All posts by londonfilmland

Chris O'Rourke, film studies researcher. I'm interested in silent cinema; British film & cinema history; popular film culture. Currently working on the early history of cinema in London.

Taking Piccadilly to the Elephant and Castle

The Trocadero, known locally as the ‘Troc’, opened on the New Kent Road on 22 December 1930. It was a ‘super cinema’, providing seats for more than 3,000 patrons, a large stage for variety acts and space for what was then Europe’s largest Wurlitzer organ.

Named after the famous restaurant on Shaftesbury Avenue, the aim was to recreate West End luxury for South London audiences – a feat the venue’s original owners, Hyams and Gale, described as ‘Taking Piccadilly to the Elephant and Castle’.

Souvenir programme from the Trocadero's opening night, from the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, item BD018926: bdcmuseum.org.uk
Souvenir programme from the Trocadero’s opening night, from the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, item BD018926: bdcmuseum.org.uk

The inside of the Trocadero, designed by the architect George Coles, was decorated in Renaissance style, with a vast balcony and curved ceiling. The mirrored waiting rooms were also a selling point, offering shelter from the traffic of what was one of London’s busiest junctions.

‘The Trocadero was famous, it was a beautiful palace. It was a dream palace. People worked hard and there wasn’t a lot of leisure, but you went to the cinema to see a western, gangster, musical comedy … the cinema was part of that magic. You went in and you were transported with chandeliers, gold staircases … looking back it was sheer escapism…’

Bobby Dow, interviewed for the Picture Palace Project, quoted in Southwark News, 29 August 2013

Trocadero-Interior
The interior of the Trocadero, from the Cinema Museum website

The cinema became part of the Gaumont chain in 1935. It suffered some bomb damage and temporary closures during the war, but survived more or less intact, although there was much devastation to the surrounding area.

In the postwar years, the threat of destruction was more likely to came not from bombs but from audiences. By the end of the 1950s, the Trocadero had become a hang-out for Teddy Boys and Teddy Girls from the area, who were notoriously critical, and occasionally violent, towards visiting live acts (Cliff Richard was apparently pelted with coins when he visited).

Trocadero audiences made national news in September 1956, when screenings of the Bill Haley film Rock Around the Clock sparked riots in the auditorium. This followed a spate of similar incidents in cinemas around London and other parts of the country. On one of the worst nights of what the press dubbed the ‘rock’n’roll’ riots, audiences at the Trocadero slashed seats, while people outside the cinema threw fireworks and bottles at the police.

Poster for Rock Around the Clock (1956), from Wikipedia

‘There was dancing in the aisle to Rock Around the Clock and trying to get out of your seats, and the usherette used to smack you on the head, “sit down”! Outside the older boys and us used to be rocking the cars, to try to tip them over. It really kicked off at the Elephant over that film!’

Bill Leigh, interviewed for the Picture Palace Project, quoted in the Southwark News, 29 August 2013

Teddy Boys outside a cinema showing Rock Around the Clock, from the Observer Archive, 16 September 1956
Teddy Boys outside a cinema showing Rock Around the Clock, from the Observer Archive, ‘Teddy Boys Riot When the Clock Strikes One’, 16 September 1956

In 1963, the cinema was demolished, along with much of the Elephant and Castle, in a large-scale redevelopment of the area. It was replaced by a smaller Odeon cinema, designed by Erno Goldfinger, which stood until 1988. There is now a block of flats on the site. The spot’s cinema history is marked by a plaque (unveiled by Denis Norden, who worked in the Trocadero in the 1940s) produced by the Cinema Theatre Association.

Manor Central Heights in 2008, from the SE1 community website
Metro Central Heights in 2008, built on the site of the Trocadero, from the SE1 community website

If you are in London, you can listen to more memories of cinemagoing at the Trocadero and other South London cinemas at the Cinema Museum’s Picture Palace exhibition, 21-22 September 2013.

There’s also more information about the Trocadero in these sources:

Hale’s Tours

Will you go with me to HALE’S TOURS at 165, Oxford Street, W.? We can visit the Colonies or any part of the world (without luggage!) and return within fifteen minutes. Trains leave frequently from eleven to eleven. It is not only educational but intensely interesting.

So read the message on the back of the postcard pictured above. It advertises one of two (possibly three) Hale’s Tours venues that opened on Oxford Street from 1906. Another was located in the building at number 532 Oxford Street near Marble Arch, and, according to Christian Hayes, there might have been a third on the corner with Argyll Street. By 1908, London had two more Hale’s Tours sites operating at Hammersmith Broadway and Kensington High Street.

The wonder of the 15-minute round trip to Britain’s furthest-flung colonies and beyond was available to about 50-60 people at a time for the uniform price of sixpence. But how was it achieved? The attraction, first introduced at the 1904 St Louis Exposition by the entrepreneur George C. Hale, worked like a modern theme park simulator ride. The venue was made up of one or two carriages, decorated like the inside of a train, except for the fact that there were no windows. Instead, at one end facing the audience was a screen showing moving pictures of passing scenery.

Some of these moving pictures were repurposed or specially commissioned ‘phantom rides’. But there are also records of Hale’s Tours venues showing story films like Edison’s The Great Train Robbery. The effect wasn’t just visual. Although they never left the premises, Hale’s Tours carriages were designed to rock, tilt and vibrate to mimic the feel of a train journey. The ‘passengers’ at some venues were also treated to uniformed attendants, fans blowing a breeze overhead, and the sound of wheels, bells and whistles to add to the illusion.

Raymond Fielding has called Hale’s Tours an early example of cinematic ‘ultrarealism’. The columnist ‘Stroller’ writing for the Kine Weekly in 1908 thought so too:

In the journey through Rome, one could readily believe we were on a tram car; the rumbling of the wheels, the clanging of the bell to clear the traffic, the motion of the vehicle when rounding corners and the other effects were well-timed, free from exaggeration and as natural as one could desire.

But realism wasn’t the only thing on offer. Lauren Rabinovitz suggests that the effect of Hale’s Tours wasn’t just to transport viewers vicariously to distant places, but also to capture the sensations associated with modern technology – the same kind of miniature thrill offered by the rollercoasters on turn-of-the-century amusement parks.

If Hale’s Tours brought ‘the Colonies’ and a patch of the fairground within reach of shoppers along Oxford Street, there’s also an argument to say that the attraction opened up the West End to the idea of places exclusively showing moving pictures. By the time Hale’s Tours in Britain went bankrupt in 1908, there were at least two full-time cinemas in the district. One of these, the Theatre de Luxe on the Strand, had previously been trading as the Tivoli Tourist Station – a rival attraction to Hale’s. A little later, the former Hale’s Tours venue at 532 Oxford Street also became a cinema. While they lasted, though, Hale’s Tours weren’t just about the films. They sold themselves on a full, immersive experience.

