues in say Chelsea, Wandsworth, Lambeth or Poplar. It was an important part of the project that we were able to connect cinema history to social history and in particular to the many other histories of London. Geographical data is a good way of helping to achieve this, though we had neither the time nor the resources to take this further and use GIS data or mapping software.

Indeed there is much about the database that could do with an update, as new information has come in and there are plenty of corrections that need to be made. And if only we could have added pictures. But the project money ended in 2005 and it has not been possible to add to the database since. It is hosted by Birkbeck, and I hope that the university continues to do so and to maintain the URLs as they are – each individual business and venue has a unique web address with its ID number included in the URL, essential for citation and future reference.

If you want to pursue the project’s work further and look at what we wrote, four of our essays are freely available online (at present):

The London Project website itself has background information on the project and on the London of the 1896-1914 period. The database is a freely-available resource, and even if the website is not being updated there is still an email address on the site to which you can send fresh information. It’s being collected, somewhere, and maybe one day a fresher, more extensive London Project database will emerge, one that might even go beyond 1914 or beyond the confines of London. We can but hope.

Kinematograph Year Book

Here’s some really welcome news from those sterling people at the British Film Institute. The BFI National Library has started digitising some key reference works that either are BFI-produced or sufficiently ancient enough to be out of copyright. They are being made available as PDFs and are free for anyone to download. Top of the pile and particularly pleasing to see is the Kinematograph Year Book for 1914. The Kine Year Book (The Kinematograph Year Book Diary and Directory, to give it its full name) was one of two British film trade annuals established before the First World War, the other being the Bioscope Annual and Trades Directory, first published in 1910. The Kine Year Book was established in 1914 to accompany the Kinematograph & Lantern Weekly trade journal and is an invaluable directory of the British film business, listing every producer, distributor, equipment manufacturer, cinema, representative body and much more, in the country. It’s necessary to qualify that a little, because the existence of two film trade year books meant that some businesses registered with one and not the other, but you are not going to miss much. It also supplied a detailed account of the previous year’s activity in British film (in this case 1913). Here’s a list of the book’s contents:

A Retrospect Of The Year
Kinematograph Finance in 1913
Survey of the Year’s Technical Progress
Important Film Subjects of the Year
Picture Theatre Music during 1913
The Law and the Kinematograph
Interesting Social Functions
New Theatres Opened in 1913
New Companies Registered in 1913
Review of Decisions made under the
Cinematograph Act 1909
Important Law Cases of the Year
Pictorial Reminiscences extending
over 40 years – 1873-1914
Exhibitions during 1913
Trade Associations
Useful Tables and Recipes

Film Manufacturers and Agents
Film Renters
Apparatus and Accessory
Picture Theatres in Great Britain
– London
– Provincial
Supplementary List of Provincial
Picture Theatres
Picture Companies and Theatre

A slight downside is that the book has been digitised as plain images i.e. without any word-searchability, which is a great shame. it is to be hoped that the BFI can revisit the digitisation with fresh software to make the ebook all the more useful to researchers – and to do the same for any other silent era books is has in the pipeline. However the individual section are bookmarked in the PDF, which is a help.

Among the other publications the BFI has made available, do look out for Linda Wood’s British Films 1927-1939, a key catalogue and statistical information source for the period, originally published in 1986 (and much used by me ever since). The other books and booklets that have been made available this way are:

  • The Stats: an overview of the film, television, video and DVD industries 1990-2003
  • Producing the Goods? British Film Production since 1991
  • Back to the Future; the Fall and Rise of the British Film Industry in the 1980s
  • British Films 1971-1981
  • British Film Industry (1980)
  • At a cinema near you: strategies for sustainable local cinema development (2002)
  • A Filmmakers’ Guide to Distribution and Exhibition (2001)
  • How to Set Up a Film Festival (2001)
  • Lowdown: the low budget funding guide (1999)

The Kinematograph Year Book 1914 is available in PDF format, size 30MB, and has been lovingly placed in the Bioscope Library.

Exporting entertainment

Scholarly works in the silent cinema field – indeed in most fields – don’t last long. They catch the latest academic wave for a time, surf along for a while, then sink beneath the waves as the next key text comes along. For a while it is important to cite them in your own work; then it ceases to be a necessity; finally it becomes an embarassment. You are writing an essay in 2010 and you are citing a book published in 1985? Think again.

But then just a handful of books break through academic fashion and turn out to have lasting value. You have always to refer back to them, because they are one of the signposts. They point the way. In the silent (and early sound) cinema field, one such book is Kristin Thompson’s Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907-1934, published in 1985 and a book that I have referred back to time and time again ever since, and one which has had a strong influence on our corner of film studies.

In part that influence is due to the unusual nature of its theme. Its subject is mechanics of the early Hollywood film industry and how it gained world dominance from the First World War inwards. But it is not so much the thesis as the method, as Thompson looks at such previously overlooked data as import and export records, industrial data and market reports – data which had scarcely been considered the stuff of film history before then, but which turned out to be essential in understanding the intracacies of production, distribution and exhibition on a worldwide scale. The information could then underpin an understanding of why, as the book’s blurb puts it, “Hollywood has become practically synonymous with cinema”.

Exporting Entertainment has inspired other works, notably Ruth Vasey’s The World According to Hollywood: 1918–1939 (1997) and Andrew Higson and Richard Maltby’s Film Europe and Film America: Cinema, Commerce and Cultural Exchange, 1920–39 (1999). It was also pioneering in its emphasis on empirical data, a trend which has been picked up in recent years by exhibition studies. Some of its arguments may have been superseded by economist Gerben Bakker’s recent Entertainment Industrialised: The Emergence of the International Film Industry, 1890-1940 (discussed in detail in an earlier post), but those steeped in film history will find Thompson’s book easier to navigate, even if it is not a light read that you are going to polish off in one sitting. But it should be read, because it sees the industry not through the starry eyes of the fan journals of the period but through the hard-bitten minds of the trade papers, who saw things in so many pounds or dollars per foot of film. The detail is amazing (as is the research behind it), and you really do see cinema on a global scale (Panama, Peru, Siam, the Malay States, Romania and Estonia all end up in the subject index). The book makes you recognise why national cinema is such a suspect way of going about investigating film history when the business was so deeply bound up by the ebbs and flows of a world market.

The reasons for all this now is to announce the happy news that Exporting Entertainment is now freely available online from David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s website. As Thompson explains in her useful introduction on the book’s web page, the book has been long out of print and was never distributed in the United States (it was published by the BFI). The book has been made available in PDF form, though be warned that it is a simple scanning job and consequently the file size is large (87MB) and there is no underlying OCR so the text is not word-searchable. This is a shame, and one wonders whether Thompson might take advice from those who regularly produce e-books and re-issue the text in word-searchable format. It would certainly open up the text anew for researchers. But setting that petty point aside, this is a very welcome means of re-introducing an important but rare text to the research community, and it has gone into the Bioscope Library.

Photoplay online

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.

With new eyes


Gerben Bakker’s Entertainment Industrialised: The Emergence of the International Film Industry, 1890-1940 (Cambridge University Press, 2008) opens with a quotation from Marcel Proust:

The real voyage of discovery consists not of finding new lands, but of seeing the territory with new eyes.

A bold claim indeed for any book seeking to make its mark in a territory so exhaustively documented (or so it would seem) as film history. Of course, read the blurb of almost any new film monograph and it will confidently tell you that what lies within is certain to set a new standard for the field or to overturn preconceptions. Open those books and one tends to find exactly as one has found before in countless other monographs, with just a few of the arguments rearranged for novelty’s sake. Open Entertainment Industrialised on any page, and the sense of real discovery is instant. This is history with new eyes.

Gerben Bakker is based at the London School of Economics. His studies into the rise of the international film industry have been exciting a small number of us in the past few years, but they have not made much of a crossover as yet to the wider world of film history. The publication of this magnum opus ought to change things, though it has been issued as part of the Cambridge Studies in Economics History strand (at a hefty price), and is aimed primarily at economics historians. Though some of the language is specialist, the general tone will be clear to all, and the writing is lucid and inviting. It is a book that demands to be read.

His subject is the rise of the film entertainment industry in France, Britain and the United States between 1890 and 1940. That cross-national sweep immediately takes us away from the parochialism of so many film studies, while illuminating the national picture. Its contention is that cinema’s great innovation was not technological, but economic. In a helpful prologue, Bakker set out his theme by reference to the life experience of Charlie Chaplin:

When Charlie Chaplin was nineteen years old he appeared in three music halls a night. On one fine day he started in the late afternoon at the half-empty Streatham Empire in London. Directly after the show he and his company were rushed by private bus to the Canterbury Music Hall and then on to the Tivoli. This constituted the maximum number of venues an entertainer could visit on an evening, and thus the inherent limit to a performer’s productivity.

Yet, barely five years had passed before Chaplin would appear in thousands of venues across the world at the same time. His productivity had increased almost unimaginably. Most of this efficiency jump translated into lower prices, far lower than prices for music hall. Chaplin himself, therefore, was able to capture only a small percentage of revenues. Yet this tiny cut made him the world’s highest-paid performer.

There is the matter in a nutshell. The modern technologies that went with what the author calls the second industrial revolution (bringing with it the almost universal adoption of electricity, synthetic chemicals and the combustion engine) led to a huge leap in productivity. We are now in a world where we expect, without thinking, to have instant access to entertainments from around the world, at any time, wherever we might be located, cheaply or freely, and across multiple platforms. How did we get here? That is what Bakker sets out to describe, not by anecdote or easy assumption, but by thorough powerful analysis of the economic evidence using models established by business history.


