British Life on Film: History and the Film Archives

I love the BFI’s BRITAIN ON FILM website and all the fab material held in the regional archives which it showcases. So much so that I’m organising a little symposium about it, which invites folk who have discovered films there and gone on to do research on the films themselves or the events/people/organisations they depict, to come and present their findings. Propose a talk! Or just come along and listen. I’m hoping we’ll screen some of the films too! Here is the call for papers:

A symposium at King’s College London, 11th May 2019

In this one-day symposium we seek to make contact with researchers from any discipline, whose work has been informed by an encounter with archive films made available online.

Over the past ten years developments in digital online platforms have made moving-image evidence of life in Britain from 1895 onwards more accessible than ever before. Thanks to websites such as the BFI’s flagship ‘Britain on Film’ and the online catalogues of the network of national and regional film archives operating throughout the UK, a wealth of moving-image material is now available to professional historians, students, amateur and local historians, independent researchers, and interested members of the general public. This moving-image evidence of the past includes home movie and amateur footage, short documentaries or dramas, training and information films, political activist film-making, advertising and propaganda material, local television news segments and features, experimental, artistic and avant-garde productions.

  • Who is watching this newly accessible material and how are they using it in their everyday lives?
  • What impact has access to such material had on researchers of C20th British life?
  • What are the ethical and practical issues of online access for film and television archives – and for researchers?
  • How are these films being used by historians and other researchers, either as research evidence or as teaching tools?
  • What new directions of enquiry or methodology does such moving image material open up to researchers?
  • In what ways can local histories, and histories of specific communities and identity formations, be informed by this material?

We invite proposals for talks of 20 minutes which reflect on questions such as those above, or which report on research which has made use of film material from ‘Britain on Film’ and/or from the holdings of the regional media archives. We seek to encourage presenters from all backgrounds, including independent researchers. A small travel grant is available for those presenters who are unwaged and unaffiliated. Registration discounts will also be available for delegates without institutional affiliation.

Abstracts of no more than 150 words should be submitted to Closing date: 1st April 2019

This symposium is a collaboration between Lawrence Napper (King’s College London), Christine Grandy (University of Lincoln) and Chris O’Rourke (University of Lincoln). It has been funded through the KCL QR fund.

(NB the featured image comes from ‘Amateur Talkies’ a film from 1956 made by Sid Douglas)

“Projector Fire – Young Operators Avert Panic”: ‘Projectionettes’ and Teenage Projectionists in Wartime


Imagine walking down the street past this cinema, minding your own business, when suddenly a flaming reel of nitrate comes flying out of the upstairs window onto the pavement in front of you. This is exactly what could have happened in August 1943 at the Queen’s Picture House in Bolton, when a major incident was narrowly averted by the quick thinking of the young projectionists on duty. Here’s Kinematograph Weekly’s report of the incident (KW 19/08/1943):

Quick and courageous action by two youthful operators saved possible panic in a crowded kinema at Bolton on Tuesday, August 10th. The big film was just about to be screened at the final performance at the Queen’s when the reel flared up in the projector. The whole of the operating room was filled with smoke and flames, but the operators snapped down the fireproof shutters and confined the flames to the box. They hurled most of the blazing film into the street, and with the quick arrival of the National Fire Service, the fire in the box was extinguished. The operators, 19 year old George Garrod [Gerrard], Melville Street, Bolton, and 14 year old Raymond Crompton, Arnold Street, Bolton were badly burned about the face and hands. They were removed to Bolton Infirmary… what could have been a very nasty situation was saved by the resourcefulness of the operators, who faced up to it very bravely.

Another report from the Manchester Evening News (11/08/1943: 3) assures us that Crompton’s injuries were not serious, and that he was even able to make light of his close shave:

Sitting up swathed in bandages at his home in Arnold Street, Bolton today, 14 year old Raymond Crompton is convinced he has nine lives.

A few weeks ago he fell off a bus on to his head.

Not long after that a shot from an air-gun grazed his left eye.

Last night he was burned about the face, hand and arm while heroically fighting a fire in the projection box at a Bolton Cinema with 18 year old George Gerrard of Melville Street.

“Don’t worry” he told his mother when the ambulance brought him home. “This is nothing. I still have six lives left.”

It was because of these boys’ prompt action that a packed audience sat on in the cinema unaware of the flames which broke out in the projection box as George and Raymond, the two operators were about to screen Commandos Strike at Dawn.

This sort of incident wasn’t uncommon of course. As all film historians are aware, before the 1950s all film was made of highly inflammable nitrate stock and, as the comprehensive Navy instruction film This Film Is Dangerous! (1948) demonstrates, had to be handled with extreme care. Fires were frequent occurrences and it was the unacceptable loss of life in the early period that led in Britain to the 1909 Cinematograph Act and the start of cinema licencing.

Wartime ‘Manpower’ Problems

Less obvious, perhaps, is why the highly skilled and responsible job of projectionist at this cinema was left to a 14 year old and an 18 year old – to children in fact. A clue to the answer of course can be found in the date: by 1943 all available adult male projectionists had been called up to war service, and projectionist positions were increasingly difficult to fill with experienced staff. The manager of the Queen’s had in fact repeatedly advertised for projection staff throughout the previous two years, stipulating that ‘only competent men need apply’ in May 1941 (Liverpool Daily Post 25/5/41: 4) but later trying the less negative tack of offering ‘good wages for capable men’ in his adverts through June and July of 1942 (Manchester Evening News 23/6/42: 6).

Screen Shot 2018-10-15 at 10.06.19

The confusion in the reports above as regards George Gerrard’s age (was he 18 or 19?) may not have simply been the result of sloppy copy-editing by the newspapers, since managers could be fined for allowing the ‘box’ to be left in the charge of anyone under 18. In November 1943 Louis Henry Bacon, the manager of the Palladium Beeston was fined £2 for just this crime. He’d had to pop out to post some letters, leaving his 17 year old ‘operator’ in sole charge of the projection room. (Kineweekly 18/11/43).


It’s noticable how firmly the job advertisments for the Queen’s Cinema stipulate the need for ‘men’. Female projectionists, or ‘projectionettes’ as they were sometimes called, had been a feature of cinemas since the very earliest days, and as David Williams and Rebecca Harrison have respectively pointed out, their numbers increased massively during both the first and the second wars as they were drafted in to replace men.[1] As early as 12th March 1915 the London County Council received a letter from a Miss Emily Clements of Water Lane, Stratford East, arguing for the deployment of female projectionists. ‘May I suggest’, she wrote, ‘that a woman could act as a bioscope operator at a picture palace as well as a man…’ arguing that if this policy were adopted then it would free up numerous young men to go and fight. Clements was not merely speculating, as she assured the LCC, ‘I have been in an operating box and am convinced that with a little practice, I could do the work quite as satisfactorily as the average operator’. The letter survives in The National Archives, alongside the internal LCC memos and letters forwarding her idea to the Secretary of State which it generated.[2] They reveal a surprisingly sympathetic attitude in the corridors of power. The LCC noted that the 1909 act did not prohibit the employment of female operators, and that they could already be found in at least two cinemas in the area under its jurisdiction – the one at 94 Lambeth Walk [known as the British Bioscope and run by Agnes Emmeline Roche] , and at the Sydenham Rink Cinema, Silverdale, Sydenham. As they advised the Secretary of State on 10th May,

There does not appear to the Council any reason why women should not be able to acquire the requisite degree of knowledge and skill and in the circumstances the council is of opinion that no objection should be raised to the employment of competent cinematograph operators.

