Focussing the Universe

Source: Montagu A. Pyke, Focussing the Universe: A Defence of the Cinematograph (London: Waterlow Bros. & Layton, 1910)

Text: What would we not now give for reliable representations, veritable re-productions of epoch-marking events in the history of our own country, faithful portraits of those who took part in them? The signing of Magna Charta [sic], the execution of Charles I, the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots, these and a thousand other historical occurrences, if they could be brought before our eyes today precisely and actually as they happened, how easy and interesting it would be at once to teach and to learn history; what a clearer and more accurate idea we should have respecting the great events and the people of the past, not only in our own country but in other countries.

Posterity will surely be better served in this respect. The Cinematograph renders that certain, every great event in the history of the world, every striking occurrence, every upheaval, whether of men or of nature, by means of it will be recorded for all time. The recent Revolution in Portugal is an object lesson in regard to this. The many rapid and dramatic occurrences in that Revolution, as likewise the portraits of the leaders of the revolt against Monarchical Government, are now faithfully recorded for all time. Let the mind wander back 120 years or so and contemplate the interest with which we of to-day would, were it possible, gaze on the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and all the other awful events of the French Revolution precisely as they took place, or on the great Napoleon himself, then a citizen of the Republic, urged on by his insatiable ambition to wade through a sea of blood and glory to a throne, and subsequently to an exile on a lonely South Atlantic Island. As I have said, posterity will be better served in such historic matters than we are. It will be able to read history not in books but in pictures.

The Cinematograph is the indelible, the faithful, the unbiased recorder of history. We of this generation may make history, but we shall not be privileged to read it in Pictures. That remains for our descendants. For us, however, the Cinematograph has abundant functions. To me, the more I think over it, the more lost I am in amazement at the complete revolution in our conceptions, our ideas, our knowledge, this modern invention is quietly accomplishing. Let me refer to a few of its phases.

It has annihilated space. Most of the wars, much of the racial feeling and national prejudices of the past have been due to narrowness of ideas and ideals, to a failure to understand, through lack of imagination, other people, their feelings and idiosyncracies. The people of the United Kingdom were long insular in more than one sense of that word. They regarded other nations with suspicion, and knew very little about them, while most of what was known was inaccurate to a degree. The Cinematograph is altering all this, it may be gradually and imperceptibly, but a distinct change is being effected all the same. By means of the Cinematograph Theatre all the world is now brought before the eyes of the visitors thereto – floods in Paris, an earthquake in South America, a typhoon and its consequences in China or Japan, a hundred and one occurrences here, there and everywhere are visually represented to the eyes of the audience with the result that sympathy is excited, different races begin to understand one another and to feel that though the colour of their skin, or the articulate sounds by which they convey their thoughts, may differ, they are, nevertheless, bound together by the firm cords of humanity.

The Cinematograph is a vast, enlightening and instructive force. The use of Pictures to convey knowledge and information is no new thing. Indeed in this respect we are simply going back to the primeval days of the human race. All alphabets were originally pictures, and the Chinese characters remain so still. In Mexico and Peru, prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, the written language was expressed in pictures.

The Cinematograph Theatre is teaching daily thousands of men and women by means of the eye. It keeps them au courant with public events at home and abroad in a much more striking manner than any newspaper can effect. The latter can only record in type a fact, not as it happened, but as it seemed to happen to the recorder. The visitor to the Picture Theatre can see the occurrence precisely as if he had been on the spot and witnessed it. And so, if he visits a Cinematograph Theatre once or twice a week, he is practically a traveller over the earth’s surface. He can take “the grand tour,” which our forefather considered a daring event once in a life-time, once or twice a week under comfortable conditions, visiting the five Continents, being, as it were, present at all the great occurrences therein, and seeing men and women making that history which not he but his descendants will read. He can survey all mankind from China to Peru and obtain observation with extensive view.

The Cinematograph provides innocent amusement, evokes wholesome laughter, tends to take people out of themselves, if only for a moment, and to forget those wearisome worries which frequently appal so many people faced with the continual struggle for existence. It forms in fact – I like the word – a diversion. It is in some respects what old Izaak Walton claimed angling to be: An employment for idle time which is then not idly spent, a rest to the mind, a cheerer of the spirits, a diverter of sadness, a calmer of unquiet thoughts, a moderator of passions, a procurer of contentedness. Amusement, relaxation of some kind is necessary for men and women, and it is especially necessary in these strenuous days when nearly all work is at high pressure. That the Picture Theatre provides a greatly felt want is made clear by the popularity it had already achieved despite the opposition and sneers of either prejudiced or interested persons.