‘Total released film negative length and cinema seats, US, Britain, France and Italy, in metres, 1893-1922’, originally from ‘The evolution of entertainment consumption and the emergence of cinema 1890-1940’ (available at

His method is common to other kinds of economic enquiry, one based on understanding of essential principles tested against factual evidence which can be gleaned from contemporary studies or deduced by subsequent analysis. It is a book full of graphs and tables with titles such as ‘Total released film negative length and cinema seats, US, Britain, France and Italy, in metres, 1893-1922’, ‘Management as percentage of all non-creatives in the French entertainment industry, 1901-1936’, ‘Prices, capacity, sales potential, price elasticity and consumer surplus for various types of specator entertainment venues, Boston, 1909’ or ‘Indicators of sectoral shift in the entertainment industry, US, Britain and France, 1900-1938’. It is daunting but exhilarating stuff. All the time that we were enjoying ourselves, this is what was really going on underneath.

Bakker says that his book has three main themes running through it: how motion pictures industrialised spectator entertainment, how a quality race between firms changed the structure of the international entertainment market, and what effect this had on economic and productivity growth. He explores the rise of entertainment generally, the rise of the international film industry as a part of this movement, and then the notion, mechanisms and consequences of industrialised entertainment. Out this investigation he makes seven main claims (though there are many other interrelated findings):

  • Cinema industrialised live entertainment by automating it, standardising it and making it tradeable.
  • This industrialisation was largely demand-led.
  • It was the index case for the industrialisation of other services that would follow.
  • In a process of dynamic product differentiation old formats were not competed away, but often reinvented themselves when new formats arrived: theatre changed after vaudeville, vaudeville changed after cinema, and motion pictures changed after television.
  • The tradeability of motion pictures integrated national entertainment markets into an international one.
  • A quality race in which firms escalated their costs sunk into film production and marketing, triggered in the 1910s, led to the emergence of feature films as we know them now.
  • Although the Hollywood studios have won the race, American consumers lost it. Their European counterparts enjoyed a far greater variety of both live and filmed entertaiment, and consumed lots of exotic pictures next to the standard Hollywood fare.

Some of this may seem obvious, but that is because we are familiar with the outcomes. The important point is that the success of cinema in the particular form that it took was not a completely foregone conclusion. With only small variables in pricing (of raw stock, of theatre prices), discoveries in technology, competing entertainments or other socio-economic factors, cinema might never have arisen in the form that it did. He gives the example of cinema’s “major fellow traveller” the Phonograph, which remained “a premium product for a limited elite”. Contra such arguments, cinema can be seen almost inevitably to have filled a gap. Increased wages, falling hours of work, the rapid growth in urbanisation, a consequent demand for leisure, the opportunities provided by mass electrification, all can be said have created cinema – or the gap that cinema filled – because they had to.

Many studies have explored this area with this general thesis in mind. Bakker gives us the figures, and the hard reasoning. We may recognise the names and the general territory, but are encouraged to do so with such notions as deregulated entertainment markets, age elasticity of demand, industrial organisation theory and sunk costs – the latter a key concept for Bakker: costs incurred which can’t be reversed, essentially. Bakker’s argument is that the increase in sunk costs exercised by American film businesses in the period up to and throughout the First World War was their source of strength (crudely speaking, they spent more on production and promotion, and audiences responded to the quality on offer). He writes:

The First World War did matter, but in a different way than previously thought: not primarily because of the disruption of European markets, but because the war prevented the European film industry from taking part in the escalation of quality.

Now there’s a thesis you might like to argue over – but make sure you understand what endogenous sunk costs are first.

So he is right in his bold contention that this is a history with new eyes. Of course film historians have considered the economics of their subject before now, and he acknowledges the work done by David Bordwell, Richard Brown, John Sedgwick, Kristin Thompson and a few others. Yet for the most part film history has been written from a film studies perspective, focussing on style and content, in a form that may please its own community and which has interest to some in art and cultural studies, but which means little to other disciplines. Consequently what looks like an over-analysed subject is one which, rather, has been analysed too greatly in one direction, and far too slightly in others. Why were films made? Why did cinema succeed? Why do we have the entertainment industry that we do? Looking at the money doesn’t answer every question, but it helps answer a fair number of them, and we should have been asking these question (or asking them in a better way) long before now.

Bakker knows that he has produced something truly groundbreaking here. It deserves to have the same impact on film history as Peter Bailey’s Music Hall: The Business of Pleasure has had for music hall or Wray Vamplew’s Pay Up and Play the Game has had for the study of sports history – works that simply open our eyes to the economic realities underpinning their subjects, changing understanding.

There is a gentle mocking tone to some of the book, knocking those of us who have produced film histories which have concentrated on technical innovations, inventors or entrepreneurs, as if they alone made things happen. Of course they didn’t, and of course we have always known that there were greater forces that drove the real take-off of the film industry. What we have needed for so long is a guide to those forces, lighting up the territory for all. Now we have it.

(While you are persuading your local library to invest in a copy of Entertainment Industrialised, you might like to visit Bakker’s research papers site, where there are downloadable copies of several of the papers he has produced leading up to his book.)

From 1896 to 1926 – part 9

Edward Turner

Edward G. Turner, from

This is the ninth and final part of the reminiscences of Edward G. Turner, pioneer British film distributor with the firm of Walturdaw. The series of articles was originally published in the Kinematograph Weekly, 17 June, 24 June, 1 July and 15 July 1926, under the title ‘From 1896 to 1926: Recollections of Thirty Years of Kinematography’. Other film veterans supplied pieces to the journal at this time – Will Day, Jack Smith, James Williamson, Frank Mottershaw, E.T. Heron, Will Onda, Monte (Monty) Williams – which makes June/July 1926 in the Kinematograph Weekly an area well worth investigating by film historians. Here Turner recalls business during the First World War, through to the 1920s and the demise of the Walturdaw film renting business.

Then the fatal year of 1914 arrived. In February of this year, Walker came to me and said, “Turner, our ten years with the Walturdaw Company expire in Auust, and I have the opportunity of taking over all of the products of the Famous Players organisation; putting them on the English market on a renting basis, part cash and sharing.

“Will you join me when our time expires, or, if not, will you get my release from the Company, as this is too great an opportunity to let pass?”

As he still had six months to serve, I promised to do my best, and at a board meeting held a fortnight later, I secured his release, and the Walturdaw Company gave him a farwell dinner at the Monico on March 17, and so our eighteen years of partnership closed. J.D. Walker founded the Famous Players organisation in this country.

A Good Team

My old friend and I had shared hardships and success together; we had had many ups and downs and many pleasures. We had seen the kinema Industry grow from nothing to an important Industry. We were well matched for a business partnership: he had imagination, inspiration, and his head was always full of schemes; in fact, he was nearly a genius in this respect, but like all people of this type, he had not the patience or the determination to carry out his schemes; in other words, to come down to the hum-drum process of bringing his imagination to concrete facts.

I am not brilliant in imagination, neither am I a genius, but I have the faculty of dogged determination and perseverance, and the knack of geting down to things and working them out to their logical conclusions. This is very essential to bring brilliant schemes to a practical end.

I believe we both made a mistake in parting: we had got to know each other so well, he to scheme and I to carry out, that we were both somewhat lost when we parted, and I believe that had we not done so, his name to-day would be a household word, as it was in the years of which I am speaking, and both our fortunes would have been on a higher plane.

The War

In August, 1914, the Great War started. We had many thousands of pounds worth of German film just issued, or about to be issued. In two months its value was the price of scrap for melting down to make dope for our aeroplanes. This was a first big knock.

The following three years were ones of anxiety in every respect for everybody, but we all did our best to keep the flag flying. We had 95 per cent. of our our staff in the Army – all volunteers, and we had to keep the business going to provide a place for them when they came back, if they ever did. Out of our entire male staff there were only two other man and myself left, we either being over age of permanently turned down as physically unfit.

The year 1918 found me in communication with J.D. Williams, who just then had founded the First National Pictures in America, with English rights in view, and I secured these for my company in face of great opposition.

Daddy Long Legs

Daddy Long Legs (1919)

The F.N. Contract

Mr. Williams had gathered under his banner practically all the great artistes of America, including Mary Pickford, and I secured three of her productions: “Heart o’ the Hills,” “The Ragamuffin,” and “Daddy Long Legs.” For these I paid a record figure, but all the world knows what a huge success “Daddy Long Legs” was, and then we began to get films quicker than we could put them out, which is nearly as bad as not getting enough, because they could not be worked out to their capacity.

In the year 1920, a great slump took place in the English poound in America. We were having weekly consignments over, and as we were paying dollars against the depreciated pound, our losses in this respect amounted to over £30,000. Then the company with whom we had fixed up our programme for 1923 and 1924 began to fail in delivering to time, and eventually stopped altogether. This was the third great block, becuase it left us with a big organisation and nothing to put out to the exhibitors, and finally, the Walturdaw Company had to close down, going into voluntary liquidation.

But the Walturdaw Cinema Supply Company, of which to-day I am a director, sprang up from its ashes like the Phoenix of old, and we are carrying on the traditions of the old company – carrying all its personnel, and I am sure the good will of the thousands of old clients.

Such is the review which has passed before my mind during the time I have been jotting down this article and it practically gives the life story of the kinema trade.

Turner’s optimism was not ill-founded. The Walturdaw Cinema Supply Company continued as a successful provider of cinema equipment for decades. Turner himself became a senior figure within the film industry. He became chairman of the Kinematograph Renter’s Society and the Kinematograph Manufacturer’s Association, and president of the Cinema Veterans Society. He died in 1962.

