Journey Without Maps

Source: Graham Greene, Journey Without Maps (London: Vintage, 2006 – orig. pub. 1936), pp. 15-17

Text: The cinema in Tenerife was showing a film which had been adapted from one of my own novels. It had been an instructive and rather painful experience to see it shown. The direction was incompetent, the photography undistinguished, the story sentimental. If there was any truth in the original it had been carefully altered, if anything was left unchanged it was because it was untrue. By what was unchanged I could judge and condemn my own novel: I could see clearly what was cheap and banal enough to fit the cheap banal film.

There remained a connection between it and me. One had never taken the book seriously; it had been written hurriedly because of the desperate need one had for the money. But even into a book of that kind had gone a certain amount of experience, nine months of one’s life, it was tied up in the mind with a particular countryside, particular anxieties; one couldn’t disconnect oneself entirely, and it was curious, rather pleasing, to find it there in the hot bright flowery town. There are places where one is ready to welcome any kind of acquaintance with memories in common; he may be cheap but he knew Annette; he may be dishonest but he once lodged with George; even if the acquaintance is very dim indeed and takes a lot of recognising.

Two Youthful Hearts in the Grip of Intrigue. Fleeing from Life. Cheated? Crashing Across Europe. Wheels of Fate.

Never before had I seen American ballyhoo at work on something I intimately knew. It was magnificent in its disregard of the article for which it had paid. Its psychological insight was either cynically wrong or devastatingly right.

The real Orient Express runs across Europe from Belgium to Constantinople. Therefore, you will go wrong if you interpret the word ‘Orient’ to indicate something of a Chinese or Japanese nature. There is enough material of other kinds to arrange a lively colourful ballyhoo, as you will see as soon as you turn to the exploitation pages in this press book.

Date Tie-Up. In the exhibitors’ set of stills available at the exchange are three stills which show Norman Foster explaining the sex life of a date to Heather Angel, passing dates to Heather Angel and Heather Angel buying dates from the car window. The dialogue is quite enlightening on the date subject at one point in the picture. Every city has high-class food shops which feature fancy packages of dates. Tie-in with one of these for window displays, and for a lobby display, using adequate copy and the three stills.

Another angle would be to have a demonstration of date products, the many uses of dates, etc. This would be quite possible in the much larger cities. And in cases where working with large concerns, patrons may be permitted to taste samples. These tie-ups must be worked out locally despite the fact that we are contacting importers of important brands.

Don’t under-estimate the value of a real smart window fixed up with date products, baskets of delicious fruits and dates, and the three stills shown here with adequate copy for your picture. “Buy a package of delicious dates, and take The Orient Express’ for Constantinople, a most thrilling and satisfying evening’s entertainment, at the Rialto Theatre.”

Do you Know That: Heather Angel’s pet kitten Penang had to have its claws clipped because it insisted on sharpening them on the legs of expensive tables;

That the pet economy of Heather Angel is buying washable gloves and laundering them herself;

That Una O’Connor permits only a very few of her intimate friends to call her Tiny?

That blast of ballyhoo had not sold the film; to my relief, because by contract my name had to appear on every poster, it had kept to the smaller shabbier cinemas, until now it was washed up in Tenerife, in a shaded side street behind an old carved door like a monastery’s. This was what made it an agreeable acquaintance; it hadn’t the shamelessness of success; it might be vulgar, but it wasn’t successfully vulgar. There was something quite un-Hollywood in its failure.

The Canaries were half-way to Africa; the Fox film and the pale cactus spears stuck in the hillside, a Victorian Gothic hotel smothered in bougainvillaea, parrots and a monkey on a string, innumerable themes were stated like the false starts and indecisions of a lifetime: the Chinese job from which one had resigned, the appointment in Bangkok never taken up, the newspaper in Nottingham. I can remember now only the gaudy poster, the taste of the sweet yellow wine, fiat roofs and flowers and an arbour full of empty bottles, and in the small dark cathedral a Christmas crib (castles and little villages and women with baskets of carrots, a donkey and a motor-car and a comic man in a top-hat, little caves where hermits or gipsies sat asleep on moss-covered rocks, a man on an old-fashioned bicycle, and somewhere right up in a corner, dwarfed by the world, the flesh, those bright spring carrots, the devil, the man in a top-hat, sat the Mother of God with an old-young child, wrinkled and careworn and cross-eyed, and Herod leant over a wall with his crown tilted).

Comments: Graham Greene (1904-1991) was a British novelist, many of whose works were filmed and who was a notable film critic in the 1930s. Journey Without Maps is a travel book about a visit to Liberia; Greene stopped off at the Canary Islands along the way. The film he saw was Orient Express (USA 1934), based on his novel Stamboul Train. The section of the chapter from which this passage comes is entitled ‘Ballyhoo’.

