The Private Diaries of Sir Henry Rider Haggard

Source: D.S. Higgins (ed.), The Private Diaries of Sir Henry Rider Haggard 1914-1925 (London: Cassell, 1980), p. 84

Text: 27th September 1916
Today I went to see the Somme War film with Louie, Angie and Mrs Jebb who dined with me afterwards at an Italian restaurant in Panton Street where we got a very good and well-cooked meal at a most reasonable price. The film is not a cheerful sight, but it does give a wonderful idea of the fighting and the front, especially of the shelling and its effects. Also it shows the marvellous courage and cheerfulness of our soldiers in every emergency, and causes one to wonder if one would find as much in a like case. At their age I have no doubt the answer would be yes, but now at sixty I am not so sure. It is a young man’s job! As usual all the pictures move too fast, even the wounded seem to fly along. The most impressive of them to my mind is that of a regiment scrambling out of a trench to charge and of the one man who slides back shot dead. There is something appalling about the instantaneous change from fierce activity to supine death. Indeed the whole horrible business is appalling. War has always been dreadful, but never, I suppose, more dreadful than today.

Comment: Henry Rider Haggard (1856-1925) was a British novelist, who had a strong interest in cinema following the film adaptations of his popular novels such as She and The Lost World. The Battle of the Somme (1916) was a British feature-length documentary, filmed by Geoffrey Malins and J.B. McDowell for the War Office Cinematograph Committee. It gave cinema audiences some idea of what the fighting was like on the Western front and had a huge impact. The over-the-top sequence described by Haggard is now known to have been faked by Malins.

101 Jubilee Road

Source: Frederick Willis, 101 Jubilee Road: A Book of London Yesterdays (London: Phoenix House, 1948), pp. 185-186

Text: There was, of course, a film of the King’s funeral [Edward VII], and by this time London was becoming vaguely aware that there was such a thing as ‘Pictures’. This form of entertainment first impressed itself on public notice as the tail-end of a variety show. At the end of the programme there often appeared the item, ‘Ruffell’s Imperial Bioscope’. When the number went up for this turn the audience felt for their hats and coats and began leaving the theatre. As the pictures flickered on the screen people glanced at them carelessly and with little interest. The next step was the appearance all over London of cinema shows put on in derelict shops. The proprietor of the show simply disembowelled the shop, filled it with any old chairs, fitted up a screen at one end and a hissing projector at the other, and charged a penny for admission. The L.C.C., alive to the danger of these enterprises, introduced laws concerning fire precautions with which these early pioneers were unable to comply, and so they faded away and were replaced with more elaborate ‘Electric Theatres’, with tip-up seats and tasteful surroundings. This was where my old customer Mr Montague Pike [sic] came on the scene, with a group of cinemas known as ‘Pike’s Circuit’. Prices of admission were threepence and sixpence, with a cup of tea and a biscuit handed to you for nothing if you happened to be present between three and five in the afternoon. Sir Augustus Harris, the great man of Drury Lane Theatre, said the cinema was an amusing novelty that would soon be forgotten. I was of the same opinion, which goes to show how great men and small men can arrive at the same conclusion and both be wrong. Nevertheless, I am sure no man living in those years could foresee the important part films were destined to play in the life of the people.

… Meanwhile the pianist (there was, of course, no orchestra), who played anything that came into her head, tinkled away furiously, and the imagination of the audience did the rest. The sequences were nailed together with sub-titles, which sufficiently explained the plot, and the last sub-title, ‘Comes the dawn’, was used so often that it became a classic. It is a curious thing that this crude form of entertainment met with success during one of the greatest periods of English theatrical history. The first film that might be described as ‘full length’ also appeared at the Alhambra round about 1910-11. The title was A Trip to the Moon, and it was based on Jules Verne’s novel, with a comic element added. It was one of the most ingenious films I have seen, and attracted much attention.

Comment: Frederick Willis was the author of several book on London life. King Edward VII died in 1902. Ruffell’s Imperial Bioscope was a film renter and exhibitor. Montagu Pyke was the leading London cinema exhibitor of the early 1910s. L.C.C. is London Country Council. A Trip to the Moon is Le voyage dans la Lune (France 1902) by Georges Méliès.

My Part of the River

Source: Grace Foakes, My Part of the River (London: Shepheard-Walwyn, 1974), p. 105

Text: One particular event stands out in my mind. It was a Sunday afternoon and I tried to persuade Kathleen to come with me to the Premierland Cinema in Backchurch Lane. She pointed out that it was a Sunday and that it was wicked to go to the pictures on Sunday. Wicked or not, I was not in the least worried by that. What did worry me was the possibility of my parents finding out. Eventually, after much argument, I had my way and we went. The entrance fee was twopence each. Where we obtained our money I cannot remember, but we had it and I was all set to enjoy the afternoon.

