In Bologna

On July 4, 2015, in Festivals, Film, Silent film, by Luke McKernan


Poster for Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna

I spent three days last week at Il Cinema Ritrovato, the renowned festival of restored and classic films held each year in Bologna, Italy. To my great shame it has been twenty-two years since I last attended the festival (though I was in the vicinity for a talk I gave three years ago). The reason for such severe neglect is simple – the weather. It’s hot in Bologna in July, and I was not designed to withstand temperatures much about 25 degrees C, to be honest. But I was brave, I clung to the shade, I learned to move slowly, and with amusing irony it was actually hotter in the UK.

I was there primarily because I helped programme the minor festival strand on the Velle and O’Connor film family, as noted previously. I was also keen to see the films of Tunisian film pioneer Albert Samama Chikly, whose history I knew something of but whose work I’d never encountered. Il Cinema Ritrovato runs over eight days, and has grown considerably in ambition and importance since I last turned up in 1993. The 368-page catalogue with some 400 films on offer shows how grand Bologna now is, and how essential it has become to the discerning cinéaste with a travel budget. As in 1993, its chief pleasure is how it covers all periods of film history, happily mixing silent with sound films, and across all filmmaking countries. You could explore the early films of Ingrid Bergman, jazz at the movies, post-war Italian rarities, Iranian new wave cinema, films from 100 years ago, films on the Armenian genocide, the films of Leo McCarey, colour film in Japan, the works of Renato Castellani, and a whole lot more, across four indoor venues and two outdoor ones.

The proper way to do things would be to immerse oneself in it totally and experience all eight days, wholly enveloped within interlocking other worlds. Budgets and other logical constraints being what they are, many such as myself come for a few days only, and you have to pick and choose. I went for the Velle/O’Connor films (naturally), Chikly, the production of Universal subsidiary Bluebird Photoplays, and some one-off specials.

The history behind magician-turned-filmmaker Gaston Velle, his cinematographer son Maurice, and Maurice’s British scriptwriting partner Mary Murillo aka O’Connor is a fascinating one, but their individual films are very different. Gaston Velle was the greatest artist of the trio, and the féerie films that he made for Pathé in the 1900s are magical delights that display a very particular grace and delight in the fantastical. There is Métamorphoses du Roi de Pique (1903) where are magician (Velle himself) does card tricks, then has the King of Spades expand to life size andplay a game with him (the perplexed look on the king’s face is a treat); or the astonishing Japonaiseries (1904), an oriental fantasy that ends with the film image shown on a grid of bricks which then tumble out of the screen. Velle’s work shows how the stage magician’s craft could be transmuted into filmcraft, for which technical skill was required but what was essential first was a wholly filmic imagination. Velle’s films, with their legerdemain, wit, artfully applied colour and liberal use of Pathé’s troupe of dancing girls, more than merit a major study by someone. He is the equal of his better-known film magician peers Georges Méliès and Segundo de Chomón.


Night-time open-air screening of La Princesse aux Clowns in the Piazetta Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bologna

His son Maurice was a cinematographer on French feature films of the 1920s, and a very talented one it would seem. I could only see one of the films of his on show, La Princesse aux Clowns (1924), which was accorded the honour of an open-air screening in the Piazetta Pier Paolo Pasolini outside the festival’s main Lumière cinema, with a lush score provided by Donald Sosin. Every seat was filled and a good many were left standing at the back (including yours truly, hence the photo above with the screen somewhat obscured by trees). The film is a handsomely-designed and gorgeously-photographed Ruritanian romance about a reluctant king, with clever plot twists and opportunities for disguise, and it delighted the audience (many of them young and probably quite new to silent film I think). It just goes to show how wholly entertaining silent feature films still lurk in the archives as yet unseen (this must have been the film’s first public screening in ninety years). We have still to go on looking, and learning.

The English titles for La Princesse were written by Mary Murillo, whose career I have been researching. I wasn’t able to see any other of her films, though the British sound film My Old Dutch (1934) seems to have gone down well.

Instead I saw some of the output of Bluebird Photoplays, a low-budget subsidiary of Universal Studios, which produced (on the evidence displayed at Bologna) some charming and inventive dramas with actors on their way to being stars or who were never quite going to get there. Little Eve Edgarton (1916) featured Ella Hall as a botanist brought up in the jungle with her stuffy father, who faces many challenges trying to cope with the jungle that is life in the West. Though it played with every cliché it could (of course she wore glasses, of course her hair was in a bun), it was a film of simple charm. The Little White Savage (1919) had a particularly ingenious premise – the Roanoke colony, established by Sir Walter Raleigh, which disappeared in 1590 according to history, has somehow survived and continues to live as though it is the sixteenth century. It is discovered by modern-day entrepreneurs, who take back one of the colony (Carmel Myers) to feature as a fairground attraction. Unfortunately it misses all the opportunities that would have been for a comical clash of cultures, and has a cop-out ending where the story turns out to have been a hoax all along. Shame – someone should make a proper movie out of the idea.

Also in this strand, though not a Bluebird production as such, was Universal’s The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916). This is one of the most astonishing films of the 1910s, yet only now has it been restored with additional material added to the largely complete print held by the BFI. Its fame lies in the starring role it gives to the ballerina Anna Pavlova, in her only film bar some dances recorded on the set of The Thief of Baghdad in the 1920s. Its neglect probably lies on account of its extreme histrionics. It is based on an opera by Daniel Auber, which tells of a violent uprising against Spanish rule in Naples in 1647. The film is operatic in style, heavy on the costumes, heavy on the moustaches, heavy on the waving of arms and the wringing of hands. Pavlova (playing the dumb girl) dances rather than acts as such, and it features the archetypal cast of thousands enacting bloody riot after bloody riot – after 45 mins or so of tedious exposition, the film launches into over an hour of climax. It just goes on and on – ludicrous really, but also an astonishing feat of directorial management. She was Lois Weber, leading American female director of the 1910s, and it is evidence of the great respect held for her at the time that she was put in charge of one of Universal’s most expensive films to date. There are some adroit directorial touches, and I won’t easily forget the sight of Pavlova passing among a row of poles bearing severed heads. John Sweeney’s piano accompaniment, using themes from Auber and with Frank Bockius on percussion, was an astonishing tour de force.


Haydée Chikly (right) (the festival’s online catalogue says this is from Zohra but I think it is her other film Ain el-Ghezal), via

And then there was Chikly. Albert Samama Chikly (1872-1934) was a Tunisian Jew who organised the first film screening, of Lumière films, in Tunisia in 1897. He went on to become one of the African continent’s most important, enterprising, and long-lasting pioneers of film and photography. He shot many actuality films, selling some to European producers, including Charles Urban, who issued his Tunny Fishing in Tunis (1905) the surviving print of which I helped to identify but – curses, curses – I got to the festival too late to see it screened. He ran his own cinema, the Cinemato-Chikli, then was employed by the French Army as a photographer and filmmaker during the First World War. A substantial amount of this footage survives at the French military archives and we saw some marvellous extracts, informal and observant scenes behind and close to the front line of French troops and some African troops. These included quite astonishing scenes of French troops from Verdun being taken for a day at the seaside and cavorting naked among the waves.