Watching War Films With My Dad

Source: Al Murray, Watching War Films With My Dad (London: Random House, 2013), pp. 12-15

Text: War films were a mainstay of British male popular culture when I was growing up in the Seventies. To some the Seventies is all about flares and disco, or Mohican haircuts and punk or, worst of all, ABBA – but to me the Seventies is war films on the telly. I was blissfully ignorant of the idea that the movies were a way of British culture processing what had happened to it during World War Two: the nine-year-old me had little sensitivity (or even an atom of it) to what my grandmother who had lost her husband and brother in the war might make of my enthusiasm for war films. Or my mum, who’d never known her father or uncle. They were made for men, about men, with men in them. That’s certainly how I saw them when I was a boy – though I know I didn’t think about it too hard, either.

[…]

I have a clear memory of being taken to see A Bridge Too Far at the cinema when I was nine. It was a really big deal – we didn’t go to the cinema much, and this was a major dad-and-lad event. I think we went to Bletchley but I could be wrong. It might have been the bright lights of Aylesbury, possibly Luton. These were the days of the B-feature, huge cinemas that you could stay in of an afternoon and watch the whole programme all the way round again. I remember seeing The Eagle Has Landed like this: we’d missed the start so stayed and caught the painfully slow first half of exposition and plotting. That was definitely in Luton. And the B-feature was a short about trains.

Now a Sunday-afternoon teatime staple, A Bridge Too Far tells the story of Operation Market Garden. Every male human of my ilk has seen this star-studded war epic, a tale of British pluck and tea, American guts and glory, immaculate German uniforms and ruthlessness, lofty failure, etc., etc. And when I say star-studded I mean star-studded: Connery, Redford, Hackman, Bogarde, Caine, Hopkins, Caan, Olivier – and loads of other people you need the first names for. And Cliff from Cheers in a cameo that irresistibly draws the eye away from Robert Redford, proving that a spud-faced bloke is better than any handsome git any day. Directed epically in an epic style by Dickie Attenborough, with an epic script by William Goldman, it tells the epic tale of the failed Operation Market Garden at a personal as well as, um, epic level. It has tons of guts, tons of glory and stars vying for screen time. It ends poignantly, asking us to ask: why? And it is, like all historical films, shot through with inaccuracies, riddled like a machine-gunned evil Nazi’s corpse. Some of them proper howlers.

And A Bridge Too Far was a big cinematic event for my father, too; living, as we did, in a village in Buckinghamshire with one bus a week. It also wasn’t dad’s thing much – he has always had a restless energy and concetration that didn’t suit the essential passivity of sitting in a cinema seat.

My Dad was an airborne sapper (engineer) officer from the 1950s through to the 1970s and the battle at Arnhem is probably the central event in British airborne culture and history. He knew many of the men who had been there – he did his National Service in the 1950s and then stayed on in the TA. So how Arnhem was represented on the big screen was a properly big deal. He also knew and still knows the battle backwards. An essential truth, how the men fought at Arnhem – bravely and against increasingly overwhelming odds – is in the film, no doubt about it. But it has to be right. Aged nine, I was a willingly thirsty sponge for all of this. But old habits die hard. When I first broached with my father that I’d be writing this book he muttered about how he’d seen War Horse the night before and how most of that was wrong. So watch a war film with me or my dad, or, worse still, me and my dad – at your peril …

Comments: Al Murray (born 1968) is a British comedian, best known for his ‘The Pub Landlord’ character. His memoir Watching Films With My Dad is predominantly about watching war films on television, and their relationship to true history. The chapter goes on to detail the historical inaccuracies in A Bridge Too Far and several other war films of its period.

Father and I

Source: Kazuo Koizumi, Father and I; memories of Lafcadio Hearn (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1935, pp. 51-52

Text: Here is something quite different. It was once when father went to see a movie. One evening Lieutenant Fujisaki came saying that he was going to Kanda Kinkikan to see the moving pictures and couldn’t Kazuo go. That day not only I, but father and mother joined him. We were all seated on the right-hand side upstairs. The performance started with a phonograph which had a megaphone attachment. This was rolled to the centre of the stage and Japanese records were put on. After this was a sword dance by boys between twelve and thirteen, and at last, the long anticipated pictures came on. The first was of swimming and diving from high stands. The next picture was the one that we wanted to see — the English Transvaal War picture, but it turned out to be a very repulsive and tasteless coloured picture. The colour spoilt the faces and hands of the actors — made them look dark, and their clothes and hats of dark red, blue, or green seemed raised. When the mine (which was purple) was about to explode, the smoke effect looked like cheap painted papers pasted on. Lieutenant Fujisaki said the military march and camp appeared natural, but the picture of the combat and explosion was a trick which could be distinctly seen. The last picture was one of the President of the United States coming to San Francisco. This was colourless and natural, but the film was very poor and old, the spots marred the picture, and we seemed to be looking through hard rain or snow, and very indistinctly the people and vehicles passed before us with such
speed that it quite surprised us. They no sooner appeared from the left than they vanished as quickly to the right. Father, although he put his glass to his eye and tried to take them in, could not get any good idea of them. We all took away very strange impressions.