There remained two concerns however – firstly an anxiety about an ‘element of danger in use by women operators of such dress materials as cotton and flannelette’ which could act as a fire hazard in the projction box, expecially if they were in loose or flowing garments, and an objection bluntly stated in the hand written memo accompanying the LCC’s letter of recommendation as it circulated around Whitehall that ‘Women are more apt to lose their heads than men and cases have recurred when prompt action on the part of the operator has prevented serious consequences.’ The case of the Queen’s Bolton in 1943 reminds us that quick thinking and appropriate action were qualities all projectionists required, although there are no files in the archives worrying about the ability of teenage boys to ‘keep their heads.’

It’s interesting that despite the widespread use of female projectionists during the First World War, these exact anxieties recur when the question is raised again during the Second World War. In fact the two files reside together in the archive, as the civil servants of 1940 called up the previous papers to consult on the response of the previous generation. Again the question of whether women could ‘keep their heads’ was aired, and the Ministry of Labour went as far as to make laboratory tests of different fabrics and their relative flammability so that they could recommend appropriate dress for women to wear in the box. By 1943 though, such anxieties had been put aside, and women were well and truly in place at the projector.


On 4th November Kineweekly carried a report about the North Finchley Gaumont, which had as many as four female projectionists in regular employment, and WR Fuller, the General Secretary of the Cinematograph Exhibitors’ Association was openly advocating for more – as he told Kineweekly the training of female operators was a pressing need, and should be made a long term policy,

The duration of the war in Europe, the time it would take to shift everything out the the East and the conclusion in the Far East suggested that with the necessary Army of Occupation this country would probably have on military service at least 2½ million men for another four or five years. The desirability of training as many women as possible for projectionists was both a pressing and a long term need. (KW 5/8/43)

More Stuff on Projectionists

If you’re interested in issues around the projection box, I’d recommend the brilliant AHRC funded project on that theme hosted by Warwick University Film Studies Department. There you’ll find loads of material on the changing lives of projectionists, including a number of interviews with veteran projectionists, and a special section on women in the box, which demonstrates that although many returned to more traditional roles, some women stayed on as projectionists throughout the post war period. You’ll also find a link to the special January 2018 number of the Journal of British Film and Television, which includes among other goodies, a thrillingly dweeby article about the schemes for training disabled ex-soldiers to be projectionists during the First World War.

Those interested in London silent cinemas will find it easy to lose a morning exploring Chris O’Rourke’s brilliant interactive map of London’s Silent Cinemas, and those gripped with cinemagoing in World War Two will enjoy Richard Farmer’s book, The Utility Dream Palace

[1] David Williams, ‘Ladies of the lamp: The employment of women in the British film trade during World War 1’ in Film History, Vol 9 (1997), pp. 116-127; Rebecca Harrison, ‘The coming of the projectionettes: women’s work and changing modes of spectatorship in British cinemas in the Second World War’ in Feminist Media Histories, Vol 2(2) (2016), pp. 47-70.

[2] Home Office Files 278232/15, The National Archives, Kew.

Armistice Day in ‘Art’ and Popular Culture

It is a hundred years since the Armistice Day on 11th November 1918. To mark it, here’s a discussion of how people responded to that day from the opening of my book Before Journey’s End: The Great War in British Popular Cinema of the 1920s [NB cheaper copies can be found second hand]. The final version of the book diverges from what’s below after the first page or so for practical and space reasons. But writing about the contrast between these three pictures helped me form a lot of my early ideas, and I still think it’s a discussion worth having…

Towards the start of her popular history The Great Silence 1918-1920: Living in the Shadow of the Great War, Juliet Nicholson offers an account of Armistice Day made up of a series of vignettes culled from diaries, letters and memoirs.[i] We learn of Harold Nicholson, looking up from his desk in Whitehall to see David Lloyd George excitedly announcing peace from the steps of 10 Downing Street; of Duff Cooper, looking down at the celebrating crowds and feeling ‘overcome with melancholy’; of Vera Brittain, working as a VAD nurse, whose ‘joylessness grew with the same speed as the elation that surrounded her’; of Cynthia Curzon celebrating in Trafalgar square, but afterwards admonished by Oswald Mosley for her lack of consideration of ‘the loss of life, the devastation and misery’, and of D.H. Lawrence and his famous outburst at a Bloomsbury party. ‘The war isn’t over,’ he is reputed to have said, ‘It makes me sick to see you rejoicing like a butterfly in the last rays of sun before the winter… Whatever happens there can be no peace on earth.’ Nicholson valiantly struggles to introduce the voices of more ordinary individuals into her account, but the famous names of the aristocratic, the literary and the politically powerful mount up – Lucy Duff Gordon, Thomas Hardy, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Arnold Bennett, Sergei Diaghilev, David Garnett, Vanessa Bell, Osbert Sitwell, Virginia Woolf, Adolf Hitler… Out of their collective account a sort of consensus emerges. Each individual looks on at the crowds from afar, unable to participate in the general delight because apparently they have access to a more profound understanding – a greater recognition of what has been lost in the conflict and of the uncertainties to come. The most vivid images of ordinary people come as snapshots in accounts which feel no sympathy for their joy, and see their celebrations as evidence of venality, stupidity or worse. Siegfried Sassoon is described as being ‘disgusted’ by the sight of a woman in Oxford who,

…had tucked her skirts right up to her naked waist and was playing to the cheering crowd, waving a Union flag at the army and navy cadets with unashamed abandon.[ii]

Virginia Woolf noted in her diary that,

Every wounded soldier was kissed by women; nobody had any notion where to go or what to do; it poured steadily; crowds drifted up and down the pavements waving flags and jumping into omnibuses… I felt more and more melancholy and hopeless of the human race. They make one doubt whether any decent life will ever be possible…[iii]

It is Lady Ottoline Morrell who takes this position to its logical culmination. Emerging from a performance of the Ballets Russes at the Coliseum she encountered a one-legged ex-soldier in the Charing Cross Road. He was too drunk to walk with his crutches, and so his companions were simply dragging him along the ground. Lady Ottoline hurried across the road to intervene, but they roughly told her to go away and leave them alone. Nicholson reports Morrell’s interpretation of this encounter without comment or gloss. ‘War’s contribution to this young man’s life, Ottoline wrote later in her diary, had been to “maim him in body and ruin him in soul.”’[iv]