Apart from the WWI work few of Chikli’s films survive, and the programme was padded out with early Tunisian films from other hands, and ‘orientalist’ productions of the period, including Rex Ingram’s incomplete turkey, The Arab (USA 1924). But, magically, the two fiction films that Chikli made survive, albeit in incomplete form only: Zohra (1922) and Ain el-Ghezal or La fille de Carthage (1924). Both feature his daughter, Haydée Chikli, who on this evidence had real star presence (she also scripted both films). The first is about a shipwrecked French girl brought up by Bedouins. The second is about a woman escpaing an arranged marriage. What survives of the films suggest that Chikli had little interest in drama as such, and simply applied his documentary understanding to the films, the chief purpose of which was to reveal the local culture that he cherished and understood. They are fragments of great charm and obvious skill, and deserve to be seen by many more people.


Mbissine Thérèse Diop in La Noire de…

I saw other films, including a digital restoration of The Third Man shown in the main Piazza Maggiore (preceded by a tedious and rather embarrassing film on Italian women made by Orson Welles) and a selection of Laurel and Hardy shorts at the same venue, preceded by an earnest speaker instructing us on how we were supposed to find the duo funny. I attended an intriguing session on film restoration, with comparisons between film and digital restorations of Warlock, Pretty Poison and Dr Strangelove (only for the latter did the digital look like the more authentically-restored piece of work).

But the film of the festival for me, by some margin, was Ousmane Sembène’s La Noire de… aka Black Girl (Senegal 1966). In fact I think it is one of the best films I’ve ever seen, period. It tells of a Senegalese girl, Diouana. who is employed by a French middle class couple as a maid and nanny, initially in Senegal and then in France, where her sense of entrapment drives her into silence and then to a final act of despairing rebellion. The film’s most haunting moments come at the end, when the Frenchman returns to Senegal to apologise to Diouana’s mother, only to be pursued out of town by a small boy beating an African mask which has featured as a motif through the film. The film is about the emergence of Africa from out of colonialism and how self-understanding will bring about a return of power. In film study terms, it is about the transference from the colonial gaze to an African gaze. Yet there is no pretension about the film at all. It says very simply what needs to be said, though images composed with great technical ability and political understanding. That it was the first film Sembène had made, indeed one of the very first African features of the modern era, is extraordinary. Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation has restored the film, and I hope it finds a DVD release and gets seen as widely as possible. Those who know it already revere it; those who have yet to may end up revising their understanding of film history.

What is cinema history?

On June 27, 2015, in Cinemas, Conferences, Film, Silent film, by Luke McKernan


Map of early Scottish cinemas, from

The art of Biography
Is different from Geography.
Geography is about maps,
But Biography is about chaps.

I thought of E.C. Bentley’s pithy poem while I was attending the What is Cinema History? conference in Glasgow. The conference was organised by the Early Cinema in Scotland project (on whose advisory board I sit), and addressed the subject of what is sometimes referred to as new cinema history, being a history that looks at cinema as a socio-economic phenomenon, analysing the empirical evidence to show how cinema fitted into the society that accommodated it. Often this results in spreadsheets, tables, bar charts and maps. This is distinct from – and sometimes at war with – traditional film history, which looks at the films, those who made them and those who have pronounced upon them. Maps, or chaps. Take your choice.

It’s viewed as new cinema history because there hasn’t been much of it until recently, which is rather extraordinary. Film history, up to a decade or so ago, has existed predominantly within its own world, looking at films because they were film and valuing them chiefly because they existed within a world of their own. Film was its own justification. There were a few historians who placed film within its wider social contexts (e.g. Garth Jowett’s Film: The Democratic Art), and some individual economic studies (e.g. Kristin Thompson’s Exporting Entertainment), but these made overall little impact on the understanding of what the history of film meant. There were some dedicated souls who wrote histories of cinemas, but they were generally viewed as mere nostalgists.

And so it was that film acquired a history for which basic questions that one would expect a historian to ask of any social phenomenon were simply overlooked. Why did people go to the cinema? What was the cost to them? What economic choices had to be made? Where did the money come from? Why did cinema succeed? How did cinema spread across different territories and when and why? How did films move from a to b? Who were the audiences and how were they differentiated? What did they think about cinema?

To answer such questions requires a different skill-set to that offered at the average film studies course, which may explain the resistance there has been in some quarters to the new cinema history. It involves of sifting through empirical evidence (local authority archives, government papers, directories, insurance records, newspapers), a lot of calculating, much use of spreadsheets, tables and maps. You have to know about geo-location, mapping tools, and databases. You have to see film, or cinema, as part of other worlds, not as something existing within its own self-justifying bubble. And in doing so you may end up wondering what is so special about cinema after all, and should you be pursuing other questions of which cinema is only a part? You may end up, as one delegate at the conference said, asking not the question ‘What is cinema history?’ but ‘What is cinema history for?’

All of this emerged during a fine conference that provided a platform for a wider range of scholars, many of them young, who are building on the pioneering work of scholars such as Robert C. Allen and Douglas Gomery, who began asking those awkward questions back in the 1980s. It was one of those conferences where papers were broken up into parallel panels, so I only saw a portion of what was said. But those I saw included Alison Loader on the history of Edinburgh’s camera obscura (a pre-cinema attraction with lessons on why we find the projected image so entrancing); Frank Gray on the differences between histories of British film according to the different outlooks of their creators; Isak Thorsen on the Nordisk Film Company, many of whose business papers survive enabling the scholar to see how many print were produced of each title, where they were distributed to, and how the economic peaks and troughs differed from what one would expect.


The Cinema Palace, Smyrna, c.1920, from

The international perspectives were particularly valuable. I enjoyed the papers by Nadi Tofighian on early film screenings in Manila (set within the context of American imperialism) and Dilek Kaya showing us photographs of the seafront of Smyrna, now Izmir in Turkey, pointing out what were once cinemas that are no more. From the Early Cinema in Scotland project itself, Caroline Merz spoke engagingly on ‘cinema colleges’ in Scotland, schools on how to get into the film business which are usually viewed as a racket but one of which did encourage film production that had some relationship with contemporary Scottish life (Football Daft, 1921) but which failed because cold film economics and national aspiration did not add up. From the same project Julia Bohlmann recounted the intriguing history of a local authority-run ‘municipal cinema’ in Kirkintilloch in the 1910s/20s, socialist in management but forced to bow to the market when it came to providing entertainment.

One thing that came across clearly to me was that in cinema history space doesn’t matter. The history of cinema, or cinemagoing, across a whole country is no more important that a so-called micro-history that may look at a single town. There will be come regional differences, in social composition and taste, but a lot of similarities whatever the size of territory. What matters is that you define your territory and systematically analyse the evidence that you find there. That’s why the Early Cinema in Scotland project could focus a seemingly narrow field and yet accommodate an international conference asking as broad a question as What is cinema history? It’s a way of looking.


‘All I saw at the Picture Palace’, postcard c.1910, from the Nicholas Hiley collection

We didn’t get all kinds of cinema history, however. I was surprised that almost nobody spoke about the audience, the people for whom all this activity was created [in fact quite a few did – see comments]. Even among new cinema historians there is a bit too much sentimentality about the art of film (you can see where my prejudices lie) and not enough clear-headed thinking about the social phenomenon of film. Only Chris O’Rourke, author of the excellent London Filmland blog, looked at the audience among the papers I witnessed, with an entertaining account of the unpublished diaries of man-about-town Archibald Walker in 1915 (there was a whole panel on post-war Italian audiences from the Italian Cinema Audiences project but unfortunately I missed it). Walker went to the cinema a lot, but he seldom mentioned what films he saw, and seems mostly to have used cinema as a means to kill time before going to a club or restaurant. Looking at the audiences is a good way of de-romanticising ideas of how people were totally in thrall to the screen. Oftentimes they were not. It just fitted in with their lives overall. So what is cinema history?

And there was more. Samantha Wilson spoke enterprisingly on early scenic films and how they can be read with reference to 18th century ideas of the sublime (not exactly new cinema history, but a kind of film seldom discussed). Scott Curtis came up with a challenging talk on how we should more at the methodologies of early research filmmakers (the kind who filmed scientific or medical processes using the cinematograph as a form of measure), their disciplinary logic providing lessons on how to understand film form. Jon Burrows, author of a forthcoming and much-anticipated economic history of Edwardian cinema (written with Richard Brown), spoke on who were the investors in the first British cinemas (mostly shopkeepers), showing a single graph which would have taken months to compile as he had been through records of 5,000 people in Board of Trade files, cross-referenced with census records. Phyll Smyth told us more about using census records, revealing some of 17,000 or so people in the 1911 UK census who put themselves down as working in the cinema business in one form or another, and the significant presence of women among them.

A team from the British Film Institute told us about their amazing plans to digitise many more films – including every surviving British film 1895-1901 – and were very much of the mind that the general public tends to value the early documentaries and actualities that they have released online so far more than scholars, who tend to keep to the canon of great films and no explore further (the panel was a little unkindly entitled ‘Of the scholars, nothing is to be expected, I am afraid’, a quote from documentary filmmaker Arthur Elton complaining back in the 1950s how historians ignored film as a source).

There’s an organisation, the HoMER Network, under whose auspices the conference was organised, which brings together all this international work into the history of moviegoing, exhibition and reception (hence the acronym). The world map of projects on its website is fascinating, though incomplete (a project on London cinemas pre-1914 on which I worked is missing, for example). The cinema history map is full of holes. But no one hole is more important than another, and filling each one will enrich our understanding, even if ultimately we discover that cinema history is only a part of other histories (social, economic, leisure-based etc). Does cinema history stand alone, and if so why? It’s a good question to keep on asking.

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I remember # 11

On June 25, 2015, in I remember, by Luke McKernan

I haven’t produced one of these in a while…

315. I remember the Gang Show.

316. I remember bagatelle boards.

317. I remember The Flashing Blade, with its thinly-defended but endlessly besieged castle and its thrilling theme song (“You’ve got to fight for what you want for all that you believe / It’s right to fight for what we want to live the way we please / As long as we have done our best then no-one can do more / And life and love and happiness are well worth fighting for”).

318. I remember when a computer game was first exhibited at the Science Museum, and the large number of children it attracted.

319. I remember Lena Zavaroni.

320. I remember Bernie the Bolt.

321. I remember when we had a black-and-white TV set but our neighbours had colour.

322. I remember Ceylon.

323. I remember Hot Wheels.

324. I remember being given a summary of the start of the Count of Monte Cristo by my French teacher and being so exhilarated that I could wait to get out of the classroom and finish the book. And then read everything else by Alexandre Dumas. Which I then did.

325. I remember Going for a Song and trying hard to out-guess the expert in putting a price on the antiques on display.

326. I remember balaclavas.

327. I remember my first London show, which was a dramatisation of the Winnie the Pooh stories. I can just about recall wooden waves that moved to depict the flooding of Piglet’s home.

328. I remember Evonne Goolagong.

329. I remember Bob Beamon’s logic-defying world-record long jump on 1968. Did I really see it on television at the time? I’ve no idea. But I remember it.

330. I remember Marmite fritters.

331. I remember the television set having to warm up.

332. I remember Peter Marinello, Arsenal’s great hope who never was.

333. I remember Lesney the toy manufacturer.

334. I remember Disco 45 and earnestly reading the lyrics to every current pop song.

335. I remember the startling impact of the children’s animated series Mary, Mungo and Midge, which was set in a tower block (instead of the usual village, farm, woodland hideaway etc etc).

336. I remember Totopoly, a horse-racing board game, and that the name of one of the horses was Dorigen.

337. I remember George Chisholm.

338. I remember Panda Cola.

339. I remember How and its mock Native American theme music.

340. I remember having a penpal.

341. I remember that Multi-Coloured Swap Shop killed children’s Saturday morning cinema shows overnight.

342. I remember the Innes Book of Records.

343. I remember a school physical exercise when I was quite young, where we were told to curl ourselves up into a ball, and being hugely proud when I was congratulated for making myself so small. The memory has stayed with me ever since.

344. I remember half-day closing on Wednesdays.

345. I remember Stomu Yamashta.


News of the Week as Shown in Films

On June 14, 2015, in News, Silent film, by Luke McKernan


Motography, 28 November 1914, via the Media History Digital Library

One of my favourite items popping up on my feed reader (thank you NetVibes) is the weekly News of the Week feature from the splendidly named The Pneumatic Rolling-Sphere Carrier Delusion blog. The blog is produced by Joe Thompson, A San Franciscan enthusiast for silent film and cable cars. The blog is mostly about passing on things of interest that have caught his eye, often from the digitised film journals to be found on the indispensable Media History Digital Library. One of these is ‘News of the Week’ or, to give it its full originally name ‘News of the Week as Shown in Films‘.

Throughout the 1910s the film trade journals of the time often had full page advertisements for newsreels which featured images from the various stories in that week’s reel. Newsreels were an exciting new idea, first introduced in France in 1908, in Britain in 1910 and in the USA in 1911. These weekly or bi-weekly collections on news stories weren’t called newsreels until around 1917, but instead went under various names such as animated gazettes, animated newspapers, news pictorials, topicals etc. They emulated the newspapers in their names (such as Pathé’s Animated Gazette, Gaumont Graphic, Eclair Journal) and in their content, and played their part in building up what were emerging as the standard components of a cinema programme to which audiences would return on a regular, reliable basis (main feature, second feature, cartoon, adverts, travel short and newsreel).

In these early years not every cinema took a newsreel, so it was necessary to advertise to the film trade the advantages of exhibiting these compelling news bulletins, and then making sure that they subscribed to your newsreel and not the manifestly inferior product on your rivals. So it was that weekly advertisements appeared with images from the newsreels, demonstrating their variety and freshness.


Motography, 18 March 1916, , via the Media History Digital Library

Most of these advertisements were produced on behalf on the individual newsreel companies. What Joe Thompson has uncovered and is publishing on a weekly basis, however, is a feature put together by a film journal itself, Motography, showing news stories from different newsreels – a newsreel compilation, in effect. Entitled ‘News of the Week as Shown in Films’, it highlights stories from Pathé News, Mutual Weekly, Hearst-Selig News Pictorial, Universal Animated Weekly and others. It seems to have run between between November 1914 and March 1916 at least, so naturally Joe Thompson is reproducing the reports 100 years on to the week (with a bit of background information to each story).

pathenewsMany of these images are unique, and will be the only record of what was produced by these newsreels at this time. The survival rate of early American newsreels is appalling, and frequently not even the paperwork which could given you a listing of the contents of each issue survives, except in advertisements and compilation features such as ‘News of the Week as Shown in Films’. Moreover, there are many contents listing for the American newsreels produced by these journals without illustrations, such as the summaries of Pathé News releases for April 1915 shown left (from Motography, 3 April 1915). There is an an archival recovery project which could be undertaken by someone, to start producing content listing of early American newsreels, culled from the contemporary film journal records that are now available online. There is nothing in America (or anywhere else for that matter) to match the extensive documentation of a national newsreel output as has been done for the News on Screen database, managed by the British Universities Film & Video Council. This near-comprehensive record of the output of British newsreels and magazines from 1910 to 1983 was mostly compiled from company paper work (bi-weekly issue sheets) and some of the gaps that remain in its record could be filled from newsreel advertisements in British film journals, which can be found throughout the 1910s era, though sadly none are available online.