It was a silent film called ‘Broken Blossoms’, starring Lilian Gish. I sat enthralled, transported into another world. Presently I heard a sniff. Looking at Kathleen I saw she was crying bitterly. Surprised, I asked her what was the matter. ‘Oh, Grace, come out! It’s wicked and God will punish us,’ she cried. She made such a to-do that I very reluctantly came out in the middle of the most interesting part. I’m sorry to say I nagged poor Kathleen all the way home, for I had no conscience at all.

Comment: Grace Foakes wrote three memoirs of a childhood spent in poverty in pre-World War One London: Between High Walls, My Part of the River and My Life with Reuben. Premierland was located in Back Church Lane, Stepney. The American film Broken Blossoms, directed by D.W. Griffith (and set in London), was released in 1919.

A Cab at the Door

Source: V.S. Pritchett, A Cab at the Door: An Autobiography: Early Years (London: Chatto & Windus, 1968), p. 72

Text: London was dangerous. We had a girl to help my mother for a few weeks and her mind, like the mind of the one at Ealing, was brimming with crime. She took me to the Camberwell Bioscope to see a film of murder and explosions called The Anarchist’s Son, in which men with rifles in their hands crawled up a hill and shot at each other. When the shed in which one of them was living, blew up, the film turned silent, soft blood red and the lady pianist in front of the screen struck up a dramatic chord. In the Bioscope men walked about squirting the audience with a delicious scent like hair lotion that prickled our heads.

Comment: Victor Sawdon Pritchett (1900-1997) was a British author and critic. This extract comes from his first volume of autobiography. the Pritchett family lived in a street off Coldharbour Lane, Camberwell. The cinema he refers to is possibly Burgoyne’s American Bioscope. I have not traced any film from this period with the title The Anarchist’s Son. Spraying the audience with disinfectant was common in cinemas in the pre-WWI period. The event recalled dates from the late 1900s.

London Scenes

Source: W.R. Titterton, London Scenes (London: Andrew Melrose, 1920), pp. 141-148

Text: It is a shabby street of the broader sort, packed with traffic, and lined with assorted shops.

From the front the cinema theatre looks like a pasteboard palace transported from Shepherd’s Bush. Across it, in glaring capitals, sprawls its bill of fare – “featuring” Mary Pickford, perhaps; almost certainly Charlie Chaplin; and, to emphasise the fact, there is a picture of the pretty lady, or the comical fellow, plastered over the entrance, or on a board that leans against a festal column below. A tall and gorgeous commissionaire, hired mainly for display, commands the steps. These a crowd of customers is constantly ascending and descending, with a continual tinkle of metal as money and pass-in checks salute the metal counter of the box office. Occasionally the commissionaire shouts aloud a passionate or a side-splitting title – such as: “This afternoon, The Lure of Sin, in three parts, featuring …’ Or, “Continual performance, Flossie’s Frivolous Flutter.”

The hour is early and the crowd is of military age or under. The prevailing type seems to be the small boy in smeary cap and greasy trousers, smoking furiously at a cigarette gripped in the extreme corner of his mouth, rattling his money in his pocket, and swarming as to a scrum. The one word you catch for certain as he presses to the box-office is “Charlie.” They are all faithful subjects of the young Pretender.

You pass through a door and a curtain, and are in almost absolute darkness. The only light is at the end of the room, where black-and-white figures are capering foolishly on the screen. Music of a mournful gaiety indicates the presence of a piano and a fiddle. You have the feeling that this has been going on since the beginning of time. A black shape collects before you, and flashes at you a flaming eye and a luminous hand. The hand grabs your check and a voice says sharply, “Stalls this way please!” The shape drifts away, you following. You are aware now of rows on rows of blackness, on either side of you, with a fugitive hint of faces that grows to a certainty as the drifting darkness halts, and flashes its luminous eye on a row of them. Stumbling over stretched legs, you fall into an empty seat.

Here you are in an atmosphere of stuffiness, tobacco smoke, and vague mysterious voices, whispers, a treble giggle, a muted bass. And all the while, as in a nightmare, the meaningless pageant of the film parades.

Gradually you settle into your environment. Puffing at your pipe, all your senses except the sense of seeing are lulled to a drugged security. The eyes are drugged, too, yet wide open and straining – fascinated, hypnotised by the phantom pictures of the film.

The absurd legends do not make you laugh. In this mad word, “Maisie falls to it. Archibald is some boy,” do not strike a discordant note. But now that you have the hang of the story, and are, as it were, a part of it, the voicelessness of the actors oppresses. You are much relieved when an overburdened female suffer screams, “Look out! he’s got a knife!” Then the house roars, and for a moment the atmosphere is homely and healthy; but the next minute the nightmare grips you again.

Wonderful things happen. There is an express train, with Maisie hanging on to the tail of it. There is Maisie dangling over a precipice and the villain hacking at her with a knife. There is Archibald catching a tameless steed, riding him through burning forests, over icy mountains, and finally falling with him down tall cliffs into a moonlit sea. There is pathos, too – Maisie and Archibald captured by gun-men, and torn from each other, he grinding his teeth, she weeping bitterly. And there is that great scene where Archibald, worn with torture and the loss of his meat-card, drags himself to the church just in time to prevent Maisie being forced into marriage to save the honour of her aged father. There is a sound of sniffling around you then.

At last “The Lure of Sin,” in three parts (you have not even seen one part of it), is over, and the lights go up on a very strange assembly. The people sit bundled up in their seats, not yet half awake, their eyes blinking. A few couples still sit with arms interlaced, here and there a tired man or woman in shabby clothes, quietly sleeps. Attendants cry, “This way out!” Customers who have seen the round of the reels, and do not wish to see it again, respond to the invitation. Many of the boys, the cigarettes still in active eruption, are munching war-bread and margarine, and betting on Charlie for the next act.

Charlie indeed it is, and, when he bounds into view, you realise the artistic function of the cinema. It is to present Charlie. His walrus waddle, his sham catastrophes, his polite entanglements, his amiable idiocies, his in frequent sudden bursts of harlequin fury, the trap-door motion of his saluting hat, the incomparable shuttle of his eye over his toothbrush moustache – all these things had necessarily to be part of a dumb show, and could only rise to their true pitch of extravagant impishness when Charlie had been squeezed to a black-and-white phantom on a screen. As a popular amusement the cinema lives on Charlie.

. . . . . .

We are farther west now, and the theatre has other airs. It advertises itself, but in a more reticent fashion. Its portico is more magnificent, and the commissionaire stands in a carpeted foyer.

When you have entered the well-appointed theatre the lights are up, and the spectators look very like those you see at the play. But they are bored. In spite of the quite delightful music played by the orchestra, boredom stares out of nearly every face in balcony and stall. They have not come to a festival, they come to get doped.

The film is a film one – a medley of many periods. Vast crowds manoeuvre in vast spaces, in colossal temples and palaces decked with monstrous idols or Christian monuments. There are fierce battles, desperate attacks and surprises. The drama is nothing, but the spectacle is grandiose. It is not as fine as Charley’s Aunt, but it is better than Rheinhardt.

Yet even this oppresses. For the spectacle has no dramatic significance. It is meant to overcome you with the “muchness” of it. You read in letters of fire across the screen: “This film costs £200,000.”

When you are out in the street again you take a deep breath. The carnal, common life is so dignified and fine.

Comment: William Richard Titterton (1876–1963) was a British journalist and poet, and a severe critic of the cinema. His London Scenes documents aspects of London life during 1914-1918. The text includes line drawings of a small cinema showing ‘Vitagraph Grand Pictures’ and a grander cinema showing ‘Triangle Plays’.

Flashback

Source: George Pearson, Flashback: The Autobiography of a British Film-maker (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1957), p. 14.

Text: With six pence to spend I had gone to a funny little shop in the Lambeth Walk where Pollock’s gory melodramas for his Toy Theatres were sold, sheets of characters for a penny plain, twopence coloured. Fourpence went rapturously on ‘Alone in the pirates’ lair’. With twopence jingling a farewell in my pocket, since the toffee-shop was near, I zig-zagged through the hurly-burly of the busy street, when presto! … the great adventure began. It was outside a derelict greengrocer’s shop. The hawk-eyed gentleman on a fruit-crate was bewildering a sceptical crowd. In that shuttered shop there was a miracle to be seen for a penny, but only twenty-four could enter at a time, there wasn’t room for more. His peroration was magnificent … ‘You’ve seen pictures of people in books, all frozen stiff … you’ve never seen pictures with people coming alive, moving about like you and me. Well, go inside and see for yourself, living pictures for a penny, and then tell me if I’m a liar!’

One of my pennies went suddenly; I joined twenty-three other sceptics inside. Stale cabbage leaves and a smell of dry mud gave atmosphere to a scene from Hogarth. A furtive youth did things to a tin oven on iron legs, and a white sheet swung from the ceiling. We grouped round that oven and wondered. Suddenly things happened, someone turned down a gas-jet, the tin apparatus burst into a fearful clatter, and an oblong picture slapped on to the sheet and began a violent dance. After a while I discerned it was a picture of a house, but a house on fire. Flames and smoke belched from the windows, and miracle of miracles, a fire-engine dashed in, someone mounted a fire escape, little human figures darted about below, and then … Bang! … the show was over. Exactly one minute … I had been to the cinema!

Comment: George Pearson (1875-1973) was a British film director. This eye-witness testimony, taken from his autobiography, is highly evocative, but also quite suspect, as Pearson was born in 1875 and would not have seen any sort of film show before he was twenty-one at the earliest. After an early career as a teacher, Pearson became a film director in 1914 and went on to direct A Study in Scarlet (1914), Ultus – The Man from the Dead (1918), Squibs (1921), Reveille (1924), The Little People (1926), Open All Night (1934) and many more. Flashback is an evocative account of British film production, filled with Pearson’s deep belief in the power of the medium.