In his majestic study of the war and its effect on English culture, A War Imagined, Samuel Hynes also devotes a chapter to the accounts offered in diaries and letters of that day. His version is rather more crisply self-conscious, noting that every diarist recorded the day, ‘but only to say that the weather was awful and that out there in the rain other people, dreadful people, were celebrating in dreadful ways.’[v] Nevertheless, he quotes a variety of the same people (Woolf, Bennett, Sassoon, Hardy), and despite his acknowledgement of their tone, still allows the logic of his argument to be swayed towards their point of view. ‘It does seem odd.’ he muses,

The end had come that English men and women had yearned and hoped for through the long war years, yet when it came it was not felt as an occasion for celebration. Not for Art. There are no English Armistice Day paintings that I know of, no great images of Victory or Peace…[vi]

There are no English Armistice Day paintings that I know of. Hynes clearly didn’t look very hard. Or perhaps the paintings that he found didn’t accord with his notion of ‘greatness’. Three images come to mind. Two are the sort of pukka ‘art’ that might have a shot at being understood ‘great’ in Hynes’ world. The third is perhaps better known but… is it art?

The two pukka images are ‘Armistice Night, Trafalgar Square’ by George F. Carline (currently in the Government Art Collection, which acquired it in 1978) and ‘Armistice Night, 1918’ by William Nicholson which hangs in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Carline, George F., 1855-1920; Armistice Night, Trafalgar Square
Armistice Night, Trafalgar Square by George F Carline
Armistice Night, 1918 by William Nicholson

Both of these images reproduce some of the ambivalence that Hynes and Nicholson describe in their accounts of ‘artists’ reactions to the armistice. Their depictions literally distance the artist and the viewer from the behaviour of the revellers. Carline’s image is painted from what actually seems an impossible angle, elevated high above the square at a point where the ground actually falls away towards Whitehall. Perhaps he climbed onto a wall or a statue to get this view? Either way, the artist stands apart from the crowd, who appear primarily as indistinct masses in his middle distance. The only figures picked out are the dancing couple in the centre, silhouetted against the light of a bonfire, and the whole crowd is utterly dwarfed by an enormous twilight sky – an opportunity for gorgeous lighting effects which make even the celebratory fireworks seem insignificant and desultory, hanging like inadequate Very lights in the vastness of the space. Nicholson’s image is perhaps less distant. We are among the captured German guns that were lined up along the Mall. We can probably hear the drunken soldiers hanging off their barrels, and are certainly close enough for them to see us and address us with their jubilation. Yet Nicholson’s technique imposes itself between us and them – the thick brushstrokes and deftly articulate shapes render the figures vivid but indistinct. We can’t know the feelings of the soldier on crutches in the foreground – his facial expression isn’t revealed in the paint. Does Nicholson think he has been ‘ruined in soul’ as well as maimed in body, as Lady Ottoline thought of the injured man who told her to ‘fuck off’ outside the Coliseum? The painting doesn’t reveal that to us. It’s surprisingly tiny too – no bigger than six inches square.

I’m not sure whether these two images would necessarily count as ‘great art’ but it’s certainly true that they have been accorded a certain status over the years. Both have been acquired by major public collections, and as a result are available to view as part of ‘the nation’s art’ on the Art Uk website. I don’t know what Government office the Carline adorns, but anyone can get on a train to Cambridge and stand in front of the Nicholson if they choose to. Nicholson of course remains a major figure of the period, and deservedly continues to enjoy a reputation today. Father of Ben Nicholson, and father-in-law of Robert Graves, the author of Goodbye to All That, Nicholson was well connected within bohemian artistic circles of the day. He’d suffered a certain amount of personal loss as a result of the war – his wife Mabel died of influenza in July 1918 and his son Anthony of war wounds in the same year. Perhaps he had good reason to feel ambivalent about the Armistice. Nevertheless, the rather brilliant account of his own experiences on Armistice night offers an intriguing contrast to the distance of his painting. According to his biographer and the companion of his later years, Marguerite Steen, Nicholson’s Armistice night was strikingly lacking in ennui,

Like many others who had lost ‘all they cared about’ in the war, William was swept into the celebrations of Armistice night. He and Marie went to the Café Royal, which was packed from wall to wall with blithe spirits, who imposed their conviviality on the (slightly) soberer section of the community. Among them a charming young officer lurched from table to table “A toasht – toasht – we’ve gotta have a t-toasht!” When sufficient attention was focussed upon this reveller, and everyone was laughing and all glasses were lifted, he brought out his proposal in a triumphant explosion: “La’zh an’ zhen’lemen – I give you – a toash! The dear – ole – Kaiaher!” – a toast which was honoured as it could only be in an English restaurant at the end of four years of war; the rafters dirled with shouts of “The dear – old – Kaiser!”

William and Marie were swept into Piccadilly Circus, which was a mêlée of traffic, surging in all sorts of directions, of service men trying to find their girls, or their buses, or both, of excited, tipsy, happy people. William, assuming all the authority of which he is, at moments, disconcertingly capable, leapt into the traffic stream, checked it by imperiously holding up his hand, wrenched open the door of a Rolls Royce filled with fat women in sables, thrust in a couple of Tommies while others swarmed upon the roof, slammed the door and shouted “Drive on!” – a pleasant jest, which he repeated until there was quite a perceptible thinning of the foot traffic in his part of the Circus, while liveried chauffeurs who must have shuddered for their coachwork, bore onwards into the purlieus of Mayfair and Belgravia the beaming proletariat who, for that night, were kings and queens of London.[vii]

This vivid account seems very far from the pictures above. In fact it seems much closer to my final picture, one which circulated much more widely than either of the other two and was seen not in the rarified galleries of Belgravia, but in bars and waiting rooms and front parlours of the readers of The Sphere.


