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.

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