Hale's Tours
The inside of a Hale’s Tours carriage.

References:

  • Christian Hayes, ‘Phantom Carriages: Reconstructing Hale’s Tours and the Virtual Travel Experience’, Early Popular Visual Culture, 7:2 (2009), 185-198.
  • Raymond Fielding, ‘Hale’s Tours: Ultrarealism in the Pre-1910 Motion Picture’, in John L. Fell (ed.), Film Before Griffith (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), pp. 116-130.
  • Stroller, ‘Picture Shows As I See Them’, Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly (1 October 1908), 481.
  • Lauren Rabinovitz, Electric Dreamland: Amusement Parks, Movies, and American Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

What the fairy-tale is to the child

On a trip to the Haringey Archives a little while ago, one of the archivists showed me a collection of material about Alexandra Palace. I was looking for information about an early film studio on the premises (more of which another time), but what caught my eye was a pamphlet about conditions in Alexandra Palace when it was being used as an internment camp for German civilians during the First World War.

Included in the pamphlet (produced by the Anglo-German Family History Society) was an essay on life in the camp written by Rudolf Rocker. Rocker had moved to London from Germany, by way of Paris, in the 1890s, since when he had become an important figure in the anarchist scene of the East End. He was also influential in international politics as the editor of the radical Yiddish newspaper Arbeter Fraint (‘Worker’s Friend’).

Rudolf Rocker
Rudolf Rocker (1873-1958) / Wikipedia

Soon after the outbreak of war, Rocker, along with 3,000 other German-born residents, was arrested and interned in Alexandra Palace as an ‘enemy alien’. Several years into his internment, he was asked by the camp’s commandant, Major Mott, to write a first-hand account of his experiences. Rocker was deported to Germany in 1918 before he could finish the essay, but his rough drafts and notes were preserved and edited together by ‘W. Stz’ and Rocker’s son, Rudolf Rocker, Junior.

Press clippings in the archives describe the camp as ‘A Palatial Prison’ (Evening News) or dub the inmates ‘Luxurious Huns’ (Daily Mail). But Rocker’s essay tells a very different story about daily life as an interned civilian, stressing the lack of privacy in the huge, open-plan dormitories – which the prisoners eventually tried to solve by constructing makeshift huts around their beds – and the shock of being uprooted from family, friends, and work.

Sleeping accommodation in the Small Hall at Alexandra Palace
Sleeping accommodation in the Small Hall at Alexandra Palace / © IWM (Q 64158)
German prisoners in the tailors workshop at Alexandra Palace
German prisoners in the tailors workshop at Alexandra Palace / © IWM (Q 64153)
The kitchen at Alexandra Palace internment camp
The kitchen at Alexandra Palace internment camp / © IWM (Q 64152)

What stopped me in my tracks, though, was Rocker’s description of the cultural life of the camp. This section describes a series of weekly lectures given by a well-known socialist author (presumably Rocker himself), the camp’s musical concerts and amateur dramatics, and ends with an account of the prisoners’ film shows. It’s an eloquent, funny, and revealing passage, that has a lot to say about the capacity of cinema (or ‘the Kino’) to transport its audiences, and about how personal tastes can be shaped and tested by extraordinary circumstances. Here it is, as it appears in the original version assembled by Rocker’s son, a copy of which is held in the British Library (who I hope don’t mind me quoting it at length):

…there exist a number of organisations and groups, which have grown from the initiative of the men themselves, and these – each in its own way – serve to keep up the general spirits. The oldest of these institutions is that of the Literary, and Cultural-History Lecture Series, which a well-known socialist author holds regularly each week in the Theatre since July 1915. They are patronised by a fairly numerous and interested audience.

Two months later the “Konzert Verein” was founded, in which most of the interned musicians participate. It developed with surprising speed, and stood under the direct protection of the last Commandant, who was himself a great lover of music. But it was not only this personal fondness which made the Commandant patronise the “Konzert Verein”; he was strongly convinced that music acts upon the “moods” of the prisoners in a highly beneficial manner. Since its foundation, this Society has given weekly concerts in the Theatre, which are for hundreds of the Prisoners a wonderful mental recuperation, which cannot be estimated too highly.

At this place also, must be noted the Amateur Theatrical Society, which seeks, through its productions to entertain the Camp. Unfortunately there is a lack of talent, and of a planfully conducted artistical management. Most of the productions were very commonplace, and left much to be wished for, regarded from a purely artistic standpoint. For several months this society has almost entirely ceased its activities.

Several other organisations which chiefly have a sporting aim, as the Turn Verein (Gymnastic Association), the Football Club, etc., formerly enjoyed a strong membership. To-day, however, these bodies are practically non-existent as the great restrictions placed upon the food of the Camp considerably cool the sporting fever.

A retrogression, it must be said, is taking place in all the different undertakings of the various organisations. This is chiefly to be explained by the long duration of the internment. Lectures and Concerts are to-day less frequented than two or even one year ago. The dull pressure of the internment brings with it that the men lose in time all interest in any undertaking whatsoever.

The only institution which makes an exception to this painful rule and retains up to the present day the lively sympathy of the prisoners, is the “Kino”. It exists since 1915, and was received by the whole Camp with great joy. For a lengthy period, only one performance was given weekly, and it was always very well attended. But even later when two weekly “Kino evenings” were instituted, the result as regards attendance remained the same. And I am convinced that even if they were given still more frequently, the number of the audience would still remain as high as ever. The reason for this characteristic fact is moreover, easily explained. It is not here the attraction which the “Kino” exercises for itself, but the consequence of a very natural psychological process. No other entertainment or occupation of whatever nature it may be, is able to make the Prisoner forget his surroundings entirely. Whether he is employed in the workshop or studies at the school, whether he follows some sport, or listens to the sounds of music, always there is a certain something which makes him ever conscious of the narrow confines of his captivity. The “Kino” also, is not always able to suppress this gnawing feeling entirely, but it frees him more than all else, from the oppressive ban of his daily surroundings. It is, so to speak, a link with the outer world, which, though likewise resting upon a delusion, enables him nevertheless to forget for a while the leaden monotony of his surroundings.

In his thoughts he lives himself in the landscapes which pass before his eyes; he mingles with the crowds at the railway stations, boards ships and trains, and takes personal part in the dramas that take place before him. What the fairy-tale is to the child, that is the “Kino” to the Prisoner.

I knew quite a number of well educated men including artists and men of aesthetic taste, who would formerly never have entered a “Picture Theatre”, nay, who are even now antagonists of this institution generally, regarding it as a danger to the real art of the stage, but who, during internment, have become regular “Kino-goers”. And although they pass the most condemning judgment at the conclusion of each performance, and state emphatically that this was the last one they patronised, they still come again at the next one. They are, in spite of all, subject to the same psychological laws as their fellow-comrades-in-adversity, and the purely human is yet stronger than any abstract conception of art.