I made use of such listings (not illustrated, but nevertheless with good descriptions of the contents) when writing a book on the Topical Budget newsreel, many years ago now, and I know what can be done. So somebody needs to do it. It would recover the past, it would recover a medium, and it could be used to help identify those newsreels from the period that do survive in archives but whose exact dating remains a mystery until they can match to an authoritative paper record.

Meanwhile we have the weekly publication on ‘News on the Week as Shown on Films’, and if nothing else I encourage you to tap into the newsfeed and see the news of 100 years ago go by once more. (The feature also appears on another of Joe’s blogs, The Big V Riot Squad)

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In Copenhagen

On June 7, 2015, in Cities, Silent film, Travel, by Luke McKernan

Nyhaven, Copenhagen

I’m just back from Copenhagen, a city that I’ve been to four times now in as many years. No complaints about that – it’s a city of great charm and calm. It’s a place through which to drift on an even tenor. The streets are intriguing, the shops (frequently with basement-level windows) are inviting, the people welcoming. Wandering through you are struck by how very much it is not like The Killing or The Bridge or other such Scandi-noir programmes. The Danes must syphon all their angst into into television broadcasts and return to the streets relieved, and at peace.

A typical Copenhagen experience was the Distortion festival. This bills itself as “a week of Emerging Dance Music and Orchestrated Chaos” in which the young of the city reclaim the streets and party to loud music. We passed them as they sat neatly at benches down one street, shivering a bit in the cool evening, awaiting drinks. Then while we were in our restaurant the crowds gathered in squares and the music was turned up (though not so loud that we could hear it much through the restaurant windows). But when we emerged around 11pm the streets were largely deserted. Young Danes need to rebel, but they also like to tidy up behind them and to get a good night’s sleep.


Grundloven 1915, by Julie Laurberg and Franziska Gad, from

I was in Copenhagen for a workshop on newsreels held at the Danish Film Institute. While I was there we were taken round an exhibition that marked the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote in Denmark. The highlight was a film of the ceremonies that marked the occasion, on 5 June 2015. It was made by Julie Laurberg and Franziska Gad, which immediately grabbed attention because there just weren’t that many women making news or documentary films at that time (a few more were involved in fiction films). Who were they? Well thanks to Wikipedia I can tell you that Julie Rasmine Marie Laurberg (1856–1925) was a Danish photographer and strong supporter of women’s rights, who ran a renowned photography business in Copenhagen with her former pupil Franziska Gad (1873–1921), of whom less seems to be known (could she be of the same family as Danish film director Urban Gad, husband of Asta Nielsen?). The company was called Julie Laurberg & Gad and are credited as such at the end of the film.

They are unlikely to have operated the cameras themselves – two cameramen can be seen in the film, though they could be working for a newsreel – and I don’t know this was an one-off or if they made other news or documentary films. But Grundloven was clearly an event that demanded documenting by someone so committed to women’s rights. Grundloven is the name of the Danish constitution, and every time a change is made to the constitution a new version is published. In 1915 the major element was the granting of the vote to women, three years ahead of the United Kingdom, though two years behind Norway – and eight years behind Finland (and, yes, twenty-two years behind New Zealand).


Grundloven 1915, with camera operator

It is a plain film of people in procession watched by crowds, with much cheering when the monarch goes by. Women suffragists are seen dressed in white, processing slowly while bearing banners and flags. The film displays a profound sense of happiness, of a settlement upheld by all and embedded in the national sense of belief. It can’t have been quite like that in actuality, of course, and the film is noticeably divided between the crowds and processors of mostly women in the first half, and the mixed crowds cheering the carriage bearing King Christian X in the second half. But a settlement is a settlement, and this is a settled film, capturing the moment in the way that only film can do, with its mixture of formality and the occasional clumsiness of unplanned reality. It is a film of great charm and calm.

The film can be found on the Danish Film Institute’s outstanding bi-lingual website (Danish/English), where you can find huge amounts of information on Danish film past and present, the Danish filmography, a special section on Carl Th. Dreyer, and a great many video clips. Do take a look.


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Gaston, Maurice and Mary

On May 16, 2015, in Festivals, Film, People, Silent film, by Luke McKernan


Gaston Velle, Maurice Velle and Mary Murillo

Back in 2009 I was set an interesting challenge. I was invited on behalf of a group investigating the lives of British women who had worked in silent film to take on the research into one of those about whom nothing much was known. I picked the name Mary Murillo. I knew nothing of her, and her name was absent from all modern film histories and reference books. But the credits on IMDb showed someone who had had a career as a scriptwriter in America and Britain in the 1910s and 20s, so I set out to find what I could find.

It has been quite a journey. My initial findings were published towards the end of 2009 on my Bioscope blog on silent film. I used her story as an example of just what could be done for an obscure figure with the online resources available, particularly family history sites, as encouragement for others to go out and do the same. It was an example of digging around among the minutiae of film history, but so what? As I wrote at the end of the blog post:

Why research someone so obscure? You have to ask? Is there any nobler activity out there than to recover a life? Certainly it is always excellent when anyone recovers a corner of history that has been lost or ignored, however small it may seem. It’s a contribution to knowledge, and telling us something that we didn’t know before is a whole lot better way to spend your time as a researcher than re-telling that which we already know. So go out and do likewise – and then tell the world about it.

The post proved to be a popular one, and I know that it has encouraged a number of people to pursue similar topics. What I discovered was that Mary Murillo was a major scriptwriter in 1910s Hollywood who had been abandoned by film history. She was not a great talent, but she was a highly competent professional, who at her peak was the leading scenarist at the Fox Film Corporation and the muse of choice for such stars as Theda Bara and Norma Talmadge. She was born in Bradford in 1888 of Anglo-Irish stock. She travelled out to America in 1908 with the hope of making it as a stage actress, adopting the name Mary Murillo (having been raised as Mary O’Connor). She toured the country for a number of years without making much of an impression at all, then around 1913 tried a different tack and starting writing film scenarios. She was an almost instant success. Within four years she was earning a reported $25,000 a year (that’s around $387,000, or £245,000 in today’s money). She started with the husband-and-wife team of Phillips Smalley and Lois Weber, moved to Fox, went independent in 1917, then became lead scenarist for the major US film star of the immediate post-war period, Norma Talmadge.

She also proved to be quite a character. Proudly independent, she was never a one for paying bills, and left a trail of chaos behind her. A New York Times report in 1923 tells of their sheriff of her New York home by a deputy sheriff in pursuit of defaulted payments. The law seized “tapestries alleged to be valuable, a mahogany grand piano, phonograph and a quantity of records, a lot of silver and a leopard skin”. But Mary had moved on.

She had moved back to Britain and started writing scripts for Stoll Film Studios, before getting involved in setting up new film companies with figures such as Edgar Wallace, then moved to France and played a prominent role in scripting some of the first French talkies. Thereafter her actions became hard to trace – one credit on a British feature film in 1934, then nothing until she popped up in London supporting Belgian refugees in 1941. And, after that, she disappeared.


The Other Man’s Wife (USA 1919), with its feminist theme, looks to be among the most interesting films scripted by Mary Murillo, but sadly it is a lost film. The advertisement is from Moving Picture World; the angry review is from Variety

I was pleased with the blog post, but frankly the research wasn’t that great when I did not know when she died, whether or not she had married, whether there were any children, and what happened to her for the best part of a decade. I knew the names of her sisters but not of her parents, and there were many puzzling holes in the biography. I had found just the one photograph of her. In part the problem was caused by someone who worked under a pseudonym, while Mary O’Connor is not an uncommon name, so there were many false leads. But there I left it, having achieved the main point of showing how a life could be reconstructed, at least in part, and why it was good to do so.

But these things do not leave you alone. A year later, while proof-reading a book on colour film history, I stumbled upon the information that she had been heavily involved in promoting a French colour film process, Francita, in Britain (where it was called Opticolor), during the mid-1930s. The business had ended disastrously, but it was clear that she was still in the film business and in earnest pursuit of her next fortune. New resources also appeared, notably the Media History Digital Library of digitised film journals (mostly American) and the British Newspaper Archive, which added extra information on her career, albeit most of it advertisements for films that she had written. But I left the story to one side once again.

Then, around a year ago, I was asked by a publisher if I could convert my blog post into an essay for a book on women’s film history. I did so rather sloppily at first, then realised I had to get back properly into the research once again, and answer those unanswered questions if I could.


Gaston Velle’s La fée aux pigeons (France 1906), National Film & Sound Archive, Canberra, via Silent London

The results were startling, at least to me. The gates were opened by the discovery of her family, via entries made on the family history site Ancestry which hadn’t been there in 2009. I discovered that she had been married (or was partnered, as there was no record of a marriage) to a French cameramen, Maurice Velle, who was the son of Gaston Velle, a revered figure in early film history for the glorious magic films he made for Pathé in the 1900s. She and Maurice had had two daughters, who were both still alive. Mary had used three surnames at different times – Murillo, O’Connor and Velle – so it was no wonder it had been so hard to find certain family history information about her.

Indeed the family did not known much about her early history or parentage, but now I had the bit between my teeth. I found her death date (she died in 1944, registered under the name Velle), while her parents were Irishman Edward O’Connor and Yorkshirewoman Sarah Sunter – or so it appeared, because there were oddities in the records that just didn’t add up, including an American step-sister Isabel Daintry (who was a minor film actress in the 1910s) for whom I just could not account.


Mary Murillo’s grave in Hillingdon cemetery

Finally I found enough of the story through a mixture of deductive logic and luck for it to start to make sense. Mary was born illegitimate, father unknown. Some years before her mother Sarah had emigrated to America as a newly-wed, returning a year later with a young daughter (Isabel) after her husband died. Mary was born a few years later. Six years after that Sarah married Irishman Edward O’Connor, a Roman Catholic and a successful businessman. They had three daughters, and Edward brought up all five as O’Connors. Though they maintained roots in Yorkshire, the family led a cosmopolitan life, spending time in France and Ireland.

Engrossing stuff. But why had I got so engrossed in someone else’s family history? It’s hard to say. I wasn’t pursuing the story through a particular passion for her films. It was just a task that I had set for myself. I knew the territory, and there was the triumph of discovery.

And there was that recovery of a life. Because what emerged was the story of a survivor, who adapted ingeniously in face of the demands of a hard world. I don’t know what she knew of her real family history; she brought up her children to believe that they had Irish ancestry, when in fact they had none, and strongly asserted her Irishness in a 1917 interview. She appears to have revered her father (though he wasn’t her father) but she and her sisters did not always see much of their parents, as they were dispatched to convent boarding schools at a young age – a pattern she then repeated in adult life by leaving her own daughters in boarding schools. The father was still more absent after disputes with Mary over the business of the Opticolor colour film process, which it turns out had been his invention. She masked her past through an assumed name, found a fortune and a little fame (as much as a female scriptwriter was ever going to get), crafting expert vehicles for women film stars who needed to display emotional triumphs won after facing romantic dilemmas with a moral twist. She owed nothing to anyone (even while she often did), kept on moving, and adapted to the changing world of film far better than most of her contemporaries. Her story illustrates the great changes in film production over its first forty years, from a curious addition to variety theatre programmes to the era of the big film studios. Her husband’s father had begun his film career in the 1890s with the Lumière brothers; she ended hers working for J. Arthur Rank (in his Religious Films division, where a colleague was the young Peter Rogers, of later Carry On fame). Like her heroines, she dreamed grand dreams, and was a survivor.

Above all, her story shows the importance of women’s film history for understanding film history. The silent era of film has attracted a lot of interest from historians of women’s film, because of the relatively large number of women involved in the industry on the creative side in these formative years. It wasn’t exactly a utopia, but in the era before the major Hollywood studios had fully established themselves, there were opportunities for independent spirits such as Alice Guy, Lois Weber, Nell Shipman, Elvira Notari and Esfir Shub to direct films with a distinctive vision (only one woman, Dorothy Arzner, directed a Hollywood feature film in the 1930s). There were also numerous women editors, scriptwriters, producers, camera operators, costume designers and studio owners. They were still very much in the minority, and often had to fight too hard for the few opportunities that came their way, but they were nevertheless beneficiaries of the changes in society that were causing the role of women to be re-evaluated for the better. However, histories such Mary Murillo’s do not just show how women struggled against the odds to gain some foothold in a new industry. Their presence and their creative input must make us challenge received understanding about where the significant points in film history lie. It is not a history of the works of great men (Griffith, Chaplin etc) whose fortunes a few women echoed on the fringes of the industry. It is a history that is enriched by a fuller understanding of all that women brought to film in its developing years – as producers, performers, commentators and audiences. We see film history differently. Mary Murillo was important because she was Mary Murillo.


Advertisement for The Heart of Wetona, scripted by Mary Murillo, Moving Picture World, 4 January 1919, via Media History Digital Project

At which point we must look to her films after all. This June/July, the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna will have a short strand on the films of Gaston Velle, Maurice Velle and Mary Murillo. Entitled The Velle Connection 1900-1930: Gaston, Maurice and Mary Murillo, it has been co-curated by Marian Lewinsky and myself, and brings together some of the best of the trio’s surviving films. Gaston Velle’s féerie films will attract the most attention. He was one of those several magicians of the 1890s (his father Joseph was also a magician) who took up film as an extension of their magic skills. He made some truly magical films in France and Italy, among them Japonaiseries (1904), La Poule aux oeufs d’or (1905) and La peine du talion (1906). There is a particular grace and style to his films which mark them out as different to the ostensibly similar films of his better-known contemporaries Georges Méliès and Segundo de Chomón. Unlike his daughter-in-law, he did not adapt to changing times, and had left the industry by 1914, his kind of film having lost favour with audiences. Now his surviving works can be found all over YouTube, enchanting all those who find them, more than a hundred years on.


Huguette Duflos and Charles de Rochefort in La Princesse aux clowns, via Media History Digital Library

His son Maurice we know less about. He was a cinematographer on a number of French feature films in the 1920s before he turned his attention to developing the Francita colour cinematography system. He was a skilful cameraman whose work is more than worthy of rediscovery, as the sumptuous films on show at Bologna will demonstrate: L’Île enchantée (France 1927) and especially the little-known La Princesse aux clowns (France 1924) for which Mary Murillo provided the English titles. La Princesse aux clowns, a frothy but lavish tale of a reluctant prince and his determined bride, feels very much like a Velle/O’Connor family film, with its theme of stage performance echoing Gaston’s pre-film career, and a sly reference to a Murillo painting in the intertitles. The director was André Hugon, and the story was by Jean-José Frappa, but this is the O’Connor/Velle family as auteur, the meeting point of stage and film, Britain and France, Hollywood and Europe, prince and princess.

Mary Murillo will be represented at Bologna by La Princesse aux clowns; by The Heart of Wetona (USA 1919), an intriguingly-themed and beautifully-shot Western with Norma Talmadge as a half-breed Indian torn between love and tribal loyalty; by the early talkie Mon gosse de père (France 1930), with Adolphe Menjou; and the charming My Old Dutch (UK 1934), directed by Sinclair Hill. Around dozen of Murillo’s films survive, and at least fourteen scripts. But her real creativity was in the life that she led.