Comments: Kazuo Koizumi (1893-1965) was the son of Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) and his Japanese wife Koizumi Setsu. Hearn was an Irish-Greek journalist and travel writer best known for his books on Japan, where he lived from 1890, taking on Japanese nationality with the name Koizumi Yakumo. The Transvaal War means the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, with these films probably being dramatised versions of events from the conflict. The film show probably took place in 1900. The colour films on show would have been hand-painted.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Just William

Source: Richmal Crompton, extract from Just William (London: George Newnes, 1922), pp. 13-17

Text: It all began with William’s aunt, who was in a good temper that morning, and gave him a shilling for posting a letter for her and carrying her parcels from the grocer’s.

“Buy some sweets or go to the Pictures,” she said carelessly, as she gave it to him.

William walked slowly down the road, gazing thoughtfully at the coin. After deep calculations, based on the fact that a shilling is the equivalent of two sixpences, he came to the conclusion that both luxuries could be indulged in.

In the matter of sweets, William frankly upheld the superiority of quantity over quality. Moreover, he knew every sweet shop within a two miles radius of his home whose proprietor added an extra sweet after the scale had descended, and he patronised these shops exclusively. With solemn face and eager eye, he always watched the process of weighing, and “stingy” shops were known and banned by him.

He wandered now to his favourite confectioner and stood outside the window for five minutes, torn between the rival attractions of Gooseberry Eyes and Marble Balls. Both were sold at 4 ounces for 2d. William never purchased more expensive luxuries. At last his frowning brow relaxed and he entered the shop.

“Sixpennoth of Gooseberry Eyes,” he said, with a slightly self-conscious air. The extent of his purchases rarely exceeded a penny.

“Hello!” said the shopkeeper, in amused surprise.

“Gotter bit of money this mornin’,” explained William carelessly, with the air of a Rothschild.

He watched the weighing of the emerald green dainties with silent intensity, saw with satisfaction the extra one added after the scale had fallen, received the precious paper bag, and, putting two sweets into his mouth, walked out of the shop.

Sucking slowly, he walked down the road towards the Picture Palace. William was not in the habit of frequenting Picture Palaces. He had only been there once before in his life.

It was a thrilling programme. First came the story of desperate crooks who, on coming out of any building, glanced cautiously up and down the street in huddled, crouching attitudes, then crept ostentatiously on their way in a manner guaranteed to attract attention and suspicion at any place and time. The plot was involved. They were pursued by police, they leapt on to a moving train and then, for no accountable reason, leapt from that on to a moving motor-car and from that they plunged into a moving river. It was thrilling and William thrilled. Sitting quite motionless, he watched, with wide, fascinated eyes, though his jaws never ceased their rotatory movement and every now and then his hand would go mechanically to the paper bag on his knees and convey a Gooseberry Eye to his mouth.

The next play was a simple country love-story, in which figured a simple country maiden wooed by the squire, who was marked out as the villain by his moustachios.

After many adventures the simple country maiden was won by a simple country son of the soil in picturesque rustic attire, whose emotions were faithfully portrayed by gestures that must have required much gymnastic skill; the villain was finally shown languishing in a prison cell, still indulging in frequent eye-brow play.

Next came another love-story — this time of a noble-hearted couple, consumed with mutual passion and kept apart not only by a series of misunderstandings possible only in a picture play, but also by maidenly pride and reserve on the part of the heroine and manly pride and reserve on the part of the hero that forced them to hide their ardour beneath a cold and haughty exterior. The heroine’s brother moved through the story like a good fairy, tender and protective towards his orphan sister and ultimately explained to each the burning passion of the other.

It was moving and touching and William was moved and touched.

The next was a comedy. It began by a solitary workman engaged upon the re-painting of a door and ended with a miscellaneous crowd of people, all covered with paint, falling downstairs on top of one another. It was amusing. William was riotously and loudly amused.

Lastly came the pathetic story of a drunkard’s downward path. He began as a wild young man in evening clothes drinking intoxicants and playing cards, he ended as a wild old man in rags still drinking intoxicants and playing cards. He had a small child with a pious and superior expression, who spent her time weeping over him and exhorting him to a better life, till, in a moment of justifiable exasperation, he threw a beer bottle at her head. He then bedewed her bed in Hospital with penitent tears, tore out his hair, flung up his arms towards Heaven, beat his waistcoat, and clasped her to his breast, so that it was not to be wondered at that, after all that excitement, the child had a relapse and with the words “Good-bye, Father. Do not think of what you have done. I forgive you,” passed peacefully away.

William drew a deep breath at the end, and still sucking, arose with the throng and passed out.

Once outside, he glanced cautiously around and slunk down the road in the direction of his home. Then he doubled suddenly and ran down a back street to put his imaginary pursuers off his track. He took a pencil from his pocket and, levelling it at the empty air, fired twice. Two of his pursuers fell dead, the rest came on with redoubled vigour. There was no time to be lost. Running for dear life, he dashed down the next street, leaving in his wake an elderly gentleman nursing his toe and cursing volubly. As he neared his gate, William again drew the pencil from his pocket and, still looking back down the road, and firing as he went, he rushed into his own gateway …

Comments: Richmal Crompton (1880-1969) was a British writer, best known for her series of Just William books, featuring the 11-year-old schoolboy William Brown. The first volume, Just William, from which the above extract comes (the opening to chapter one, ‘William Goes to the Pictures’) was published in 1922. The description of a picture palace show reads more like a pre-war programme of short films than a standard 1922 film show. The story continues with William applying the lessons he has learned from seeing the films to real life, with chaotic results. My thanks to Adam Ganz for suggesting this entry.

Links: Copy at Project Gutenberg

The Magic Mountain

Source: Thomas Mann (trans. John E. Woods), extract from The Magic Mountain (London: Everyman’s Library, 2005 [orig. pub. Der Zauberberg, 1924]), pp. 376-378

Text: They even took Karen Karstedt to the Bioscope Theatre in Platz one afternoon, because that was something she truly enjoyed. Being used only to the purest air, they fell ill at ease in the bad air that weighed heavily in their lungs and clouded their minds in a murky fog, while up ahead on the screen life flickered before their smarting eyes – all sorts of life, chopped up in hurried, diverting scraps that leapt into fidgety action, lingered, and twitched out of sight in alarm, to the accompaniment of trivial music, which offered present rhythms to match vanishing phantoms from the past and which despite limited means ran the gamut of solemnity, pomposity, passion, savagery, and cooing sensuality. They watched as a rousing tale of love and murder in the court of an Oriental potentate unrolled silently before them; scene after opulent scene sped past, full of naked bodies, despotic lust, and abject servility blind in its zeal, full of cruelty, prurience, and fatal desire – and then suddenly the filmed slowed to linger revealingly on the muscular arm of an executioner. In short, it had been produced with a sympathetic understanding of its international audience and catered to that civilization’s secret wishes. Settembrini, as a man who formed opinions, would surely have denounced this exhibition as a denigration of humanity, and with honest, classical irony would have castigated the misuse of technology that made such cynical presentations possible – or so Hans Castorp thought, and whispered as much to his cousin. Frau Stöhr, however, who happened to be sitting not all that far from the trio, had apparently abandoned herself to the film; her red, uneducated face was contorted with pleasure.

But, then, it was much the same with all the faces they could see. When the last flickering frame of one reel had twitched out of sight, and the audience’s field of dreams stood before them like an empty blackboard, there was not even the possibility of applause. There was no one there to clap for, to thank, no artistic achievement to reward with a curtain call. The actors who had been cast in the play they had just seen had long since been scattered to the winds; they had watched only phantoms, whose deeds had been reduced to a million photographs brought into focus for the briefest of moments so that, as often as one liked, they could then be given back to the element of time as a series of blinking flashes. Once the illusion was over, there was something repulsive about the crowd’s nerveless silence. Hands lay impotent before the void. People rubbed their eyes, stared straight ahead, felt embarrassed by the brightness and demanded the return of the dark, so that they could again watch things, whose time has passed, tricked out with music and transplanted into new time.

The despot was dispatched with a knife, his mouth opened for a bellow that no one heard. They now saw pictures from all over the world: the top-hatted president of the French republic reviewing a long cordon, then sitting in his landau to reply to a welcoming speech; the viceroy of India at the wedding of a rajah; the German crown prince on a barracks drill field in Potsdam. They observed the life and customs of an aboriginal village in New Mecklenburg, a cock fight in Borneo, naked savages blowing on nose flutes, the capture of wild elephants, a ceremony at the Siamese royal court, a street of brothels in Japan with geishas sitting caged behind wooden lattices. They watched Samoyeds bundled in furs driving sleds pulled by reindeer across the snowy wastes of northern Asia, Russian pilgrims praying at Hebron, a Persian criminal being bastinadoed. They were present at each event – space was negated, time turned back, “then and there” transformed by music into a skittering, phantasmagoric, “here and now.” A young Moroccan woman dressed in striped silk and harnessed with chains, bangles, and rings, her swelling breasts half-bared, was suddenly brought nearer until she was life-size. Her nostrils were flared wide, her eyes full of animal life, her features vivacious; she laughed, showing her white teeth, held up one hand – the nails seemed lighter than her skin – to shield her eyes, and waved at the audience with the other. People stared in bewilderment and the face of this charming specter, who seemed to see them and yet did not, who was not at all affected by their gaze, and whose laughter and waves were not meant for the present, but belonged to the then and there of home – it would have been pointless to respond. And so, as noted, their delight was mixed with a sense of helplessness. Then the phantom vanished. A bright void filled the screen, the word Finis was project on it, this cycle of entertainments was over, and the people left the theater in silence as a new audience pushed its way in, eager to enjoy another roll of the reels.

Comments: Thomas Mann (1875-1955) was a German novelist and short story writer, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929. The Magic Mountain mostly takes place in in a Swiss sanatorium in Davos in the years just before the First World War, and serves as an ironic and cryptic analysis of European society. The visit to the Bioscope is one of the rare scenes in the novel to take place outside the sanatorium. Though the thoughts on the nature of time and the viewing experience are profound, the picture painted of a diverse programme is improbable in its extent and its dubious details (no public film show would have featured travel films of the bastinado or Japanese brothels, for example).

Marsena

Source: Harold Frederic, extract from ‘Marsena’, in In the Sixties (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1897 [orig. pub. in ‘Marsena’ and Other Stories of the Wartime, 1894]), pp. 196-199

Text: … On the second and final evening, after the oyster supper, the Philharmonics played and a choir of girls sang patriotic songs. Then the gas was turned down and the stereopticon show began.

As the last concerted achievement of the firm of Pulford & Shull, this magic-lantern performance is still remembered. The idea of it, of course, was Julia’s. She suggested it to Marsena, and he gladly volunteered to make any number of positive plates from appropriate pictures and portraits for the purpose. Then she pressed Newton Shull into the service to get a stereopticon on hire, to rig up the platform and canvas for it, and finally to consent to quit his post among the Philharmonics when the music ceased, and to go off up into the gallery to work the slides. He also, during Marsena’s absence one day, made a slide on his own account.

Mr. Shull had not taken very kindly to the idea when Miss Julia first broached it to him.

“No, I don’t know as I ever worked a stereopticon,” he said, striving to look with cold placidity into the winsome and beaming smile with which she confronted him one day out in the reception-room. She had never smiled at him before or pretended even to know his name. “I guess you’d better hire a man up from Tecumseh to bring the machine and run it himself.”

“But you can do it so much better, my dear Mr. Shull!” she urged. “You do everything so much better! Mr. Pulford often says that he never knew such a handy man in all his life. It seems that there is literally nothing that you can’t do — except — perhaps — refuse a lady a great personal favor.”

Miss Julia put this last so delicately, and with such a pretty little arch nod of the head and turn of the eyes, that Newton Shull surrendered at discretion. He promised everything on the spot, and he kept his word. In fact, he more than kept it.

The great evening came, as I have said, and when the lights were turned down to extinction’s verge those who were nearest the front could distinguish the vacant chair which Mr. Shull had been occupying, with his bass viol leaning against it. They whispered from one to another that he had gone up in the gallery to work this new-fangled contrivance. Then came a flashing broad disk of light on the screen above the judges’ bench, a spreading sibilant murmur of interest, and the show began.

It was an oddly limited collection of pictures — mainly thin and feeble copies of newspaper engravings, photographic portraits, and ideal heads from the magazines. Winfield Scott followed in the wake of Kossuth, and Garibaldi led the way for John C. Fremont and Lola Montez. There was applause for the long, homely, familiar face of Lincoln, and a derisive snicker for the likeness of Jeff Davis turned upside down. Then came local heroes from the district round about — Gen. Boyce, Col. Mclntyre, and young Adjt. Heron, who had died so bravely at Ball’s Bluff — mixed with some landscapes and statuary, and a comic caricature or two. The rapt assemblage murmured its recognitions, sighed its deeper emotions, chuckled over the funny plates — deeming it all a most delightful entertainment. From time to time there were long hitches, marked by a curious spluttering noise above, and the abortive flashes of meaningless light on the screen, and the explanation was passed about in undertones that Mr. Shull was having difficulties with the machine.

It was after the longest of these delays that, all at once, an extremely vivid picture was jerked suddenly upon the canvas, and, after a few preliminary twitches, settled in place to stare us out of countenance. There was no room for mistake. It was the portrait of Miss Julia Parmalee standing proudly erect in statuesque posture, with one hand resting on the back of a chair, and seated in this chair was Lieut. Dwight Ransom, smiling amiably. There was a moment’s deadly hush, while we gazed at this unlooked-for apparition. It seemed, upon examination, as if there was a certain irony in the Lieutenant’s grin. Some one in the darkness emitted an abrupt snort of amusement, and a general titter arose, hung in the air for an awkward instant, and then was drowned by a generous burst of applause. While the people were still clapping their hands the picture was withdrawn from the screen, and we heard Newton Shull call down from his perch in the gallery:

“You kin turn up the lights now. They ain’t no more to this.”

In another minute we were sitting once again in the broad glare of the gaslight, blinking confusedly at one another, and with a dazed consciousness that something rather embarrassing had happened. The boldest of us began to steal glances across to where Miss Parmalee and Marsena sat, just in front of the steps to the bench …

Comments: Harold Frederic (1856-1898) was an American journalist and novelist. ‘Marsena’ is a short story set during the 1860s period in America, following the Civil War. Magic lanterns were commonly referred to as stereopticons in America.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Babycham Night

Source: Philip Norman, Babycham Night (London: Macmillan, 2003), pp. 148-149

Text: To help the little invalid through these long daytime hours, my mother rented a television, a Ferguson model with a seventeen-inch screen and twin frontal knobs set in a strip of gold mesh. But it was an inconstant companion. The solitary black-and-white BBC channel usually did not begin service until mid-afternoon and there were frequent shutdowns, or ‘interludes’, when they killed time with film sequences of a clay pot being thrown on a wheel, or a punt-prow gliding somnambulistically through plantations of river reeds. Unless you lived within a couple of miles of the BBC’s London transmitter, reception tended to be poor; on the Isle of Wight, it was atrocious. At regular intervals, the picture would collapse sideways into horizontal black and grey stripes, or flick downwards in individual squares like frames of film. The only person we knew who could put it right was a taxi-driver from the Esplanade rank named Mr Stiles. We’d have to wait for hours, or even days, until Mr Stiles had time to drop by, in his peaked chauffeur’s cap, and twiddle knobs until the picture stabilized again.

With the television’s arrival, I ceased to be totally bedridden and became capable of the few brave steps from my parents’ bedroom into the adjacent sitting-room, where I would lie on the big brocade Chesterfield sofa, covered with a rug. In the curtain-drawn twilight considered necessary for TV-viewing in those days, I watched all of what little was on – Test cricket, Russian ballet, the afternoon adventures of puppets like Andy Pandy, Mr Turnip and Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men. I knew every note of the long drawn-out overture played as a sound track to the test card before transmission began. Beside me in the darkness watched Mrs Kennie, knitting-needles ever in play. ‘Verra gude,’ was her invariable judgement on everything.

Comments: Philip Norman (born 1943) is a British novelist, biographer and journalist. He was brought up in Ryde, on the Isle of Wight. Babycham Night is an account of his 1950s childhood. This passage dates from the early 1950s. Andy Pandy was first broadcast in 1950; Mr Turnip was a character in Whirligig (first broadcast 1950); Bill and Ben were the lead characters in The Flower Pot Men, first broadcast 1952. Norman’s ‘illness’ was feigned.

Seeing at a Distance

Source: Extracts from ‘Seeing at a Distance’, opening chapter of G.V. Dowding (ed.), Book of Practical Television (London: The Amalgamated Press, 1935), pp. 9-16

Text: So far relatively few people have witnessed the modern television under domestic conditions. No doubt the generally accepted ideas is that it is pretty crude and is little more than a tiny, dim flickering picture which is tiring to the eyes and doesn’t show much more than shimmering spots and splotches. Probably many will decide to wait for “improvements,” believing that everything must at its very beginning be only a ghostly precursor of better things to come. […]

The new television is transmitted with a “pictures per second” standard higher than the modern films. Therefore, its smoothness of action or picture movement, to use familiar if not quite technically correct words, is very good. The technical difficulties are greater than in the films, but by means of ingenious systems of interlaced scanning and so on, results fully comparable are obtainable. The definition, too, is largely a function of the transmission and not of reception. And it is “high definition” as all will know. That terms means what it says. The details of the pictures is comparable to the detail given by a good newspaper illustration, that is, on all but the poorest receiving apparatus.

Brightness and Size. The brightness and size of pictures is a purely reception limitation. On first rate gear black and white pictures bright enough to show clearly in a lighted room are possible on a screen twelve by nine inches, and even larger. Lower down the scale screens of but four or five inches or so square are met with and illumination making it desirable for the pictures to be witnessed in a dark room for comfortable “looking”.

Nevertheless, the mistake should not be made of discounting entirely these smaller and dimmer pictures. It should be remembered that they are “talkies” and not silent pictures. There is a great difference between these, a difference that is psychological of course, but none the less real. It has been said that television can provide nothing more than a talking cabinet photograph. But size is not an all-important factor in the creation of illusion, though naturally it plays some part, and when it is controllable within wide limits as in a cinema, it is an art-quality that is employed generously. The question may well be asked that if a small television picture must inevitably militate against the creation of perfect illusion, why shouldn’t a giant close-up on a cinema screen also do that?

Cinema Comparisons. In the course of any celluloid drama the glamorous features of one or more of the stars are reproduced in such dimensions that they practically fill the screen. But the audience is not at once aware of anything particularly incongruous in having the talking image of a giant face, perhaps forty feet in diameter, thrust before it, with cavernous mouth opening to reveal teeth truly as large as tombstones, and false eyelashes as big as cricket stumps waving with exaggerated emotion.

The fact is that the human imagination is immensely adaptable, and in those few words you have the answer to what many find to be an extremely perplexing problem, that is, if they ever think about this matter of film picture sizes at all; we would hazard the guess that very few do. There is a widespread belief that the bigger you make a picture the better it becomes. Certainly you will see more of the detail of a gnat’s geography if you place him underneath a microscope, but the same reasoning does not apply to film pictures.

You can test this simply enough for yourself. Study a good postcard of your favourite film star, or any clear photo for that matter, and then when you go to the cinema the next time carefully examine one of the huge close-ups which are flashed on the screen. The relative magnification will be something equal to that applied by a fairly high-powered microscope, but you won’t see much, if any, exaggeration of detail. It is a good job too, otherwise the huge screen image would reveal such things as the sweat glands of the skin and other pathological details, which would in truth destroy many illusions!