German prisoners making models and toys whilst interned at Alexandra Palace
German prisoners making models and toys whilst interned at Alexandra Palace / © IWM (Q 64154)
Interned civilians with their model yachts at Alexandra Palace
Interned civilians with their model yachts at Alexandra Palace / © IWM (Q 64151)

The pamphlet I first read Rocker’s essay in is An Insight into Civilian Internment in Britain during WWI (Anglo-German Family History Society, reprinted in an illustrated edition in 1998). The passage above comes from the typescript assembled by Rudolf Rocker, Junior, catalogued in the British Library as Alexandra Palace Internment Camp in the First World War (1914-1918). Rocker (the Elder) wrote about his experiences in London before and during internment in The London Years, translated by Joseph Leftwich (A.K. Press, 2005).

The images of Alexandra Palace are from the Air Ministry Collection at the Imperial War Museums, who also hold some remarkable sketches and paintings by one of the Alexandra Palace internees. The image at the top of the post shows sleeping quarters in the Great Hall at Alexandra Palace, © IWM (Q 64157).

From Hollywood to Highbury

I’ve been exploring some of London’s local archives lately and one of the finest and friendliest I’ve come across so far is definitely the Islington Local History Centre.

Islington has an incredibly rich film history. The now-demolished house at 3 Albion Place, off Liverpool Road, was the birthplace of film pioneer R.W. Paul, who later established his workshop nearby in Hatton Garden. A few decades later, in 1919, Poole Street was chosen as the British base for the US production company Famous Players-Lasky (later Paramount), who converted an old power plant into the country’s most state-of-the-art film studio.

Islington Studio 1920s
Inside the Islington Studio in the 1920s.

Famous Players didn’t stay long, but they did give a kickstart to the career of the young Alfred Hitchcock (who got a job with the company designing title cards), and provided a future home for Michael Balcon’s Gainsborough Pictures. Another studio facility over in Highbury was set up in the thirties, later becoming the home of J. Arthur Rank’s Company of Youth, better known as the Rank ‘Charm School’, set up to train prospective British movie stars.

Islington was also a busy patch for early film exhibition. Chris Draper calculates that, in the peak year of 1914, there were 29 different venues in the district, a figure that levelled out to the high teens during the 1920s-1950s. These venues included the Empress Electric Theatre (opened in 1910, revamped in the 1970s, and still open today as the Screen on the Green, pictured at the top of this post) and the massive, 3,000-seat Astoria on Seven Sisters Road, an ‘atmospheric’ cinema decorated inside in a combination of Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern styles (later re-purposed as a rock venue, the Rainbow, and now in use as a church). Sam Nightingale’s beautifully illustrated website, Islington’s Lost Cinemas, records the traces of some of the other film venues in the area.

Astoria Cinema, Seven Sisters Road
The ‘atmospheric’ interior of the Astoria Cinema, Seven Sisters Road. (English Heritage)

I mention all this because, from May 10, the Islington Museum (nextdoor to the Local History Centre), is hosting an exhibition – ‘From Hollywood to Highbury’ – about Islington’s cinematic past. There’s also a display in the Local History Centre about the Astoria Cinema and its later incarnation as the Rainbow Theatre, with a talk from a former stage manager on May 17.

I’ll try to report back on the exhibition once it’s underway, but for now here’s a sample of some of the material I’ve come across about the history of film in Islington and its neighbouring parts of London (mainly books and articles, some of them open access).

Olympia

Each comer who chooses may sport with the muses

Or notice the uses of genius or skill,

And find the employment of means for enjoyment

In modern Olympia all wishes fulfil.

(Mrs. W.A. Barrett, ‘Ode to Olympia’, 1886)

Exactly 100 years ago today, the First International Cinematograph Exhibition opened at London’s Olympia.  The Exhibition ran from March 22 to 29, 1913, bringing representatives from various branches of the film business together under Olympia’s massive, barrel-shaped roof.

Progress and inclusivity were the main themes of trade press coverage of the event:

The programme set forth is most comprehensive in its nature, dealing with every phase of the industry, from the manufacture of the raw film to the finished image on the screen … Quite apart from its purely commercial side, the exhibition reveals, for the first time, the marvellous advance of cinematography. It is with no small pride that the Trade can regard its progress – unbroken, steady and continuous; and it is only fitting that its history and romance should be unfolded in such a manner.

(‘The Kinematograph Exhibition’, Bioscope, 13 March 1913)

exhibition ad 1913

Advertisement / The Cinema, 5 February 1913

Despite some notable absences, the Exhibition was imagined as a microcosm of the industry at large, which (according to a trade journalist in The Cinema) had been advancing steadily and unstoppably across London and beyond:

whereas but a year or so since the number of firms dealing exclusively in films and cinema accessories ran but into tens, to-day the number is legion. Again, it is but a short space of time since Cecil Court was all too large to accommodate the members of the trade. Now the industry has grown to such proportions that Cecil Court, Charing Cross Road, Shaftesbury Avenue, Gerrard Street, Wardour Street, Rupert Street, Long Acre, Westminster Bridge Road, Gray’s Inn Road, Farringdon Road, and many other thoroughfares in the Metropolis itself, to say nothing of its suburbs, together with the large provincial cities and towns, contain representatives of the all-conquering cinematograph business. Not only have London firms opened branches further afield, but new concerns have sprung up in all directions…

Olympia was famous for its set-piece spectacles – Buffalo Bill’s ‘Wild West’ show, Imre Kiralfy’s recreations of Ancient Rome and Venice, Hagenback’s Wonder Zoo, not to mention R.W. Paul’s ‘Theatrograph’ displays. Like these, the Cinematograph Exhibition was designed to give visitors a chance to see a world they might not otherwise have the time or ability to reach:

…The British Isles, too, is dotted from end to end with cinema theatres, the owners of which in many instances are either too busily occupied or have neither the time nor the opportunity for periodical visits to London and have to rely for the knowledge they gain of what is doing in the cinema world upon the columns of the trade Press.

This class of person especially might be expected to look upon an exhibition in some central building and lasting for a week as a boon and a blessing…

(‘The Need for a Cinematograph Exhibition’, The Cinema, 1 January 1913)

olympia map

Map of the stands at the Cinematograph Exhibition / The Cinema, 26 March 1913

Visitors to the 1913 Exhibition could visit well over a hundred stands, all decorated in some way to attract attention (the ‘Essanay balloon’ was much remarked on). Some production companies also brought star guests with them:

The show has been visited by quite a number of picture celebrities. Many of the film producers have had their actors and actresses ‘on view’ at their stalls, and the Éclair Company, whose projection theatre has been thronged continuously, brought over Funnicus, Jane, and Softy, whose portraits are so well-known to all moving picture devotees to enable them to make a closer acquaintance with them.

(‘England Wakes Up’, The Cinema, 26 March 1913)

There temporary screening booths to show off new films and film technologies, and space was also given over to special contests. These included competitions for cinema projectionists and pianists, and one for would-be film actors. This was organized by Mr David Barnett and judged by Cecil Hepworth and George Cricks (of Cricks & Martin), and was said to have attracted more than 3,000 entrants to Olympia:

‘Amongst the competitors,’ said Mr Barnett, ‘were a German baroness and a Russian countess, and those who tried their skill in the depiction of the various emotions necessary for the little screen play arranged included men and women in nearly every calling. There were engineers, journalists, medical students, uniform nurses, market gardeners, bakers, and a large number of servants, and they hailed from all districts – Belgravia, Whitechapel, Maida Vale, and Soho. The majority were very earnest and painstaking, but a few capered about and made themselves generally most idiotic. One young gentleman, in his endeavour to express horror, acted in a most ultra-dramatic manner, and finally fell off the platform. A little comedy relief like that, you may guess, vastly amused the crowds who thronged to see the competitors.’

(‘Contest for Film Actors’, Era, 5 April 1913)

Besides these, there were representatives from institutions whose relationship to the film business was a bit hazier – groups like the Red Cross and the Boy Scouts, and organisations promoting the garden city movement or even emigration to Australia – but who presumably thought that the Exhibition represented a good opportunity to reach new audiences.

A heavy emphasis was placed on the potential educational value of moving pictures, with a special conference attended by such notables as the Headmaster of Eton. Morley Daintow, Assistant Manager of the Pulteney Council School in west London, gave his (extremely glowing) verdict on the Exhibition for the Bioscope:

My most lasting impression of the exhibition is as of one amazing wonder journey, similar to the experiences of my boyhood, when I first discovered some of Nature’s beautiful treasures. I congratulate the Trade on its achievements, and on the rare qualities of its representatives. At all stands I found men and women filled to the brim with fine enthusiasm for cinematogrpahy, and capable of so talking about it as not only to give wholesome pleasure but also useful instruction.

(Morley Dainow, ‘The Exhibition: A Teacher’s Impression’, Bioscope, 10 April 1913)

I don’t know whether the Cinematograph Exhibition succeeded either in its aim of generating business for the British film industry or promoting its usefulness as an educational tool. But it’s worth commemorating, I think, as an example of how the early film trade tried to project itself in the public eye, and as a reminder of the different kinds of activity that made up ‘cinema’ in Britain 100 years ago.

olympia wikipedia

Olympia today / Wikipedia

– –

London’s Olympia is still in use as a venue. There’s more information about its history in John Glanfield’s book, Earls Court and Olympia: From Buffalo Bill to the ‘Brits’ (2003), and on the Olympia website. Here’s the full list of stall holders at the 1913 Cinematograph Exhibition as given in The Cinema’s souvenir map reproduced above:

Row A A A

Stall

  • 1. Theatre – Hepworth Manufacturing Co. Ltd. (No. 1)
  • 2. Bamforth & Co., Ltd.
  • 3. Westminster Engineering Co., Ltd.
  • 4. R.R. Beard
  • 5. Theatre – Kinematograph Trading Co. (No. 2)
  • 6. Pathéscope Demonstrating Room
  • 7. Pathé Frères – Educational Department
  • 8. Theatre – Pathé Frères (No. 3)
  • 9-10. Theatre – Pathé Frères Offices
  • 11. Theatre – Pathé Frères (No. 3)
  • 12. Pathé Frères – Electrical Fillings Department
  • 13. Theatre – National Cash Register
  • 14. Theatre (No. 5)
  • 15. Selfridges

Row A A

  • 1. The Hepworth Manufacturing Co., Ltd.
  • 2. Cricks & Martin, Ltd.
  • 3. Heller & Co. (stencils)
  • 4. Empty
  • 5. Roll-up Metal Matting Co., Ltd.
  • 6. The Navy League
  • 7-12. Pathé Frères
  • 13. W.&R. Jacob & Co.
  • 14. Rowntree & Co., Ltd.
  • 15. Garden Cities, Liverpool
  • 16. Garden Cities & Town Planning Association
  • 17. Cadbury & Co.
  • 18. National Cash Register

Row A

  • 1. Harris and Gillow
  • 2. The Cinema News & Property Gazette, Ltd.
  • 3. Keith Prowse and Co., Ltd.
  • 4. Incorporated Association of Film Renters
  • 5. Cinematograph Exhibitors’ Association of Great Britain, Ltd.
  • 6. A.A. Godin
  • 7. Williamson Kinematograph Co., Ltd.
  • 8. Addressograph, Ltd.
  • 9. Fyfe, Wilson and Co.
  • 10. The Pictures
  • 11. The Bioscope
  • 12. Chivers and Son
  • 13. Hudson, Scott and Sons, Ltd.
  • 14. James Crosfield and Sons, Ltd.
  • 15. Gas Light and Coke Co., Ltd.
  • 17. Burroughs, Wellcome and Co., Ltd.
  • 18. James Robertson and Sons.
  • 19. Webb Lamp Co., Ltd.
  • 20. Maurice F. Hummel
  • 20a. Multicheck
  • 21. F.R. Britton and Co.
  • 22. Empty
  • 23. Redio

Row B

  • 1-2. The Walturday Co., Ltd.
  • 3. Kinesounds, Ltd.
  • 4-5. Newman and Sinclair, Ltd.
  • 6. Murdochs
  • 7. Wolfe and Hollander
  • 7a. Uniform Clothing and Equipment Co.
  • 8. G. Guilbert
  • 9. The Accurate Check Taker, Ltd.
  • 10. Criterion Plates, Films, etc.
  • 11. The Electrical Engineering Equipment Co., Ltd.
  • 12. A.E. Hübsch and Co.13. Jupiter Elekrophat
  • 14. Ernemann
  • 15. Muller and Co.

Row C

  • 1-2. L. Kamm and Co.
  • 3. The Topical Film Co., London
  • 4. Alfred Hays
  • 5. The Kinematograph
  • 6. New Film Service
  • 6a. Emil Busch Optical Co.
  • 7. Harper Electric Pianos
  • 7a. British Vacuum Cleaner Co.
  • 8. Kineto, Ltd.
  • 9. The Dictaphone
  • 10. Whiting and Bosisto, Ltd.
  • 10. The Imperial Suction Vacuum Cleaner
  • 11. The Alumalite
  • 12. The Acme Patent Ladder Co.
  • 13. Joh Nitzsche, Leipzig
  • 14. Ernemann
  • 15. Muller and Co.