The essay based on my original blog post will be published in Doing Women’s Film History, edited by Christine Gledhill and Julia Knight, courtesy of University of Illinois Press, in November 2015.


  • My original Bioscope blog post, Searching for Mary Murillo, describes how I went about finding what I knew about her up to 2009
  • There is a more up-to-date biography on the Women and Silent British Cinema site, and her Wikipedia page has the basics
  • The Bologna festival runs 27 June to 4 July and has strands on Ingrid Bergman, Leo McCarey, Buster Keaton, jazz films, and Technicolor, the Velle/Murillo section and a great deal more over its eight days
  • The BFI DVD release Fairy Tales has examples of Gaston Velle’s Pathé trick films with beautiful stencil (artificial) colouring
  • The lives of many early women filmmakers can be found on the Women Film Pioneers Project website

Two birds with one stone

On May 10, 2015, in Politics, by Luke McKernan


The UK 2015 general election map

I’ve been watching the general election with a mixture of fascination, horror, bewilderment and exhilaration. I disagree with all those who thought it was a dull campaign – it may have been very stage managed, but that is because elections are won on television, not on soapboxes, as a survey of which media most influenced voters has made clear: 62% of those surveyed said TV made been most influential in forming them about the election, followed by newspapers at 25%, websites at 17%, radio at 14%, and talking to people at 14%. It has been hugely entertaining and engrossing. The campaign then culminated in a dramatic victory for the Conservatives that seemingly no one predicted (though plenty now tell us that they saw it coming). Personally, as a life-long Labour supporter I felt crushed. Locally I was nevertheless elated, as UKIP (my near neighbours, as previously reported) were thrown out of Rochester. Intellectually, I was fascinated by how strategy trumps everything, if it is aligned to public feeling – which seems to be the root cause of Labour’s relative failure.

The figures from the election are particularly engrossing, and inevitably there is anguished debate about the peculiarities of the first-pass-the-post system, which led to the Scottish Nationalist Party gaining 1.4m votes and 56 seats, while the Liberal Democrats got 2.4m votes and 8 seats, while UKIP enjoyed 3.8m votes and got just 1 seat. Something is not right. Of course, the first-past-the-post system spares us (most of the time) from coalitions and hung parliaments, and it works as a corrective against some passing fashions (if there had been proportional representation for the 2015 general election then UKIP would have ended up with 83 seats). The UK voted firmly against moving from the first-past-the-post system in a referendum held in 2011, so change isn’t going to happen any time soon, if ever.

But I have a plan. It occurred to me over coffee at a sunny pavement cafe, and looking at my notes jotted down on the newspaper, it still looks interesting. So here’s my proposal for UK electoral reform.

We should keep the first-past-the-post system. However, while the 650 first places (or 600 as they will become with the planned electoral boundary changes) should continue to be the means by which Members of Parliament are selected, we should take into consideration all those who came second. Second-placed parties in each constituency, if they reached a sufficiently high enough figure – say two-thirds of the the number of votes cast for the winner – should be eligible for election to the second chamber, currently the House of Lords. Obviously this should not be a mechanism for creating a lot of unwanted peers, so the second chamber would need renaming. There should probably have to be a fixed number of them, let’s say 200, so that having come second and with over two-thirds the number of votes of the winner wouldn’t automatically qualify you for the second chamber – the actual number of votes you received would then come into play, as you would need to be among the top two hundred of second votes cast (obviously this would only work with the more balanced number of voters per constituency that the boundary changes aim to deliver). The remainder of what was formerly called the House of Lords (which does not have a fixed membership and currently has 779 members) would be made up of peers nominated by the various parties, as happens now. Hereditary peers and bishops should, of course, be got rid off as some as would be humanely possible.


Second-place votes in the UK general election 2015, from City A.M.

So how did the second votes pan out this time around? The first places went Conservatives 331, Labour 232, SNP 56, Liberal Democrats 8, DUP 8, Others 15. The second place votes were Labour 253, Conservatives 181, UKIP 120, Liberal Democrats 63, Plaid Cymru 6, Greens 4, SNP 3, Others 20. These are figures for all constituencies, of course, and my model would select only the top 200 out of the 630 second votes cast. I don’t have the figures to be able to calculate this, but roughly we can say that it would be 39% seats for Labour, 28% Conservatives, 18% UKIP and 10% Liberal Democrats. The actual second chamber proportions would be determined by the nominated seats, which would be roughly in proportion to the first choice votes in the election.

What would this give us? It would give us the House of Parliament populated by 650 MPs (600 come 2020), representing constituencies through the first-past-the-post system, which the country has only recently confirmed is the system that it trusts. We would get a semi-elected second chamber, based on votes cast in the general election, which would be different in its political balance to the first chamber while still reflecting popular choice, thereby serving as a corrective to the first chamber while not being grossly different in composition and making the business of government more difficult. The voting preferences of the British public would be more accurately represented, so there would be fewer people feeling that their vote had been wasted. There would be a check against people being voted in just because they were second, through the need to reach a two-thirds figure, and then to come in the top 200 of those that qualified under a such a qualification. There would still be the opportunity for nominated members to the second chamber, ensuring that people with a long record of public service (and party loyalty) could continue to serve a function in government. The absurdities of the House of Lords would be got rid of. There would be an extra frisson to election night as candidates coming second would know they had a chance of getting elected to the second chamber, but would have to await results elsewhere before they knew for certain. It should also be an improvement on any alternative vote system, where one person effectively ends up voting for more than one party – this system is only about first preference votes, so better reflects what the electorate actually wants.

Well, I think it looks good. Of course there are problems with it. A major argument against it is that a third of constituencies would end up with more than one representative, while the others would have just the one. I’m still thinking about this, but maybe it could be resolved by the 200 being selected ultimately not by number of votes cast but by proportionate geographical representation. Another solution would be not to limit the second-placers to 200 but to grant a place to all 600 of them, greatly reducing the number of nominated ‘peers’ (and of course getting rid of all the bishops and hereditary peers that remain), though the corrective against minor-placed second militates against this (e.g. if a constituency chose its MP with 30,000 votes and the second person got an insufficiently representative 5,000). Of course it would mean a second chamber filled with UKIP lunatics, but if that’s what the nation wants, then perhaps that what the nation should get, if only to see the folly of their ways, and then vote them out the next time.

Electoral reform, and an elected second chamber. Well I’d vote for it.

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Well, here we are in front of the elephants

On April 22, 2015, in Everyday, Video, Web, by Luke McKernan

YouTube is ten years old. On 23 April 2005, Jawed Karim stood before a video camera wielded by Yakov Lapitsky in front of the elephant enclosure at San Diego Zoo. Karim gave the anxious look at the camera we all give when we sense that filming has started and we ought to have to say something, and then uttered the immortal words, “Well, here we are in front of the elephants”. There wasn’t much else he could say – there were the elephants, it was a self-evidently true statement. Nevertheless he added that “these guys have really, really, really long trunks”, a statement that could be challenged both for its irrelevance and for the fact that very few animals other than elephants have trunks, so theirs are not so much long as just about the right size. “And that’s pretty much all there is to say” were his concluding words, and the video was over – all nineteen seconds of it.