This image is by Fortunino Matania. It appeared in The Sphere on 21st November 1918. It is not in a public art collection, and I’m not even sure whether the original painting survives, or if it is only available in this reproduction, but it presumably was originally in colour (colour reproductions of other illustrations that Matania produced for The Sphere can be found in Lucinda Gosling’s excellent book, Brushes & Bayonets: Cartoons, Sketches and Paintings of World War 1).[viii] Matania is well known as a prolific illustrator for The Sketch and for The Illustrated London News throughout this period. It’s not difficult to see why his work was popular – it has the immediacy, movement and vibrancy of a photograph, and indeed it jostles alongside many photographic representations on the pages of The Sphere. There is none of the distance evident in the other pictures – we are in the crowd, their emotions are shared with us not only in gesture and attitude but in the details of facial expression and individual incident. The image is unashamedly part of a commercial enterprise – it seeks to erase the space between the viewer and the scene and appeal directly to fellow feeling, and this perhaps is why for figures such as Hynes it fails to attain the status of ‘art’, tending instead towards popular sentiment and tainted with a hint of jingoism. I myself have slipped into using the term ‘illustration’ in describing it, but it’s important to note that despite the distain of the Establishment, Matania himself insisted on the artistic status of his work, arguing for its importance as a record of the war and suggesting to the hanging team of the Imperial War Museum’s Chrystal Palace in 1921 that his image of the interment of the Unknown Soldier (drawn from life) would make a suitable ‘commemoration of the Great Sacrifice made by our noble sons who gave their lives in this Great War for Liberty and Honour.’ Interestingly, despite these claims, Matania was only willing to offer the Museum a copy of his work. They refused to buy it, and he had to be content with simply loaning it to them for the duration of the exhibition – his father Chevalier was given a similarly dusty answer when he attempted to interest the museum in his image of the battle for Neuve Chappelle.

It will be evident by now that my interest is as much in what these images tell us about their own status as ‘art’ as about what they tell us of the reality of the Armistice night celebrations. Nevertheless I think the discussion above demonstrates that those two debates are quite closely intertwined – some of the positions with regard to the end of the war quoted above also function as declarations about how closely or not the people making them want to be associated with the ‘crowds’. There’s also perhaps a metaphor to be drawn out here about cinema. The paintings of Carline and Nicholson, with their distance and their modernist techniques, preserved for the nation by the nation might be analogous to the literary and poetic texts discussed by Hynes – within an accepted tradition of literary and artistic enterprise, understood as evidence of personal but also of universal perceptions and understandings about the war. The Matania image – fiercely commercial, only available in reproduction and with the original perhaps ultimately lost – might be analogous to the filmed images I worked on in my book, some of which were unavailable to view at the time of writing, and many of which remain lost completely. Those images, like the Matania one, have a surface realism to them, conferred by the indexicality of the photographic process itself. But that very realism invokes the suspicion of critics, wary of the untruths that can be smuggled in through tone, composition, framing and narrative in the name of propaganda – questions that are less often asked of the more ‘artistic’ productions.

These are some of the processes by which the experiences and perceptions of the few who make a claim to ‘art’ become preserved and reproduced, long after the experiences of the many, who perhaps really did just feel joy and get drunk, are discarded and forgotten.

[i] Juliet Nicholson, The Great Silence 1918-1920: Living in the Shadow of the Great War (London: John Murray, 2009): 26-43.

[ii] Nicholson: 33.

[iii] Nicholson: 41.

[iv] Nicholson: 34.

[v] Samuel Hynes, A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture (London: Pimlico, 1990): 254.

[vi] Hynes: 255.

[vii] Marguerite Steen, William Nicholson (London: Collins, 1943): 134.

[viii] Lucinda Gosling, Brushes & Bayonets: Cartoons, Sketches and Paintings of World War 1 (London: Osprey, 2008)

Armistice Day in the Cinemas

As part of their rather wonderful Making a New World exhibition (running until 31st March 2019) the Imperial War Museum in London have a number of immersive installations which focus on Armistice Day in 1918 and on the nature of the silences ceremoniously incorporated into Armistice Day celebrations since. Their ‘Moments of Silence’ exhibit introduces you to an inky black space where you listen to recordings of different silences, from as early as the 1920s to modern examples from school assemblies and football matches. In another room –  the ‘Room of Voices‘ – you can listen to recordings from their sound archive of people describing their experiences on Armistice Day itself, and these link to profiles and fuller recordings online. Here you can listen to Dolly Shepherd who ‘wept because the silence was so awful‘ , and Ernest Argall who was so disillusioned with the war that he threw his service medals into the sea.

This exhibition set me recalling some research I did a while ago about the ways in which many people celebrated Armistice by going to the cinema. In fact, from the evidence of the reports in the trade paper Kinematograph Weekly, the cinemas experienced a boom during Armistice week, as people rushed out to enjoy themselves. Lighting and fuel restrictions were temporarily lifted, and cinema managers cashed in on the week by booking relevant topicals and feature films. Below are some of the accounts Kinematograph Weekly gave of the week’s events in towns and cities around the UK. Pity the poor exhibitors of Edinburgh who were unable to join in because local precautions against the Spanish Influenza epidemic meant that their establishments had to remain closed…

Kineweekly 14/11/1918



The wonderful news which came so dramatically to London on Sunday morning caused a greatly-to-be-expected cessation of business everywhere, except in places of amusement, which have been packed to the utmost extent of their capacity. London – and not only London but the whole of the kingdom – is en fete, and it will be some days before there is anything like a return to the normal. But what is the normal going to be? We had got used to living in an atmosphere of war, and restrictions had become part of our lives – while the war lasted. But what now? Already a little relaxation has been made. The lights are unmasked and the prohibition against opening places of amusement after 10.30 has been lifted – for a week. There are, of course, reasons why we cannot return to our pre-war ways yet – there is so much to be undone and so much to be replaced and repaired. But after that, will the burden of restriction under which we have labored – the prohibitions and orders and limitations on every hand – be tolerated? It is to be hoped there will be no question as to their removal in due course, for they have been burdensome, even though we are a long-suffering and patient people.”

[I’m illustrating some of these accounts with pictures taken from the wonderful Cinema Treasures website (links as the venues are mentioned)]

Kineweekly 21/11/18

FROM THE AREAS pp. 93-101

MANCHESTER – A compliment must be paid to Mr Lauder of the Deansgate for having gauged the desires of the people by introducing the picture showing our boys marching into Ostend, in the trenches, in the battery and above all marching home. Monday, November 11 was a time of rejoicing. In the various theatres, notably Oxford Street and Market Street, Mr Plumpton and Mr Wright the respective managers had the pleasure of greeting enthusiastic audiences. Some usually staid renters were to be seen careering up Market Street, waving hats and banners. All the theatres were packed and record business followed.

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Deansgate Cinema, Manchester in 1914

SOUTHPORT – With the news of the signing of the Armistice the kinemas filled up as if by magic. The joy was infectious – more so than ever the ‘flu was supposed to be, even by the wildest alarmists. Advantage was taken of the temporary relaxation of the lighting restrictions.

BLACKPOOL – Needless to say, the dawn of peace was welcomed alike by Blackpool exhibitors and the public. The scene in Talbot Square on the Monday afternoon would have made a fine ‘topical’. The programs were victory ones, whatever the subject but councillor R. Fenton, the licensee of the Hippodrome, might have known what was coming for he had booked the Griffith spectacle HEARTS OF THE WORLD for this historic week. He had full and enthusiastic houses of course.

