Pordenone On Screen

This evening BBC World Service radio is broadcasting an item on the Pordenone music masterclasses as part of its On Screen film programme. Every year at the Giornate del Cinema Muto there are masterclasses held on the art of accompanying silent films, in which aspiring silent film musicians work all week with the established musicians who accompany the films during the festival, with audience. It has become one of the most popular features of the festival.

The World Service programme was recorded during the festival, and features Pordenone regulars Donald Sosin, John Sweeney, Gabriel Thibaudeau and Neil Brand. The programme is being broadcast today, Wednesday 14 November at (GMT) 09.30, 19.30 and 23.30 and tomorrow at 02.30. It will then remain available online for a week. The item is 20mins into the 27mins programme.

It’s an encouraging item about the general rise in the popularity of silent cinema of late, and its affirmative tone is in marked contrast to the snide attitude revealed by that recent Today broadcast. I particularly like John Sweeney contrasting silent cinema with sound, arguing that the latter offers no sense of surprise, but the latter’s liveness is like going to the theatre – “if you weren’t there, you missed it”.

Comedians on comedians


Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour

The television series Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns, first shown on BBC4, is being repeated on terrestrially on BBC2, with the first episode on Buster Keaton having aired this evening. Episodes on Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and Harold Lloyd are to follow. It was an engaging, unassuming production which simply wanted to put Keaton’s art first and foremost. It mostly took the format of one of Merton’s live shows, with Merton a lot of the time on stage giving short introductions before showing clips, Neil Brand at the piano, and audience laughing, all rounded off with the one complete film – in this case, The Goat (1921). I laughed heartily at gags I’ve seen a hundred times, and though it really only brushed the surface of Keaton’s comic gift, it must have left every viewer impressed with his art and many determined to check out more on DVD.

Merton is not the first television comedian to use his current popularity to pay homage to the silent comedians of the past. Bob Monkhouse in the 1960s presented a series, Mad Movies, which I can dimly remember, which introduced us to a wide range of silent comedians – not just the Keatons, Chaplins and Lloyds, but minor figures like Billy Bevan, Lupino Lane, Charley Chase, Larry Semon, Chester Conklin, Ben Turpin et al. I think the films all came from his personal collection. It gave us all a marvellous grounding in the names, the gags and the styles of the era (like Merton, Monkhouse explained to us how the gags and stunts worked). Then there was Michael Bentine’s Golden Silents, which was a multi-part, light-hearted history of the cinema, presented at the National Film Theatre, demonstrating as Merton does the great value of showing these films before an audience. You have to be laughing with someone really to appreciate the greatness of the silent comedians.

We were really lucky in the late 60s and early 70s – there was the intensive education in the art of silent comedy that we received from Monkhouse and Bentine, and we would be regularly treated to Robert Youngson’s compilations of comedy clips, such as The Golden Age of Comedy (1957), When Comedy was King (1960), Days of Thrills and Laughter (1961) and Laurel and Hardy’s Laughing 20s (1965). I’ve not seen them since that time, and I expected that the narrator’s interjections and the selectivity of the clips might irritate now, but at the time they helped rescue silent films from oblivion, and we watched them avidly. I can remember also that Chaplin shorts were a regular feature on early evening television – we were soon familiar with almost the entire oeuvre, and would lap up a rare new title with a collector’s fervour.

American TV also did its bit to keep the flame going for silent films in general. Jay Ward’s Fractured Flickers was first shown in 1963 and regularly syndicated thereafter. I’ve no memory of seeing it, but the approach seems to have been to take a rather satirical view of the films. Silents Please, first aired 1960, which used films from the Paul Killiam archive, was a more straightforward homage, and stood up very well when it turned up in some form or other in the UK in the 1980s in the early days of Channel 4. At least I assume it was the same series; someone might know.

Will silent comedies continue to amuse future generations? You have think that they have a good chance, indeed that it is verbal comedy that dates so badly, while there will always be something eternal about the silent art. But slapstick, however elevated a form it could be in the hands of the greatest practitioners, is not a form of comedy that is likely ever to return to the mainstream, and the clothes, the manners, the socio-cultural references, the black-and-whiteness and of course the silence will all inevitably confer too much strangeness upon this material for it ever to gain even the revival in popularity that Youngson and Monkhouse managed to conjure up. Or will artistry win out and will these films always retain a fundamental human appeal? Do we want to continue to admire them because they artistic, or because they are funny?

The Twenties in Colour

Twenties in Colour

Dancers in ruins of Angkor-Vat, Cambodia, 1922 © Albert-Kahn museum, from http://www.ejumpcut.org

The promised follow-up series on Albert Kahn’s Archives de la Planète project, covering the 1920s, started on BBC4 this evening. The four-part series, The Twenties in Colour, follows on from the earlier series, The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn, in showing how Kahn’s team of still and motion picture photographers continued their task to make a photographic recod of the world. Included in the series is Paris after the Armistice, scenes in the Middle and Far East, and (I hope) some of the scientific-medical cinematography produced by Jean Comandon, who collaborated with Kahn in the late twenties.

Those who want find more about Kahn’s work, and web sources for Autochrome photographs etc, should go to the earlier post, Searching for Albert Kahn, which has the background story and a number of useful links.

Meanwhile, for those of us unable (or in my case, too idle) to get hold of BBC4, the original Wonderful World of Albert Kahn series is to be showing in re-edited, half-hour episodes form on BBC2, starting 16 November, at 19.30pm.

Seeing it Through

Charles Masterman

Charles Masterman, from http://www.firstworldwar.com

Just a note to folks that this evening on BBC Radio 3 we had Neil Brand’s ninety-minute play, Seeing it Through. The subject of the play is Wellington House, the covert British propaganda outfit from World War One (also known as the War Propaganda Bureau), which under Charles Masterman conducted a would-be civilised campaign of information management, using willing well-known authors (Wells, Bennett, Doyle, Chesterton) to argue Britain’s rightfulness in fighting such a war, and employing other media, including film. There was passing mention of Charles Urban, who produced the documentary feature Britain Prepared (1915) for Masterman, and reference at the end to The Battle of the Somme (1916), made by the British Topical Committee for War Films, with somewhat anachronistic comment on its use of some inauthentic footage. A thoughtful, skillful piece from the prodigious Mr Brand.

You’ll be able to catch the play for the next week on Radio 3’s Listen Again service. I recommend doing so.

Three types of authenticity

The Aurora

Douglas Mawson’s ship The Aurora, from http://www.south-pole.com

This evening on Channel 4 there was an intriguing 90 mins documentary on Douglas Mawson, When Hell Freezes, made by the estimable Flashback Television. It’ll need to be some other time for me to produce for you a substantial post on silent film and polar exploration (a particular interest of mine), but this programme needs to be noted now for its use of original archive film of Mawson’s expedition as one type of evidence with which to convince us in our comfortable twenty-first century lives of the splendours and miseries of the golden age of Antarctic exploration.

Mawson is less well-known than Robert Falcon Scott or Ernest Shackleton, whose own Antarctic follies have been richly documented in recent years, Shackleton in particular. Mawson was perhaps less of a self-publicist, though he took care to have a motion picture cameraman with him (the motion picture rights helped pay for several of the Antarctic expeditions of this period), who just happened to be Frank Hurley, later (and particularly of late) to find fame as Shackleton’s cinematographer. Mawson also produced a book, The Home of the Blizzard.

His 1912-13 expedition – naturally conducted for the finest scientific reasons – explored the area of Antarctica to the south of Australia, and aimed to visit the South Magnetic Pole. Disaster struck when team member Edward Ninnis fell through a crevasse, complete with dogs and sled. Mawson and Xavier Mertz, who were with him, turned back from their exploration, but Mertz died on the return journey. Mawson made an astonishing solo journey back, arriving back at the home base only to find that the expedition ship the Aurora had left just a few hours beforehand (happily, some colleagues had remained behind in the faint hope of his possible survival). Hurley, of course, was not with the trio on this ill-fated section of the expedition, and consequently no film of it exists.

What I found intriguing about the film was its multi-layered approach to authenticity. We have in past years had the past made convincing to us through the use of archive film (and photographs). Today, however, the fashion is either for dramatic reconstructions, or a presenter going through the same privations as those suffered in the past. When Hell Freezes gave us all three, plus readings from Mawson’s text. Our modern counterparts were Tim and John, who retraced Mawson’s steps using the same equipment and clothing in the kind of pseudo-authencity one can only achieve when a television programme is to be made about the adventure. The dramatic reconstructions were bleached out to look like Hurley’s original footage, and at time the untrained eye would not have spotted the difference between the two.

