Yesterday’s Sunshine

Source: Verne Morgan, Yesterday’s Sunshine: Reminiscences of an Edwardian Childhood (Folkestone: Bailey Brothers and Swinfen, 1974), pp. 122-126

Text: The Moving Pictures, as we called them, first came to Bromley when I was about seven. They made their début at the Central Hall, and the performances took place on Friday nights. There were two houses, one at five o’clock for the children and one at seven for the grown-ups. The programmes lasted approximately one hour, and consisted of a succession of short films. Indeed some of them would last no longer than three or four minutes and there would be an appreciable wait in between while the man in the box got busy threading the next reel.

The Central Hall was a vast place with a huge gallery encircling it. It was used mostly for political meetings and the like, and quite often a band concert would be held there too. But it also had a pronounced ecclesiastical leaning and the man who owned it belonged in some way to the church and was avidly religious. He was an elderly man and wore pince-nez spectacles to which were attached a long black cord. He was a man of extremely good intentions and loved to stand upon the platform making long speeches spouting about them. Unfortunately, he had the most dreadful impediment and it was quite impossible to understand a word he said. But I well remember the enthusiastic claps he got when he eventually sat down, not because we had appreciated what he said so much as the fact that he had at last finished. The film programme could then begin.

The operating box was a temporary affair, and was perched up at the rear of the gallery. I used to get a seat as close to it as possible so that I could see how it was all done. The lighting was effected by a stick of black carbon, about the size of a piece of chalk, which lit up the small box with a brilliant blueish-white light and had a blinding effect if you looked right at it. Occasionally it would burn low and the operator would push it up a bit; this would be reflected by the density of light on the screen. The screen itself was also of a temporary nature, it was in fact little more than a large white sheet weighted at the bottom to keep it taut. Any movement close to it would cause it to wobble, and the picture would go a little peculiar. We were not critical of such minor details. The very fact that the picture moved was enough to satisfy us.

As each small reel was finished the operator would place it outside for re-winding, his box being of limited dimensions. On account of this I was able to study the technique as to how the pictures appeared to move. It was so simple I could hardly believe it. I told my Brother about it; I told my Mother about it; I told lots of people about it. But no one believed me. So, to prove myself right, I set about editing a film on my own account. I drew a succession of pictures in pencil on the bottom of a hymn book in church. Each one was just that little bit different, so that when the pages were flicked over the overall picture appeared to move. This technique, in ‘flicker’ form, has, of course, been used in many ways since then, but at the time it was entirely my own idea, and I was middling proud of it. I can’t say that anybody was particularly impressed, but at the time it thrilled me beyond description. In due course I pictorialised all the hymn books I could lay my hands on, during the sermon and other breaks in the church service. They consisted mostly of football matches with someone scoring a goal. Or it might be a boxing match with someone getting knocked out. Or an exciting race with a hectically close finish. Anything that inspired my sporting instincts was in course of time recorded in the hymn books of St. Luke’s Church, Bromley. I have often wondered since what the effect must have been on the boy who eventually took my seat in the choir pew when he found what he had inherited. I can only hope that he had as much enjoyment out of watching animated pictures as I had got out of drawing them.

The Central Hall was situated close to the top of Bromley Hill, nearly three miles from where we lived. It was a long walk for small legs, and there was no public transport at that time. Yet, whatever the weather, we never missed. Every Friday, shortly after school hours, a swarm of happy-faced youngsters were to be seen all heading in the same direction. The Central Hall had become the centre of a new culture. But, as yet, only the school kids had caught on to it.

Then quite suddenly, the Grand Theatre in Bromley High Street, which up till then had housed nothing more spectacular than stage dramas of the “Maria Marten” and “Sweeney Todd” kind, put up the shutters and announced that in future Moving Pictures would take over. They would be put on once nightly with a full programme of films. A new firm moved in calling itself Jury’s. The old Grand was given a face-lift and transformed into a picture house.

This was revolutionary indeed.

The grown-ups were sceptical. But the programmes were of a higher standard than those at the Central Hall, and would sometimes have a two-reeler as the star attraction. The films began to take on a more realistic angle, with interesting stories, love scenes, cowboys and Indians, exciting battles and lots of gooey pathos.

People began to go.

When they announced a showing of the famous story “Quo Vadis” in seven reels, all Bromley turned out to see it. Even my father condescended, and grumbled volubly because he had to “line up” to get it (the word “queue” had not yet come into circulation).

It was the beginning of a new era. Very soon a place was built in the High Street, calling itself a cinema. Moving pictures were firmly on the map, and shortly to be called films. We watched with astonishment as the new building reached completion and gave itself the high-flown title of “The Palaise [sic] de luxe”.

Most of us pronounced it as it was spelt, “The Palace de lux”, but my cousin Daisy, who was seventeen and having French lessons twice a week, pronounced it the “Palyay dee Loo”. And she twisted her mouth into all sorts of shapes when she said it.

That being as it may, the Palaise de Luxe put on programmes that pulled in the crowds from far and near, and it wasn’t long before they engaged a pianist to play the piano while the films were in progress. I remember him well. A portly gentleman who hitherto had earned a precarious living playing in local pubs. He soon got into his stride and began to adapt his choice of music to the particular film that was being shown. If it was a comedy he would play something like “The Irish Washerwoman”; if it was something sad, he would rattle off a popular number of the day like, “If your heart should ache awhile never mind”, and if it was a military scene, he would strike up a well-known march. The classic example came when a religious film was presented and we saw Christ walking on the water. He immediately struck up a few bards of “A life on the ocean wave”.

Later on, all cinemas worthy of the name included a small orchestra to accompany the films, and in due course, a complete score of suitable music would be sent with the main feature film so as to give the right effect at the right moment.

The Palaise de Luxe was indeed a palace as far as we were concerned. We sat in plush tip-up seats and there were two programmes a night. Further, you could walk in any old time and leave when you felt like it. Which meant, of course, that you could, if you so desired, be in at the start and watch the programme twice through (which many of us did and suffered a tanning for getting home late). It was warm and cosy, and there was a small upper circle for those who didn’t wish to mix!

The projector was discreetly hidden away behind the back wall up in the circle, and no longer could you see the man turning the handle. We became conscious for the first time of the strong beam of light that extended from the operating box to the screen. It was all so fascinating and mysterious. The screen, too, was no longer a piece of white material hanging from the ceiling, it was built into the wall, or so it appeared, and it was solid, so that no amount of movement could make it wobble.

It quickly became the custom to visit the cinema once a week. It was the “in” thing, or as we said in those days, it was “all the rage”.

We learnt to discriminate. My Brother and I became infatuated with a funny little man who was just that bit different from the others. His tomfoolery had a “soul” we decided, and whereas we smiled and tittered at the others comics, we roared our heads off with laughter whenever this one came on the screen. We went to a great deal of trouble to find out who he was, for names were not very often given in the early days.

“He’s called Charlie Chaplin”, the manager of the cinema told us, a little surprised no doubt that one so young could be all that interested.

Comment: Verne Morgan lived in Kent, and became a writer of pantomimes and theatre sketches. Palais de Luxe cinemas were a chain, run by Electric Theatres (1908) Ltd. Jury’s Imperial Pictures was a producer and distributor, must did not manage cinemas. The period described is the early to mid-1910s: the Italian film Quo Vadis was made in 1913 and Chaplin’s first films were released in 1914. The mention of a piano player being introduced suggests that the earlier screenings had been watched without musical accompaniment.

Don’t Look at the Camera

Source: Harry Watt, Don’t Look at the Camera (London: Elek Books, 1974), pp. 29-30

Text: So many of my highbrow associates think they can ‘meet the working man’. Malcolm Muggeridge, for instance, my revered and close friend. He hasn’t a hope. There’s that ghastly accent to start with. (I wonder if I would have talked like him if I’d gone to Cambridge, as my father suggested?) And he’s incapable of meandering on with the platitudes, repetitions and sudden flashes of colour in ordinary man’s speech. Without an innocuous Scots accent, a knowledge of football, boxing, cricket and horse racing, plus a few dirty stories mostly involving the bosses, and a capacity to swear, without repeating myself, for about two minutes, I could never have found the material to write the documentary films I did, both in peace and war. I imagine that Malcolm, master of words that he is, has not got these gifts. I once went with him to see The Bridge Over The River Kwai [sic] in a suburban cinema in Sydney, Australia. It was not one of my happier evenings. To start with, Malcolm can never speak sotto voce. He declaims, wherever he is. And that exaggerated ‘Pommy’ voice, echoing out over the Bijou Cinema, Cronulla, nearly started a riot. When William Holden, the co-star, disappeared, apparently killed, Malcolm said – as usual, at the top of his voice – ‘Thank God that dreary Yank has gone. I found him intolerable!’ I explained, very sotto voce, that Holden had been paid a million dollars for the picture, and as it was only a third of the way through, he was bound to reappear. When he did, Malcolm boomed ‘How clever you are, Harry, I can never understand the economic intricacies of your dreadful industry. So we have to put up with the awful shit to the end.’ At that, an enormous Rugby League forward, sitting behind us, got up and said ‘Listen, you Pommy poof, one more word out of you, and I’ll sink ya.’ Malcolm, of course, was not in the least discountenanced, and merely said, ‘My dear chap, I was only making what I thought was a perfectly valid criticism of a rather second-rate piece of cinema.’ The gorilla sat down, baffled. But I imagine Malcolm would have had great difficulty in achieving an intimacy with that Aussie.

Comments: Harry Watt (1906-1987) was a British documentary and feature film director, renowned for his contribution to such films as Night Mail, London Can Take It!, Target for Tonight and The Overlanders (one of a number of films he made in Australia). Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990) was a celebrated British journalist and social commentator, known for his early advocacy of left-wing views only to turn to strong conservatism in his latter years. He had a notably accentuated upper class English voice.

The Great Apple Raid

Source: Arthur Hopcraft, The Great Apple Raid & other encounters of a tin chapel tiro (London: Heinemann, 1970), pp. 39-41

Text: The Central Cinema has an off-white front, big posters in many-coloured paint and two show-cases of lusciously seductive photographs. In those show-cases pinned sill for savours were the exotics and the exquisites, the protectors and the menacers, the despicable and the flawless, who were the prototypes for the stars in the casts of thousands whom I deployed in my tumultuous cinema of the mind.

I took these cowboy sheriffs, boy runaways, space pilots, singing sword-fighters, jungle lords, banjo comedians, miniscule Chinese detectives, coloratura goddesses, dimple-kneed flirts, blood-fed pirates, hero-dogs and men made of mud and I directed them in thunderous extravaganzas of the silver screen which stretched across the vastness of the inside of my forehead. I needed only seconds between one conscious activity and another to mount a galloping adventure of epic dimension. Poised between the tying of one shoelace and wrestling with the other, invincibly locked in some self-imposed knot overnight, I could summon cavalry by the column and glint at their head in a metallic charge at Geronimo’s ochrous horde; could transmogrify while the dust still billowed and swing slab-thighed and bicepped like an elephant’s leg on my rope of jungle creepers, and snatch some plane-wrecked blonde from the tentacles of a spider the size of a willow tree; and could still have time to change yet again, as I landed in the treetop with Blue Eyes fluttering in my armpit, into goggles and flying jacket and sweep onwards and upwards into lone battle in my spitting bi-plane cockpit against a skyful of Huns.

I was a hero with a hundred faces, all copies and composites of the idols in the showcases and yet on all of them was superimposed my own. For supporting players, rivals and heroines I mixed the famous with a brilliant audacity that no De Mille or Korda ever approached. Hoppalong Cassidy had his horse shot from under him by King Ming’s bodyguard using ray guns; Shirley Temple got carried off by Zulu warriors; Mickey Rooney borrowed one of Tarzan’s giraffes for a race from the saloon to Boot Hill and back, got locked in his room again for smoking and was replaced to triumphant effect by me. Usually, even if mechanized or airborne at the moment of victory, I still rode out of my film on a tall, piebald horse, waving my hat in the air, the adoring, grateful faces of all those figures in the showcase flickering subliminally through the fade-out.

I knew the faces long before I saw them bloated in close-up inside the cinema. Not all of them were regarded at home as suitable for my interest. But they were already in my own shows. I was a slinking private detective, on that precursor of the Cinemascope screen that I carried behind my eyes, before I had ever seen Bogart or Powell. I knew what dames (hot) were, and rods (‘You man enough to carry that thing, Bug?’), and torpedos (out of town). Or at least I knew that those thin-eyed, snappy hatted men in the striped suits used those terms; there references were there in the captions under the showcase pictures. Imagination was enough to turn those pictures into a wealth of stories, tricky with sudden turns of fate, reckless with fists and gunfire. The showcase pictures changed every three days, but it was not often enough to match my impatience for new faces, new circumstances.

Comments: Arthur Hopcraft (1932-2004) was a British sports journalist and screenwriter, best known for his book The Football Man. He spent much of his childhood in the Blackfords area of Cannock, Staffordshire. His recollections of cinemagoing in the 1940s continue in the book with a more conventional account of riotous behaviour at Satursday afternoon film shows.

Bad Blood

Source: Lorna Sage, Bad Blood (London: Fourth Estate, 2000), pp. 42-43

Text: Grandma eked out her visits with other fantasy gratifications. She could hoard wherever she was and, although Shrewsbury and Chester were in her view not a patch on Cardiff, they would help recapture the security of streets, and their cafés and cinemas would cocoon her against the hostile whispers of the trees and the whiffs of manure. These outings were all-female, too, and involved hours of getting ready, then a lift to the train from a blaspheming Grandpa, or sometimes a taxi, all so that she’d be able to repose in the life-giving fug of a matinée at the Gaumont or the Majestic. The plush seats, the dimming of the lights and the sheen they caught on the swagged curtain as it rose, the box of chocolates, were as important as the film itself, almost. Although she loved the whole thing and entered into the spirit of the illusion so enthusiastically that she swept aside the dimension of fiction altogether. The latest Ava Gardner movie was just the most recent report on what promiscuous Ava had been up to since you saw her last: the changes of costume and setting and name were feeble disguises, and didn’t fool Grandma for a minute. She was there to witness when Joan Fontaine, for all her icy blondness, fell for Harry Belafonte and would (she said) never trust Joan again. Grace Kelly she watched like a hawk for signs of similar leanings and was semi-confirmed when Grace married an Eye-tie (She herself wouldn’t touch dark chocolates, even, and anyone who acquired a suntan was suspected of a touch of the tar brush.) Once television arrived in our lives she became an addict of soap operas and in particular Emergency Ward 10, which saved her life day after dreary rural day. The box eventually became her babysitter, the last, many times removed substitute for her mother. By then I was treating her with contempt, as a senile infant, although she scared me a lot, in truth, because she represented the prospect of never growing up.

Comments: Lorna Sage (1943-2001) was an English literary academic and writer. Her memoir Bad Blood includes a description of her childhood in a Welsh borders village with grandparents who loathed one another. Joan Fontaine and Jamaican-American actor Harry Belafonte appeared together in Island in the Sun (US 1957), which caused some controversy on account of its inter-racial love scenes. Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956. British medical soap opera was broadcast by ITV 1957-1967.

Time and Chance

Source: Alexander Black, Time and Chance: Adventures with People and Print (New York/Toronto: Farrar and Reinhardt, 1937), pp. 117-118

Text: I was witness to one blunder in translating an audience sound that may have had a parallel under other circumstances, yet scarcely with a setting so unique. Edouard [sic] Muybridge was lecturing at the Oxford Club in Brooklyn on his experiments in photographing the horse in motion – experiments which resulted in startling the artists of the world. By the aid of a primitive projector he was displaying his studies on a screen. The action pictures showed not only horses but human figures, some of which were not merely novel but strikingly beautiful. While Muybridge was projecting and describing the dance of a girl model with floating draperies that glittered in the sunlight, someone in the audience, impatient at the prevalence of too-audible comment, uttered a ‘Sh-h-h!’ Muybridge mistook the shush for a hiss. It was astounding that he should mistake the intention behind the sound, but he blurted out a quick-tempered protest. ‘I am amazed,’ he said, ‘that from an intelligent audience there should be any misjudgement of a picture which I think has been rightly recognized as a work of art. It is a sad humiliation to discover that prudery can go so far.’ The shusher said nothing. Perhaps only in an American audience could Muybridge’s rebuke have been heard in silence. The silence was not only a cruelty to him, but a saddening confession of stupidity if not on the part of the whole audience, on the party of the committee – not to mention the shusher. Of course Muybridge was enlightened when he got through, but the mischief had been done. At least one after-comment insisted that the incident ‘made a monkey of Muybridge and cowards of the crowd.’

Comments: Alexander Black (1859-1940) was an American photographer, journalist and novelist. He became a pioneer of cinematic-style narrative through his 1894 lecture Miss Jerry, which combined staged slides (using professional actors) with some illusion of movement and live commentary. The English chronophotographer Eadweard Muybridge, whose sequence photographs did so much to inspire cinema, lectured across America and Europe in the 1880s. The lecture described hear may have taken place in early 1889 (early film history Terry Ramsaye refers to the incident in his book A Million and One Nights). My thanks to Deac Rossell for bringing this passage to my attention.

Brother Robert

Source: Annye C. Anderson (with Preston Lauterbach), Brother Robert: Growing Up with Robert Johnson (New York: Hachette Books, 2020), pp. 51-52

Text: Once I got to go to Beale Street, I’d tag along with Brother Robert, Brother Son, and Sister Carrie to the movies at the Palace Theater. They liked to see Mae West and Bette Davis, and I was a nuisance, always running to the bathroom and wanting popcorn.

Most of the movies we saw at the Palace were Westerns. Buck Jones and Tom Mix were Brother Robert’s favorite cowboys. He wore that big Stetson, like them. All of the young men in our family wore Stetson—that was on the go. My father and Uncle Will wore Dobbs.

At the Palace, Son and Brother Robert saw Gene Autry in Tumbling Tumbleweeds. Gene and another guitar player did a song called “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine.”

That piece became a part of Son and Brother Robert’s repertoire whenever they entertained.

All the top bands, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Lucky Millinder, Cab Calloway, and Jimmie Lunceford played at the Palace. We could see big entertainment for a small price. These acts also played the Orpheum, the grand opera theater on Main Street at Beale, one of the few integrated venues in the city, though blacks sat in the balcony.

It’s my understanding that Brother Robert would hang out at the Palace while waiting on his next gig. Mr. Barrasso, the owner, let you stay all day on one ticket price. Brother Robert would sleep while the movie played over and over, and the Looney Tunes, shorts, and newsreels ran. He’d sit with the guitar across his chest, watching the old-time cowboy movies. He’d cool off in there on a hot day or warm up on a cold day until the time to meet up with his friends or return to Sister Carrie’s.

Comments: Annye C. Anderson (1926 – ) is the step-sister of Robert Johnson (1911-1938), the legendary American blues guitarist and singer. Her memoir provides much personal detail of the life of the step-brother, who was murdered when she was twelve years old, as well as a vivid account of black lives in the American south in the 1930s. Charles ‘Son’ Spencer was his (and her) musician step-brother and Carrie Spencer his (and her) step-sister.

Straw Hats and Serge Bloomers

Source: Eileen Elias, Straw Hats and Serge Bloomers (London: W.H. Allen, 1979), p. 126

Text: I always claimed that I didn’t care for Westerns; they were or children, and I considered myself too old for such childish things. Nevertheless, when on occasion I did see them, I found myself riveted to my seat as the flying spectacle galloped by. It was as thrilling and alarming as Harold Lloyd and his window-sill hanging, only in a different way; I didn’t want to jump out of my seat, but cringe within it as the racing hoofs swept past, it seemed, only a few feet from my nose. Things came to a climax when Ben Hur arrived on the screen, better far than any Western with its famous chariot-race scene. This was a stupendous film which we all must see, Father pronounced; so off we trooped to the local cinema and sat in a trance watching the close-ups — and how close they seemed! — of whirling wheels and galloping hoofs while the organ surpassed itself in a frenzy. We came out with our heads spinning, and all that night I lay in bed, my dreams full of the thunder of chariots and the tug of leather harness just about to give way as the rival competitors passed and re-passed each other on the course. Ben Hur broke all records in the West End, and toured all the local cinemas while whole
families went to watch it again and again. The art of the cinema, it seemed, could reach no further: Ben Hur had said it all.

Comments: Eileen Elias was an author of books on child management and memoirs of her Lewisham upbringing. This passage part of a detailed and atmospheric chapter on cinemagoing in London in the 1920s in her books Straw Hats and Serge Bloomers. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (USA 1925), directed by Fred Niblo and starring Ramon Novarro, was based on the novel by Lew Wallace. It was one of the most expensive but also one of highest-grossing films of its era.

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).

My Twenty Years in Buckingham Palace

Source: Frederick John Corbitt, My Twenty Years in Buckingham Palace: a book of intimate memoirs (New York, D. McKay Co., 1956), pp. 229-230

Text: I found it most amusing in those days to read and to hear of the Princess’s name being linked with this young man or that young man, various officers of the Guards and scions of the nobility who all of them in turn had been invited to join the Royal party at one house or another. I have seen them all come — and go away to wed some other lady or to stay bachelors. People like the Marquess of Blandford, the Earl of Dalkeith, and many others. Always the Group Captain would be among the party, quite content to let the limelight of publicity shine on these other young men, doing his best to help make them happy and comfortable throughout their stay. But to those of us in the background there was never any doubt whatever as to whom the Princess wanted to sit near her during an after-dinner film show in one of the private cinemas at the Royal residences. It was always Peter.

I sat close behind the Royal Family at these cinema shows. I delighted in the rather ceremonious way in which the Royal Family would walk in, headed by the King and the Queen Mother, followed by the two Princesses and the young men of the party. When the King had taken his seat with his Queen beside him, the others would take their seats to the left and right of the Royal couple in the same row and proceed to fill up the rows of chairs behind. Princess Margaret would nearly always take a seat behind the front or second row and keep a chair next to her for the Group Captain who waited rather quietly until the King would call for the lights to go out. Then the Group Captain would slip silently in to take his seat beside Princess Margaret, placing a rug about her knees if it was cold, and putting out an ash tray for her cigarette and holder. There was a definite atmosphere of contentment between the two as they would settle down to watch the film.

I always thought, “Good luck to them.” It used to amuse me a good deal on these occasions to observe the disapproval being expressed among older members of the Household to ward the Group Captain for his manners with the Princess. But that was the way the Princess wanted it; she was happy and so was he.

Comments: Frederick John Corbitt was Deputy Comptroller of Supply at Buckingham Palace. After leaving this employment he published an indiscreet memoir of his time with the British royal family, entitled Fit for a King (1956). The American edition, My Twenty Years at Buckingham Palace, had an extra chapter on the romance between Princess Margaret and Group Captain Peter Townsend, from which the above is taken.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Diversions of a Naturalist

Source: Sir Ray Lankester, Diversions of a Naturalist (New York: The Macmillian Company, 1915), pp. 29-31

Text: I recently was present at a lecture given to the Anthropological Institute in London by Professor Baldwin Spencer, of Melbourne, with whom I was closely associated when he was a student at Oxford thirty years ago. He has devoted many years to the study of the Australian natives, and ten years ago published a most valuable work describing his experiences amongst them, to which he has recently added a further volume. He has lived with them in friendship and intimacy in the remote wilderness of the Australian bush, and has been admitted as a member of one of their mysterious clans, of which the “totem,” or supposed spirit-ancestor, is “the witchety grub “—a kind of caterpillar. He has been freely admitted to their secret ceremonies as well as to their more public “corroborees” or dances, and has been able (as no one else has been), without annoyance or offence to them, to take a great number of cinema-films of them in their various dances or when cooking in camp or paddling and upsetting their canoes, and climbing back again from the river. Many of these he exhibited to us, and we found ourselves among moving crowds of these slim-legged, beautifully-shaped wild men. The film presented some of their strange elaborate dances, which soon will be danced no more. These wild men die out when civilized man comes near them. It appears that they really spend most of their time in dancing when not looking for food or chipping stone implements, and that their dances are essentially plays (like those of little children in Europe), the acting of traditional stories relating the history of their venerated animal “totem,” which often last for three weeks at a time! Whilst dancing and gesticulating they are chanting and singing without cessation, often repeating the same words over and over again. Here, indeed, we have the primitive human art, the emotional expression from which, in more advanced races, music, drama, dancing, and decorative handicraft have developed as separate “arts.”

The most remarkable and impressive result was obtained when Professor Baldwin Spencer turned on his phonograph records whilst the wild men danced in the film picture. Then we heard the actual voices of these survivors of prehistoric days—shouting at us in weird cadences, imitating the cry of birds, and accompanied by the booming of the bull-roarer (a piece of wood attached to a string, and swung rapidly round by the performer). A defect, and at the same time a special merit, of the cinema show of the present day is the deadly silence of both the performers and the spectators. Screams and oaths are delivered in silence; pistols are fired without a sound. One can concentrate one’s observation on the facial expression and movements of the actors with undivided attention and with no fear of startling detonations. And very bad they almost invariably are, except in films made by the great French producers. On the other hand, I was astonished at the intensity of the impression produced by hearing the actual voices of those Australian wild men as they danced in rhythm with their songs. To hear is a greater means of revelation than to see. One feels even closer to those Australian natives as their strange words and songs issue from imprisonment in the phonograph, than when one sees them in the film pictures actually beating time with feet and hands and imitating the movements of animals. To receive, as one sits in a London lecture-room, the veritable appeal of these remote and inaccessible things to both the eye and the ear simultaneously, is indeed the most thrilling experience I can remember. With a feeling of awe, almost of terror, we recognize as we gaze at and listen to the records brought home by Professor Baldwin Spencer that we are intruding into a vast and primitive Nature-reserve where even humanity itself is still in the state of childhood—submissive to the great mother, without the desire to destroy her control or the power to substitute man’s handiwork for hers.

Comments: Ray Lankester (1847-1929) was a celebrated British biologist and zoologist. The Anglo-Australian anthropologist Baldwin Spencer (1860-1929) studied Australian Aborigines over many years, using film and sound recordings (on wax cylinders) as part of his investigations. The film and sound were separate recordings, not designed to be played back in synchronisation. Those witnessed by Lankester were either made in 1901-02 or (more likely) 1911-12.

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