From 1896 to 1926 – part 3

High Divers at Milan

Les Bains de Diane à Milan (1896)

We return to Edward G. Turner’s 1926 reminiscences of the early days of the film business in Britain. We are still in the 1890s, and changes in the business are already necessary. Turner and colleagues discover that they have pitched their product too highly…

The Crash

We soon found out, however, that we were altogether too scientific in our entertainment. The average person could not promounce the word “kinematograph,” and, if they could, it conveyed nothing to them in the way of entertainment. They all thought it was something educational, and in those days, as to-day, the public would not pay to be educated when they wanted to be amused, and so, after three months’ touring, we returned to London sadder but wiser men, and in the process of gaining wisdom, we lost our entire capital.

On the last day of the old year 1896, three unhappy men met to discuss ways and means for carrying on or closing down – the three men being J.D. Walker, J. Mackie and E.G. Turner. Mackie was demonstrator or operator, Walker was lecturer, and myself manager and treasurer – the latter office being a mere sinecure, as there were no funds to treasure, and I had to draw upon private means to pay our way.

As the bells announced the birth of a New Year (1897), we closed the books of the North American Animated Picture Company [and] reorganised our finances by my agreeing to provide £100 (which I hoped to borrow and which I succeeded in doing). Walker agreed to take half-share, and pay for his share as and when the business permitted, and Mackie withdrew as it looked an almost hopeless proposition.

Playing to the Gallery

Our policy was now altered: instead of spending a large amount of money in circularising all the best people in the towns and villages, by means of very good stationery, excellent printing and sending and sealing our letters with a penny stamp so as to attract the attention of the recipient, we went for the working classes. The results of our fresh policy was that, when the performance began, we had two or three people only in the stalls, our chief patronage came from the cheaper seats. So we decided to stop playing to the stalls, and in future to play to the gallery. From this date we were known as Walker and Turner.

On January 1, 1897, we visited the Central Working Men’s Club and Institute in Clerkenwell Road – had an interview with the entertainment secretary, who gave us an engagement for the following Saturday night, provided we gave a show of one hour’s duration for the magnificent sum of 30s.

As we had to find two cylinders of gas, and get our apparatus to and from the hall, also take two men to do the job, one will understand that it was not a profitable transaction, but the secretary personally promised us that he would send round a letter to secretaries of all the clubs in London, invite them to be present, and if our show was all we claimed it to be, there were prospects of good bookings to be obtained.

The secretary carried out his promise, and on Saturday night, when we arrived to do our show, the hall was packed to suffocation. The pictures projected were most enthusiatically received, and after the show was over we had the satisfaction of booking up dates amounting to over £200.

As we executed these dates, which were all close, others rolled in upon us from all parts of the country, principally from working men’s clubs, and that was the first step towards success; in three months our business had grown to such an extent that we had two machines operating.

Turner now moves on to some of the strategies of exhibition in the 1890s, interestingly revealing that gaps in the programme and the common practice of running films backwards were employed to spin out meagre, expensive films. He then describes the innovation in film business practice that he was central in introducing – renting, or film distribution.

A Shilling a Foot

In those days we were paying 1s. per foot for our films, the average length being 500 feet. It will, therefore, be understood that the cost of running an hour’s programme was very expensive.

It is true that to eke out our meagre supply of films we used to take a minute or two between the change, and further, we had what was known as a reversing prism, and, after we had shown a film through, e.g., “The High Divers at Milan” (which was a very effective subject for the purpose), we would then rewind the film, put it through the machine backwards, and, by means of the prism, instead of the man diving into the water from the high diving boards, there would be a splash of water, out of which the man, feet foremost, would come and go back on to the diving board – in fact, the whole subject being reversed. This used to create not only great amusement but wonder as to how it was done, and used to help us very considerably in making our programme last out the necessary time. And if they applauded, well, on went the film a second time.

The Beginning of Renting

The price of films quickly dropped from 1s. to 8d. per foot, and then became standard at 6d. a foot; this allowed us to increase our store, but it soon became evident that to have to provide new films every time we took a repeat engagement was too expensive. So we conceived the idea, first of all, of an interchange of films with other exhibitors, who experienced the same difficulties in regard to new supplies. From this we eventually evolved the renting of films to other people, because we found that we had by far a larger stock than any of the other men. By buying films regularly we could use them ourselves and hire them to the other people, and so in such small beginning was evolved the great renting system as known to-day.