The modern adventure failed to thrill, as it was inevitably doomed to do (“will Tim and John survive on the ice…?” Of course they will), but the idea was somehow to blend the three styles so that present became past and past became present. But modern video is too bright, too much of the moment – it anaethetizes the ordeal. The monochrome silent footage, by its very distance, makes those things endured in the past seem all the more astonishing, because they seem so distant. In seeing the films of Scott, Shackleton and Mawson we long for close-ups and the camera techniques of today that will bring them that much closer to us, but maybe it is the lack of intimacy that is their strength. When Hell Freezes‘s own faux dramatised scenes were strongest when they showed figures lost in the white distance, not trying to show the agonies etched on their faces.

Anyway, it was a good programme, and despite my advocacy of the archive footage, probably its best moment was the Touching the Void-like sequence where the exhausted Mawson falls down a crevasse and manages, utterly improbably, to climb back up, fall back, yet somehow find the strength to climb his rope once again to safety – while our modern day hero fails to emulate him. Whatever the means of imaginative recreation at our disposal, some feats lie beyond all comprehension.

Peter’s Polar Place is an excellent source of information on the works of Frank Hurley, including archive holdings of films films and those available on DVD. There doesn’t seen to be DVD available of Hurley’s original 1913 documentary, Dr Mawson in the Antarctic (erroneously known as Home of the Blizzard in some sources), but the film itself is held in the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

A little bird tells me…

…that the BBC4 series The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn is due for a repeat soon on BBC2, though this time in half-hour episodes (presumably BBC2 viewers have less of an attention span than the sturdy folk who patronise BBC4). I also hear that there isn’t going to be a DVD release of the series, presumably owing to licensing issues, but that the Albert Kahn Museum in Paris is planning to produce some DVDs of its Autochrome colour photographs (and its films?) which will be available from the museum itself next year… More news as and when I hear it.

100 years of wildlife films, maybe

Martin and Osa Johnson

Martin and Osa Johnson, from http://www.wildfilmhistory.org

Starting this Saturday (August 25th), BBC4 has a wildlife season, marking 100 years of wildlife films. One might protest straight away that wildlife films were made before 1907, but the argument is that Oliver Pike’s In Birdland (1907) was the first true natural history film, as opposed to scientific analysis films, actualities or entertainment films featuring animals. I think F. Martin Duncan‘s work (from 1904 onwards) ought to be acknowledged, even if he mostly filmed in London Zoo, but it’s a bit late now. Ironically or not, In Birdland is believed to be a lost film.

The centrepiece of the season is the programme 100 Years of Wildlife Films, presented by Bill Oddie. Presumably there will be some acknowledgment of the considerable work done in the silent era in this field, by Oliver Pike, Percy Smith, Cherry Kearton, Paul Rainey, Herbert Ponting, C.W.R. Knight, Carl Akeley, Martin and Osa Johnson, and many more.

David Attenborough

David Attenborough with a picture of Cherry Kearton, from http://www.open2.net

There is a programme on Cherry Kearton, in the Nation on Film series, showing on 29 August, called Kearton’s Wildlife (though it’s actually a repeat). The Royal Geographical Society still awards a Cherry Kearton medal for achievements in photographing natural history (David Attenborough is a recipient), and his pioneering work (often with brother Richard) in still and motion picture photography of animals deserves to be far better known. The BBC4 site provides a full list of programmes in the series.

All of this activity coincides with plans by the Wildscreen Trust to develop a centralised collection of films and information on 100 years of wildlife filmmaking, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund. There’s a website, wildfilmhistory.org, which promises a full launch at the end of 2007. There’s a book in the offing as well. Such is the power of centenaries.