Television Definition a Fixed Quality. If the cinema projector could be moved nearer and nearer to the screen the while you too moved closer in order to accommodate yourself to the smaller picture that resulted, you would find that the diminishing size was followed by an apparent increase in the sharpness of its definition, though you wouldn’t see any more detail. This is a vital fact to note and the cause of it is that this definition of television is fixed in the transmission. No amount of juggling with screen sizes, etc., at the receiving end can add to the definition of the pictures.

It has also been said that while the compass of the ear is limited to a mere handful of different notes ranging from an organ’s bass rumble to the squeak of a piccolo or violin top note, the compass of the eye can never be extended to its limits except by the broad open spaces of nature. And that any attempt to satisfy the eye with small pictures on a screen is bound to fail leaving the owner of that eye fully conscious all the time that he is in fact merely looking at a small picture. This may be right up to a point, and it depends upon the imaginative pliability of the looker as to how much he will be able to immerse himself in the subject of the picture and forget the vehicle which brings it before his eyes.

If it were possible for any of us to become subjective lookers, cinematography would have had a short life limited to its novelty appeal. When this is remembered no conflict with the purely scientific optical laws […] need be suspected. We are concerned here with rather more abstract things – imagination for example. But the reality of the part imagination plays in the cinematographic art is considerable and is easily illustrated.

A “Silly Symphony” Example. It is common knowledge that the Mickey Mouse cartoons are nothing but clever drawings (about fifteen thousand of theme to each episode) and yet such is the power of the of the human imagination that Mickey Mouse, Pluto, Donald the Duck and others of the ingenious Walt Disney creations have assumed almost human qualities in the minds of a large number of films fans. Some of the Silly Symphonies have been so successful in the creation of illusion that tears of emotion have been extracted from the eyes of audiences in sympathy with the plight of cartooned grasshoppers and other such fantasies. Cartooned grasshoppers, mark you, with no parallel in reality, grotesque sketches of grasshoppers as big as horses or as “small” as mice. Any screen personality or object is liable to shrink or expand at any moment and yet the audience remains quite enthralled. No jarring note of artificiality seems to be struck if the practised producer of a film decides to dodge about with his dimensions. On the contrary, with so much of it having been done, if a film presenting all of its actors and actresses at a fixed distance from the camera’s eyes were shown, then no doubt the audience would consider that something was wrong!

uncomfortably _close

The comparatively small television screen is, therefore, not in itself any insuperable limitation to the creation of illusion. It can only show talking human beings of doll-like size but the looker will not find himself feeling any sense of incongruity so long as the subject is of good entertainment value. If this were not the case then it could be as equally argued that the receiving television screen should prove a better medium for Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies than the full size cinema screen, for his delightful insect and animal absurdities would for the most part appear in sizes nearer to the dimensions of the things cartooned. […]

angle_of_view

Easy looking. Would you get easy looking if you television screen were as big as the side of the room? Decidedly not. You would be “too close to the picture.” You would feel the urge to get back farther and farther back so that you did not have to wave your head about from side to side and up and down continuously in order to be able to comprehend the whole of the picture and all that was taking part in it. These points are illustrated in Fig. I and Fig. Ia.

A screen of six by eight inches can provide “easy looking” for as many people as would normally be present in a normal household to see what was coming over in the way of television. Going back again to the cinema we can now appreciate the reason why those gigantic close-ups do not strike a note of incongruity so long as the film drama has been scientifically produced. […] It is very difficult to define hard and fast limits, but we would hazard the opinion that at a distance of ten feet, and most of us cannot get much farther away than that in the room in which we listen and look-in at home, there is no advantage in having a screen larger than, say, four feet square and that a screen appreciably bigger might in fact militate against easy looking. With smaller screens you can go closer, but, on the other hand anything smaller than the six by eight inches may certainly cramp the illusion, for the detail of the pictures will crowd together and lose apparent clarity and you will become conscious that it is a small reproduction. […]

Perfect Home Entertainment. No, you do not need to stretch your imagination in order to derive entertainment from the modern television. Our case for it may or may not sound convincing to those who have not yet enjoyed an hour or two of looking. Those who have done so will agree that one of the better Silly Symphonies or a good straightforward talkie or an entertaining variety act is every bit as absorbing on the television screen as it is in a music hall or movie theatre. Perhaps rather more so, because there are quieter conditions. No deafening roars of laughter, drowning parts of the dialogue, no coughing from all angles, no kicking at the back of the seat, but plenty of room to stretch your legs from a comfortable chair and a position relative to the screen which can be chosen to a nicety. In short, television in the home is the ideal and perfect medium of entertainment, and it remains in the hands of the B.B.C. to see that the substance is worthy of the medium! …

Comments: The essay is unsigned but is presumably by the book’s editor G.V. Dowding. In 1935 the BBC was producing regular demonstration broadcasts (to an audience of a few thousand) using the Baird’s 30-line electromechanical system, broadcasts which continued until 11 September 1935. This essay however refers to higher definition broadcasts, which were first seen by the public when the BBC launched a regular service on 2 November 1936, alternating between a Baird mechanical system with 240 lines and an EMI electronic system with 405 lines. The latter was found to be far superior and was the only system used after February 1937. Early accounts of television often refers to ‘lookers’; the term ‘viewers’ was only adopted later.