Row D

  • 1. The British Uralite Co., Ltd.
  • 2. Chex Ticket Machine Syndicate, Ltd.
  • 3. The Globe Pen Co.
  • 4. British Thomson-Houston Co., Ltd.
  • 5. Columbia graphophones
  • 6. R. and S. Neumann
  • 7. [Empty?]
  • 8. Cinema-Halles, Ltd.
  • 9. Tella Camera Co.
  • 10-10a. [Empty?]
  • 11. Martin’s Feature Film Co.
  • 11a. Gerrard Kinematograph Co.
  • 12. J.J. Chettle & Co.
  • 12a. J.M. Supply Agency
  • 13-13a. [Empty?]
  • 14. Big A Features
  • 14a. Central Feature Exclusive Co.
  • 15. Artograph
  • 15a. The Award Film Service / Weymouth Exoress
  • 16. [Empty?]
  • 16a. Express Film Co.
  • 17. [Empty?]
  • 17a. Kinematograph Trading Co.
  • 18. Peter & Cailler’s Chocolate
  • 19. [Empty?]
  • 20. Minerva Automatic Machine
  • 21. Stentaphone Agency
  • 22. [Empty?]
  • 23. R.R. Exclusives
  • 24. Rayflex Co.
  • 25. Dustobo
  • 26. N.B. Walters & Co.
  • 27. S. Walker & Co.

Row E

  • 1. Metropolitan Railway
  • 2. [Empty?]
  • 3. [Empty?]
  • 4-6. Gas Light and Coke Co., Ltd.
  • 7-9. Australia
  • 10. Debrie
  • 11. G. Mendel
  • 12. P. Ruez
  • 13-14. Museum

Row F

  • 1. Great Western Railway
  • 2. Post Office
  • 3. Theatre Boroid (No. 11)
  • 4. Essanay
  • 5. [Empty?]
  • 6. Theatre, Walturdaw (No. 10)
  • 7. Richard Hornsby and Son, Ltd.
  • 8-10. Australia
  • 11. [Empty?]
  • 12. Theatre Éclair Film Co. (No. 9)
  • 13. F.C. Hart
  • 14-16. Museum

Annexe

  • 1. Red Cross
  • 2. [Empty?]
  • 3. Duty and Descriptive Lecture
  • 4. Church Lads’ Brigade
  • 5. “Christian Commonwealth”
  • 6. Ragged School Union
  • 7. “Church Newspaper”
  • 8. [Empty?]
  • 9. Theatre (No. 8)
  • 10. Theatre (No. 7) Universal Screen Equipment Co., Ltd.
  • 11. London Diocese Lads Brigade
  • 12. Theatre (No. 6) Religious Educative and Social Welfare
  • 13-14. Life Target and Shooting Gallery

Gallery

  • 1. Pegamoid Leather Cloth
  • 2. Cradley Carriage Co., Ltd.
  • 3. Whiteley’s

Wonderland

After spending a while in the West End, I thought it was time that London Filmland ventured east. Following a tip-off from the erstwhile Bioscope, this post stops off at 100 Whitechapel Road, the former site of two film-related venues: the Rivoli and, before that, Wonderland. As a stalwart of the East End entertainment scene, there’s been a fair amount written about the place already, so this is an attempt to pull together information on some of the venue’s different encounters with film over the years.

Wonderland first opened its doors as a music hall in 1896, which was also when the site’s life as a film venue began. But it had been associated with entertainment since the 1830s, first as the Earl of Effingham Saloon, then as the Effingham Theatre, and later still as the East London Theatre (which burned down in 1879). Like the Pavilion Theatre down the road, the venue seems to have depended mainly on local working-class and immigrant (especially German and East European) audiences, being too far away from the city centre to attract the West End’s more well-heeled, floating clientele.

whitechapel

A Whitechapel street scene / Yoshio Markino, from The Charm of London, 1912

The proprietor of Wonderland was Jonas Woolf, who spent £5,000 fixing up the building to comply with London County Council regulations, and who went all out to compete with the other local music halls. When Wonderland opened, Woolf traded heavily on the eclecticism and exoticism of his acts, putting together what the Era called a ‘curious exhibition of freaks’ for the hall’s first programme.

wonderland times advert

Call for acts for Wonderland / The Times, 1896

Woolf also tried to drum up local support through a series of competitions, some of them designed to appeal to particular professions or social groups. So, there were contests for basket carrying (for market traders), carving up sheep (for butchers), shaving (for barbers), pram racing (for mothers), as well as others for singing, washing clothes, crawling, standing upside down, and more inventive tests of skill involving kicking a football through a hoop, and eating treacle from a swinging bread roll.

Moving pictures were first shown at Wonderland in April 1896 in the form of R.W. Paul’s ‘Theatrograph’. Sadly, the show wasn’t a success, and managed to land Woolf in Clerkenwell County Court. As the Era reported in July that year, Paul was suing Wonderland, Limited, for failing to pay the sum of £22, 10 shillings – equivalent to three weeks’ rent of electrical accumulators to power the ‘Theatrograph’ kit. Woolf’s defence was that the moving pictures had come out ‘blurred and indistinct’. It was said that the audience at Wonderland ‘used to hiss the performance, and many people had demanded and received back their money’.

wonderland patrons

Patrons of Wonderland / Photographer unknown, from H. Chance Newton, ‘Music-Hall London’, 1902

In court, Woolf went on to state that the ‘Theatrograph’ was booked as the star attraction on Wonderland’s bill, and so its poor performance had done significant damage to the venue’s earnings and reputation. This line of argument resulted in the following bizarre exchange between Woolf and Paul’s barrister, Mr. Gill, which also gives a sense of the variety acts that the ‘Theatrograph’ would have appeared alongside at the Wonderland:

Mr Gill (to Mr Woolf) – You say the “Theatrograph” was your star attraction, and that the losses of your music hall were due to its failure? Witness – The rest of the programme was mere padding.

Mr Gill (reading from a poster) – Do you call the Bear Lady padding – “A native of Africa, full grown, whose arms and legs are formed in exactly the same manner as the animal after which she is named?” – Witness – Yes, the Bear Lady was padding.

Mr Gill – And the Fire Queens, “who have appeared before the Prince of Wales, the King and Queen of Italy, and King of Portugal, who pour molten lead into their mouths, lick red-hot pokers, and remain several minutes enveloped in flames and fire?”

Witness – Yes, the Fire Queens also were padding.

Mr Gill – I am not surprised that these monstrous exaggerations damaged your business. It was not the theatrograph.

After all this, the judge decided that Woolf was at fault for failing to provide sufficiently powerful lighting, and ordered him to settle his debt to Paul.

wonderland poster

Poster for Wonderland, November 1896 / Peter Jackson Collection (lookandlearn.com)

Undeterred, Wonderland carried on showing films on and off into the 1910s. But, as the venue continued to diversify the entertainments on offer, it became best known as one of the East End’s premier boxing halls. Robert Machray gives a virtual tour of a Saturday night boxing match in Wonderland in a guide to The Night Side of London from 1902.

