Tag Archives: First World War London

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).

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.