The Picture Theatre properly conducted is a clean and healthy entertainment, entirely free not only from the actually indecent, but the suggestive in any form. It seems to me largely a revolt against the decadent condition of the modern stage and the banalities and vulgarities of the modern music-hall. It combines in due proportion amusement and interesting information respecting the happenings of humanity everywhere. Its potentialities seem to be illimitable, and I am not inclined to put any bounds to them. That it has come to stay is not now an arguable proposition. The problem rather is to meet the immense demand springing up in every part of the country for this form of entertainment. Those who have seen it once and, perhaps, visited it hesitatingly, or for the purpose of jeering at it, have left it converted missionaries to sound its praises and voice its attractions in the remotest country districts.

Not least of the charms of the Picture Theatre for me is the fact that it is, in the real sense of the word, catholic, appealing not only to men and women of every class and degree, but to men, women and children of all ages. Before its advent, the process of amusing or interesting the child at a public entertainment was a somewhat difficult one, while the possibility of instructing him or her thereat, was never considered at all. For the child the music-hall was, and rightly, deemed utterly unsuitable, so too, was the theatre; it was either above the child’s head, or the play, musical or otherwise, was not deemed proper for it to see. And so the child in a great city like London, had usually the choice of a visit to the Zoo, or to the pantomime at Christmas. Now that is all changed. The Picture Theatre, if it has done nothing else, has brought delight to the minds and souls of thousands upon thousands of mites in this great Metropolis, some of whom look upon it as the one oasis in the desert of their dull and sordid lives. I confess that nothing gives me so much pleasure as a contemplation of the fact that I have had some part in bringing a little happiness into the lives of these young ones. Nothing is more delightful to me when I visit one of my Theatres than to hear the hearty laughter of the boys and girls who have come “to see the pictures,” and in the process to get a little happiness infused into their lives, some interest in the world that lies beyond their narrow outlook. Of the value of the Picture Theatre as an educational force for the young, opening up to them, as it can, vast realms of knowledge in an attractive and easily assimilated form, or of its achievement, and still greater possibilities in the future, in respect of the extension and spread of scientific knowledge generally, I have not space to relate. The prospect is vast, almost overwhelming in its greatness, its possible results.

When I made up my mind to open my first Picture Theatre, I did so convinced that the class of entertainment which could be put forward at such a place would be one which, from its infinite variety and the conditions under which it was given, would appeal to the great mass of the public. There were then, as there always have been when anything novel is suggested, doubting Thomases who deemed the idea impracticable and bound to fail. These men had not so much faith in humanity as I had, in its desire for an entertainment free from ribaldry, vulgarity, profanity, combining in due proportion knowledge and amusement, the charge for admission to which should be moderate, and entertainment which should be given among enjoyable surroundings to people sitting in comfort, instead of craning their necks from elevated benches in the vicinity of the ceiling. My faith was justified, and the Picture Theatre is now well established in our midst. It will always be a source of pride and delight to me that I was privileged to be the pioneer of the Picture Theatre in this country, and, as such, that I have done something to brighten the lives of great masses of the people, to bring a little sunshine and happiness to them when weary and worn after a day’s toil. I feel, however, that my work in this direction is not yet completed. I shall not rest satisfied until I have erected a Picture Theatre in every London suburb and provincial town in which it seems to me that one is needed. When I have succeeded in doing that I shall feel that sense of satisfaction which comes from the thought of “something attempted, something done” to elevate, to enlighten, to instruct, and to amuse humanity.

Comments: Montagu Pyke (1874-1935) was a British exhibitor whose ‘Pyke circuit’ boasted fourteen cinemas in central London at its pre-World War One height. He became perhaps the most famous person in the British film business of his day, but his methods of raising capital were dubious, and he had been made bankrupt by 1915. Focussing the Universe was a promotional pamphlet for Pyke’s Cinematograph Theatres. Though much of it makes conventional claims for cinema as an educational force and means to capture important events, it has some thoughtful observations on the special appeal of cinema for its audiences.