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Hippodrome, Blackpool (in later years)

BIRMINGHAM – Birmingham celebrated the signing of the armistice in a manner befitting the second largest city in the UK, the pictures playing no mean part in the celebrations. And it is interesting to note that, despite the numerous counter attractions – bands, processions, fireworks, illuminations, the lighting up of the streets etc – the kinemas all played to capacity business. Both the New Street Picture House and the Scala were besieged with visitors all the week. At the last mentioned hall manager Charles Williams, the very second the restricted lighting order was suspended, had a 2000 candlepower half-watt lamp suspended over the entrance. Needless to say more patrons were attracted to this theatre, like moths to light.

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Scala, Birmingham

NOTTINGHAM – Looking back over the crowded events of the past four years, the kinema trade in Nottingham may be heartily congratulated on its present flourishing condition. The first six months was marked by a general slump, then after a spell of good business, darkened streets and air raid fears dealt the business another nasty blow. This also passed and the last twelve months have been marked by phenomenal records…

Peace rejoicings have caused a falling off in the patronage of the picture houses in the city. The people have been too busy celebrating the Allies’ victory but the slump is but temporary and there is sure to be a big rush to the kinemas when the public resume their normal routine again.

DERBY – As much as elsewhere the picture houses of the town were the venues of joyous scenes on the announcement of the signing of the armistice. With folk taking up the holiday spirit the halls were packed on that memorable night, and everybody seemed to have forgotton the ‘flu. The temporary relaxation of the lighting restrictions gave exhibitors a chance to show some enterprise in illumination, and the White Hall in particular excelled itself with five large arcs and the dome lit up, while the numerous flags of the Allies made a grand display. It was a strange thing to see picture house signs all ablaze.

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The White Hall Cinema, Derby

BARNSLEY – The kinemas of Barnsley have done war service of practical and valuable character. Barnsley as all the world knows is located hard by one of the richest mineral valleys in the world, and is the capital town of the Yorkshire coalfields, and the home of that great trade union, the Yorkshire Miners’ Association. With the coal, glass and linen trades enjoying locally record wages and the ranks of the toilers swelled by shell makers and women munition workers, the amount of money expended on necessary recreation has reached a height which has made the weekly receipts at the places of entertainment eminently satisfactory.

As a relief against the natural axietities of war time and a tonic to tired nerves and muscles, the Barnsley kinemas have provided just the medicine needed to keep indispensible workers up to scratch. That the movies are popular with the miners is abundantly evident by their constant and regular patronage of the shows which usually speaking are put on in Barnsley with discrimination and taste.

ROTHERHAM – One hardly realised there were so many kinema houses in Rotherham until ‘Peace Night’ where, with all exterior lights on full they helped to dispel the night gloom of the streets to which we have become so accustomed. Huge crowds were in evidence at each place, and the national airs provided by the orchestras were sung with much heartiness.

DONCASTER – The news of the signing of the armistice set the town in a whirl, and the kinema houses did a roaring trade. In celebration of the event A.L. Rhodes of the Picture House had open house, and the magnificiently appointed screen palace was packed all the afternoon and evening by cheering throngs, while special musical numbers were given during the day by the orchestra. The building was handsomely decorated with flags and bunting and the good work was carried on in a collection in aid of the sorely tried Royal Infirmary which resulted in £26 being handed over. With his usual generosity Mr Rhodes has arranged a big infirmary day for December 5th, when the house will be given over to the institutions, the whole of the proceeds being devoted to that very deserving establishement. In additions prizes are to be given to those who most nearly estimate the total takings.

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Picture House, Doncaster (exterior)
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Picture House, Doncaster (interior)

BRISTOL  – What a week! When the news that the armistice had been signed reached here on Monday the long pent up feelings of the people burst forth like a flood. Bristol streets were filled with a packed mass of happy people, laughing and singing, for to the public the armistice meant practically the end of the war… City kinemas did well, the order for the exclusion of soldiers was suspended much to the delight of the men in khaki, to home [them?] the pictures are a continual source of leisure, and for the time being other restrictions were relaxed. Naturally the crowds found their way through the doors of the picture houses and with lighter hearts than they have had for over four years settled down to enjoy the movies, which have been such a solace and comfort during the dark days which we have passed. War pictures and portraits of the leaders of the Allied cause were cheered to the echo when they appeared on the screen, while in several halls the audience joined heartily in the singing of popular songs. The Premier had a particularly appropriate film in ‘The Kaiser: The Beast of Berlin” p. 103.

PLYMOUTH – The Plymouth kinemas had a great time on armistice day. Every house was packed and the dominant note was that of rejoicing. Patriotic music stirred the exuberance of the most loyal of loyal audiences, with their strong naval and military elements, and demonstrations were as fervid as they were sincere. Fortunately all the houses had first class programs and consequently exhibitors and public alike had every reason to be pleased with themselves.

Curiously enough the two principal houses had as their chief features propaganda plays, at St Andrews ‘Enlighten Thy Daughter’ made a great appeal and throughout the week there was no falling off in the interest it aroused. Large audiences were able to judge for themselves the justice of the claim that the film tells the truth without offense and the general verdict was that the theme is handled skilfully and with delicacy, and its tendency is all to the good.

GLASGOW – In Glasgow victory night and the night following will ever be remembered by the exhibiting side of the trade. Nobody was more surprised than the managers themselves at the effect which the ‘finish of the war’ had upon the kinemas. It was thought during the day that the people would be too unsettled in their rejoicings to dream of entering a kinema, but instead of empty houses the opposite was the result. Needless to say, special topicals were dug out and put on the screen, while the slides of the various leaders of the allied armies were also brought into action. As soon as these were switched on, the cheering of the audiences was terrific. It was a great night and business in the majority of places was top-hole. Similar conditions obtained throughout the larger part of the week, and in the country districts the kinemas came in for a fair share of holiday makers’ patronage. During the celebrations more than one picture theatre was rushed by wild youths, but in most cases the managers had anticipated this and very wisely obtained the services of special constables who were given a free picture entertainment until they were required. Taken all over, last week was a memorable one for the Trade.

EDINBURGH – It was the very irony of fate for Edinburgh managers that peace week should have arrived with the influenza restrictions still in force. This is not to suggest that Edinburgh managers are such material wretches that they would have liked the war to continue till the ‘flu epidemic was past, taking its restrictions with it, but there was a feeling that it was the hardest of hard luck that what should have been a record week was one of several which will rank as one of the most disastrous in the history of every house. For, far from the conditions improving and the public recovering from the scare which the public officials have very effectively inspired in them, things have gone from bad to worse and unless the restrictions are soon removed or the pubic begin to realize that picture houses are not more, but rather less, dangerous than many other places where crowds assemble it will save a lot of money to shut down altogether.