The First Woman Operator

At the end of 1897 we had three machines working. Walker operated one, myself the second, and the third was handled by Mrs. J.D. Walker, though a man went with her to fit up and do the donkey work. Mrs. Walker handled the mixed gas jet and operated, and she can claim without fear of contradiction to be the first woman operator in the world. She is still in business as managing director of the Empire cinema, Watford.

Was the redoubtable Mrs Walker the ‘first women operator in the world’? The evidence of the 1901 census, as reported in a recent post, shows that there were certainly other women operators around at the same time. More investigation is needed. ‘The High Divers of Milan’ is Les Bains de Diane à Milan (1896), Lumière catalogue no. 277, and is illustrated above. Reversing prisms, which were fitted onto the lens, were available from equipment suppliers at the time. They were used when film could not simply be reversed by cranking in the opposite direction i.e. the film had to be re-threaded in reverse, with the prism necessary to turn the image the correct way round. Is that a correct explanation, you experts out there?

From 1896 to 1926 – part 2

Lumière train (1897)

L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1895)

Part two of our series taken from the series of articles written in 1926 by Edward G. Turner of the British film company Walturdaw, reminiscing on thirty years in the film trade, has him describe the sorts of films he showed in the 1890s. He recalls many individual titles, and interestingly the majority of them are from British producers.

The first films used were Edison Kinetoscope subjects, 40 ft. long. I can remember “The Cock Fight,” “Scene in a Bar Room,” “Tyring a Wheel,” “The Black Diamond Express,” and “The Comic Wrestlers.”

Then McGuire and Baucus, of Dashwood House, Bishopsgate street, provided us with a number of subjects, the saleswoman there being Miss Rosenthall, sister of J. Rosenthall, whom all old operators will remember. McGuire and Baucus were years after taken over by the Warwick Trading Co., when Chas. Urban presided over its fortunes.

Lumière were the best source of our supply, as he had sent out to various parts of the world a number of cameras. Of his subjects I remember: “The Dancers from the Moulin Rouge,” “A Market Scene in Paris,” “Diving from a Raft,” “A Pillow Fight,” “A Street Scene in Paris,” “The Gardener,” “Bad Boy and Hose Pipe,” “High Diving at Milan Baths,” “A Train Arriving at a Station,” “The Sleeping Coachman,” “Comic Boxing in Tubs,” “Dublin Fire Brigade,” “Heavy Load of Stone.”

R.W. Paul’s list included “The Miller and the Sweep,” “Whitewashing a Fence,” “David Devant Conjuring,” “Children at Tea,” “Bill Stickers,” and “A Sea Cave.”

Films were also supplied by Birt-Acre, of Barnet, the most famous of which were “Policeman, Solider and Cook,” “The Magic Sausage Machine,” and “A Man Going to Bed.”

G.A. Smith, of Brighton, produced “The Corsican Brothers,” in 75 ft., and a number of excellent subjects besides.

Williamson, of Brighton, produced a large number of small subjects, including his films of the Boxer Rising in China.

Later, came the old showman’s wonderful film “The Poachers,” of which I think Col. Bromhead will bear kindly remembrance; the Sheffield Photo Co.’s “Daylight Burglars”; and later, the faked films of the South African War, made by Mitchell and Kenyon.

The South African War provided many films, and the public wanted more.

What an impetus these films gave to the Trade!

What a remarkable memory he had. Historians of the period will note that his chronology may be a little awry, but he is almost completely spot on with which producer supplied which titles – some of which survive to this day, others now are lost with only evidence such as this to tell us of their one-time significance. “Miss Rosenthall” is Alice Rosenthal, sister of Anglo-Boer War cameraman Joseph Rosenthal, and later a film producer herself. Birt-Acre is Birt Acres, “McGuire and Baucus” were Franck Z. Maguire and Joseph Baucus. “Williamson” is James Williamson. Next up, financial crisis, and a crucial change of exhibition policy…

