Savoy Hill, 1923-1932

BBC Radio celebrated its ninetieth birthday last week. The BBC’s first public broadcast went out on 14 November 1922 from the company’s studio at Marconi House, on the corner of the Strand and Aldwych in central London. As the beginnings of the BBC overlap with the period of film history that I’m most interested in, I’ve been thinking a bit about the first impressions that radio might have made on London’s cinema world, and vice versa.

It’s often thought (and was sometimes said at the time) that the advent of radio posed a real threat to the livelihood of the film industry. Unlike cinema screenings, radio broadcasts could reach people in the comfort of their own living rooms – as long as the signal was strong enough – and were available daily for the price of a licence fee. Plus, in contrast to films, radio could bring events to people as they happened. In the 1920s, for instance, the BBC transmitted live relays of stage acts and musical performances from theatres and concert halls to wireless sets around the country. John Reith, the BBC’s first Director-General, summed up the company’s mission as bringing ‘the best of everything to the greatest number of homes’.

But, of course, radio didn’t kill off cinema. In fact, as historians like Jeffrey Richards have shown, the two industries found plenty of ways to work together, sharing stars and stories, and occasionally poking fun at each other’s peculiarities. And one of the first places that radio and cinema could be said to have met on friendly terms was in the studios of the BBC’s second home, Savoy Hill (pictured above).

The BBC relocated to Savoy Hill in April 1923. The building complex, which was also home to the Institute of Electrical Engineers (IEE), overlooked the Savoy Hotel and offered picturesque views of the Thames. Inside, the atmosphere was equally plush. The author Gale Pedrick later said:

Next to the House of Commons, Savoy Hill was quite the most pleasant Club in London. There were coal fires, and visitors were welcomed by a most distinguished looking gentleman who would conduct them to a cosy private room and offer whisky-and-soda.

The studios themselves were furnished with heavy drapes and thick carpets that sucked up the sound.

Studio 1 at Savoy Hill in 1928, from the BBC website

One of the regular visitors to Savoy Hill was the BBC’s first film critic, G. A. Atkinson. Atkinson, who also wrote film reviews for the Daily Express, was hired by the BBC in July 1923. Throughout the 1920s, he presented a fifteen-minute programme called Seen on the Screen, which went out once a fortnight at around 7pm on Friday evenings.

I haven’t come across any records of what Atkinson’s radio programme was like (although it would be great to find some), but his position as the BBC’s film critic was explained in a 1928 issue of the Radio Times:

More than ever in 1928, the movies are one of the symptoms of the way our civilization is going. No longer a crude device, interesting only for its novelty, or a ‘trick’ entertainment designed by the intelligent, the cinema as an art and as a cultural force has come to stay; and its importance as propaganda and as an industry is attracting the serious attention of legislators all over the world.
The films come pouring out of Hollywood in their thousands, and out of the English and Continental studios in their hundreds. No layman can see them all, but no one can afford to miss the significant ones. Hence the importance of listening to Mr. Atkinson’s expert and witty reviews of current productions in his fortnightly talks.

Atkinson’s Seen on the Screen was broadcast up to the end of the decade. At the same time, Savoy Hill also played host to the twenty-five-year-old film enthusiast, upcoming director, and son of a former Prime Minister, Anthony Asquith. Between 30 September and 4 December 1927, Asquith gave a series of five lectures on The Art of the Cinema. According to the accompanying programme notes published by the BBC, his first talk began by asking:

What is a film? Is it a genuine artistic medium? Or is it, like Broadcasting, just a way of bringing novels, plays or the latest news before a larger audience without changing their character – a sort of visual railway service for the art of literature and drama?

It seems that radio offered Asquith and his listeners another point of comparison (along with literature and drama) for understanding how cinema worked and what it could be. This comparison was surely going to be even more important with the transition to sound films that was then underway, and which would be more-or-less complete by the start of the 1930s.

There were other visitors from filmland, too. In his mammoth history of British broadcasting, Asa Briggs mentions that other ‘big names’ who featured in the BBC’s early output included the film-star cowboy Tom Mix, as well as Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. If that’s right, the wires and microphones of Savoy Hill would have given these Hollywood performers a taste of things to come in the era of the ‘talkies’.

BBC technicians at work in the 1920s

The BBC left Savoy Hill in May 1932 to move to their new purpose-built premises at Broadcasting House. The building now belongs to the Institute of Engineering and Technology (the successors of the IEE).