And that was the first video to be uploaded onto YouTube, entitled Me at the Zoo. It is not, on first sight, the most notable of starts for a revolution in how we communicate, but Jawed Karim and his colleagues were not then aware of what they were going to unleash upon the world. But Me at the Zoo is a revolutionary film in its way. It is a film without purpose, a passing statement, a shrug of the shoulders expressed in video. It does not entertain, instruct, make a point, debate or have any kind of structure to it. Because of the platform, the cheapness of the camera equipment, the ease of uploading, and the bandwidth, here is something which we had not seen in moving images beforehand – video as non-event. This I think is part of what makes YouTube so special. It is a home to much creativity, as well as much illegality, but although that is marvellous in itself, it is not fundamentally new. But film made simply for the purpose of filling space, film that shows us off-guard, not performing – that is something that commercial film and television has seldom allowed space for, if ever. The home movie has to a degree performed this function historically, but home movies are – as a rule – purposeful. Economics has also decided their content, since film and processing cost money and what you shot on your cinefilm has to represent best value. The avant garde has tried to do away with film’s habitual structures, and plays with time and space in a way that seems close to what YouTube encourages, but ultimately the avant garde is every bit as studied in form and technique as conventional film.

Me at the Zoo, and the countless of videos that have followed it, have been created because there was a space to be filled. People have filled that space with all manner of videos, many of which have a clear purpose (to entertain, to instruct, to insult, to argue, to show off, and so on), but just as many have no more purpose than to say, here I am, or I’ve nothing much to say today, or I’ve just seen this so I videoed it. And then even those videos which do have some sort of purpose – often those of people saying hello to friends, sharing information, or responding to someone else’s personal video – often these are most fascinating for the moments beyond the main action. We see people preparing to film, or thinking what to say next, just being themselves. Film traditionally has never found space for such moments. It has always been so studied, so concerned to be an art form, worried about cutting out waste. YouTube reveals us at points when we are arguably at our most interesting, when we’re still thinking, when we’re not yet sure what we want to say. It has put the private into a public space, and changed our ideas of both utterly.

I originally wrote this blog post in 2010 to mark the fifth anniversary of YouTube, on the British Library’s Moving Image blog. As that blog is now no more, I have reposted what I wrote on this site, merely updating the first sentence. The arguments still stand, even if YouTube is moving all the more away from its anarchic roots to a service more akin to a broadcaster, with channels, an increasing percentage of professional product, and omnipresent advertising. I should point out that posts from Moving Image were absorbed into the BL’s active Sound & Vision blog (though finding them is not easy), while the archived original blog can be found on the UK Web Archive.

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Popular science

On April 19, 2015, in Film, People, Publications, Silent film, by Luke McKernan

The birth of the popular science film – Francis Martin Duncan appears as the scientist in Cheese Mites, the notorious film he made for Charles Urban in 1903. The full film was only recently discovered by Oliver Gaycken (lurking on YouTube under a made-up title)

Two books are to be published shortly which cover the great work undertaken by some of those who worked for non-fiction film producer Charles Urban, about whom I’ve been known to say a thing of two before now. Both come warmly recommended.

devicesThe first is Oliver Gaycken’s Devices of Curiosity: Early Cinema and Popular Science, published by Oxford University Press in June (in hardback, paperback and Kindle editions). This is a study of the popular science film from its origins in 1903 through to the mid-teens. This was an extraordinarily productive period, in which a tradition of magic lantern lectures was superseded by the new medium of cinema, which in its formative years embraced every kind of screen entertainment as it tried to work out what best captured the audience’s imagination. Films showing scientific and mechanical processes, natural history and discovery were widely popular, and talented filmmakers such as Urban’s employees Francis Martin Duncan (particularly championed by Gaycken) and Percy Smith ingeniously combined good science with good entertainment, exemplifying Urban’s motto ‘To amuse and entertain is good, to do both and instruct is better’. American academic Oliver Gaycken has become the leading authority in this branch of cinema: very good on the details of the films, on their cultural contexts, and on the personalities that created them.

The Four Seasons (1921), made by Raymond T. Ditmars for Charles Urban (the surviving copy was found in the Netherlands, hence the Dutch intertitles)

bushmasterThe second is Dan Etherley’s Bushmaster: Raymond Ditmars and the Hunt for the World’s Largest Viper, also published in June, by Arcade Publishing. Its subject is Raymond T. Ditmars, less well known in silent film studies, but a celebrated figure in his time and an important one in understanding how we have been turning nature into screen entertainment over the past hundred years or so. Ditmars (1876-1942) was curator of reptiles at New York’s Bronx Zoo who successfully popularised natural history for American audiences through film. With Urban he made the pioneering documentary features The Four Seasons (1921, recently made available online) and the mildly controversial Evolution (1925). It is appropriate that this forerunner of the work of David Attenborough should be written about by a naturalist and producer who worked on Life of Mammals and Planet Earth. Bushmaster combines biography with natural history by documenting the life of Ditmars and following in his footsteps in the South American jungle in search of the world’s largest viper.

It’s great to see how Urban’s talented acolytes are getting discovered and written about. Percy Smith has been the subject of a BBC4 documentary, Walter Booth’s films featured prominently in the recent BFI Science Fiction film season, Edward Turner’s experiments with colour cinematography went viral a couple of years ago, and Cecil Hepworth (one of Urban’s first employees but best-known as a producer of fiction films) will be the subject of a biographical study by Simon Brown. And there are other possible projects in the offing…

Do look out for both titles, and tell your friends.


The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane

On April 9, 2015, in Literature, by Luke McKernan
William Hale White (portrait by Arthur Hughes)

William Hale White
(portrait by Arthur Hughes)

Some thirty years ago, when I had little money but a great urge to discover all the writers not then known to me, I would scour the second-hand bookshops and would hope to pay 20p for some battered paperback, 40p if it looked to be of special interest. One day, while browsing through the few books on the shelf of a bric-a-brac store in Herne Bay I cam across an attractive-looking hardback volume with a dusty orange jacket, issued by Oxford University Press in the 1930s. The publisher had clearly considered the work to be something worthy of the best treatment, yet I had heard of neither writer nor novel, though I thought myself (young as I was) to be quite the expert in English literature. It was The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane, by Mark Rutherford, first published in 1887. It had some astronomical price – it may have been as much as 80p – but intrigue outweighed impecuniosity, and I bought it. I have it with me still, and were some disaster to strike and I was forced to part with all of my books, bar a dozen, it would be one of those I would have to keep.

The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane is a novel quite unlike anything else in English literature, bar the other works of ‘Mark Rutherford’, who is himself different to anyone else in the literary canon. The name was a pseudonym, as was that of the supposed editor of the novel, ‘Reuben Shapcott’, both being names used by the British novelist, journalist and civil servant William Hale White (1831-1913). White wrote a great deal under his own name (non-fiction books and journalism) but his six novels were composed by an invented author and edited by another invention, whose editorial comments shape our understanding of both the texts and their supposed creator. It is an ingenious, mysterious device, and leaves one not knowing whether to call White the author of the books, or Rutherford, and if the latter then it is hard to say exactly who Mark Rutherford is, since he is not exactly White but an oblique reflection of him. I will settle for White, and think of Rutherford as a character, which he is in White’s first two novels, The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford (1881) and Mark Rutherford’s Deliverance (1885).

White’s chief subject was the decline in religious faith, not an uncommon theme for a Victorian, but his precise concentration on religious Dissent or Non-conformity (Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists and other Christian sects at odds with the established Church of England) and his focus on humble lives lived in undistinguished small towns give his works their particular flavour. He writes of how great changes are wrought almost imperceptibly by degrees in small places – and this is precisely the theme of The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane.

It was his third novel after the two pseudo-autobiographies of Mark Rutherford (whom Reuben Shapcott reports as having died at the end of the second, so that the subsequent novels are effectively posthumous publications, needing Shapcott’s intervention to bring them into print). The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane is more obviously a novel in form than its predecssors, though its central character (it would be misleading to call him its hero), Zachariah Coleman, a printer, political radical and “moderate Calvinist”, shares much of Mark Rutherford’s Dissenting background and growing scepticism towards received ideas.

The first half of the novel is set in the mid-1810s, at a time when a repressive British political establishment under Lord Liverpool sought to crush any attempts at reform. It opens with the visit paid to England by the newly-crowned King Louis XVIII of France, representing the destruction of the hopes many had in the French revolution. Coleman is rescued from a brawl by the dashing Major Maitland, and joins Maitland and others in a secret group dedicated to political revolution of some kind. However this is no exciting narrative of daring deeds performed in the dark shadows of the reactionary and oppressive regime of the early 1800s. Coleman and his fellow conspirators seemed doomed to failure, never achieving anything, pushed to the margins of history. They become involved in the march of the Blanketeers, the ill-advised plan in March 1817 for Lancashire weavers to march to London to petition the Prince Regent on their desperate state, which was broken up violently by troops before most had left Manchester, but not in the more famous Peterloo Massacre of two years later.

The crux of the matter is expressed in a speech given by Pauline Caillaud, daughter of one of Coleman’s fellow reformers, when Zachariah complains of the futility of their efforts.

Stop, stop, Mr. Coleman. Here is the mistake you make. Grant it all – grant your achievement is ridiculously small – is it not worth the sacrifice of two or three like you and me to accomplish it? That is our error. We think ourselves of such mighty importance. The question is, whether we are of such importance, and whether the progress of the world one inch will not be cheaply purchased by the annihilation of a score of us. You believe in what you call salvation! You would struggle and die to save a soul; but in reality you can never save a man; you must be content to struggle and die to save a little bit of him – to prevent one habit from descending to his children. You won’t save him wholly, but you may arrest the propagation of an evil trick, and so improve a trifle – just a trifle – whole generations to come.

The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane is about the changes that are gradually wrought in society, but which are beyond that which the individual has the capacity to see. White makes pointed use of the stars as a metaphor – he was a keen astronomer – of the hugeness of time and space and the littleness of the human being in the face of such immensity. And yet the stars move, and eventually, imperceptibly, there is a clearer view of the heavens. This marvellous passage expresses the point, and is typical of White’s finest style:

He was in no mood to rest, and walked on all that night. Amidst all his troubles he could not help being struck with the solemn, silent procession overhead. It was perfectly clear — so clear that the heavens were not a surface, but a depth, and the stars of a lesser magnitude were so numerous and brilliant that they obscured the forms of the greater constellations. Presently the first hint of day appeared in the east. We must remember that this was the year 1817, before, so it is commonly supposed, men knew what it was properly to admire a cloud or a rock. Zachariah was not, therefore, on a level with the most ordinary subscriber to a modern circulating library. Nevertheless he could not help noticing — we will say he did no more — the wonderful, the sacredly beautiful drama which noiselessly displayed itself before him. Over in the east the intense deep blue of the sky softened a little. Then the trees in that quarter began to contrast themselves against the background and reveal their distinguishing shapes. Swiftly, and yet with, such even velocity that in no one minute did there seem to be any progress compared with the minute preceding, the darkness was thinned, and resolved itself overhead into pure sapphire, shaded into yellow below and in front of him, while in the west it was still almost black. The grassy floor of the meadows now showed its colour, grey green, with the dew lying on it, and in the glimmer under the hedge might be discerned a hare or two stirring. Star by star disappeared, until none were left, save Venus, shining like a lamp till the very moment almost when the sun’s disc touched the horizon. Half a dozen larks mounted and poured forth that ecstasy which no bird but the lark can translate. More amazing than the loveliness of scene, sound, and scent around him was the sense of irresistible movement. He stopped to watch it, for it grew so rapid that he could almost detect definite pulsations. Throb followed throb every second with increasing force, and in a moment more a burning speck of gold was visible, and behold it was day! He slowly turned his eyes away and walked onwards.

This belief leads to the controversial second half of the book, when most of the main characters have been killed off and the action moves twenty years on to a small Midlands town with a new set of characters seemingly unconnected to anything that has gone before, beyond the Dissenting religion and its ministers. The setting is Cowfold, based on Bedford, where White grew up, and the focal point is an ill-fated marriage between a forward-thinking workman (whose father turns out to be an old friend of Zachariah Coleman) and the thoughtless daughter of the minister of Tanner’s Lane Chapel. At last we have the reason for the book’s title, with the revolution being a small rebellion against the certainties of the hypocritical minister and his worthless son. The lesson is that change – against a religion which had come to revere dogma for its own sake over any true sense of God – has come about because of the struggles over those from twenty years before.

In truth the point is not made as well as it could be, particularly as the political radicalism is largely absent from the Cowfold section of the book. Walter Allen, in The English Novel, complains that The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane is “broken-backed”, but White is trying to show how some actions and their consequences can take place very far apart, so that it is necessary that the Cowfold incidents are remote from the previous action in London and Manchester. That this is not obvious is perhaps the novel’s weakness, but the very perversity of it makes us think about just what it is that we have been reading. White (or Mark Rutherford) is not much interested in narrative construction or character. Anyone trying to adapt Tanner’s Lane for the screen would give up in despair at a work which wilfully rushes over moments of high drama then focusses obsessively on minutiae. The novel’s extraordinary last words, when we want to know what happens to the two characters we most care about, make this clear – “What became of Zachariah and Pauline? At present I do not know.” We have not been reading a story; it is more of an anti-story. There are no happy endings, indeed there is no ending at all. We have been shown a passage of time, and of how changes come about over time.

Nevertheless there is plenty of historical detail to attract us. White is exceptionally good at illustrating the place of religion in the lives of those in the first half of the nineteenth century. He observes and understands the petty, crucial details of ordinary, overlooked lives – he has an eye for how common homes are decorated, the things that people take pride in, that they take for granted yet which powerfully signify their lives. He paints a sympathetic and well-informed picture of the political radicals of that time, and stirs us with his passion against injustice:

Talk about the atrocities of the Revolution! All the atrocities of the democracy heaped together ever since the world began would not equal, if we had any gauge by which to measure them, the atrocities perpetrated in a week upon the poor, simply because they are poor; and the marvel rather is, not that there is every now and then a September massacre at which all the world shrieks, but that such horrors are so infrequent. Again, I say, let no man judge communist or anarchist till he has asked for leave to work, and a “Damn your eyes!” has rung in his ears.

Above all White writes beautifully. It is the language of someone brought up in the old tradition of the Bible and sermons, from a time when ministers were revered figures in a community and people would travel long distances to hear the finest exponents speak from the pulpit. White, like Mark Rutherford, trained as minister before succumbing to religious doubts, and his language stems from the church, just as its tone is that of one who must hold onto belief even as belief fades. There is not a word wasted, nor a line that is not worth reading twice to get the full measure of it.

White is not much read these days, except among a small coterie of academics, and his books are all out of print (Oxford last published The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane in paperback in 1990). White wrote three further novels – Miriam’s Schooling (1893), Catherine Furze (1893) and Clara Hopgood (1896). Of these I’ve only read Miriam’s Schooling (which is set in Cowfold), and that some years ago, but having just re-read Tanner’s Lane and found myself as entranced as I was thirty years ago, I must visit them all. I hope others may be intrigued enough to do so too.


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