You pass into the building – at the door stands a solitary policeman. You pay, perhaps, the highest price, three shillings, which entitles you to a seat on the stage. You have come a quarter of an hour before the time announced for the beginning of the first match, but the vast building is already packed, except on the stage, where there is still room. And what a dense mass of human beings there is!

Machray estimated that there were upwards of 2,000 people crammed into the auditorium. To add to the activity, there were also vendors selling refreshments. During the match, patrons could purchase oranges, cigarettes, soft drinks, plus ‘the greatest of East End delicacies, the stewed eel’.

boxing at wonderland

‘Boxing at the “Wonderland”, Whitechapel’ / Tom Browne, from Robert Machray, The Night Side of London, 1902

The venue burned down (for the second time) in August 1911, sparking rumours that Woolf had been the victim of an arson attack from a former business partner. The more likely culprit, though (according to The Times), was none other than a film projector, which was being tested in the afternoon for an evening show, and had apparently been set alight by some faulty wiring. (Woolf later told the press that the fire had started in a side gallery, and not the projection booth.)

Wonderland seems to have been up and running again by the mid-1910s, and it’s listed as a film venue in the trade directories on and off until 1917. But in 1921 it was reinvented once more – this time as the Rivoli Cinema.

The Rivoli was one of the East End’s first ‘super cinemas’, a new breed of large-capacity film venue, and one of the earliest of its kind to be built anywhere in the UK. The remodelled outside of the Rivoli promised grandeur, with neo-classical columns and arches:

rivoli whitechapel 1923

Inside, there was an upper circle over the stalls, providing seating for over 2,000 people, and a large stage for variety acts:

rivoli whitechapel 1921 interior

There was also a tastefully appointed café:

rivoli 1928 cafe

Stanley Collins provided a lengthy, first-hand account of his time working at the Rivoli in the 1920s in a series of articles for the in-house magazine Gaumont-British News in 1932 (handily reproduced in a 2001 issue of the journal Picture House). Collins had been working as secretary to the US film producer and theatre manager Walter Wanger during his stint at the Covent Garden Opera House. When Wanger announced that he was taking over the Whitechapel Rivoli, Collins followed him, and was duly appointed Assistant Manager, with Hal Lewis as General Manager.

As Collins remembered it, the Rivoli under Wanger and Lewis’s management became well-known for high-quality film programmes and variety acts. ‘The cream of the variety world, at some time or other,’ he wrote, ‘trod the boards of the Rivoli’s fine stage’. Collins was less effusive about the Rivoli’s audiences (‘not exactly genteel’), claiming that fights inside and outside the cinema were frequent. Collins had fonder memories of working with Ernest Trimmingham, known as ‘Trim’, a Bermudan playwright and stage actor then living in the East End, who (as Stephen Bourne shows) was probably also the first black actor to appear in British films. During Collins’s time as Assistant Manager, ‘Trim’ was acting as ‘a sort of “barker”‘ for the Rivoli, advertising the cinema around the neighbourhood. He also did a turn on the variety stage there to an enthusiastic house.

Around 1924, Hal Lewis was replaced as manager by Billy Stewart, who set about revamping the place. Here’s Collins again:

He [Stewart] put the staff into smart new uniforms, and engaged five little blondes to open the main swing-doors to the theatre. Their smart blue pageboy tunics, short skirts, patent-leather leggings, white gauntlets and jaunty peak caps gave quite a “ritzy” touch to the front of the house. Even the four pageboys were supplied with white spats and gloves! Personally, I felt that Billy was overdoing it for Whitechapel, but I was wrong. Before long, people came from the West End to the Rivoli, so smart had the house become. The difference was so marked, in fact, that the ‘locals’ ceased their habit of dropping peanut shells under the seats, and the house at the end of a performance no longer resembled Brighton beach!

There’s a tension in Collins’s description between ‘West End’ and ‘East End’ values. I wonder how the ‘locals’ he talks about took to these changes in décor and decorum? Did they welcome the presence of a more ‘ritzy’ venue on their doorstep, or were they nudged out by the new house policy?

The Rivoli was taken over by the United Picture Theatres circuit in 1928 and by British Gaumont in 1930. But, despite all this, like the venues on the site before it, the cinema continued to have some social connection to Whitechapel residents. Research by Gil Toffell has shown how it was especially important for the East End’s Jewish audiences. In the 1930s, it was one of the few places in London where Yiddish sound films were shown – films like The Voice of Israel (1930) and Uncle Moses (screened there in 1938). The auditorium was also known to host Rosh Hashanah services when the local synagogue proved too small to accommodate the number of worshippers.

The Rivoli stayed open until 1940, when it was destroyed in an air raid. The bombed-out building was finally demolished in the 1960s. The site at 100 Whitechapel Road is now a Citroen car dealership, next door to the East London Mosque.

100 whitechapel road

100 Whitechapel Road / Google Street View

– –

References:

The following sources contain information about Whitechapel, Wonderland, the Rivoli, and people associated with the venues. Feel free to add more in the comments section, if you know of any.

Institute of Hygiene

Lately, I’ve been combing through a lot of film trade directories looking for information about old London cinemas. As anyone who has done research into British film history can vouch, titles like the Kinematograph Year Book are the yellowing, slightly dog-eared Wikipedias of the inner workings of the British film industry – full of interesting facts and figures, although sadly without the hyperlinks. (If you want a taster, the BFI have made the 1914 edition of the Kinematograph Year Book available online as a pdf.)

I was looking through the long list of London cinemas in the Kinematograph Year Book for 1919, when this entry caught my eye:

Institute of Hygiene, 33-4, Devonshire Street, Harley Street, W. 1. Prop[rietor]s, Institute of Hygiene. Res[ident] Sec[retary], Mr. A. Seymour Harding. Educational and Scientific Displays only, and by invitation chiefly. Largely used to illustrate lectures. No fixed programme or hours. First cinema installed in England for education work.

The entry seemed so incongruous (it’s sandwiched between the Imperial Theatre, Edgware Road, and the Abbey Picture Palace in Merton) that I thought it warranted further investigation. What films were the Institute of Hygiene showing, and why were they showing them in the first place? And was it really England’s first educational cinema? Here’s what I pieced together.

The Institute of Hygiene was founded in 1903, mainly to organize exhibitions about public health and preventative medicine. It also taught courses in hygiene for non-medical workers. The building at 33-34 Devonshire Street (a street that runs between Marylebone High Street and Great Portland Street) opened in the autumn of 1904.

devonshire street

33-34 Devonshire Street, London (Google Street View)

An issue of the British Journal of Nursing from the time explained that the central attraction at the Institute was ‘a permanent exhibition of hygienic products and appliances, and of articles of importance connected with personal and domestic hygiene’. Judging from the items mentioned in the BJN report, it seems that the Institute wasn’t averse to supporting its educational mission with a bit of product placement. Exhibits displayed ‘in the well-filled cases lining the walls’ included products from Nestlé, Cadbury’s, and other makers of ‘health’ foods and medical aids.

I can’t be sure that the Institute of Hygiene really did house the ‘first cinema installed in England for education work’, as the Kine Year Book suggests, but it seems like a reasonable claim. Films were shown there in the summer of 1912, with the intention of making them a permanent part of the exhibition. The trade magazine The Cinema reported on the first screenings in July 1912. The programme sounds like it wasn’t for the squeamish:

The Cinema and Hygiene

The use of the cinematograph as a means of education was illustrated at the Institute of Hygiene, when numerous pictures were exhibited, some in particular showing how disease is spread by flies. The ways in which flies carry disease by crawling on stagnant fish, afterwards feeding on the sugar in the house, and, alighting on the mouthpiece of a child’s feeding-bottle were shown by films. Other pictures, taken by a London doctor, indicated the most practical methods of rendering first aid in case of accident, while a series of industrial films afforded insight into the manufacture of “nut margarine,” meat extract, and other foods. Sir William Bennett, the President of the Institute of Hygiene, in inaugurating the educational cinematograph, said that while in America the cinematograph had been used for the demonstration of the details of surgical operations, and pictures of germ life had been shown in London, the instruction by this means had in the main been merely sporadic or accidental, and secondary to amusement.

This certainly seems like a pioneering use of moving pictures, even if William Bennett was selling his competition a bit short. There’s surely more than ‘accidental’ instruction at work in films like Charles Urban and F. Martin-Duncan’s series of ‘Unseen World’ pictures (the image at the top of this post comes from a 1903 ‘Unseen World’ instalment, Cheese Mites). But the point that early scientifically minded film shows tended to combine a large dose of amusement with their instruction is well taken: witness the famous Acrobatic Fly filmed by Percy Smith in 1910. Bennett was obviously trying to stress the seriousness of the Institute’s film screenings, and The Cinema went on to list some of the other ways that he intended to apply the new medium in the name of hygiene, like using microscopic images of germ life to teach food safety, or using film scenes to illustrate talks on domestic science and child-care.

I don’t know how long the Institute of Hygiene kept up their educational screenings. The organisation moved to new premises at 28, Portland Place in 1925, and merged with the Royal Institute of Public Health in the 1930s, by which time documentary science films had become more established as a genre. (Something discussed in Tim Boon’s book, Films of Fact.)

But, finding out about the Institute of Hygiene’s film work was a good reminder that, even when there was no shortage of dedicated cinemas around in London, films were still shown in a wide range of contexts, and for plenty of reasons other than commercial entertainment. In their recent edited collection of essays, Useful Cinema, Charles Acland and Haidee Wasson make a strong case for paying more attention to the history of what they call the ‘other cinema’: one that has always existed alongside the more familiar world of film-as-entertainment, but which instead set out to ‘transform spaces, convey ideas, [and] convince individuals’. Even if it wasn’t the direction that the mainstream film business ultimately took, the idea of cinema as a force for education did a lot to convince people in the early days, especially, that there was a future for moving pictures – and a useful future, at that.

Since coming across the Institute of Hygiene’s entry in the Kine Year Book, I’ve found references to a few more non-theatrical venues in London (besides churches and local halls) that seem to have shown films on a regular basis. Situated at 223, Tottenham Court Road, was the London office of the National Cash Register Company. This was licensed to show films in its ground-floor hall ‘for trade purposes only’ as early as 1914. From what I can gather, it looks like this was the company’s national sales headquarters, so it’s possible that films were used to train employees in sales techniques.

ncr tottenham court road

National Cash Register Company office, Tottenham Court Road (c. 1904/Photographer unknown)

There’s a bit more information about the films shown in the second, equally unlikely film venue: the instruction depot of the London General Omnibus Company. This was located on Milman Street in Chelsea – here it is being used to instruct women omnibus drivers during the First World War:

milman street lgoc depot

(London Transport Museum Collection/Photographer unknown)

According to an article in The Times in May 1913, trainee drivers in the Milman Street depot were shown something like modern road safety films. ‘Cinematograph demonstrations were used in instructing the staff for showing how common forms of accident might be avoided’, with vehicles in the films ‘arranged to make close resemblance to actual accidents’ for extra authenticity.

These examples probably just scratch the surface. We’ve become accustomed to seeing moving images everywhere in cities now, but I wonder what other early film shows were going on in unexpected corners of London.

– –

The collection of essays edited by Charles Acland and Haidee Wasson is Useful Cinema (2012). Simon Popple and Joe Kember mention the idea of using film to train London omnibus drivers in their introduction to Early Cinema (2004), which also includes a discussion of some of the other potential applications for the cinematograph.

Great Portland Street

I was reading George Pearson’s memoirs, Flashback, again recently because I wanted to know a bit more about the place where he first tried his hand as a film director: a film studio on, or rather underneath, Great Portland Street in central London (pictured above).

For a short while, this underground studio was the British production headquarters of Pathé Frères, who made films there under the brand names of ‘Britannia’ and later ‘Big Ben’, produced by one of Pathé’s subsidiaries, the Union Film Publishing Company (see Luke McKernan’s entry about Pathé on the BFI Screenonline website).

greatportlandstreet1910

Great Portland Street in the 1910s

The studio seems to have been in action from 1912 to 1914, when the company moved away from the city centre to more spacious premises at Alexandra Palace. Other directors to work there during these years included H. O. Martinek and A. E. Coleby, whom Pearson remembered being taken to meet by Pathé execs in 1912 on the set of Peg Woffington. Pearson himself arrived there at the start of 1913, having left his former career as a schoolmaster. (The local historian Stephen Pewsey mentions that Pearson’s ex-pupils at Staples Road Boys’ School in Loughton were none too happy with his replacement, a strict Welshman named Williams, who found a chalked message waiting for him on the school’s brick gate-pillars: ‘We want Pearson back, down with Williams!’)

georgepearson

George Pearson, from britmovie.co.uk

Pearson described the studio when he got there as ‘a curious little place’, lit entirely by mercury-vapour tubes, under which ‘everyone looked as though suffering from acute heart disease’. The single camera was ‘mounted on a heavy capstan-head bolted rigidly to the floor’, so that the camera angle was always the same in every shot. Pearson took the camera off its mount and played around with close-ups. Given the experimentation that seems to have been going on under Pearson’s watch, it would be great if more of his early films survived.

