Living London

Scenes from Living London, via NFSA Australia

One of the great fascinations of early cinema is the archaeology involved. While for later periods of film issues of identification are relatively clear (title, authorship, duration, variations, ownership etc), for early films when the business was young and its nature indeterminate, things are not always straightforward. If you combine this with all the changes of dealing with films over one hundred years old (lost films, limited and unclear documentation, the variations to be found with those that have passed through many hands), then – like any archaeologist – you must live with uncertainty. A case in point is Living London.

Our story begins with the Corrick family. This was a family of entertainers comprising Albert and Sarah Corrick and their eight children, who toured Australia, New Zealand and South-East Asia between 1901 and 1914. As with many touring entertainers at this period they included films in their act. Cinemas were only starting to be established, and for many if you wanted to see films you went to fairgrounds or touring entertainers such as the Corricks.

If the Corricks turned up to your district you would see a show that combine song, dance, readings, lantern slides and films. The Corricks were discriminating in their choice of film, picking titles from the leading production firms of the day and frequently paying more for coloured films (tinted and toned, or stencil-coloured).

The Corrick family in 1912, via NFSA Australia

Time moved on, and in 1968 the Corrick collection of some 135 film progressively came into the care of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (the process took forty years, owing in part to donor John Corrick, son of the family’s projectionist Leonard Corrick, wanting a 35mm copy of each film that he donated, and not donating a next film until he’d received his copy of the previous one). So it was not until recent times that the entire collection was donated, preservation was completed, and the films could be shown before a public once more.

The result must have been hugely gratifying for the NFSA. Public, scholars and fellow archivists responded with delight to the films and the story of the Corricks. A selection of the films made a triumphant appearance at the Pordenone silent film festival in October 2008. One film in particular attracted notice when it was shown first at Pordenone, then a couple of weeks later in Britain: Living London.

Living London was a film of great importance for Australian film history, as it had been very popular with audiences with a romantic view of the mother country when it was shown there in 1906. NFSA curator Sally Jackson shows in her essay “The Living London Boom” that the film was seen in Australia by some 500,000 people when presented by the J.&N. Tait company (the humble Corricks only got their copy later). Jackson argues that the success of Living London, particularly as a film of almost unprecedented length still attracting audiences, influenced the production of the world’s first feature film, Australia’s The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906).

It was important too in the history of documentary film. Living London, filmed in 1904, was originally 2,500 feet in length, probably longer than any previous single actuality film, aside for records of boxing matches. More than that, when modern critics first saw it in 2008, it drew immediate comparisons with the ‘city symphony‘ films of the 1920s – consciously artistic films that documented life in the major cities, among them Manhatta, Rien Que Les Heures, Man with a Movie Camera, and Berlin, Symphony of a City. Living London was in some ways a plain actuality showing familiar locations in a picture postcard manner, yet viewing the Corricks’ copy – sadly only a quarter of the length of the lost original – it had a vitality and a style to it that merited comparison with those later art films. It caught the life of the city.

Living London / The Streets of London screened in Trafalgar Square 24 October 2008, showing the sandwichmen sequence

I was there when the preserved film was shown in Trafalgar Square, no less, on 24 October 2008. The London Film Festival had put together a programme of London-themed archival films, including Living London. Neil Brand (piano) and Günter Buchwald (violin) played live musical accompaniment for the silent films, we the hardy audience sat on the stone steps and marvelled at the London of 104 years before. The media picked up on the story, including pieces in The Times and MailOnline.

But it was at that Trafalgar Square meeting that the doubts had started to creep in. The film had been identified at the NFSA by British film historian Ian Christie, as Living London, made in 1904 by the Charles Urban Trading Company. Ian had turned to me for confirmation, given that I was supposed to be the expert on the film’s producer, Charles Urban. I checked the Charles Urban Trading Company catalogue for 1905. Though the NFSA film was 12 minutes long and what survived had originally run for 45 mins, every scene matched with something in the 1905 catalogue synopsis. One thing bothered me, however. It’s there in the photo above. In the middle of the film was a parade of sandwich men carrying banners advertising films on show at London’s Alhambra Theatre. But one of those films was called A Voyage to New York, and that film – also an Urban production – was released in 1905. What was a shot showing advertisements for a 1905 film doing in a 1904 film? It must be a shot inserted after the film’s initial release I thought, rather too sloppily.

I think it was Bryony Dixon, curator of silent films at the BFI National Archive, who pointed to the Urban catalogue for 1906 (Urban published annual catalogues of the films at the end of each year plus older titles that were still in circulation). There was a catalogue description for another film entitled The Streets of London. And every scene listed in the thorough synopsis matched exactly with the supposed Living London. The identification was wrong.

But a lot of effort had gone into promoting the film under the title Living London and with the date of 1904. Articles had been written about it. It was in the Daily Mail, and The Times. It has been screened underneath Nelson. It had to be Living London – it was too late for it to be anything else.

Now we wind forward sixteen years to 2024. The film in the NFSA has remained Living London, with just a few annoying comments on Wikipedia pages and the like questioning its identity, after notes I had written on my own sites. Now it was to be shown at a film festival in Italy and one of the programmers got in touch with me, asking what these doubts were that I had about the film’s identity. I repeated what I knew, but then started to put a bit more effort into it. The digitisation of newspapers from the period has greatly opened up our ability to understand how films were promoted, seen and understood in those early years. With these extra tools it was time to revisit the mystery of Living London. Here’s what I found…

Charles Urban

In 1904 an American film producer resident in Britain, Charles Urban, was looking to expand his business. The previous year he had broken away from the film company where he had made his name, the Warwick Trading Company, to form his own business, the Charles Urban Trading Company (CUTC). Its mainstay was the non-fiction film, which in the days before film stars and the consolidation of the exhibition business in the form of cinemas, was equal to to fictional film in its attraction for audiences. Certainly Urban wanted it that way. He rapidly built up a reputation for his company based on travel, natural history, sport, science and actuality films. “We put the world before you” was his proud slogan. Urban made audiences thrill to the world around them.

If 1904 had been the year in which the CUTC established itself, 1905 was where Urban wanted to place himself at the forefront of the British film business and mark his mark globally. He had enjoyed particular success with natural history films and his coverage of the ongoing Russo-Japanese War, for which he had sent out two camera operators, one to attach themselves to each side. Part of his strategy for gaining prominence was the production of prestige titles that would command higher prices from exhibitors.

Non-fiction films at this time were seldom longer than 300ft, or five mins. Urban produced both individual films of around this length, and high profile, multi-part productions which in total to could amount to 1,500 feet or more, but which seldom if ever the screened in their entirety. Instead exhibitors would choose parts from a series such as would best suit their pocket, with those individual parts priced separately.

Longer films and series from Charles Urban Trading Company (trademark Urbanora) with their durations, in The Era, 4 March 1905

Two titles produced in 1904 but not released until January 1905 aimed to change that. A Voyage to New York was a 2,300ft or 45mins record of a journey from Southampton to New York over from 26 October to 1 November 1904, plus the return journey to Plymouth, made on the Kaiser Wilhelm II. Unusually for an Urban film he was the camera operator, as well as the passenger.

A Voyage to New York was divided into six parts, but exhibitors could not buy any of the individual sections. The 1905 catalogue stipulates “Supplied only in complete length”, so you had to purchase the entire work if you wanted this marquee title, which would set you back £57 10s, a massive commitment for a single title (Urban’s standard price in 1905 was 25s for 50 feet of film, or 6d per foot, so £57s 10s for 2,300 feet is a pro rata price).

Living London in the 1905 Charles Urban Trading Company catalogue

Living London was the second such film, though it seems not to have been planned as such. Inspired by British writer George R. Sims‘s popular three-volume series on London life, Living London (1901-03), Living London the film was a record of London life, filmed by four camera operators using ‘Junior Bioscope’ cameras whose compactness enabled them to film while mostly unobserved, over the summer and autumn of 1904. The overview in the 1905 catalogue describes it thus:

The 280 different views comprising this series depict sights along a route over the most important thoroughfares of London, not merely showing street scenes with the principle edifices, monuments, bridges, etc., but include “snapshots” of the various human types and their different occupations and pleasures to be found in all the districts touched upon in our “Bioscopic Ramble,” from fashionable West End London to the slums of Whitechapel etc.

It was a natural history film with humans in their environment as the subject.

When first advertised in The Era on 8 October 1904 the film was billed as a series, broken down into particular scenes, with the implication that these might be purchased separately. But by January 1905, when it was actually released, it had become a single film (“supplied complete only”), running for 2,500 feet (45 mins), price £62 10s. It seems not improbable that Urban ordered the change in pricing policy on seeing the films on his return from New York. Twelve years later he would do something similar when, working for British propaganda, he would look at film taken on the Western Front which was destined for release as a series of short films and insist that they be shown as a feature-length documentary. The result, The Battle of the Somme (1916), edited by Urban, would go on to be arguably the most viewed film per capita in British history (half the population is estimated to have seen it).

Remainder of Living London entry in the 1905 Charles Urban Trading Company catalogue

How many people saw A Voyage to New York and Living London, and what impact did they have? It is difficult to say for British exhibition. Figures for individual films do not exist, and while there are numerous records of screenings across the country, press accounts tend towards generic praise as though spouting the CUTC’s own publicity (which in some cases was undoubtedly the case). An account in the Jersey Independent and Daily Telegraph for 25 March 1905 speaks of a “fairly good audience” for Living London, suggesting that not all were totally overwhelmed, even if most were appreciative. The film was sold to many territories, including the USA, but with what impact is not known, with the exception of Australia. There the impact was considerable, and better figures are available to back this up, as Sally Jackson’s research demonstrates.

It needs to be noted that what was sold and what was shown were not necessarily the same thing. Exhibitors could cut or break up films as they wished, and early as January 1905 a report in En’tracte on the 21st says that Living London was being shown in two parts of half an hour each (yes, it is listed a a 45mins film in the catalogue, but film duration in the silent era was a flexible notion, as films could be run a different speeds, according to taste or convenience).

To judge from Urban’s film releases over the next few years, the long film, high price strategy was not entirely successful. Most of his non-fiction films stayed at around 200 to 300ft, with high-profile series, such as the Urban-Africa Expedition of 1907-09, running to thousands of feet in total but never sold or exhibited in such a way. It would not be until 1910, when Urban started to produce Kinemacolor films of spectacular events such as coronations and royal funerals in natural colour that he braved again having long films at high prices, confident that the urge to see such exclusive entertainments would merit the price and the testing of an audience’patience.

The Streets of London from the 1906 Charles Urban Trading Company catalogue

This is where The Streets of London comes in. Urban made a shortened version of Living London at 1,275 feet, or around 20mins, releasing this a year after Living London had come to the end of its commercial life. It was for the exhibitor on a tighter budget. The four parts of The Streets of London could also be purchased individually. The change of title presumably was simply to differentiate the later film from the original, not least so those who had paid the high price for Living London did not feel that they had been conned. However, the catalogue record for The Streets of London takes care to use George R. Sims’s name, so few may have been fooled by the change of name. The Corricks appear to have acquired their copy in 1908, to judge from a newspaper reference to their showing a Living London in Rangoon. This suggests that, though they were sold The Streets of London, they knew, and the sellers would have assured them, that this was the same famous Living London that had been such a success in Australia. And it may be that the two parts (out of four) that they acquired of The Streets of London were simply what they could afford.

So, the film that survives which has been championed as Living London (1904) (or part of it), is in reality The Streets of London (1906) (or half of it), though it was probably always known by the first title. And the original Living London was a 1905 film, not 1904 as the reference books say, misled as they have been by an advance release notice. So the sandwichmen were not predicting the future but advertising the present. If any of this matters.

What is a film anyway? It is an aggregation of moving images on a particular theme, to which one gives a shape and a name. But those shapes and those names can change. Charles Urban was to prove himself the master of this protean concept of film, forever re-editing and re-issuing his films under new names and in new forms, making the production of an Urban filmography a nightmare. Many of the films he released when he relocated to the USA in the early 1920s were films he had produced over a decade beforehand, presented as new, or rather timeless productions. It was a way of making best use of your assets, but it was also a shape-shifting concept of film that was not constrained by the constraints of lists and catalogues. Film is not a fixed thing but must forever promise a fresh version of itself.

Living London, via NFSA Australia

Just so the audience for these films. The people of Australia and New Zealand, to whom the Taits showed Living London and the Corricks showed The Streets of London) saw a different film to that seen in the UK and elsewhere, and it is a different film again for those of us lucky to see it (or some of it) again today. One audience saw in it a cause for pride, one with delight in familiarity, another with a sense of nostalgia. The New Zealand crime write Ngaio Marsh, in her memoir Black Beech and Honeydew, writes how Living London conformed to the dream she had of that place so far away:

Not only had I always wanted to go but I had always felt quite sure that sooner or later it would happen. When I was about twelve years old, a silent film called Living London came to New Zealand and we went to it several times. It ravished me. It was extremely long, jerky and rather dim and it was not at all surprising. It did not contradict anything I had imagined about London but seemed rather to confirm my dreams. I mean real dreams as well as waking ones. I had dreamt often and vividly of The Strand and Piccadilly, of Ludgate Hill and Threadneedle Street. Always it was night time and I was alone in the crowded streets, exhilarated. Perhaps these dreams were engendered by my father and Gramp when they gossiped about Old Smoky and perhaps by David Copperfield, Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend, all of which I read when I was very young indeed. You may say it was a foredone, romantic and unreal London that I conjured up for myself.

For us the film represents a sense of irreparable loss. It is the London we know and the London we can never know. A different people lived among the familiar streets. The buildings remain, but the inhabitants and their view of the world have turned into nothing but a dream. Living London is unregainable. Real and unreal, it lives no more.



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2 thoughts on “Living London

  1. Fascinating and well-researched, Luke. We share an interest in James Joyce. I am pleased to see the Glasgow symposium (I plan to attend) will have some sort of reprise of the offerings at the Volta during Joyce’s brief interval as its proprietor. Very glad to have found your blog.

    1. Thank you Garry. The Volta event at the Glasgow symposium will, as I understand it, will be a reprise of the show I presented at the 2010 symposium. I’m not involved in the planning this time round and can’t attend, but the Volta films never fail to entertain and inform. My story of the 2010 show and its close brush with disaster is here:

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