Continuous Performance

Source: Dorothy Richardson, ‘Continuous Performance’, Close Up vol. I no. 1, July 1927, pp. 34-37

Text: …. So I gave up going to the theatre. Yet I had seen one or two who possessed themselves upon the stage and much good acting, especially of character parts; but I have never been on my knees to character acting. The one or two I saw – again and again, enduring for their sakes those others, many of them clever, all keyed up for their parts, all too high-pitched, taking their cues too soon. It was not that the pain of seeing them lose all our opportunities — their own and with them ours who were the audience — outweighed the joy of recreation at the hands of those others, makers and givers of life, but rather that on the whole the sense of guilt, of wasted performance for players and audience alike was too heavy to be borne. Waste and loss that could, it seemed to me, with ever so little control of the convulsionaries, be turned to gain.

Lured back by a series of German plays zestfully performed by a small and starless group, I found at once my persuasion confirmed that the English, whose very phlegm and composure is the other side of their self-consciousness and excitability, do not make actors. Watching for foreigners I saw a few French plays, saw Bernhardt and was more than ever ashamed of the remembered doings of the English castes.

Not even the most wooden of those selected to surround and show up the French star could produce anything to equal the sense of shame and loss that at that time overshadowed for me all I saw on the English stage that was not musical comedy with its bright colour for the soul and its gay music for the blood. The dignity of the French art and the simplicity of the German restored my early unapprehensive enthusiasm for the theatre, even for the pillared enclosure, the draped boxes, the audience waiting in the dim light to take their part in the great game. I went to no more English plays. And for a long time there were no foreign ones to see. But photo-plays had begun, small palaces were defacing even the suburbs. My experience with the English stage inhibited my curiosity. The palaces were repulsive. Their being brought me an uneasiness that grew lively when at last I found myself within one of those whose plaster frontages and garish placards broke a row of shops in a strident, north London street. It was a Monday and therefore a new picture. But it was also washing day, and yet the scattered audience was composed almost entirely of mothers. Their children, apart from the infants accompanying them, were at school and their husbands were at work. It was a new audience, born within the last few months. Tired women, their faces sheened with toil, and small children, penned in semi-darkness and foul air on a sunny afternoon. There was almost no talk. Many of the women sat alone, figures of weariness at rest. Watching these I took comfort. At last the world of entertainment had provided for a few pence, tea thrown in, a sanctuary’ for mothers, an escape from the everlasting qui vive into eternity on a Monday afternoon.

The first scene was a tide, frothing in over the small beach of a sandy cove, and for some time we were allowed to watch the coming and going of those foamy waves, to the sound of a slow waltz, without the disturbance of incident. Presently from the fisherman’s hut emerged the fisherman’s daughter, moss-haired. The rest of the scenes, all of which sparked continually, I have forgotten. But I do not forget the balm of that tide, and that simple music, nor the shining eyes and rested faces of those women. After many years during which I saw many films, I went, to oblige a friend, once more to a theatre. It was to a drawing-room play, and the harsh bright
light, revealing the audience, the over-emphasis of everything, the over-driven voices and movements of all but the few, seemed to me worse than ever. I realised that the source of the haunting guilt and loss was for me, that the players, in acting at instead of with the audience, were destroying the inner relationship between audience and players. Something of this kind, some essential failure to compel the co-operation of the creative consciousness of the audience.

Such co-operation cannot take place unless the audience is first stilled to forgetfulness of itself as an audience. This takes power. Not force or emphasis or noise, mental or physical. And the film, as intimate as thought, so long as it is free from the introduction of the alien element of sound, gives this co-operation its best chance. The accompanying music is not an alien sound. It assists the plunge into life that just any film can give, so much more fully than just any play, where the onlooker is perforce under the tyranny of the circumstances of the play without the chances of escape provided so lavishly by the moving scene. The music is not an alien sound if it be as continuous as the performance and blending with it. That is why, though a good orchestra can heighten and deepen effects, a piano played by one able to improvise connective tissue for his varying themes is preferable to most orchestral accompaniments. Music is essential. Without it the film is a moving photograph and the audience mere onlookers. Without music there is neither light nor colour, and the test of this is that one remembers musically accompanied films in colour and those unaccompanied by music as colourless.

The cinema may become all that its well-wishers desire. So far, its short career of some twenty years is a tale of splendid achievement. Its creative power is incalculable, and its service to the theatre is nothing less than the preparation of vast, new audiences for the time when plays shall be accessible at possible rates in every square mile of the town. How many people, including the repentent writer, has it already restored to the playhouse?

Comments: Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957) was a British modernist novelist. Through 1927-1933 she wrote a column, ‘Continuous Performance’ for the film art journal Close Up. The column concentrates on film audiences rather than the films themselves. This was the first essay in the series.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive