Shadow City

Source: Taran N. Khan, Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul (London: Chatto & Windus, 2019), pp. 133-134

Text: We watched a film shot in 1974 that recorded the celebrations for Daoud Khan’s newly established republic. It showed parades in Kabul, massive crowds on the street, people marching through Pashtunistan Square. They shouted slogans I couldn’t hear, as their voices were buried behind the narrator talking about the joy of the people at this new government. The car carrying Daoud Khan raced down broad boulevards. We saw Khan standing on a podium, waving to the crowds. Then he was among the people, shaking hands, being patted on the back.

A striking montage of men on the street reading newspapers followed. The headline, bold black print on the page, was enlarged to cover the screen. ‘Jamhooriyat‘, it said. Republic. The calligraphy of the text seemed to snake through the streets of Kabul.

The next newsreel was shot in 1979. Only five years later, but a different era. It marked the first anniversary of the Saur Revolution, which had replaced Daoud Khan’s republic with a Communist government. Daoud Khan himself was dead, killed in the coup. The central figure in the celebrations was Nur Mohammad Taraki, who headed the government. By October that year, he would be dead too, assassinated on the orders of his former associate, Hafizullah Amin. And in just over three months, Amin would also be killed, and the Soviet army would enter Afghanistan.

This bloody chronology was on my mind as I watched Taraki cheer and wave from his raised podium, as the parade filed past him. The film was in colour, and the screen was filled with red — the podium draped in red cloth, red sheets folded over the military floats that trundled past. Red armbands and uniforms and headscarves and flags. I watched the tanks roll out, the soldiers saluting the smiling man at the podium. Groups of women marched by, wearing uniforms and carrying guns. People crossed the camera, arms raised in salute, shouting slogans energetically. They all looked at the camera, addressing it — addressing me — with their eyes and bodies. They continued marching until, overwhelmed by the weight of history, I looked away. It was like watching a train wreck, a collision that I was powerless to stop. The weight of knowledge rested heavily around those images.

Who were they made for, these films that celebrated the turn of events occurring so rapidly one after the other? For the public, to convince the Afghan people of the virtue of the revolutions? Or for history, for a viewer like me, who sifted through their slogans and triumph in a dark hall long after they had ceased to matter? What did it mean to watch them now, to read their messages years after they lost relevance, or could _ only offer a different truth to a different era? Like the thick lines in the brochures I had seen at Rais’s bookstore, they mapped a terrain of erasures, the particular ways of forgetting that defines remembering in Kabul.

Soon after the film was shot, the USSR rolled its tanks across the border. The war that began then is, in many ways, still unfolding.

On the screen, floats with missiles and aircraft continued to move past the camera, like a ghostly rehearsal. Military officers from different nations were seen in the audience. On the podium, Taraki waved a red flag. An emaciated dove sat next to him, a red ribbon gleaming around its throat.

Comments: Taran N. Khan is an Indian journalist and non-fiction writer, who has spent several years living and working in Kabul. This passage from her travel book Shadow City escribes a 2013 visit to the archive at the state film body Afghan Film in Kabul. She was shown a selection of newsreels and documentaries, from the 1960s onwards, in a viewing room. Mohammed Dauoud Khan was President of Afghanistan from 1973 to 1978, when he was assassinated. The Communist coup that followed led to Nur Muhammad Taraki becoming president. He was murdered on October 1979. The man who order his death, Hafizullah Amin, became his successor but was in turn killed by the Soviet Union at the end of 1979, which led to the Soviet intervention and the Soviet-Aghan War. Some of the film archive was destroyed by order of the Taliban in 2001, but much survived thanks to the actions of the archivists who hid many native films (with some Taliban collusion).

Posted in 2010s, Afghanistan, Travel writing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Miracles of Life

Source: J.G. Ballard, Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton – An Autobiography (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), pp. 37-38

Text: In September 1939 the European war began, and quickly reached across the world to Shanghai. Outwardly, our lives continued as before, but soon there were empty places in my class at school, as families sold up and left for Hong Kong and Singapore. My father spent a great deal of time listening to the short-wave radio broadcasts from England, which brought news of the sinking of HMS Hood and the hunt for the Bismarck, then later of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. School was often interrupted so that we could visit one of the cinemas for screenings of British newsreels, thrilling spectacles that showed battleships in line ahead, and Spitfires downing Heinkels over London. Fund-raising drives were held at the Country Club, and I remember the proud announcement that the British residents in Shanghai had financed their first Spitfire. There was constant patriotic activity on all sides. The German and Italian communities mounted their own propaganda campaigns, and the swastika flew from the flagpoles of the German school and the German radio station, which put out a steady stream of Nazi programmes.

Newsreels soon became the dominant weapon in this information war, many of them screened at night against the sides of buildings, watched by huge crowds of passing pedestrians. I think I saw the European war as a newsreel war, only taking place on the silver square above my head, its visual conventions decided by the resources and limits of the war cameraman, as I would now pull, though even my 10-year-old eyes could sense the difference between an authentic newsreel and one filmed on manoeuvres. The real, whether war or peace, was something you saw filmed in newsreels, and I wanted the whole of Shanghai to be filmed.

Comments: James Graham Ballard (1930-2009) was a British writer known for his dystopian novels and experimental fiction. He was born in Shanghai, China, where his family lived in the International Settlement. The family was interned by the Japanese over 1943-45.

Posted in 1940s, China, Memoirs | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Delight

Source: J.B. Priestley, Delight (London: William Heinneman, 1949), pp. 36-38

Text: One afternoon, nearly twenty years ago, some long-forgotten business took me to Golders Green, and when I had finished and was walking towards the Tube station there came a sudden drenching downpour. I had no raincoat, so I hurried into a cinema, more for shelter than amusement. It was a large solemn cinema, almost empty, and I felt as quiet and remote in there as if I were sitting at the bottom of the sea. The news reel came and went. There were the usual fancy tricks with the lights. The feature film noisily arrived I stared idly at the reception desk of an hotel in Florida. A fantastic character entered, and, without speaking a word, took the letters from the rack and casually tore them up, drank the ink, and began to eat the telephone. I sat up, lost in winder and joy. The film was The Cocoanuts, and with it the Marx Brothers had entered my life. And this was the perfect way to discover these glorious clowns, unexpectedly in the middle of a wet afternoon in Golders Green. Since then – besides making their acquaintance and actually watching them on the job – I have followed the from cinema to cinema. I like them best when they are given the largest carte blanche – as in the sublime Duck Soup – but even when they are clamped to some miserable plot, have to give place to some preposterous tenor and his simpering girl, I do not desert them but sit there, waiting for such delight as they can offer me. My family – thank heaven – share this rapture, and we often exchange memories, mere shadows and echoes, of our favourite antics at the dinner table. Friends who refuse to enjoy these inspired zanies are regarded with suspicion. I have never understood why some London cinema does not show the Marx Brothers year in and year out. We appear to be living, as so many well-informed persons have observed, in a gigantic madhouse, but there are a few compensations even here, and one of them is that we have the Marx Brothers with us. Their clowning is a comment on our situation. Chico is the eternal, sulky but wistful peasant, sceptical but not without hope. Groucho is urban America, the office executive, the speculator, the publicity agent, the salesman, raised to a height at which the folly of such men blazes like a beacon. Harpo is modern man with the lid off, a symbolic figure of the masculine unconscious. Together they have worked out comic routines that may be regarded one day as a saga of satire, Rabelais caught on celluloid. But even if they should be soon forgotten, some of us will remember how they dissolved with laughter, during those evenings in the ‘thirties when the fuses were already spluttering round our feet. Karl Marx showed how the dispossessed would finally take possession. But I think the Brothers Marx do it better.

Comments: John Boynton Priestley (1894-1984) was a British novelist and playwright, known for Time and the Conways, An Inspector Calls and The Good Companions. His 1949 book Delight is a collection of short essays on some of the pleasures of life. The Cocoanuts (USA 1929) was an early sound feature film, based on the Broadway stage production written by George S. Kaufman. The film also featured the fourth, non-comedic, Marx brother, Zeppo.

Posted in 1920s, Essays, United Kingdom | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Gone to the Pictures

Source: Hilda Lewis, Gone to the Pictures (London: Jarrolds, 1946), pp. 23-27

Text: Suddenly Lena stopped. Here was another of those blacked-in shops like the one opposite Mr. Dicks. The window was pasted all over with bills; but they were so dirty and dilapidated, it was impossible to read what they said. A dark and dirty boy was standing and yelling, All the latest … all the lat-est! Every time he bawled late he gave the open door of the shop a thwack with his stick. When he caught sight of Lena and me he changed his tune, bawling out that there was No waiting – ebserlootly no waiting … ending with an invitation to Walk in, walk in. …

We walked in.

It was very dark inside the shop and the smell was horrid. If it had not been for Lena, in spite of all my joyous anticipation I believe I should have turned tail – especially as we had not yet paid.

I stopped at the front row, but Lena said you could see better at the back so we pushed our way through the darkness, stumbling here and there over people’s outstretched legs and finally sat down on two rickety kitchen chairs.

“We haven’t paid yet,” I reminded Lena.

“Don’t you worry” she said, “they’re not here for love!”

In front of us, against the blacked-in window, hung a small greyish sheet on rollers, like a blank and crumpled map. “You keep your eyes on that!” Lena said.

I kept my eyes on that, and since nothing seemed to happen, or even to be about to happen, I looked about the dark shop. I could make out the shapes of people sitting here and there, with sometimes as much as an empty row of chairs between them.

We seemed to be sitting there a long, long time. My chair got harder and harder.

“They say continuous,’ I said fretfully. “It hasn’t begun yet, let alone continue. …”

“Got to wait till it fulls a bit,” Lena said cheerfully and diving into her handbag she produced a twisted paper of fruit-drops. I amused myself by trying to recognize the flavours on my tongue. I recognized lemon, orange, blackcurrant and possibly greengage, and then my palate being somewhat jaded, I turned my attention once more to my surroundings.

“Why don’t they light the gas?” I was bored with the darkness.

“Film might catch fire.” Lena explained.

“Oh,” I said. “Then why do people smoke?” I was coughing a little.

“Not supposed to,” Lena informed me.

“Oh,” I said.

“Shan’t be long now,” she promised after what seemed hours. “Going to collect now.”

The dingy curtain that hung in front of the open door was pushed aside by a man carrying an open cigar-box. He shoved his way through the now-full rows and the fall of clanking coppers went with him.

He retired. And with his retiring came silence. For as though it were a signal, a ray of silver light fell upon the hanging sheet.

I sat there forgetting to breathe, forgetting to finish the sweet that lay unheeded upon my tongue. I sat entranced. I remember how I kept saying to myself, I don’t believe it!

And all the time upon the silver screen people ran and walked and laughed and cried.

Living Pictures. Alive.

I remember every incident of that day. Even now, as I write, if I choose to shut my eyes and send my thoughts backwards, I am again that child sitting in the darkness of Cohen’s shop; and I see every shot in my first living pictures.

The first film is very sad. An old man lies in bed and he is very ill. The room is almost bare except for the bed and a chair and there is no doubt at all that he is very poor. An old lady who is presumably his wife goes to the cupboard and opens it. Empty. Nothing but bare boards. She wrings her hands. She points to the old man. The tears run down her thin old cheeks.

It is all terribly sad. The blurring of the screen is not entirely due to bad projection.

But stay. All is not lost! In the depths of her apron pocket the old lady finds a few coppers. Now she is going out. She is in the street.

It is, I think, a French street. Now the old lady is in the market. She is buying flowers. Why on earth flowers when there isn’t a thing to eat?

Oh, clever! She is going to sell them!

She stands at the corner of the street holding out her flowers. No one will buy them. No one will even stop to look at them. It is a cold day. People hurry by in their good boots, or in their handsome carriages. The old lady in her thin shawl shivers on the pavement.

It begins to rain. The pavements grow greasy. The old lady goes on holding out her bunches; the flowers are beginning to look bedraggled. The rainy street gets emptier and emptier. Rain falls upon the old woman standing in the deserted street holding out her unwanted flowers.

At last she sees it is hopeless. With a sad and helpless gesture she drops the flowers into the gutter. She hurries home. The old man is dying. I have never seen death before, but I know he is dying.

I try to turn my face away. Death is so frightening. But I must look. I have to look. These Living Pictures are so much stronger than my fears… they drag my fascinated eyes from the safety of my hands.

I look again. The old man is still a-dying. His thin chest jerks up and down; in and out it goes like a concertina. Suddenly his head falls backwards.

Dead.

His eyes are staring, staring in his head.

Do dead people’s eyes stare?

I turn to ask Lena. I am hoping she will say No. But we have started on a new picture. I must try to put those dead eyes out of my mind.

This time it is “a comic.” There are two gentlemen and a lady and they all look what Mamma calls “common.” Lena is smiling already.

The two gentlemen have each a bunch of flowers for the lady. The lady is very fat; she is as tall as a grenadier. She takes the flowers from each of the gentlemen.

But do dead people’s eyes …?

The fat lady invites the two gentlemen to have a piece of an enormous melon that is on the sideboard. She cuts a huge slice for the fat gentleman, a huge slice for the thin gentleman; and then she takes the biggest slice for herself.

They rub their stomachs, they roll their eyes, they grin all over their faces to show how good the melon is. Then they all have another slice. And then another and another. There is no melon left.

They don’t look so happy now. The fat lady gets up and steals away. The thin gentleman gets up and follows her. Then the fat gentleman follows them both.

Now the two gentlemen are standing outside a shed at the bottom of the lady’s garden. There is French writing on the door of the shed. I am not good at French but for all that I know perfectly well that this is a lavatory and the fat lady is inside.

I am beginning to feel uncomfortable; and all the time there is a pricking in my mind…. Do dead people’s eyes …?

The lady is still inside the lavatory and the two gentlemen are walking up and down quickly as if they dare not stand still. And all the time they are holding their stomachs and making uncomfortable faces. Now they begin to thump upon the lavatory door.

It is queer seeing the thumps and yet not hearing them… .

Tt is all rather horrid and quite stupid. I begin to think that perhaps Mamma is right. And yet everyone else is enjoying it.

Someone behind me is stamping on the rungs of my chair and jarring my spine. And Lena, even Lena is laughing … and … Do dead people’s eyes …?

There are three or four more pictures. There is no writing to explain, and no one to tell you what is happening. But then the stories are so simple.

There is one that I like best of all. It is another French one and very exciting. It is about the Devil; and it has the most lovely colours.

The Devil in a gorgeous red cloak and long black tights does magic tricks; and it is a thousand times more mysterious than Maskelyne’s. He sprinkles magic powder in a bowl and great flames leap up. He waves his hands over the flames and there are tiny people dancing — fairies and elves.

The Devil keeps walking about and his red cloak flows out behind him. Suddenly he begins to walk towards us and all the time he gets larger and larger; and nearer and nearer … it begins to look as if he will walk right out of the picture, right into the dark shop where I sit clutching hold of Lena. …

The earliest close-up in the world! I know that now. And it wasn’t accidental, either. Old Méliés who made it knew all the tricks.

It is absolutely terrifying seeing the Devil walk straight towards us – possibly my guilty conscience has something to do with it. I sit there, clutching, until the Devil moves slowly backwards, getting smaller and smaller as he goes … I am not at all sorry when he proves himself too clever and, pop—up he goes in flames himself!

And that is the end of the show. The screen goes dark. Lena says that when it lights up again it will start with the dying man in the place that perhaps is France: if we stay, Lena says, we shall have to pay again.

Pay or not, I don’t want to see that one again … and the question is back again, teasing at me, Do dead people’s eyes …?

Comments: Hilda Lewis (1896-1974) was a London-born author of children’s and historical fiction. Her 1946 novel Gone to the Pictures tells of a young girl growing up in London’s East End, where she is entranced by motion pictures. The film show described (recalled?) here is set in the East End (‘east of Aldgate’); from the description of the films the date would be the early 1900s. The novel has several subsequent accounts of film exhibition in London, as the heroine goes from film fan to cinema owner and then film director and producer in the period before the First World War. Méliés is the French magician and filmmaker Georges Méliés. Lewis’s 1947 novel The Day is Ours was adapted into the feature film Mandy (1952) about the education of a deaf child (Lewis’s husband Michael Lewis specialised in the education of the deaf at the University of Nottingham).

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New Chapter in Wireless History

Source: ‘A Wireless Correspondent’, ‘New Chapter in Wireless History’, Sheffield Daily Telegraph, p. 5

Text: NEW CHAPTER IN WIRELESS HISTORY.

Television Demonstrated.

SEEING AND HEARING AT THE SAME TIME.

[By a Wireless Correspondent].

The first public broadcast of television took place yesterday, the transmission being sent out from the 2LO aerial in Oxford Street.

I was one of the few who were able to listen in and “look in” at the same time. We were gathered in a room the headquarters of the Baird Television Development Company in Long Acre, London. There was installed a Baird television receiver, and while we heard the speech and music issuing from a loud speaker which formed part of the apparatus, looking into a glass screen on the front of the cabinet we were able to sec the devised faces of the speakers and the artists, among whom were Sir Ambrose Fleming, tho distinguished scientist and inventor of the wireless valve; Professor E.N. de C. Andrade, another well-known scientist; Mr. Sydney Howard, the comedian; and Miss Lulu Stanley. The studio was connected by land line to Savoy Hill, and tho televised faces were passed on to the Oxford Street transmitter, where they were broadcast in the ordinary way.

Two wave lengths are necessary, however, for television listeners to hear and see the broadcasts simultaneously, and at present the B.B.C. only have one wave length available. Hence any listeners who were in possession of Baird television receivers yesterday were able only to hear and see alternately. It is hoped that when the twin-wave length transmitter is in operation, simultaneous transmission will tako place enabling listeners to see and hear at the same time. We were able to this yesterday because there was a special line connecting tho receiver to tho studio, so that while the B.B.C. were broadcasting the televised face of the speaker, his words came through the loud speaker. The televised image was “picked up” by means of an ordinary aerial on the roof of the building.

Features Recognised.

At the outset, a letter was read from Mr. William Graham, President of the Board of Trade, who stated that he looked this new applied science to encourage and provide a new industry not only for Britain and the British Empire, but for the whole world. “This new industry,” he added, “will provide employment for a large number our people, and will prove the prestige of British creative energy.” In an introductory speech, Sir Ambrose Fleming, who is the president of the Television Society, remarked that television would contribute to the pleasure of countless persons. After Sir Ambrose came Professor Andrade and then Mr. Sydney Howard, whose features were easily recognisable. We could see clearly the movement of his lips as he spoke and his varying expressions as he moved about in front of thee televisor. “This is Television Monday.” he said, “and I am the vision,” and we could see him smiling he said it. “Really I not know why people should have my ‘mug’ inflicted on them,” he added. Next came Miss King, who is member of the Baird staff, and Miss Lulu Stanley, both of whom sang before the televisor. We heard their voices and saw their changing expressions as they sang.

Not Perfect Yet.

Sir Ambrose Fleming summed up the situation in a nutshell when he said me afterwards “At the present time, the B.B.C. have a vast music-hall for the blind in which people can hear but see nothing. What Mr. Baird has done is to provide them with opera glasses or spectacles in which the audience can see well as hear.” It is obvious, of course, that much progress will have to be made before the same degree of perfection reached with television is now attained with ordinary speech broadcasts, but yesterday’s demonstration showed that much has already been done, the televised faces of to-day being marked improvement on the image the early television experiments. Mr. Baird told me that he was perfectly satisfied with the broadcast, and he was particularly glad that he had now been afforded opportunity making a public broadcast. “Men’s faces broadcast better than women’s,” he remarked. “Some men’s faces come out better than others because their features are more marked.” He added that they do not propose that there should any television on a large scale until a satisfactory television service can be provided. At present, very few television sets are in existence.

Comments: The Baird Televisor was first demonstrated to an invited audience in 1926. The BBC began experimental broadcasts using inventor John Logie Baird’s system on 30 September 1929 (a Monday), at 11:00am, in Long Acre, London.

Links: Copy at British Newspaper Archive (subscription site)

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Light Visible and Invisible

Children at Play no. 1 (R.W. Paul, 1896)

Source: Silvanus Thompson, Light Visible and Invisible: a series of lectures delivered at the Royal institution of Great Britain, at Christmas, 1896, with additional lectures (London: Macmillan, 1912, 2nd ed. [orig. pub. 1897]), pp. 97-99

Text: Another example of effects produced by persistence of the optical impressions in the eye is afforded by an old toy, the zoetrope, or wheel of life; in which the semblance of motion is given to pictures by causing the eye to catch sight, in rapid sequence, through moving slits, of a series of designs in which each differs slightly from the one preceding. Thus if you want to make the sails of a windmill seem to go round, the successive pictures must represent the sails as having turned round a little during the brief moment that elapses between each picture being glimpsed and the next being seen. These intervals must be less than a tenth of a second, so that the successive images may blend properly, and that the movement between each picture and the next may be small. Mr. Muybridge has very cleverly applied this method to the study of the movements of animals. Anschutz’s moving pictures, illuminated by intermittent sparks, were the next improvement. And the latest triumph in this development of the subject has been reached in the animatograph, which the inventor, Mr. R. Paul, has kindly consented to exhibit.

The animatograph pictures are photographed upon a travelling ribbon of transparent celluloid; the time which elapses between each picture being taken and the next being about one-fiftieth of a second. A scene lasting half a minute will, therefore, be represented by about 1500 pictures, all succeeding one another on a long ribbon. If these pictures are then passed in their proper order through a special lantern, with mechanism that will bring each picture up to the proper place between the lenses, hold it there an instant, then snatch it away arid put the next in its place, and so forth, the photograph projected on the screen will seem to move. You see in a street scene, for example, the carts and omnibuses going along; the horses lift their feet, the wheels roll round, foot passengers and policemen walk by. Everything goes on exactly as it did in the actual street. Or you see some children toddling beside a garden seat. A big dog comes up, and the boy jumps astride of him, but falls off, and rises rubbing his bumps. Or a passenger steamer starts from Dover pier: you see her paddles revolve, the crowd on the pier wave farewells with handkerchiefs or hats, the steamer wheels round, you see the splash of foam, you note the rolling clouds of black smoke proceeding from her funnel, then she goes out of sight round the corner. The reality of the motions is so great that you feel as though you had veritably seen it all with your own eyes. And so you have. You have just as truly seen the movements of the scene as when you have listened to the phonograph you have heard the voice which once impressed the record of its vibrations. Of all the animatograph pictures those that appeal most to me are the natural scenes, such as the waves rolling up into a sea-cave and breaking on the rocks at its mouth, and dashing foam and spray far up into its interior. Nothing is wanting to complete the illusion, save the reverberating roar of the waves.

Comments: Professor Silvanus Phillips Thompson (1851-1916) was a British professor of physics and member of the Royal Society. The above passage comes from a series of lectures Thompson gave at the Royal Institution over Christmas 1896. The Animatograph was a projector produced by British engineer and film producer Robert William Paul. The films mentioned include Children at Play [no.1] (1896, frmes reproduced here from Thompson’s book) and A Sea Cave Near Lisbon (1896).

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Posted in 1890s, Lectures, United Kingdom | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The “Theatrograph” in Court

Source: ‘The “Theatreograph” in Court’, The Era, 18 July 1896, p. 7

Text: At the Clerkenwell County Court, on Tuesday, Robert William Paul, of 44, Hatton-garden, inventor and patentee of the “theatrograph,” and well known for his exhibitions at Olympia, Earl’s-court, and the principal music halls, was the plaintiff in an action to recover from “Wonderland, Limited,” a music hall company conducting their business in Whitechapel-road, £22 10s., three weeks’ rent of electric accumulators supplied to the defendants on hire. The defendants counterclaimed for £15 damages. Mr Gill, barrister, was for the plaintiff; and Mr Dodd, barrister, for the defendants.

The plaintiff’s case was that in April last he was engaged by the defendants, through their managing director, Mr Jonas Woolf, to give performances with his theatrograph at “Wonderland.” For these the plaintiff was to receive £20 a-week, in addition to £7 10s. a-week for supplying accumulators on lire, the defendants to provide the electric current. The plaintiff exhibited for three weeks, and was paid his salary, but had received nothing for the hire of the accumulators.

The defendants admitted their indebtedness for two weeks only. In support of their counterclaim they alleged they had bet heavily through the neglect of the plaintiff, whose performances were a complete failure. It was his duty to provide the electric current, but he had not done so, contenting himself with the use of weak batteries obtained from the defendants, and afterwards of limelight apparatus. The result was that the illusions presented by the “Theatrograph” were blurred and indistinct. The audience, it was said, used to hiss the performance, and many people had demanded and received back their money. The “Theatrograph” was the “star attraction” and, owing to its failure, the takings of “Wonderland (Limited)” fell in one week from £128 to £73, and in the next to £58.

Mr Gill (to Mr Woolf) – You say the “Theatrograph” was your star attraction, and that the losses of your music hall were due to its failure? Witness – The rest of the programme was mere padding.

Mr Gill (reading from a poster) – Do you call the Bear Lady padding – “A native of Africa, full grown, whose arms and legs are formed in exactly the same manner as the animal after which she is named?” Witness – Yes, the Bear Lady was padding.

Mr Gill – And the Fire Queens, “who have appeared before the Prince of Wales, the King and Queen of Italy, and King and Queen of Portugal, who pour molten lead into their mouths, lick red-holt pokers, and remain several minutes enveloped in flames and fire?” Witness – Yes, the Fire Queens were also padding.

Mr Gill – I am not surprised that these monstrous exaggerations damaged your business. It was not the theatrograph.

Judge Meadows White held that it was the duty of the defendants to have supplied a proper light, the absence of which had caused the failures of which they complained. He gave judgment for the plaintiff, with costs, and disallowed the counter-claim.

Comments: Wonderland was an entertainment venue in Whitechapel in London’s East End. It was best-known for hosting boxing bouts, but included other kinds of entertainment, including the Theatrograph projector of British inventor Robert Paul, whose poor reception in April (two months after its public debut) Clerkenwell County Court decided was due to poor illumination from the venue’s accumulators, at a hearing on 14 July 1896.

Links: Copy at British Newspaper Archive (subscription site)

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The Night Side of Europe

Source: Karl Kingsley Kitchen, The Night Side of Europe, as seen by a Broadwayite abroad (Cleveland: The David Gibson company, 1914), pp. 161-162

Text: Damascus boasts of three theatres — all cinemas, as the “movies” are called in the Orient. I chose the Palace Theatre, near the hotel, because on its billboards it announced a troupe of dancers in addition to its photo plays. Twenty piasters (80 cents) bought a box, which was located in the balcony overlooking one of the strangest audiences in the world. The entire lower floor was filled with turbaned Arabs and befezed Syrians smoking “hobble bobbles,” as the Turkish water pipes are called in Syria. When you take your seat in a Damascus theatre, you are asked by the usher if you want a “hobble bobble,” and if so one is provided for a trifling tip.

Nearly five hundred men were puffing away downstairs, while thirty or forty smart looking Turkish officers were in the tier of boxes when I took my place. The pictures — mostly French made films — were shown without musical accompaniment, and when the lights were turned on after forty minutes of darkness a third of the audience was asleep.

Under the guidance of my dragoman I visited two cafes chantants, where the few unattached European women in Damascus make their headquarters, and where the “night life” of the officers and higher officials centers. One of the cafes — known as the American bar — proved quite gay. Its guests were being entertained by a phonograph, and I was informed that there would be muscle dancing as soon as the performers could leave the Palace Theatre.

That sent me back to the Victoria Hotel in a hurry, where I found real “night life” under my mosquito bar. But that, as Kipling says, is another story.

Comments: Karl Kingsley Kitchen (1885-1935) was an American travel writer, newspaper columnist and bon viveur. His book The Night Side of Europe documents his experiences of theatres across Europe, Russia and the Near East. In 1914, Syria was part of the Ottoman empire.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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A Pound of Paper

Source: John Baxter, A Pound of Paper: Confessions of a Book Addict (London: Doubleday, 2002), pp. 103-106

Text: But then, around 1965, whatever it was that made the Sixties such a distinctive decade began to work its liberating magic on Australia. Hints of other lifestyles and different points of view drifted across our skies like UFOs. Some saw them in the literature of the Beat Generation, others in rock music, but for me the vehicle of revelation was the movies.

Most Saturdays, I’d stop book hunting around noon, buy a slab of roast pork-belly at the Chinese takeaway on Campbell Street, watch the owner hack it into slices with his cleaver, then carry it with a bottle of Coke across the road to the Capitol Cinema. There I would pay, in those pre-decimal days, 2s 6d for a ticket and search the empty circle for a seat without protruding springs to spike my backside, and where I could munch the deliciously greasy spiced meat with no risk of being rousted by some officious usher.

A few moments usually remained before the start of the first film in the day’s double bill to contemplate John Eberson’s flaking midnight-blue ceiling, and wonder how it would look with its tiny stars illuminated — a feature rusted up long before I discovered the place. Since then, the Capitol has been restored and even its stars shine once more, but in those days its greatest appeal resided in its shabbiness, offering as it did both cheapness and anonymity. One could lose oneself in the warm dark — ‘lie low,’ as Leonard Cohen said, ‘and let the hunt go by’.

But what drew me back every week was the films. Mostly black and white and Italian or French, invariably dubbed into English, cut down to a jerky ninety minutes, and further hacked by the film censor, they reflected lives utterly alien to someone who’d never eaten an olive, seen a subtitled film, spoken to a Frenchman or kissed a girl, let alone slept with one.

Occasionally, during my adolescence, a foreign film had reflected back some flashes of my own experience — a 1954 movie called The Game of Love, for instance (a title attached by British distributors to almost anything French where the heroine removed a garment more intimate than a cardigan). Two teenagers, friends since infancy, meet at the same resort every year. They’re too shy to do anything about their mutual attraction until an older woman seduces the boy. The experience frees him to see his childhood friend for the first time, but undermines their uncomplicated love. An adaptation, in short, of Colette’s Le Blé en herbe — Ripening Seed. But its world of the beach and holidays was familiar enough to hint at lessons I might put into practice, some time, with some woman, if I ever got to know any.

Anybody in Australia hoping to learn about life from the cinema faced an uphill struggle in the Sixties. Nudity, violence, horror, obscenity, blasphemy and sedition — the censors cut them all. In the film of John O’Hara’s Butterfield 8, Liz Taylor, explaining to Eddie Fisher how she came to be a ‘party girl’ — i.e., part-time prostitute — traces it back to childhood, when a boyfriend of her mother’s, whom she regarded as a sort of uncle, took her on his knee and ‘interfered with’ her. Liz goes on, ‘But the worst thing was…’ At which point the film hiccuped, the sure sign of a cut. The next shot was of Fisher, looking bemused. Only much later did we discover that Liz said, ‘But the worse thing was, I enjoyed it.’ Enjoying sex? Obviously that had to go.

Interesting as I found the occasional flashes of eroticism in foreign films, the one that got me thinking most had no sex at all. The version presented at the Capitol was known as The Bandit’s Revenge, though it was actually called Salvatore Giuliano. Set in the rocky landscape of Sicily, it was a half documentary / half drama about a young man — face never seen — who, dressed in an incongruous grey dustcoat and with a World War II machine gun over his shoulder, led his gang against … who exactly? I couldn’t make that out. It would be years before I decoded the film, but Francesco Rosi’s darting direction remade my sense of how a story is told, as did the near-operatic behaviour of the characters – the old man who walks to a hilltop, for instance, and apostrophizes his native land like a character from Greek tragedy. Above all, the ink black and lime white of Gianni di Venanzo’s photography prepared me for Antonioni and the French new wave, just as the content lured me to history, politics, and, above all, to Europe.

Comments: John Baxter (1939- ) is an Australian writer of science fiction, film criticism and memoir. The cinema to which he refers is the Capitol Theatre, Sydney. The films he mentions are Le Blé en herbe (France 1954), Butterfield 8 (1960) and Salvatore Giuliano (Italy 1954).

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Industrial Town

Source: Charles Forman, Industrial Town: Self Portrait of St Helens in the 1920s (London: Paladin Books, 1979 [orig. pub. 1978]), pp. 120-121

Text: THE JOINER, BORN c. 1905

My brother and I used to get 1½d every Saturday to go to the picture palace. There was one film and lantern slides. It used to be a gymnasium. You climbed on the bars to get a better spec. There was a cinema at the top of Helena House, the Co-op building. It was 1d to go in and ½d for two ounces of toffee. We used to give one of the halfpennies to a friend. He had no money, there were too many of them, seven in the family. If we gave the two halfpennies to him, the three of us could go in. The children’s idol was a fellow called ‘Pimple’ – in the same year as Flora Finch. He was a fellow like a clown. He came on in a series each week – ‘Pimple at the North Pole’. Then there wasn’t enough film to go round all afternoon. The lantern slides used to come on – pictures of plants, flowers and birds, the drawing-room scenes. Sometimes they told a story.

Comments: Charles Forman’s Industrial Town is a collection of eye-witness accounts of life in the Lancashire town of St Helens in 1920s (and earlier, as with this account). ‘Pimple’ was a character played by British comedian Fred Evans, who plays the character in a long series of short films in the 1910s. The film referred to was Lieutenant Pimple’s Dash for the Pole (UK 1914). Flora Finch was a British comic actress popular in American films.

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