Patricia Warren’s encyclopedic history of British film studios mentions the Union Film Publishing Company premises, but doesn’t give an exact location. So the challenge I set myself – as yet unfulfilled – was to find whereabouts on Great Portland Street this studio was situated. Sadly, Pearson doesn’t say, and, so far, Post Office directories, Ordnance Survey maps and fire insurance plans have yet to yield up a street address either (if you know any details, I’d love to hear from you).

greatportlandstreet

A view looking south down Great Portland Street 

But Pearson’s memoirs more than make up for this small omission. In fact, there’s one episode in Flashback that’s so surreal, it’s worth quoting at length:

we wanted a shot of a mounted huntsman about to ride from his country mansion, a painted and imposing doorway on a huge canvas drop-scene suspended from the ceiling. With great caution and wary pushes we had propelled a perplexed horse along a slippery stone passage that gave him no sure foothold, and gently urged him along much as an ocean liner is edged into harbour by little tugs. We got him at last on to the wooden stage floor, and into position by the ornate door, midway between the unlit mercury-light banks to his head and rear. The actor huntsman was hoisted into the saddle, and was all for the ‘take’, or as it happened, the ‘kill’, for when the signal for lights was given, and the light banks suddenly flashed on, that utterly bewildered horse saw red! He made one wild dash, and we were all mixed up with crashing mercury tubes, flying hooves, and the complete collapse of the country mansion, in the ruins of which the huntsmen was buried and lost to sight. We found the amazed horse seated on his hindquarters amid the debris of the painters’ pots and pans, probably wondering what was going to happen next! Truly they were the great days of adventure.

Pearson’s memoirs are published as Flashback: The Autobiography of a British Film-maker (London: Allen & Unwin, 1957). The book by Patricia Warren mentioned is British Film Studios: An Illustrated History (London: Batsford, 2001). The local history newsletter with Stephen Pewsey’s article, ‘George Pearson in Loughton’, is available online as a pdf.

The Path of a Star

Lady Tulle Rosemayne, a leader of society, beautiful, fascinating and accomplished, is the heroine of this romance. As the result of a wager with the irresponsible set to which she belongs, she compels the attention of John Sterne, film producer, reputed to be indifferent to women, who induces her to become a film actress. The setting of the story includes scenes in night clubs in London, in the Casino at Etretat, and wanderings in Paris…

I’ve been looking back over my notes on this book by Arthur Applin – one of a string of novels he wrote about London’s filmland in the 1920s (the others are listed in Ken Wlaschin and Stephen Bottomore’s fantastic bibliography of moving picture fiction, available online if you have access to the journal of Film History).

Applin is an interesting figure. His obituary in The Times says that he was born in Devon, trained as a lawyer, then gave up a legal career for the London stage, acting under a series of West End actor-managers. But he was best known as a novelist and dramatist. ‘He wrote frankly sensational stories’, said The Times, and he wrote lots of them – by my count, his back catalogue of plays and novels numbers well over 100.

Arthur Applin

Arthur Applin photographed in the 1920s, from the National Portrait Gallery website.

Many of Applin’s stories concern London’s entertainment industries, including musical comedy (in The Chorus Girl and Footlights) and the legitimate stage (glanced at in his filmland novel London Love). Whilst he didn’t start writing about the film business until the 1920s, his involvement with the British cinema went back at least as far as 1907, when he took part in a film designed to advertise his Evening News serial The Sons of Martha – an early (and, as far as I can tell, lost) experiment in tie-in movie marketing.

The view of London’s film culture Applin presents in The Path of a Star is, of course, fictional. It relies heavily on cliches and character types drawn from all sorts of early-twentieth-century popular literary genres. It is a heady mix – part showbiz expose, following the career of a young would-be star; part ‘Bright Young Things’ novel (published a year before Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies); and a large part romance, with a plot that centres on the clash of wills between the glamorous Lady Rosemayne (pictured salaciously on the front cover above) and the hard-nosed film director, John Sterne (the purple-suited man hovering on the edge of the spotlight).

What’s intriguing about Applin’s novel, at least from the perspective of someone interested in film history, is how cinema fits into this imaginary world: that is, which aspects of London film culture are brought into focus, and what kind of context they appear in.

For a start, there’s a big emphasis in Applin’s story on the technology involved in putting a film together, and in the impact of modern technology more generally. Sterne, the director, rents offices in Piccadilly that are perched above a firm of motor car dealers. His studios, meanwhile, are situated in ‘a converted factory … tucked away on the left bank of the Thames’, and are themselves full of noisy camera equipment, lighting rigs and tangled wiring. What is the effect of all this newfangled technology? In Lady Rosemayne’s case, it leaves her feeling de-humanised – ‘an insignificant cog-wheel in that machine, one of the insignificant busy workers…’. It’s an image that recurs elsewhere in Applin’s literary London.

There are plenty of other fictional accounts of London’s film industry besides Applin’s. Here are a few more (hopefully easier-to-get-hold-of) stories dealing with London’s filmland:

  • Katherine Mansfield, ‘The Pictures’ (1918). Mansfield’s short story follows a would-be actress through wartime London in search of a job. The names of the studios she visits – the Backwash Film Co. and the Bitter Orange Company – give a sense of the satirical bite that Mansfield brings to the subject. It was published in the magazine Arts and Letters, and again as ‘Pictures’ in Mansfield’s Bliss and Other Stories (1920). An earlier version of the story appeared in 1917 as ‘The Common Round’ in The New Age – available online at The Modernist Journals Project.
  • Graham Greene, ‘A Little Place off the Edgware Road’ (1939). Greene spent a lot of time in cinemas during the 1930s as a film reviewer for the Spectator. Here, he uses an out-of-the-way picture theatre as the murky backdrop for a tale of death and madness. Published in the 1947 collection Nine Stories, and in various Greene anthologies since.
  • Christopher Isherwood, Prater Violet (1945). Isherwood’s short, tightly sprung novel re-works his own experiences in the London film industry – working as a scriptwriter on British-Gaumont’s 1934 film Little Friend, directed by Berthold Viertel – as a reflection on studio politics and the rise of Nazism. The book is still in print.

I’d be interested to hear about other stories set in London’s cinema world, especially some more recent ones. Any recommendations?

Cecil Court update

An out-of-focus Simon Callow unveils the Westminster City Council plaque on 27, Cecil Court, once home to the offices of early film companies Gaumont and James Williamson & Co., now Stephen Poole Fine Books:

cecilcourt1

cecilcourt2

cecilcourt4

cecilcourt3

Afterwards, James Williamson’s film The Big Swallow gets a warm reception in the basement of 5, Cecil Court, formerly the premises of the New Bioscope Trading Co., with Cyrus Gabrische providing musical accompaniment:

cecilcourt5