Only the screen was silent

Children queuing in a cinema foyer c.1910
Children queuing in a cinema foyer c.1910

A perpetual buzz of conversation mingled with the crackle of peanut shells that littered the floor like snow in winter. Every step in any direction crunched … Nearby, children were reading the titles out loud for the benefit of their foreign parents. Some even translated the words directly into Yiddish. Babies cried, kids were slapped, and an endless procession to the ‘ladies and gents’ was greeted by outraged cries of ‘Siddown’. Only the screen was silent.

On Friday 19 October I am presenting a show at the Canterbury Festival, entitled Only the Screen was Silent. It’s really an illustrated talk with a couple of actors, but the festival has classified it under ‘Theatre & Dance’, which is fun. The two actors are Neil Brand and Liz Fost, who provide voices of taken from contemporary documents, memoirs and oral history recordings of those who were young when cinema first came to London, in the years before the First World War.

The show is based on research I undertook some years ago at Birkbeck, University of London, as one of a set of projects governed by the AHRB Centre for British Film & Television Studies (it doesn’t exist any longer, but its website lingers on). The project was called The London Project, and it looked at how and why the motion picture industry arose in London. My co-researcher Simon Brown looked at the film businesses; I looked at cinemas and their audiences. The main output of our research was a database of London film businesses and film venues up to 1914, which happily remains online and has proved useful to quite a number of researchers ever since, though it is frustrating that it has not been possible to update the database or indeed continue the research to cover later years or a wider territory.

As well as producing the database, we published assorted papers based on our researches. One of these was my paper ‘”Only the Screen Was Silent”: Memories of children’s cinema-going in London before the First World War’, Film Studies issue 10, Spring 2007. It’s an account of what the experience of early cinema-going was, based on memoir evidence, and structured around the regular stages of going to the cinema – obtaining the money, buying the ticket, entering the cinema, eating, watching the films, sitting in the dark, and so on. The argument, which was about the socialisation of cinema, came out of the evidence of the memories of those who were children at the time. It therefore required lots of quotations, such as that from Harry Blacker (taken from his 1974 memoir of the Jewish East End, Just Like it Was: Memoirs of the Mittel East) given at the top of this post.

It was when reading out this paper at a conference that its dramatic qualities seemed apparent. The voices had to be heard. So I roped in two actors, one for the male voices, one for the female, threw in a contemporary film (an episode of The Perils of Pauline) to demonstrate what it was that so enthralled the young audience of the time, and hey presto we had a show. It went down well at the 2011 British Silent Film Festival, and now it’s appearing before a general audience rather than a film specialist one, and it’ll be interesting to see how it is received. My feeling is that any audience will automatically empathise with the tales of a time and space where children ruled. For instance, Willy Goldman’s classic East End My Cradle (1940) vividly recalls a world where, unlike almost anywhere else in society, children were in charge:

It was a very eventful afternoon at the cinema. There was as much drama off the screen as on, due to sporadic conflicts that broke out in various parts of the hall when a porter tried to eject children who were attempting to see the show through a second time. The management had invented a system of coloured tickets to keep a check-up on this kind of thing. Maybe this was necessary in view of the habit prevalent among children of seeing a show through twice. But the complications it brought! Children were not to be ejected easily after waiting a whole week to get inside the cinema.

It was such fun finding the evidence. I started off by scouring the shelves of libraries for all of the published memoirs I could find, but then I visited every borough archive in London to look up unpublished memoirs – sometimes just a few pages – digging out any mentions of cinema-going in the pre-WWI period. I made great use of the transcript of oral history interviews undertaken by Paul Thompson in the 1970s, which resulted in his book The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society (1975). Many of the interviewees (who were all children in the Edwardian era) came from London; all were asked about the entertainments they went to see. The recordings themselves are held by the British Library; the transcripts are at the National Social Policy and Soial Change Archive at the University of Essex. I also made good use of the collection of working class autobiographies held by Brunel University Library.

They were such vivid and eloquent accounts. Some were clearly anecdotes well-polished and rehearsed through much re-telling; others had the startling freshness of a lost memory revived. Here, for example, from the Paul Thompson is part of an interview with James Malone, born to a very poor Highgate family in 1904 (fascinatingly he went on to represent Britain in the 1928 and 1932 Olympic Games as a wrestler). He is being asked about his mother:

Did she ever go out to enjoy herself?

She used to go to the cinema with my father. By the way she behaved and other women too in a cinema – they used to live with it, they used to talk to the actors. She used to say to ‘em, look behind you, and – he never done it. He done it, you see, it was very good indeed. They lived with it. Well I remember my mother coming out of the cinema with my father and I was very – very young and I remember what she said to him she said, Jim – she should never have married that man, he’ll never be any good to her. Now that’s what I call – living with a picture, that is true. Yes.

How often would they go to the pictures?

Oh once or twice a week. People used to really cry at the cinema them days, when the lights went up you look around – see ‘em all tears down their eyes you see. Used to snivel.

My essay used to be freely available online from the journal’s publishers, but Film Studies is no longer published and the free articles it made available seem to have gone with it. One day I’ll write up the London research into the book I’ve been telling myself I really have to produce one day (I’ve got 60,000 words completed – how difficult can it be to finish it off?). Meanwhile there’s the show. I do believe academic research should be able to demonstrate value to a general audience where it can. And it never does any harm to be entertaining, whoever your audience may be.

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