The previous parts of Turner’s memoir are available here:

Part 1: The first film shows
Part 2: Popular film titles of the 1890s
Part 3: Pitching the product to the working classes, and developing film renting
Part 4: Exhibition in the 1890s and the effect of the Bazar de la charité fire
Part 5: The London County Council’s fire regulations and the cinematograph business
Part 6: The hiring business and establishing the Walturdaw name
Part 7: Developing fireproof equipment
Part 8: Flicker Alley and the rise of the exclusive film.

From 1896 to 1926 – part 8

Let us return once more to the memoirs of Edward G. Turner, British pioneer film distributor, who in 1926 wrote a series of articles for the Kinematograph Weekly on his thirty years in the film business. Turner here describes how the ealy British film business in the late 1900s started to gather in one area of London, soon to be affectionately named ‘Flicker Alley’:

“Flicker Alley”
We had splendid premises at Dane Street, but as the industry grew, it was necessary to have a common centre, where customers from the provinces could make their purchases easily and not have to travel all over London to visit the different firms, and so the trade began to drift west, and Cecil Court, where Gaumont’s had so long been established, became the centre of the trade – so much so that the court lost its proper name and became known as “Flicker Alley”.

We reluctantly decided to go West, and did establish ourselves at 40, Gerrard Street. I always think it was a mistake for the Trade to setle upon the most expensive quarter in London for their offices, showrooms and stores, as our trade demands plenty of space, and the West is very expensive; that is why nearly all of us, even to-day, are cramped for room.

By this time the old showman had given up travelling and had opened permanent kinemas; others had followed, and everywhere the picture Industry was booming, and kinemas were springing up like mushrooms all over the country. This was good for houses like ours, which dealt not only in films and machines, but in all other requisities for the kinema. Those were good days indeed – and profitables ones.

Simon Brown has written an excellent essay on the history of Flicker Alley, which identifies all of the film businesses based there, for the latest issue of Film Studies (issue 10, Spring 2007). This specially-themed issue on cities just so happens to have an essay by me on children’s cinema-going in London before the First World War as well, so all the more reason for the dedicated to seek it out. Cecil Court is now London’s home for second-hand and antiquarian booksellers.

The Exclusive

About this period saw the introduction of the exclusive. Which firm introduced this system I am afraid will never been known definitely. They say great minds think alike, and it is a debatable point as to which was actually the firm, Jury’s, Andrew’s, or ourselves, but all exhibitors will remember our first one, namely: “Fools of Society”, as it brought golden records to their pay-boxes. The idea caught on with the Trade, and so a new era was started in film renting.

About this time we represented nearly all the German film producers, two of the stars being Henny Porten and the great Asta Nielsen, and the time came when we had to leave 40, Gerrard Street for larger and more commodious premises at 46.

This, I think, was in the year 1913, just at the time when the Famous players Producing Company began to put their films on the English market, and we purchased from them the first long Mary Pickford films ever made: “A Good Little Devil” (6,000 ft.), “In the Bishop’s Carriage” (6,000 ft.), and “Caprice” (5,000-6,000 ft.). We originated the phrase “The World’s Sweetheart” for this great little artist.

A bold and most unlikely claim!

About that time also we put the Clarendon Film Co’s big film, “The Great Fire of London”, and Barker’s big creations, “East Lynne” and “Jane Shore”, the latter being one of the most ambitious that any English producer had ever made.

What visions of full houses these names must conjure up to those exhibitors who played them!

(To be continued.)

The ‘exclusive’ film system was a break away from a uniform pricing policy for any kind of film (so much per foot) to the marketing of higher quality films on an exclusive basis, usually determined by territory or time period. The most notorious example was Will Barker’s marketing of his Henry VIII (1911), which he made available to exhibitors for a short period only (six weeks) at high prices, then publicly burned all the prints. No one else pursued such a drastic policy, but the introduction of exclusive hire for quality films caught on quickly, as was an important development for the British film trade, cementing the renting sector of the business, and impressing on everyone for the first time the idea of film as (occasionally) art.

From 1896 to 1926 – part 6

Back we go to Edward G. Turner‘s reminiscences, ‘From 1896 to 1926’. Here Turner describes how their exhibition distibution business grew in the early 1900s, and the formation of the company name Walturdaw.

When we moved to High Holborn, a schoolmaster by the name of G.H.J. Dawson, who used to hire films from us, purchased a third interest in our business, and henceforth we were known as Walker, Turner, and Dawson.

It was while we were at this address that one afternoon a Mr. R.W. Watson called to see me; he showed me a paper called the Optical Lantern Journal, just then acquired by E.T. Heron, of Tottenham Street, and told me that he had spent a weary day trying to get our competitors interested in advertising in same. He had been unsuccessful, but one or two had told him that if he succeeded in geting an advertisement from us, they would follow. So, as a bait, he offered us a whole page for £2.

I used his argument against himself, and finally agreed to take a page each month at 30s. a time (what a difference from the pirce to-day!). So we were the first firm to advertise in your paper, and for twenty-three years or so our advert. has never been missing.