Summer of British Film

Summer of British Film

Today the BBC begins its summer-long season of over 100 British films, divided into seven themes (Thriller, Love & Romance, Social Realism, Costume Drama, Horror, War and Comedy), with seven acompanying documentaries. The selection of films is really quite imaginative – there’s a full list on the BBC site. If I can veer away from silents just for a bit, I strongly recommend Edmond Greville’s Noose (1948), showing this Sunday morning, a corking crime thriller set in Soho, with Nigel Patrick having the time of his life as a sharp-talking spiv; The Scarlet Thread (1950), with Kathleen Byron and Laurence Harvey, on August 3rd, just because I’ve never seen it and it looks intriguing; Victor Saville’s 1931 version of Hindle Wakes – not quite as good as the 1927 silent, but powerful stuff nonetheless, and oddly enough the rarer title these days – on August 10th (the BBC has a still for the 1951 version by mistake); and many many more – Obsession, Young and Innocent, Hell Drivers, I Know Where I’m Going!, Hungry Hill, This Sporting Life, That Hamilton Woman, A Night to Remember, Gregory’s Girl, Witchfinder General

There’s just the one silent, Anthony Asquith’s A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929). Needless to say, it’s being shown in the small hours, Monday morning July 30th at 1.30 am. To be honest, if I had to choose one British silent only to join such a parade, it wouldn’t be the sometimes ponderous A Cottage on Dartmoor, but it’s had some exposure of late, and so I guess it has a modest vogue about it. I’d have gone for the 1927 Hindle Wakes myself. Or The Informer. Or The Manxman. Or The Flag Lieutenant


It’s all Chaplin at the moment. This evening, on BBC Radio 3, there is a 90-minute concert of music by Benedict Mason to accompany three Chaplin films: Easy Street, The Adventurer and The Immigrant. They are billed as ‘Chaplin Operas’, and the Radio 3 site describes the programme as featuring “three hyperactive scores written by Benedict Mason to accompany Chaplin films. Mason’s surreal brand of humour creates a post-modern commentary on Chaplin’s slapstick routines and bathos.” Hmm, we’ll see. The concert was originally given on 27 April at The Anvil, Basingstoke, and features Hilary Summers (mezzo), Omar Ebrahim (baritone) and the London Sinfonietta, with Franck Ollu, conductor. It’s broadcast at 20.30 this evening as part of the Hear and Now strand.

The programme will be available via the Listen Again service for a week after the broadcast.

Joost shows silents

Joost logo

Along with half the online community, or so it seems, I’m one of those testing out the beta version of Joost, the system for distributing television programmes over the Web using peer-to-peer technology. The people who gave us Skype and Kazaa are behind it, and it’s supposed to show how all our viewing habits are going to change by turning your PC into a TV. Well, maybe so, though the much of programming on offer so far ranges from the exotic (Basquetbol de America Latina) to the unnecessary (PokerHeaven TV). But there are some signs there of a more promising future, and who can complain at the programming of the recently-added The Silent Movies Channel? Available worldwide, it features Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (“relive your childhood memories with the silent movies’ four greatest stars” says the Joost 24 site, which is an unlikely claim unless they’re thinking of those Bob Monkhouse programmes that introduced people like me to the silent comedians in the 1960s – today’s generation has Paul Merton doing the job instead).

The Silent Movies Channel is produced by a company called Indivisual, a video-on-demand business licensing a whole range of “quality niche content to on-demand platforms around the world”. What you get, then, is Chaplin’s The Rink, A Jitney Elopement, In the Park, A Night in the Show, Easy Street, His New Job, Police, The Floorwalker and Burlesque on Carmen; Keaton’s Convict 13, The High Sign, The Balloonatic, Neighbors, The Electric House, One Week, The Boat and Daydreams; and Laurel and Hardy in a selection of silent shorts from early in their careers as solo artists – Laurel in Roughest Africa, Mud and Sand, White Wings etc, and Hardy in The Sawmill, Kid Speed, and the pair of them in A Lucky Dog, their first film together (1921, though made in 1919), if not as the paired comic team they were to become.

Quality wise it’s your typical pixellated, just about adequate online video (can’t tell you about the music because the sound wasn’t working on my PC), OK full screen if you sit back enough. However, it’s interesting to see the positive comments that there have been about the Silent Movies Channel from those reviewing the channels available on Joost. This is the sort of stuff, seems to be the feeling, that should be made available to all, which can appeal to all. And it’s a pleasant way in which to while away a lunch hour.