Friday, 12 August 2016


The British Film Industry Archives has digitised many old silent films, a great number of which can be viewed for free on the BFI iplayer site. They also sell films on DVD, and some are released for theatre screens ~ such as A Night at the Cinema, which I was lucky enough to see when first starting to write a novel that is set in the world of Edwardian films. 

Such nights would often be made up of compilations of footage from several stand-alone short films, with a selection of different genres. Comedies, dramas, and travelogues, and also newsreels of war zones.

Stills from A Night at the Cinema

I viewed the films in Richmond upon Thames, at a small independent cinema. But, had I been around to go along when they were first released I might have seen them anywhere ~ in a brand new film theatre, or at the end of a seaside pier. There might be a screen set up in a shop, or in a church's social hall. And although the films were silent, the venue certainly wouldn't be, with music being a vital part of the moving picture industry. A solo piano or organ, or an entire orchestra might create the films' accompaniments ~ with different styles of melody to enhance the action or the mood. 

I recreated such an evening in my novel, The Last Days of Leda Grey. The following is an extract; a scene when the young Leda Grey, who has great aspirations to act on screen, goes along to the local seaside pier to see a showing of some films made in the local area. Those films are known as 'actuals', which means they don't have any actors as such, but exhibit natural settings with everyday people walking about ~ anyone who happened to be around when the director shot his film. It's in one of these moving picture shows that Leda has a starring role, and because of that she can hardly contain her joy when she goes to see the film.

"Oh, what a thrilling visit! Sitting in the darkness, while the glow from the projector’s lamp shone through the theatre on the pier. And Rex was there, on Theo’s lap, because whatever Papa said the dog was all grown up by then, and sometimes even well behaved, especially when bribed with sweets. Theo and I were giggling at the way he dribbled, slathered, chewed, and how his tongue kept slurping out while sucking toffees from his teeth. But such high spirits were soon lost when Theo touched my arm and warned, ‘Leda, you won’t be too upset if they don’t show our film tonight? I see the stage’s menu card says nothing of the promenade.’
          I felt such panic rise inside when I also read that menu card, where every feature mentioned was to be an actual of the town, with titles like A Cliff Top Walk, or A Visit to the Aquarium. But Theo was right. There was no sign of any Brightland Promenade.
           Taking my brother’s hand in mine, I squeezed it hard, and harder still as every moving film was played, and even though each one was short, two or three minutes at the most, for me they seemed to last an age. The lantern’s rattle was too loud. The piano’s notes were jangling. The sneezes, and the hacking coughs. The peanut shells that two old ladies crunched and cracked in seats behind. All that noise! My fraying nerves. I couldn’t begin to enjoy the show ~ until the last film flickered up. The slightest judder of the frame, and then four curling corner scrolls around the fancy title script: A VIEW OF BRIGHTLAND PROMENADE!
          Too soon we saw the words, THE END, and while my brother clapped and whooped I couldn’t move a single inch. I was feeling quite delirious, shivering with excitement, thinking my heart might burst with pride when Papa smiled and gave a sigh, and then his murmur in my ear. ‘Well, I may be biased ... but the very best was saved till last. My daughter was magnificent!’
            ‘Oh, Papa? Was I really?’ It had all been over in a flash. I only wished the frames could roll right back and then run through again, for people in the seats around to look at me and realise that I had been the girl in white whose face filled up the final frames.
        But would they know me anyway? They’d see a girl who’d spent all afternoon in brushing out her hair, a hundred times to make it shine, and nothing like the frizzy mess when she’d been on the promenade. They wouldn’t see the waif and stray dressed in her shabby muslin dress for, very much to my dismay, Mrs C had gone and laundered it. It was dripping on the garden line, and I’d been forced to wear my green. The one she liked to see me in, always saying it suited my colouring. But what an irony it was that, whereas my white was much too large, the green had shrunk when in the wash. The hems too short, the bodice tight … so tight that I could barely breathe when the final curtain fell again, when we sat there waiting patiently for the director to appear, to bow and give a little speech, as was the usual way of things. But no. There was no sign at all of the man who, just the day before, had stood behind his camera in the back of the open horse-drawn cab.
          The theatre’s lights blazed up to leave me standing in a giddy daze while we shuffled through the narrow aisle that led towards the exit doors ... though before we left the foyer to walk back down the pier again, Papa approached the manager (that gentleman well known to him through shared professional ventures, with my father photographing acts for the hall’s publicity and such), and said, after some other chat, ‘If you happen to see Monsieur Beauvois ... the chap who made these actuals ... won’t you tell him I would be so pleased if he’d visit my studio in the Lanes … or if he’d like to come along and dine in Brunswick Crescent. I would also be obliged if you could ask if there might be a chance for me to purchase a copy of the final film. The one called Brightland Promenade.’"

Extract from an unapproved proof copy of The Last Days of Leda Grey.
Copyright Essie Fox.

No comments: