Children in the nursery

R.W. Paul’s Children in the Nursery (1898), screengrab from BFI Player

One of the goals I have for this website is to make as many of the texts I have written as I can available for free download. You can find what is available as hyperlinks on the Publications and Talks sections of the site. One text I have just added is a 12,000 word essay on the history of the British silent film, which I wrote back in 2000. It was published in Italian as part of a multi-volume set on the history of world cinema, edited by Gian Piero Brunetta. If you want to seek out the Italian, which is out of print, the reference is ‘Bambini nella nursery: Il cinema muto inglese’ in Gian Piero Brunetta (ed.), Storia del cinema mondiale: Volume terzo – Europa: Le cinematografie nazionali (Turin: Einaudi, 2000).

Twenty-four years on, while browsing through old files, I came across my original English version, wrote to the publisher Einaudi to ask if I could publish it online in its English form, and they generously said yes. So that’s what I’ve done, putting it under the title I gave it in English, ‘Children in the Nursery’, the reasons for the title being explained in the opening paragraph:

If one were to pick a title from the early British film period that could sum up the nature of the British film industry at that time, Robert Paul’s Children in the Nursery of 1898 would serve very well. It implies, on first sight, an underdeveloped industry that, according to the commonly accepted history of silent film, failed to understand cinema, that remained infantile. But it also can suggest growth and the propagation of ideas, which were peculiar to Britain alone and which needed to grow at their own pace. And, if one looks to the specific imagery of Paul’s film with its pillow fight prefiguring Vigo and Zéro de Conduite, then one can also point to a spirit of anarchy and fun that found true expression on the screen.

It’s not the most startling piece of film history writing; certainly its references would require considerable updating were I to write such a piece now. And it was written before research I did a few years later into cinemas and audiences made me completely rethink my approach to the subject. Pitifully little on the contribution of women too. But I put quite a bit of effort into it at the time, and if someone is looking for an accessible overview of British silent films, in English, I hope it might be useful. Anyway, it’s now linked on the Publications page, or you can download it here:

Luke McKernan, ‘Children in the Nursery: British Silent Cinema‘ (2000/2024) © Einaudi


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