The Optical Magic Lantern and Photographic Enlarger, formed around 1890, became The Optical Lantern and Cinematograph Journal in 1904 , then The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly in 1907. It became simply The Kinematograph Weekly in 1919, the journal which published Turner’s articles, and continued until 1971. The title is now owned by Screen International.

By this time we employed about twenty men, who operated our machines at private parties and other engagements obtained from the bureaus above mentioned, and we, at times, had as many as forty shows going in one night. One one occasion, Walker, Dawson, and myself were engaged in giving three separate displays at the same time to one vast audience at Midsommer Common, Cambridge, for Mr. Haywood of that town.

This is the only instance I know in which three kinematographs have been going at the same time to the same crowd. I wonder if any of the old brigade can beat this?

In two years we had outgrown our offices at 77-78, High Holborn, and removed to 3, Dane Street, taking a seven years’ lease on a new, large building. Here we were joined by Ernest Howard, and as the name of Walker, Turner, Dawson, and Howard was cumbersome, we coined the word “Walturdaw“, taking the first three letters of the names of the first three members of the company. Up to August, 1904, we worked in partnership, but in this month, we formed into a limited liability company, each of the partners agreeing to serve the new company for ten years.

Hiring Developments

Our Hire Dept. had grown to very large proportions – our usual method being that each Monday morning our customers would call and take 1,000 or more feet of film, made up of various lengths and pay in cash, 50s, per 1,000 ft. for same. They did not know what they were getting and there was no picking or choosing – the only stipulation being that the films had not been shown before at the theatre, for which the operator was hiring his films. Those were fine times; cash over the counter, no bad debts, and always plenty of money in the bank.

I find that hard to believe. Were customers really content to buy films unseen and unidentified, obtaining purely on the strength of the fact that they hadn’t been shown at their theatre before? It’s no wonder that other businesses revolted, though it was not the exhibitors (they would not become dominant until the rise of cinemas, a few years ahead), but the manufacturers, who did not want to see any middle man eating into their profits.

Finally, our film hire had reached such proprtions that we became a menace (at least so the manufacturers of films thought) to their side of the business, and at a meeting convened by the K.M.A. [Kinematograph Manufacturers Association] , a decision was arrived at wherein the manufacturers decided that the action of renting films by the firm of Walker, Turner and Dawson was inimical to the interests of the manufacturers and therefore none of the products of such manufacturers would, in future, be supplied to us.

I am not sure as to whether this actually went on the books of the Association, but it was certainly brought into effect, and for a long time they refused to supply us, but the Industry was becoming world-wide, and we were able to get films from all parts of the world, and, in addition, were able to buy the English manufacturers’ products through other people, and eventually the ban was removed.

This is not the first time in history that men who have thought years in advance of their trade have been looked upon an enemies, instead of benefactors. Events have proved how right we were then.

Teaching the World

About this time Chas. Pathé and his Directors came over from Paris to study our system; they spent about a week with us, and a little later they came into the film renting business. After their conversion they ceased to sell us films, but we still put their subjects out, purchasing them through another source.

Before Pathé visited us, however, Miles Bros., of New York, came over and studied the subject pretty carefully; they went back to the States, and started, I believe, the first renting concern in America.

Directors from a concern in Germany also came, and after studying the system, came to the conclusion that they would go back and do likewise.

(To be continued.)

As can be seen, the early film business was a little on the anarchic side, as the emerging elements of the industry – production, distribution, exhibition – each struggled to establish a commercial identity, and control over the other sectors of the business. As Rachael Low explains it, in The History of British Film 1896-1906:

The impulse towards film hire came from the exhibiting side, and it was exhibitors [like Walturdaw] who became renters. They had no power to stop the free sale of films by the producers, in fact their own stocks were built up in the open market. Thus it came about that identical films were both for sale and for hire at the same time. The conception of exclusive entered the industry as exclusive selling rather than exclusive renting rights.

Turner was fighting against the control of the market held by the manufacturers (while at the same time holding absolute power over his exhibitor customers). As it is, in 1905 Walturdaw made the decision to become producers themselves – something to be described in the next installment.

Domitor on the periphery


The 2008 Domitor conference has changed its title and varied somewhat its terms of reference. Previously it was going to be called ‘The Regional Dimension in Early Cinema’. Now it rejoices in the title ‘Peripheral Early Cinemas’. By which they seem to mean early cinema on the edges: geographically, industrially, culturally and temporally. But let them express it in their own words:

Call for Papers: Domitor 2008

The next biannual conference of Domitor will take place from Tuesday 17 June-Saturday 21 June in Catalonia, that is, Girona, Spain, and Perpignan, France. For the first time a Domitor conference will traverse national frontiers. The topic selected, appropriate for this unique setting, is:



The notion of “Peripheral cinemas” is geographical concept: cinema that is made or viewed far from the institutional center (for example, national capitals). But the designation is not only spatial. It also involves cinemas produced on the margins of developing industrial and cultural institutions.