PAISLEY – The end of the war brought with it bumper houses. Every night was like a Saturday and the crowds were so eager to be entertained that they did not mind being charged holiday prices. (flu restrictions lifted too)

BELFAST – Belfast and Ulster, following the glorious news of Monday November 11, spent the whole week practically giving vent to their delight in memorable fashion, the scenes in the Ulster capital being far ahead of any of those witnessed on previous events. A great week, indeed, and certainly the film industry – particularly the exhibitors – achieved record figures in the matter of receipts. In every picture theatre throughout the city and province, the managements took full advantage of the historic occasion in beflagging the interiors (and exteriors) of their houses with the colours of the Allies, pictures of noted military and naval chiefs being flashed on the screen during the performances, the audience displaying remarkable enthusiasm. In the writer’s experience of almost 20 years association with Belfast, the scenes, subsequent upon the signing of the armistice by the Germans, impressed, and seemed altogether inconsistent with the reputable stoical indifference of the Ulster folk. Withall such occasions do not present themselves every day and in view of this fact the ‘running amok’ (protem) of the people’s pent up feelings and enthusiasm may be readily understood and overlooked.

NB all the pictures used here are taken from the Cinema Treasures website, and are subject to the Creative Commons licence.

Cup and Saucer

One of the things that fascinates me about films is the way they can preserve the cultural meanings of purely visual signs such as physical gestures or eating and drinking rituals. One example that I’ve often noticed in British films is when instead of drinking their tea from a cup, a character pours it into the saucer and drinks it from there. Presumably the practical reason for this is to cool it off so that they can drink it faster, but it has also acquired a social meaning which the films also encode. Until relatively recently there was a distinction to be made between drinking tea from a cup and saucer and drinking it from a mug. This could indicate a difference in class status of the person drinking (posh cup versus common mug) but it could also indicate a difference in the social status of the tea-drinking ceremony itself – a marker that both working class and middle class families might make between ‘best’ (cup and saucer when there are visitors you want to impress) or ‘everyday’ (mugs when it’s just the family). The difference between drinking from the cup, and drinking from the saucer seems to be older and more related to social class. The example I always think of is in Maurice Elvey’s 1927 adaptation of Hindle Wakes. Nathanial Jeffcote (Norman McKinnel) is a mill owner when we meet him, but it’s important for us to understand that he started out as a lowly factory hand. Elvey makes this clear in the scene where he’s introduced at his breakfast table in ‘Midas Street’. Despite the luxury around him indicating that he has ‘made it’, Jeffcote retains some of the habits of his former life – he still speaks with his native accent, and he still pours his morning tea into his saucer in order to drink it.

There are other examples of the same thing elsewhere in early British cinema – if I remember correctly, the patriarch character in The Bondman (Herbert Wilcox, 1929) does the same thing, and it also survives in a number of sound films. There’s an entire comic sequence built around the gesture in the Wee Georgie Wood vehicle, The Black Hand Gang (Monty Banks, 1930). Wood’s gang is invited to a posh kid’s tea party, and they scandalise their hosts by drinking from their saucers, making fun of the code of manners that forbids such behaviour.

In a similar comic vein, Norman Wisdom does it more than once – for instance in Man of the Moment (John Paddy Carstairs, 1955)  and The Early Bird (Robert Asher, 1965). 

Up until today I’d assumed this gesture and its class connotations was a purely British phenomenon, but last month at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone we saw two clear examples of it in films from Sweden and Russia respectively. The Russian example is from a film which is perhaps familiar – Kuleshov’s comic romp The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (Lev Kuleshov, 1924). Our hero Mr West gets into the clutches of the unscrupulous gang of criminals led by Shan (Podovkin) who are posing as the realisation of the worst nightmares about Bolsheviks that the American press can dream up. They treat him to what they describe as ‘tea, the Soviet way’. They pour black tea into glass cups and then decant it into the saucers exaggeratedly blowing on it before consuming it, all the time grinning and gurning at Mr West while he looks on in confusion, before finally joining in. (The sequence is around 37 minutes into the version of the film here)

The Swedish example is a lot more obscure, although more clearly freighted with class connotations similar to those pertaining in England. It is from a film called Dunungen [The Quest for Happiness] (Ivan Hedqvist, 1919). In it, the heroine – a baker’s daughter – forms an alliance with the son of the Mayor – a cross class connection which scandalises the town. The film features some rather beautiful intertitles with design ornamentation in a ‘traditional’ Swedish style – simple hand drawings decorated with swags and borders made up of little crosses as though from a simple stitched sampler. One title describes the reaction of the ‘ladies of the main street’. This title card has a little illustration of a teacup with a teaspoon standing up in it. The shot that follows is a comic one, which pans across the faces of various ladies sitting in a row, each taking a sip of tea with a look of astonishment, rage or outrage. The next intertitle rhymes with the first – here it is the ‘women from the back street’ whose reactions are shown, and the illustration emphasises the difference between them by replacing the image of a tea-cup with an image of a saucer across which a pair of disembodied lips are blowing… the answering shot doesn’t show women drinking tea from saucers though – the lower class women from the back streets look shocked while eating and drinking all manner of things, but the design of the title card has made the symbolic difference between the different methods of drinking only too clear. My Swedish friends tell me that this is indeed a thing in Sweden, so much so that they have a phrase for it – ‘dricka på fat’.

So now I’m gripped to find more examples of this gesture in films, both British and from elsewhere. If you spot any – let me know!

They Shall Not Grow Old (2): The Abject Archive… The Sacred Archive

The Abject Archive

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One of the things I find most fascinating about the pre-release advertising for They Shall Not Grow Old, is the way that it seems unable to argue for the project without at the same time rendering the archive footage from which it is constructed abject. To erase, in fact, the role and history of the archive itself in the survival and restoration of the film. Apparently the enhancements to the existing images have no traction unless the existing images themselves are understood to be in the worst state they possibly could be in. In the trailer, Jackson works hard to create an idea of the terrible failure of this footage in the audiences’ mind, talking of ‘this grainy, flickery – kind of, you know – sped up footage.’ Anyone who has ever seen a television documentary will be familiar with the bizarre passion of television producers for making old film look worse than it is. Footage that has been lovingly restored by the archive, which has been specially reprinted from the sparkling original camera negatives or has been carefully cleaned and re-graded to eliminate dirt and scratches, winds up on television behind the indignity of a ‘scratch filter’ – a digital programme which introduces fake flecks of dirt and scratches so that the audience can be reassured that the film is as old as is being claimed. The Jackson trailer offers a strangely turbo-charged version of this procedure. As Jackson tells us about the ‘grainy, flickery – kind of, you know – sped up footage’, we are treated to a brief clip of stretcher bearers bringing a head-wound patient out of a tent. The shot has been digitally manipulated to make it look bad. It is playing at the wrong speed, and has been set to look as though it is over-exposed, the image is feint and milky with no contrasts as though someone has turned the ‘brightness’ dial way up. As Jackson describes how his techniques have transformed the footage so that it is ‘so clear and sharp’ and ‘looks like it was shot on a high definition camera in the last week or two’ the image ‘miraculously’ alters – the speed is slowed down and the contrast deepens to produce a sharp and satisfactory image. This manoeuvre is then repeated with variations and increasingly extreme effects. An ‘underexposed’ shot, so dark you can barely see anything, suddenly ‘transforms’ into a well-graded image of four portly officers posing for the camera in cold weather jerkins. Jackson describes the process as a ‘restoration’, but the evidence from the images themselves tells a different story – the ‘before’ versions are not the images as they came out of the archive, they’ve clearly been digitally manipulated to look abject, the greater to emphasise the contrast when they are magically corrected. In the later trailer, Jackson and Diane Lees are excised, and the images are allowed to speak for themselves (accompanied inevitably by Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’). Here again though, the images are apparently unable to make their point without recourse to the ‘transformation’ they have undergone, so that while the gob-smacking surprise of the opening colourised images – the tank, the artillery team, the encampment silhouetted against the sunset, the men gathered in the sunken road – do their work without assistance, later images repeat the trope of the earlier film. They are offered first as abject – grainy and dark – but quickly these are transformed into the ‘sharp and clear’ images showcased in the first trailer. A curious ‘glare’ effect hints at the technological magic that may have gone into such a transformation, before a much more matter-of fact but actually incredible transformation is offered – the images blossom into colour.