From 1896 to 1926 – part 1

E.G. Turner

Edward G. Turner, from

It’s time for a new series. Edward G. Turner was a film exhibitor and distributor from the earliest years of British film, whose company Walturdaw continued for decades thereafter. In 1926 he wrote a series of articles for the Kinematograph Weekly (great rival to The Bioscope) on his memories of the industry. ‘From 1896 to 1926: Recollections of Thirty Years of Kinematography’ (originally published 17 & 24 June, 1 & 15 July 1926) is marvellous source of information on the first years of the British film business, particularly renting (distribution) where Walturdaw were undoubted pioneers. It’s an anecdotal stuff, occasionally homely stuff, but with revealing gems along the way. Anyway, let’s start…

The founders of the Walturdaw Co. Ltd., of whom the successors are the Walturdaw Cinema Supply Co. Ltd., were E.G. Turner and J.D. Walker, and the month of August in the year 1896 saw the beginning of their activities in the kinema industry when they purchased their first machine from John Wrench and Sons, of 50, Gray’s Inn Road.

At this time there were only two other makers of machines in the world’s market: R.W. Paul, of Hatton Garden, and Lumière, of Paris.

Within a short period, Beard, of old Kent Road, Haydon and Urry, of Islington, Hughes, of Kingsland Road, Levy Jones. of Hoxton, Reay, of Bradford, Thomassin, Ottway in St. John Street, Islington. Later the Edisonagraph, Mutoscope American Biograph and Pathé came into existence.

The First Posters
At this period our office was at my private address at 111, Great Eastern Street, E.C., and we started out under the grand title of The North American Animated Picture Company. Our entertainment consisted of animated pictures, and Edison’s phonograph.

Our first poster invited the public to view “The World’s Wonder – THE CINEMATOGRAPH, by which the Public would see Trains in Actual Motion coming to rest at Platforms and Passengers Alighting – Trees Gracefully bending in the Wind – Waves breaking on the Sea-shore, and the Fattest and Thinnest Wrestlers in the World would go through their Performance in Animated Photography – Also Edison’s marvellous invention, the giant Phonograph”. We invited the public to come, and not only hear this instrument, but have their voices recorded and reproduced before the audience.

For our first display we hired the hall adjoining the Constitutional Club, Guildford, from Monday, November 16, 1896, our takings that night being £8 1s 1d. the intervening days up to Friday, November 20, were used in posting our bills and distributing handbills from door to door at Godalming, ready for the show to be given there on that night.

The display was duly given, our receipts being £7 4s 6d. The show went well and we were told that if we stayed and gave another show on the following night, Saturday, we would do well. We returned to our diggings, and there I found a telegram awaiting me, telling me of the arrival that night of a new addition to my family – a bonny girl – born at 8.30, whilst I was actually showing our films in the Public Hall, Godalming.

I believe the name of Godalming means “The Gift of God,” and so this child of mine makes it impossible for me to forget my entry into the kinema world; and she can truly be described as a child of the kinema. All her life since leaving school has been spent in the industry, and she, with her husband, now are in charge of a very sucessful little kinema in the country.

So we thought our luck was in, and we decided to stay anoter night to celebrate the event – but how to let the public know? Mr. Walker, always a man of brains, and being handy with paper and scissors, cut out in white letters the necessary announcement, and I next morning made a frame 3 ft. wide and 12 ft. long, with handles at each end, covered it with turkey red, pasted on the white letters, and there was our advert. ready. I got two lads to carry it about the streets, telling them to go anywhere where people were to be found.

A 2 o’clock, while standing outside the hall, we heard strains of a band playing the “Dead March in Saul” – it was a military funeral; it passed by us – first the band, then the body, the mourners walking behind – and directly behind them as part of the procession were out two lads and out advertisement!

Nothing could be done without creating a scene, so we let them pass on. Later, in very cross tones, I asked them why they had done such a thing, and their reply was “you told us to go where people would see your notice, and everyone in Godalming has seen it now”.

Anyway, we took £7 that night!

Beard is Robert Royou Beard; Reay is Cecil Wray. For a rough equivalent of present day prices, multiply the figures Turner gives by 100. The baby girl’s name was Ethel. Next up, the films that they showed.

Cowboys and Indians

The East End Years

I’m a collector of memoirs (published and unpublished) of the film-going experience in the early years of cinema. One particular favourite from my work on London before the First World War is the memoirs of Fermin Rocker, The East End Years: A Stepney Childhood. I just came across a copy in Foyles today, and thought it worth sharing with you.

Rocker (1907-2004) led a somewhat unusual London childhood, in that his father was the German anarchist theorist Rudolf Rocker, while his mother was a Jewish-Ukranian anarchist-syndicalist, and their home was a focal point for revolutionaries. Kropotkin and Malatesta were family friends, and his childhood memories of life in Jewish Whitechapel are fascinatingly coloured by the radicalism that was all around him. This is evidenced by his memories of going to the cinema when very young (maybe six or seven), where his reactions to Westerns were at variance with most children:

High on my list of favourites were the Indians of North America, a people for whom I had an unusual degree of admiration and sympathy. Their picturesque appearance as well as their skill and bravery as hunters and warriors greatly impressed me. Coupled with this regard and affection was a strong feeling of outrage aroused by my father’s stories of the deceit and treachery practised upon them by the white man. I dearly wished that some day the redskins would be able to turn the tables on their white oppressors and drive them from the continent which their cunning and duplicity had helped them conquer …

… My partiality for the redskin was to have some unhappy consequences when I received my first exposure to the cinema. The Westerns, which featured rather prominently in the repertory of those days, invariably had the Indians getting the worst of it in their encounters with the white man, a headlong rout of the redskins being the usual outcome. I found it quite impossible to look on calmly while my friends were being massacred on the screen. Not being nearly so stoical as my Indian idols, I would raise a tremendous commotion and have to be taken out of the theatre to prevent things from getting completely out of hand. After a few experiences of this kind, it was decided not to take me to the “pictures” any more, a resolution I did not in the least regret.

Not every child liked going to the cinema in those days. Rocker much preferred Punch and Judy shows (“I sometimes wonder if the creator of the Punch scenarios was not an anarchist in disguise. His hero was forever running afoul of the law…”). He went on to become a noted artist and book illustrator, examples of which you can see find at

Journal of a Disappointed Man

Another diarist who died young. ‘W.N.P. Barbellion’ (1889-1919), whose real name was Bruce Frederick Cummings, published his diary under the title The Journal of a Disappointed Man in 1919, a few months before his death arising out of multiple sclerosis. The diary – philosophical, observant, raw – is considered a minor classic.

There is a Barbellionblog which reproduces Barbellion’s text in blog format. The diaries covers the period 1903-1917 and have a few references to cinema. On 15 March 1915 he makes the intriguing observation: “I felt the same sardonic humour as a cinema film provokes, showing you, say, the Houses of Parliament with a ‘fade-through’ of Guy Fawkes in the cellars underneath.”

But the most notable reference is that for 18 August 1907, when he was eighteen:

When I feel ill, cinema pictures of the circumstances of my death flit across my mind’s eye. I cannot prevent them. I consider the nature of the disease and all I said before I died — something heroic, of course!

This may be adolescent morbidity, but it is a haunting transference of the fear of death to the screen, suggesting how the idea of cinema played upon the imagination of the audience. It may also be an intriguing variation on the idea of life passing before your eyes at the point of death.

Diaries of a working man

As regular readers will know, I’m very interested in testimony of the film-going experience in the silent era. I’ve done a lot of research into the experience of cinema audiences in London before the First World War, using memoirs and oral history recordings, but what is really precious is original testimony from the time. For this, we have to turn to letters and diaries.

Alexander Goodall diaries

Needless to say, references to film and the cinema-going experience in these is hard to track down. But not impossible, and there are some precious examples to be found online. I’ll be posting assorted examples of these, as I find them, and I’ll start off with the diaries of Alexander Goodall (1874-1901). Goodall was a post office clerk in Western Australia, who died sadly young of tuberculosis. He kept up a diary from the age of seventeen, which he illustrated with delightful drawings as well as observant comments on the passing scene. The diaries are held by the State Library of Victoria, and have been published in facsimile form online by Pandora, Australia’s web archive.

Goodall took a sharp interest in the scientific developments of his day, and the diaries record his encounter with the Edison Kinetoscope (1 July 1895), the Edison Kinetophone – a combination of Kinetoscope peepshow and Phonograph music – which he calls the Phonoscope (2 July 1896) and the Cinematograph (3 May 1897).

To transcribe the short texts would be to spoil the visual effect. The picture above gives you some idea of the diaries, but you should follow the links to see them in their full glory.

More diaries in the near future.

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 editor 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 efort 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 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.

Tom Fletcher remembers

Posting that item on Norman Studios and the black cinema of the silent era reminded me of a passage in a book that I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to tell someone about. Tom Fletcher’s The Tom Fletcher Story: 100 Years of the Negro in Show Business (1954) is a classic memoir that has been much-plundered by musical theatre historians, but I don’t know how many film historians know of this passage which records the experience of two black actors at the Edison film company in the early 1900s:

When the flickers, or moving pictures, were developed along around 1900, my partner, Al Bailey, and I got leading comedy parts. The studio was on 22nd Street, between Broadway and Fourth Avenue. I was the talent scout for the colored people. There were no “types,” just colored men, women and children. Bailey and I did parts in the pictures that today would pay no less than four figures weekly, but we didn’t take it seriously. To us it was just something that would never get any place.

You never heard the words “lights,” “action,” “camera,” “roll ’em,” or “cut” which are so common today. There were no script writers, no make-up artists, just one man, everybody called him Mr. Porter, and I never took time to find out his first name, who placed you in your positions and gave you your actions, lit the scene and then turned the camera. His assistant was a fellow named Gilroy whom everyone called Gil. When we went on location it was to North Asbury Park, about the best place around New York for the purpose. The trees, gardens and farms gave just the right atmosphere.

At the end of each day Gilroy would hand me the money to pay off. I am not quite sure but I think it was three dollars a day for each of the people. Bailey and I got eight dollars each. We all considered it a lot of fun with pay. Vaudeville, private parties, music and show business kept me too busy to pay any real attention to the moving picture business.

Porter is of course Edwin S. Porter; Gilroy is his assistant William J. Gilroy. Fletcher’s less than awe-struck view of the early film business is illuminating, and shows how for most stage performers the new medium was a minor curiosity with little bearing on their professional lives except that the extra money was welcome. Is this a unique memoir for black performers in film at such an early date? I don’t know.

I first found the passage in Thomas L. Riis, Just Before Jazz: Black Musical Theater in New York, 1890 to 1915 (1989), which is an excellent, instructive history in itself, with wonderful illustrations.

It doesn’t show Edison films such as Tom Fletcher appeared in, but the Black Film Center/Archive site has some QuickTime clips of African-American performers (and some white actors in blackface) from the 1890s. The Uncle Tom Cabin’s & American Culture site has a huge range of information about the many expressions of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, including the history behind the 1903 Edison film Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with QuickTime video clips of this and subsequent film versions from the silent era. The lead parts in the 1903 film are played by white actors in black face; the black performers are all extras.

London was dangerous

It’s been a while since I posted any memoir evidence of going to the cinema in the silent era, a particular research topic of mine. This quotation from V.S. Pritchett’s memoir A Cab at the Door: An Autobiography: Early Years (London: Chatto & Windus, 1968) also serves as further evidence of the term Bioscope, and of the early cinema practice of spraying the surprisingly compliant audiences of the time with disinfectant:

London was dangerous. We had a girl to help my mother for a few weeks and her mind, like the mind of the one at Ealing, was brimming with crime. She took me to the Camberwell Bioscope to see a film of murder and explosions called The Anarchist’s Son, in which men with rifles in their hands crawled up a hill and shot at each other. When the shed in which one of them was living, blew up, the film turned silent, soft blood red and the lady pianist in front of the screen struck up a dramatic chord. In the Bioscope men walked about squirting the audience with a delicious scent like hair lotion that prickled our heads.

The Pritchett family lived in a street off Coldharbour Lane in London. The cinema he is referring to is possibly Burgoyne’s American Bioscope, at 213 Rye Lane, Peckham. The date is around 1910, when he would have been ten years old. Pritchett of course went on to become a renowned short story writer and essayist.

Organized dreaming

One of the plans behind The Bioscope is to develop themes, or strands, one of which is memoir evidence of filmgoing in the silent era. There are still people around who can be intervciewed about cinema in the 1930s, and assorted oral history programmes exist, but for the earlier period, if we want to recover what the experience of going to the cinema was like, we must have recourse to memoirs, oral history recordings, or contemporary interviews.

I have collected a large number of quotations from memoirs of life in London before 1914 which have references to the cinema. One marvellous passage that I was not able to use in my research, simply because it comes from the north of England, is in Jack Common’s autobiographical novel Kiddar’s Luck (Turnstile Press, 1951). This is a classic memoir in any case, but his recollections of going to see films pre-World War One in Heaton, near Newcastle-on-Tyne, are observant and richly informative:

He [his father] still took me about with him on occasion. We had a more or less established practice on a mid-week night of the day-shift of going to a new entertainment called ‘the pictures’, or in older dialect, ‘the pictors’. This was a cheap night out for him. The pictures cost no more than a copper or two, and my presence preserved him from extensive drinking if he ran into any of his mates. He always did. The two of them would disappear into a pub, leaving me outside …

Because I was outside, my father had an excuse for the curtailing of good cheer which his economics as a raiser of young on a working-man’s wage was asking for. Soon we made our way from pub to picture-hall to be followed all in good time, by many millions born and unborn who were to find themselves propelled by the same reasons that moved us toward this organized dreaming in semi-darkness and drought.

We then get a vivid picture of the reality of the cinema performance, with the important observation about the transitional nature of the audience from the conviviality and sense of ownership inherited from music hall, to the future ‘threat’ of the Art of Cinema:

It wasn’t so very organized for us, of course. The hall was in fact, a shabby affair which must have been a mission at some time. It had no electric signs or elaborate foyers. There might have been a couple of posters, and there was an old woman sitting by the kerb selling little hard pears out of a soap-box on wheels. Inside, there was no ramp to the floor. The seating was forms or hard chairs linked in fives by planking. If you couldn’t see at the back, you stood up; if the people in front of you stood up, you climbed in to your seat. This happened in moments of culminating excitement when on the screen – but it had ceased to be a screen; it was events we all saw with our own eyes – the faithful dog panted over the last ridge with the message that meant reprieve in its collar, or the blood of the wounded hussar dripped through the trap-door on to the table at which his enemies stood. I yelled and stamped on my feet, and was often in danger of falling into the next row or knocking somebody’s hat off, all of which amused my father immensely. Most of the audience made some noise or other. You see, they were recruited from the music-hall and the melodrama; they had not yet learnt the separate and introverted enjoyment so proper to the Art of the Cinema. The fact that the pictures were silent gave everyone a natural right to comment as and when and how. They weren’t taking the mike out of the show, by any means, no. Films were still far too real for anybody to be cynical about them. It was the utterly convincing reality of these scenes which compelled us to behave as though we were at the point of joining in upon them.

Rare for memoirs of cinema-going at this time, he puts in something about the musical interludes that were a common feature of the first shows:

Half-way through there was a musical interlude during which patrons had time to withdraw for refreshment to the nearby boozer. The lights went up on a shallow stage behind a row of artificial flowers and ferns. At the side of that, a gramophone began playing. There was a great deal of shuffling in the rows as stout matrons in cloth caps and shawls and heavily moustached blokes in mufflers or celluloid dickies pushed their way out. Quite a lot of these worthies never returned. When that became apparent without a doubt there would be a scramble for better seats on the part of those who reckoned themselves unsuited. But for the while we waited until the slides came on. The gramophone struck up ‘When the Fields are White with Daisies, I’ll Return’, and the first slide showed on the screen as half the lights were dimmed. It showed a sailor taking leave of his sweetheart – upside-down because the operator had gone out for a drink, too, and his boy had taken over. As the gramophone scratched and hooted its way through the immortal ballad, we waited to cheer each new slide.

When the fields are white with daisies
And the roses bloom again –
Let the lovelight in your heart
brightly burn.

For I’ll love you, sweetheart, always,
So remember when you’re lonely –
When the fields are white with daisies,
I’ll return.

He concludes with some delightful memories of the ramshackle nature of the cinema show, and a reminder that not evertyone was totally in thrall to the silver screen:

At last, there was Jack with his kit-bag at the girl’s feet and very truly the fields were white with daisies. We all joined in the final chorus and cheered its conclusion. Yes, but where was the operator? Very likely, after an interval of general unease and peering about, that last slide would wriggle across the screen and be held through a complete repeat of the song. The second half of the programme was often bulked out with films we had seen before, or with old news-reel material rather grossly re-edited in the projection box. A popular item such as King Edward’s funeral got dished up in some very queer shapes as the continued ripping of sprocket-holes made more and more cuts necessary.We were well-satisfied. I used to describe the whole show to my mother afterwards, and it always annoyed me that she couldn’t be made to understand the magic of it. She thought it was some trick business, manifestly inferior to the theatre, that’s why it was so cheap.

Marvellous stuff. Look out for more in future posts – and hopefully not just from Britain.