“Peripheral” then, connotes “regional” or “provincial,” but these characterizations are relative to the specific historical period. It was Barcelona, for instance, that was the actual capital of Spanish filmmaking in 1900. Furthermore, the idea of “regional” or “provincial” is not relevant to numerous places (Italy, USA, not to mention non-Western countries).

As a result, the concept of “local cinema” becomes very problematic.

Issues and Questions envisioned

1. Institutional context. The operative conceptual tool of the Center-Periphery antinomy. To identify peripheral early cinemas reflects as well the institutional forms of centrality that were springing up. Where is the institutional “center” in early cinema?

2. Models and types of production. Can we speak of a “central model” —such as the cinema of attractions—and other “peripheral models,” such as travel films, tableaux vivants, publicity, etc…? Amateur films and military films are “peripheral” today in relation to commercial institutional production. Were they in the time of early cinema? Was women’s cinema, to the extent that it existed in the early period, peripheral?

3. The sociological level. Is there a sociological center —“bourgeois” film—for example, an English “working class” cinema? Is this distinction valid at the level of production? Reception? The two combined?

4. Industrial and peripheral exhibition systems. How did exhibition systems develop from a center? Were they aligned with specific ideas of a geographical center? Were there alternative forms of film exhibition not dependent on a center, for example in rural locations or the outskirts of large cities? Examples would be comparisons between Torino/Roma in Italy, Paris/Marseille or Paris/Nice in France or Madrid/Barcelona in Spain. Did this dichotomy function in cinematic environments everywhere, especially outside of Europe?

5. Historiography. Film history traditionally has been written from the center about the center. This is becoming less the case in recent years and relates to early cinema. Has historiography established a certain centrality in early films studies that we should consider revising? Furthermore, was it like that in the writing of the time? Is this centrality the norm in Western countries? At the same time, is the history of non-Western cinemas relegated to the periphery?

6. The study of representation: the “colonial” gaze. One puts in this category all the forms of viewing that emanate from the center to the periphery. How did that function in cinema at its origins? Peripheral and folkloric relationships? How did cinema take into account “minority” cultures at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries? The relationship of periphery to center would accordingly by first and foremost defined in terms of the gaze.

Included in this examination are “peripheral” cinematographic practices that gaze upon peripheral” cultures from outside as subjects. This would include “tourist,” “ethnographic” and neighboring filmmaking.

In order to avoid over-extending and overflowing the topic, we are not counting scientific, advertising or instructional films. Certainly, this is another issue, since one could maintain that they were “peripheral” in relation to institutional cinema.

Sending Proposals

Those wishing to submit a proposal should send a proposal of no more than one page to the selection committee by 31 December 2007. (The e-mail addresses will be posted on the Domitor website when available.) The papers must be original unpublished research. Languages accepted are English, Catalan, Spanish and French. The papers should be no more than 10 pages (A4) or 12 pages (US letter). The final text must be submitted by 30 April 2008 to allow for translation. The presentation should last no more than 20 minutes.

A selection of papers from the conference will be published in a trilingual volume.

Membership in Domitor is not required to submit a proposal. However, in order to present a paper at the conference, membership in the organization is mandatory.

Why the prejudice against scientific, advertising or instructional films, eh? There’s always something that gets pushed to the margins. And if everything’s on the edge of something else, is there a mainstream or a centre at all? Further information (if not necessarily illumination) can be found on the Domitor website. For those who don’t know, Domitor is the leading international organisation for the study of early cinema, its main activities being a bi-annual conference followed by a volume of published papers. Details of past publications from conferences going back to 1990 can be found here.

Networks of Entertainment

Networks of Entertainment, from

Not on the Domitor site as yet are details of the most recent publication, Networks of Entertainment: Early Film Distribution 1895-1915, edited by Frank Kessler and Nanna Verhoeff, and published by John Libbey, which derives from the 2004 conference. The publisher’s blurb describes the book thus:

This collection of essays explores the complex issue of film distribution from the invention of cinema into the 1910s. From regional distribution networks to international marketing strategies, from the analysis of distribution catalogues to case studies on individual distributors these essays written by well-known specialists in the field discuss the intriguing question of how films came to meet their audiences. As these essays show, distribution is in fact a major force structuring the field in which cinema emerges in the late 19th and early 20th century, a phenomenon with many facets and many dimensions having an impact on production and exhibition, on offer and demand, on film form as well as on film viewing. A phenomenon that continues to play a central role for early films even today, as digital media, the DVD as well as the internet, are but the latest channels of distribution through which they come to us. Among the authors are Richard Abel, André Gaudreault, Viva Paci, Gregory Waller, Wanda Strauven, Martin Loiperdinger, Joseph Garncarz, Charlie Keil, Marta Braun, and François Jost.

I thumbed through it at Pordenone, and it looks well worth getting hold of.