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I’m puzzled by this publicity campaign for two reasons. Firstly, it is not clear to me why the digitally enhanced, colourised images are not extraordinary enough for its purpose. Jackson could so easily have simply said ‘we have transformed the existing footage into something amazing’. His effects are amazing – there’s no need to exaggerate the abject state of the existing footage in order to make the transformation extraordinary. But secondly, by actually enhancing the ‘before’ images to make them look worse than they are, and by evoking the idea of archive footage as grainy, and dirty, and flickering and inadequate, the campaign erases the role of the archive itself in the achievement of Jackson’s film. Because the vast amount of the film footage that Jackson worked with was not in the abject state he describes. Most of the footage, in particular the big box office successes of the war period, The Battle of the Somme (1916) and The Battle of Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (1917) have been subject to major restorations by the Imperial War Museum in 2006 and 2012 respectively. The painstaking task of finding the best elements possible of these films, of cleaning the surviving the 35mm elements, of scanning them into digital formats, of digitally cleaning and grading them had already happened. These restorations were not secret affairs either. New scores were commissioned for the films, both modern interprectations (by Laura Rossi) and reconstructions of the accompanying music suggested in 1916 by J. Morton Hutchinson of the Bioscope. When The Battle of the Somme went back on general release in its centenary year in a sparkling DCP print audiences did not reject it because it was not in colour, they marveled at how sharp and immediate the impression of life on the battlefield it offered was – how close it brought them to an understanding of the ordinary soldier’s experience, much as audiences of 1916 had done.

The Sacred Archive

Back in 1916 the potency of the films in effecting a bridge between the ordinary soldier and the audience on the home front rendered the ‘official war pictures’ objects of sacred reverence. Before the founding of the Imperial War Museum itself the preservation of the cinematograph record was something discussed as part of the movement for the creation of local war museums across the country. A report in the Western Daily Press emphasised uncertainty of the practicalities of such a step, as film was such a relatively new medium. ‘Whether or not the cinematograph films of the battlefields can be preserved for many years to come is a point on which the scientist must utter the last word’ it suggested, but nevertheless, the films were understood to be as sacred a relic of the war as the more conventional objects of local memorabilia which would form the contents of such museums. When the IWM was eventually founded in 1918, it was precisely such sacred relics – that formed the beginnings of the collection – bits of ships and lumps of ordinance rubbed shoulders with the work of the war artists and other key representations shown in Burlington House and Crystal Palace in the early days. Images and objects that had been there were understood to hold the most potency for both contemporary audiences and as ‘object lessons for future generations to come.’ For many commentators in the film trade, the official war pictures fulfilled both these criteria, but they had fallen into something of a limbo. The body that handled films such as The Battle of the Somme (1916)the Cinematograph Committee of the Ministry of Information – was in the process of being wound up, and the films were being temporarily stored in a fireproof box in the War Office. Kinematograph Weekly had been campaigning for some time for a general ‘National Film Repository’ to no avail. Even in its own pages the paper didn’t quite dare suggest that fiction film be preserved (that didn’t start to happen until 1936), but topical films of ‘famous people, living or dead, and big historical subjects’ it felt might be suitable candidates.

War pictures though, represented a special case, whose importance nobody could dispute. Indeed the magazine had already mused on the practicalities of preserving war pictures in February of 1919, and had published a letter from an ex-soldier only the previous month arguing that The Battle of the Somme should be re-issued for the benefit of ex-servicemen who had been unable to see it at the time due to being on active service.[1] Such screenings, he added, might have the added benefit of reminding employers of their duty to ex-fighting men. With the first anniversary of the armistice only a week away, Kinematograph Weekly invoked a comparison to the paintings of battle scenes and other artworks commissioned by the War Office both for the public record and as acts of Remembrance, arguing that

The official war pictures [films] are, in themselves, priceless, and it would be little short of criminal not to take steps to preserve them for future generations. The funds appear to be available, as we are told that the War Office Kinematograph Committee has a considerable balance in hand and we do not understand why it does not take up this work as a fitting end to its labours…

‘Surely,’ concluded the paper in a rhetorical coup de grace, ‘we do not want the American film-version of what occurred to be the only record for posterity to see.’[2]

Poached but not Preserved

Small Boy: “Why didn’t they film the Great War, daddy?” Father: “They did my son, but the films fell into the clutches of the War Office and died in captivity” (Kinematograph Weekly, 6/11/1919, p. 103)

It was not until the third annual report of the IWM in 1919-20 that news of the films appeared and by then the financial circumstances didn’t seem so auspicious. As the report stated:

A large number of cinema films made during the War for propaganda purposes have been deposited by the Ministry of Information, and it is proposed by the War Office to place in charge of the Museum the wonderful collection of War films in their possession, which are of unique historical interest.

The storage, preservation, and issue of these film records will, however, necessitate an outlay, of which the limited means at the disposal of the Imperial War Museum will not, at all events at present, permit, and the question of their disposal is still under discussion.

As late as 1926 it seems, the public were expressing frustration at the apparent disappearance of the films. One correspondent to The Observer complained that

There exist, or there should exist miles of such films. We should like to know whether or not they are getting the same care as the Doomsday Book and the Great Auk’s egg. But your correspondent may be surprised to hear that it seems impossible to discover that; and as for seeing such films exhibited, he may be sure he never will, though he is part-owner.[3]

Luckily for us, and thanks to the separate and combined efforts of the Imperial War Museum, 14-18 NOW and Peter Jackson, we have no such difficulties – in fact we have instead an embarrassment of riches.