Plaque commemorating the BBC’s time at Savoy Hill

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There’s more information about the BBC’s time at Savoy Hill in the first volume of Asa Briggs’ History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom. Jeffrey Richards’ book, Cinema and Radio in Britain and America, 1920-1960, gives a bigger picture of the new medium’s relationship with film. The image of Savoy Hill at the top of this post was drawn specially for the Radio Times by Henry Rushbury in 1927.

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The Victoria Cinema College and Studios, c. 1917

Are you tired of doing just the same sort of thing over and over again, day by day, week by week, month by month? Are you striving to escape from the monotony, the grind, the restrictions that modern business and trade conditions impose on you? Or are you struggling in some profession, interesting perhaps in itself, but yielding only a meagre income in return for exacting labour?

If the answer to any or all of these questions is “yes”, then the next step might be to sign up for a course of study in the new art of film acting at the Victoria Cinema College and Studios. Or, at least, it would have been if you were living within commuting distance of central London around 1917, when the prospectus quoted from above was written.

The Victoria Cinema College was an early film school in London that promised to teach students everything they needed to know about acting for the screen, as well as offering technical training in cinema projection. It was situated at 36, Rathbone Place, just off Oxford Street near the junction with Tottenham Court Road. As the prospectus explains, “thus it is readily accessible from the West End and all western suburbs, from Hampstead, Highgate and surrounding districts, as well as from all districts to the south-east and south-west”. The College was also eager to attract students from further afield – “On parle Francais,” the prospectus boasts, underneath a list of local bus routes.

Rathbone Place, from Google Maps

The College opened for business sometime in 1915. It was the brainchild of Edward Godal, who (according to his German Wikipedia page) had a background as a writer of sketches for the variety theatre. After the First World War, Godal also took over as head of the British & Colonial Kinematograph Company (B&C), working as a producer and director. Godal seems to have combined the two branches of his business quite successfully, not least by getting students of the College to work as extras in B&C’s films. A journalist for the Kinematograph Weekly, who visited the set of B&C’s A Sinless Sinner in 1919, thought this was a great idea. “The would-be ‘stars’ frequently get such opportunities of getting used to the actual atmosphere of the real working studio.” The producer must have been glad to get a supply of well-drilled (and presumably cheap) extras as well.

There were other “cinema schools” in London at the time. But the Victoria Cinema College prided itself on being the most respectable. The general sense – amongst members of the film business, at least – was that most film training schools were little more than shams. Writers in the film trade papers and fan magazines regularly warned their readers against going anywhere near a cinema school. The popular crime writer Edgar Wallace even cast a film acting instructor as the villain in his 1927 short story “Film Acting by Post”. The man in question is described as “a shifty swindler who’s hit upon a method of fleecing a lot of poor gullible girls”.

Godal worked overtime to dispel this image from his own establishment. In fact, most of the College’s prospectus is taken up with favourable quotations from newspapers and glowing testimonials from producers and former students – not to mention the students’ mothers:

I feel I must write and thank you for getting Elsie (my little girl) work so quickly. Mr. R. was delighted with her, and says she shows great promise. He gave her such a good position, too, in the films. – – Mrs. S.

But what did the Victoria Cinema College actually teach? The prospectus lists a range of courses that students could sign up to, although sadly it doesn’t go into detail about the content of individual lessons. There were group classes held several times a day “of various degrees of advancement”. There were also private lessons for those who could afford it, and special tuition available for children. All of these lessons apparently involved hands-on experience in the College’s “well-equipped” studio, “in the very surroundings in which pictures are taken – setting, scenery, light, camera and producer”. Anticipating the subject of Edgar Wallace’s short story, the Victoria Cinema College really did offer “film acting by post” through correspondence lessons. These were designed “for provincial students and those unable to attend personally”, although the prospectus does say that distance-learners would need to make at least one trip to London to pick up their “Certificate of Proficiency” at the end of the course.

It’s hard to know whether or not any of the graduates of the Victoria Cinema College actually managed to break into the film industry. The prospectus gives a long list of British production firms that had students from the College “on the books”. And at least one of the films Godal made with his students, The Blind Boy (1917), starring the music hall star George H. Chirgwin and based on one of his famous songs, did get a theatrical release. For his part, Godal frequently claimed that he had supplied whole armies of extras to British producers. For instance, he told the theatre magazine the Era in 1917 that, in some recent British films, “practically the whole cast, from leads to crowds, are College students”.

In the mid-1920s, Godal left to form his own (short-lived) production company, and passed the College over to new management. The new regime doesn’t seem to have lasted very long, though, and the Victoria Cinema College and Studios, Ltd., was formally dissolved in 1931.

Where the College stood on Rathbone Place is now a Royal Mail delivery office, a stone’s throw away from the British Film Institute offices and viewing rooms on Stephen Street.

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There’s more about the training that was on offer to would-be film actors in the silent era in Michael Sanderson’s history of the modern acting profession, From Irving to Olivier (1984), and in Amy Sargeant’s book on British Cinema (2005). If you’re near Exeter, you can view a copy of the Victoria Cinema College and Studios prospectus at the Bill Douglas Centre, which also holds a great collection of early film acting guides.

The Plaza Tiller Girls, 1928

These are the Plaza Tiller Girls, as painted by Walter Sickert in 1928. I came across this image whilst I was trying to find out more about the stage shows that used to accompany film screenings in some of the bigger London cinemas. The Tiller Girls got their name from the entrepreneur John Tiller, who started training dancers in Manchester in the 1890s, and later set up a school in London on Charing Cross Road. Once trained, a successful dancer might work in a touring group or a revue, or else join one of the Tiller troupes associated with a particular venue.

Postcard of the Plaza Theatre, from the Arthur Lloyd website.

The troupe in Sickert’s painting was attached to the Plaza Theatre on the corner of Lower Regent Street and Jermyn Street, facing out towards Piccadilly Circus. The Plaza was a plush, 1,896-seater venue, which opened in 1926 as the London home of Paramount Pictures. In common with other big cinemas built around this time, the Plaza was designed with a capacious stage as well as a screen, perfect for showcasing variety acts either before or in between films. To take one random example of the kinds of “cine-variety” programme this could result in, in May 1927 the theatre was advertising a run of the Gilda Grey film Cabaret, coupled with the Richard Dix and Betty Bronson film Paradise for Two, plus stage turns from the Tiller dancers and the musical act “Kel Keech and his Banjolele Banjos“.

There were resident Tiller troupes at other London cinemas, too, including the nearby Carlton and the Astoria. Each of them had their own colour scheme (the Plaza Girls rehearsed in blue-and-white check outfits) and their own distinctive line-up. The dancers at the Plaza were especially known for their high-kicking long legs. Like all Tiller Girls, the Plaza troupe prided themselves on the precise, synchronised timing of their dance routines. Describing the experience of watching them, one critic wrote (in a phrase that apparently became a publicity tagline), “They dance as one woman, and what a woman!”

The Tiller Girls also provoked more ambivalent responses. The German writer Siegfried Kracauer saw their carefully co-ordinated choreography as one of the clearest expressions of a new phenomenon he dubbed the “mass ornament”. This was the artistic equivalent of the modern industrial production methods pioneered in the United States by people like William Taylor and Henry Ford. “The hands in the factory,” Kracauer wrote, “correspond to the legs of the Tiller Girls.” In other words, both the assembly line and the chorus line subordinated individual identity to the logic of the machine. (If it helps Kracauer’s argument, John Tiller did spend his early years supervising workers in the Lancashire cotton mills.)

I’m not sure whether Walter Sickert shared Kracauer’s understanding of the Tiller Girls. For a start, there’s not much machine-like about the movements on display in his painting. In fact, Sickert seems to have gone out of his way to make the show look raw and spontaneous. There’s a story that the Plaza dancers were disappointed by Sickert’s depiction of them because their legs and heads were all shown moving in different directions. And, despite the slightly chilly colour palette, the row of heads and musical instruments huddled around the stage give the scene a feeling of intimacy.

Whatever he thought of them, Sickert was obviously intrigued by the Plaza troupe. He painted another picture of them in 1928 (minus the silhouetted figures in the foreground), and again in 1938, in a much larger canvas exhibited as High Steppers.

Sickert’s second painting of the Plaza Tiller Girls in 1928, from the Bridgeman Art Library.

Sickert’s painting High Steppers, 1938, from the National Galleries of Scotland website.

It’s doubtful, though, that Sickert ever saw the Tiller Girls in action. According to the art historians Wendy Baron and Richard Shone, Sickert worked mainly from photographs during the later part of his life. The source for High Steppers was most likely a publicity still printed in the London Evening News in 1927, which advertised the Plaza troupe’s appearance in the film A Little Bit of Fluff (starring Betty Balfour and Syd Chaplin). His 1928 Tiller Girl paintings were probably also based on publicity photos, rather than first-hand observation. If we’re looking for something specifically modern about these paintings, perhaps we could find it not just in the subject matter, but also in Sickert’s multi-media working methods. There’s definitely something a bit dizzying in the flow of images from stage to screen to newspaper to art gallery.

There were Tiller Girls at the Plaza until at least 1931, when they were sharing the bill with the American musician Eddie Peabody (another banjo player) and the “jungle picture” Rango. The Plaza Theatre itself is now the site of the Apollo Cinema, Piccadilly Circus, and a Tesco supermarket.

The site of the Plaza Theatre photographed in 2007, from the Cinema Treasures website.

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There’s more about the Plaza Theatre and its afterlife in London’s West End Cinemas by Allen Eyles and Keith Skone. The book Tiller’s Girls by Doremy Vernon contains reminiscences from women who worked as Tiller dancers, as well as some great illustrations. I got most of my information about Sickert’s paintings from the 1992 exhibition catalogue produced by Wendy Baron and Richard Shone for the Royal Academy of Arts. The Tate website also has a detailed profile of Sickert, which talks about his career-long fascination with popular culture.

The Bijou, 1936

Here’s a fictional trip to the pictures. About halfway through Hitchcock’s 1936 film Sabotage, Ted, a greengrocer’s assistant played by John Loder, spots a shady character going into the cinema next door. The woman at the box office (Sylvia Sidney), who is also the owner’s wife, throws him a flirty smile and lets him sneak into the auditorium for the price of an apple – he gives the uniformed usher another apple for good measure.

      

The poster outside the cinema advertises a Hollywood Western called Two Gun Love, featuring the fictional cowboy star Tom McGurth. But, when Ted gets inside, the film being projected looks and sounds like a British comedy – perhaps the ‘B’ movie shown before the main feature. As with a later clip from Disney’s Who Killed Cock Robin?, the scene that Ted walks in on acts as a counterpoint to the main action. Man (putting a piece of paper into the fire): “Well, all our troubles are over now.” Woman (pointing at the fire in horror): “Oh!” The laughter of the cinema audience provides a backing track to the sequence that follows, bumping up against the growing sense of tension.

The camera follows Ted as he carries on walking past the front row of seats, through a set of curtains, and behind the screen.

In an earlier age, cinemagoers at some venues could pay a reduced rate to watch from behind the screen like this. But not at the Bijou, it seems. And, in any case, Sabotage would be a very different kind of film if Ted really had just wandered in to see the evening’s show.

In fact, Ted isn’t a greengrocer’s assistant at all, but Sergeant Ted Spencer of Scotland Yard, in pursuit of a man suspected of a being involved in a terrorist plot. Masked by the sound of the speakers, he climbs up to a window to listen in on the shady character’s conversation with Mr Verloc, the cinema owner. But he is caught in the act. Stevie, the third member of the Bijou’s resident family, watches from the window as Ted tries to bluff his way out of a room full of conspirators.

A note on the location: in Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent, the novel on which Sabotage is based, Mr Verloc is not a cinema owner, but the proprietor of a grubby bookshop. The Bijou is the invention of Hitchcock, screenwriter Charles Bennett, and art director O.F. Werndorff. In adapting Conrad’s novel, the film also shifts the location of the Verloc family from Soho to South London. The Bijou stands on the non-existent Plouthorp Road, somewhere in the SE5 postal area around Camberwell according to Mr Verloc’s headed notepaper. This district had seen at least one Bijou prior to 1936 (the London Project website lists a Bijou Picture Theatre on Denmark Hill that was active before the First World War), and it’s tempting to speculate whether there was a particular real-world model for the cinema in Hitchcock’s film. What matters more, I suspect, is the name in general. Bijou (French for ‘jewel’) had been a popular choice for the first wave of permanent cinema buildings in the 1910s. At the time, it was a way of connoting luxury, elegance and sophistication. By the 1930s, though, this seems to have translated to pokey and out of date. The cinema in Sabotage is a regular ‘flea pit’ – a time warp or dead end (quite literally for some of the characters). Its companion location in this version of the story – another of the film’s inventions – is a run-down ‘bird shop’, north of the river in Islington, where Mr Verloc sources his explosives. The Bijou and the ‘bird shop’ are survivors from another age. In both places, the inhabitants seem well and truly trapped.

There’s a section on Sabotage in Charles Barr’s English Hitchcock (1999), which discusses the cinema scenes. Steven Jacob’s book on Hitchcock’s architecture, The Wrong House (2007), gives a diagram of the Bijou’s layout. For a different perspective, see the second instalment of Jon Burrows’s two-part article ‘Penny Pleasures’ (2004) in the journal Film History, which traces the real and imagined connections between cinemagoing and terrorism in some of London’s earliest film venues.