From 1896 to 1926 – part 4

Fire at the Bazar de la charité, in Paris, on May 4, 1897

Fire at the Bazar de la charité, in Paris, on May 4, 1897 © Roger-Viollet. Reproduced from

We return, after something of a gap, to Edward G. Turner, the pioneer British film distributor, whose reminiscences, written in 1926 for the Kinematograph Weekly, are a rich source of information on early film business practice. Here Turner discusses exhibition in the late 1890s, with particular reference to the effects of the Bazar de la Charité fire:

The First Exhibitors

The earliest exhibitors were fairground showmen, magic lantern lecturers, and men who earned their living by giving private entertainments. The theatres and music-halls took to pictures as a nine-day wonder which would have its day and die.

I remember a time about the end of 1897 when there was not a single music-hall or theatre showing pictures in London. It was only a temporary lull, however, chiefly caused through the lack of subjects. With the advent of the Edisonagraph, Mutoscope, and the American Bioscope, the pictures became a permanent installation in the music-halls in London, but the early showmen and lantern lecturers were the men who were making the pictures popular all over the country.

These were the men who had sunk their little all in the Industry, and they kept pegging away, believing that it must eventually win out, and that the subjects would not be confined to 40 or 50 ft. lengths, but whole stories would be filmed.

The great bar to progress was the difficulty of getting new subjects except by buying them outright, and I think my partner and myself solved the problem for the world by instituting the renting system. Little did we think that that system would spread all over the wide world, and grow to the great business it is to-day.

In those first days we only did it spasmodically, because we had very few customers, but later on when the pictures had caught on, and village halls, churches, and chapels were taking up the pictures and giving regular weekly displays, our hire system grew rapidly. We would buy as many as ten and twelve prints of a film, which was entitled “Landing an Old Lady From a Small Boat.” Our first regular hirer was Ted Lacey, of Barnards M.H. Chatham. My first customer to buy films was Mr. Henderson, of Newcastle.

This is George Henderson, of Stockton, whose surviving film collection is held by British Movietone News and available to view from their website. There’s information on this important early film collection in an earlier post, Movietone and Henderson.

We then extended operations to the entertainment bureaus, such as:- Whiteley’s, Keith Prowse, Harrods, Gamage, Webster and Girling, H.L. Toms, Woods, of Cheapside, Ashton and Mitchell, Army and Navy Stores, the Church Mission Halls, Salvation Army, the Leysian Mission, City Road, and many more whose names at the moment I cannot remember, and after thirty years, we still do business with practically all the above-named firms.

The most disastrous fire that has ever occurred in our Trade took place on May 4, 1897. It is still remembered as the Paris fire. No fewer than 130 people lost their lives in the panic and stampede which occurred, and amongst those killed were the Duchess d’Alençon (sister of the Empress of Austria), Duke d’Aumale, Baron d’Sainte Didier, and General Munier (or Muiner). The Life Assurance losses were paid as to two-thirds American companies and the remaining one-third French – the total being twelve million francs, which, in that day, represented £480,000.

The kinematograph got the blame of this fire, but it actually occurred after the operator had finished giving his display of films, and was showing some slides. He was using an ether saturator, which was giving out, and he started to replenish same by pouring fresh ether in, and, of course, at once the fumes caught fire. The exhibition was being given in a large marquee. It was decorated with inflammable material, and soon the whole was one roaring mass of flame. The tent contained bazaar stalls, etc., and the bazaar was patronised by the principal nobility and well-known people of France – which explains the enormous sums paid by the life insurance companies.

The rubble after the fire at the Bazar de la charité on May 4, 1897, in Paris

The rubble after the fire at the Bazar de la charité on May 4, 1897, in Paris © Roger-Viollet. Reproduced from

This was the notorious fire of 4 May 1897 at the Bazar de la Charité, Paris, at which a Joly film projector had been used. As Turner correctly recalls, the fire was not caused by the cinematograph but instead by a Molteni ether lamp, but the calamity was swiftly associated with motion pictures, and caused great damage to the reputation of the medium.

Insurance Difficulties

This had the effect of making the Insurance Companies look askance at the kinematograph; and the mere mention of the word sent a shudder through the official minds. The public memory, however, is very short, and the desire for amusement great, and as new subjects arrived on the scene, slowly but surely, we overcame these difficulties.

Within a month of this happening I had an engagement at the St. Martin’s Town Hall. On the afternoon, I presented byself with an apparatus at the hall, and the dismay on the face of the official when he saw it was a kinematograph, accompanied by cylinders of gas, can be well imagined.

He informed the authorities at once, and one official informed me that the display could not be given. After half-an-hour, I got their sanction – they only giving way because they had failed to give notice that they would not permit a kinematograph.

The following week a resolution was passed that no kinematograph should ever be allowed in the hall again, and I believe that this is so even up to the present time. I am the only person who has ever given a display in the Westminster Town Hall, St. Martin’s Lane.

(To be continued)

The memoirs so far have been taken from the Kinematograph Weekly, 17 June 1926, pp. 53-54, and further installments will follow in due course. You can follow the earlier installments here: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3.