[1] Kinematograph Weekly, 6/2/1919: 68. Kinematograph Weekly, 25/9/1919: 88.

[2] Kinematograph Weekly, 6/11/1919: 98.

[3] The Observer, 28/11/1926: 23.


Sleeping in the (silent) Cinema

There’s a nice gag towards the beginning of The Parson’s Widow (Carl Th. Dreyer, SE, 1920). The warden of the village church is equipped with a long pole, so that he can reach across the box pews in order to poke at members of the congregation who have fallen asleep during the sermon. It’s an image that seems curiously appropriate for Le Giornate Del Cinema Muto – the big international festival of silent film at Pordenone, for it’s an open secret that many – perhaps most – delegates drift off at least once during the gruelling schedule of screenings. Practically the first thing I heard about the festival was an anecdote from a veteran who recalled looking down the row one afternoon to see a clutch of the most famous scholars of film history gently breathing in unison, with their eyes rolled back into their heads, blissfuly oblivious to whatever cinematic masterwork was unspooling before them.

Initially, in fact, I had planned to snooze through The Parson’s Widow. It wasn’t a film I was much keen to see. You have to be in the right mood for Dreyer, and having slept through the brilliant but worthy Passion of Jeanne d’Arc on numerous occasions I was quite prepared to catch up on some zzzz while awaiting the next movie. My assumption was wrong, of course. The film started as a brilliant broad comedy and gradually changed into a charming and beautifully observed story of village life and cross-generational respect which held me spellbound for its whole running time. It doesn’t always work out like that. The previous day I’d been excited to see Captain Blood (David Smith, 1924) a full blooded American adventure film which had come highly recommended. Within 20 minutes I realised the film was boring me, the star uncharismatic and the plot really convoluted in a way that wasn’t much fun, so I bedded down to get some kip. I had a lovely snooze, surfacing just in time to listen to the lush accompaniment to a charming love scene set in a garden, and then again for the final battle complete with pirate ships being blown up and sinking right there on screen. I didn’t regret not putting the effort in to follow the plot through – the significance of these moments were easy enough to grasp, and the seat was warm and comfortable.

One can snooze in all films of course, if the first 20 minutes of the latest Hollywood release has failed to engage me, I often bed down and sleep through the rest. I loved Gladiator when it came out, and saw it quite a number of times in the cinema, but the early scenes with Richard Harris banging on about the ‘dream that was Rome’ used to bore me and I’d make sure to have a pleasant snooze whenever he showed up on screen. In that example I was somehow able to wake in time for the good stuff, but it doesn’t always fall out like that. One’s susceptibility to sleep doesn’t always vanish in front of a good and thrilling film, and conversely sometimes one is stuck wide awake, counting the minutes through a tedious epic, like an insomniac awaiting the dawn. Silent cinema is particularly prone to sleep – there’s a special soporific quality to a warm, darkened room with only the sound of a piano playing, and of course once you’ve gone off, there are no explosions or sudden urgent shouts to waken you up, unless the accompanist is particularly ambitious. And film festivals, with their full on schedule, their late night networking sessions in the bar and their probably jet-lagged-to-start-with delegates are hotbeds for cinematic slumber parties.

On the one hand of course, this is a real problem for silent cinema fans and scholars – who wants to travel half way around the world to be asleep in front of a rare film that might not come out of the archive for another twenty years? But on the other it is simply a fact one has to accept, and might as well admit. I’ve been going to silent film festivals for almost thirty years and I still haven’t mastered the art of remaining awake though everything that interests me. Sometimes you are into the film, gripped by the action and yet you still have to fight the urge to graciously slip away. You can see people doing this. Nodding, nodding and then suddenly trying to shake themselves awake. Some have devised strategies to combat the creeping snooze. Some sit bolt upright throughout the screening. Others suck on mints or clench and unclench their fists. I used to bite at my moustache, much to the irritation of my friends. In this situation silent films have an extra spice because there’s no dialogue to keep you on track when your consciousness starts to fail – no sound to pull you through as you rest your eyes. If you miss an intertitle, it’s gone. And if it revealed a key plot point then you’re close to lost. It will take some work to reconstruct retrospectively the information you’ve missed and nodding is no mental state to do this in. I often find myself taking note of a particularly interesting shot or plot reveal – a suddenly significant minor character perhaps – only to realise when I come to a moment later, that it was a product of my sleeping mind.

But what of the historical audience? How did they cope with the problem of drifting off in the cinema? It’s noticeable that of all the things one can do in the cinema, this is perhaps the least remarked on. There are plenty of studies of weeping in the cinema, of snogging, laughing, courting and even fucking in the cinema, but there seems to be very little material about snoozing. While moral reformers were inspecting to ensure that no hanky panky was going on, were there no concerns about folk using the space as an informal daytime doss-house? The only reference I can think of is the sleeping man in the cinema scene of A Cottage on Dartmoor (Anthony Asquith, GB 1929).

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A Cottage on Dartmoor (Anthony Asquith, 1929)

Similarly, theories of spectatorship emphasise identification, desire, even touch (or ‘haptics’) as key ways that audiences relate to the screen, but sleep seems quite absent – which is quite surprising because in more ordinary language the cinema has often been understood as a place of ‘dreams’. As I’ve said, silent cinema in particular lends itself to that hypnagogic impulse – that half and half place between sleeping and waking. Where else but in a dream might you notice poison dropping though the ceiling, and on investigating find an old lady attempting suicide in the room above you, then casually invite her to live with you and your wife, only later to discover that she is in fact your own mother. That of course is the plot of another film we saw at Pordenone, The Song of Life (John M Stahl, 1922). You needn’t be angry with me for revealing spoilers though, because all of that happens in the first twenty minutes. Which leads me to another question about sleeping in the cinema. Back as film students we were taught that the ‘Classical Hollywood Style’ in the days of ‘continuous programming’ is plotted so that anyone walking into the cinema can pick up the threads of the story within a few minutes at any point. But can this really be the case? How on earth can you follow the myriad reversals, confusions of understanding, identity reveals, and reconciliations in The Song of Life if you happened to sleep through the first ten minutes and miss that the old lady living above is in fact the mother of the hero? It seems incredible, but I reluctantly have to accept that it’s true. While some films are constructed badly enough that a lost intertitle or key scene means that you spend the rest of the time wondering what the hell is going on, most silent films are so well constructed that the narrative gap is filled quite quickly. So my hot tip is: if you feel yourself drifting off, don’t fight it. When you wake – probably after only a few minutes – you’ll be much more refreshed and able to construct what you’ve missed by the ongoing reactions of the characters to each other. And if you can’t, then the film probably wasn’t that good to begin with.

One thing is certain though – even if you only wake five minutes before the end of The Song of Life, you’ll want to phone your mum as soon as you get out of the cinema.