A Child in the Forest

Source: Winifred Foley, A Child in the Forest (London: BBC, 1974), p. 169

Text: It wasn’t exactly the gods; it was steps that served for both purposes. Peanut shells and sweet wrappings crackled under our feet, as Blodwen found us a space to sit. The tang of orange peel fought with tobacco and the warm body odour rising from the stalls and balcony.

Between the films there were live turns, and these had just started. I was bewitched with surprise and delight; soon stolen hats, my domestic shortcomings, and even homesickness faded from my consciousness.

There was a troupe of Japanese jugglers, made exquisitely miniature and deft by the distance. Next came three trim girl dancers, tapping out their lively dancers with identical precision. I was spellbound.

Anna Rogers, the fifteen-year-old wonder girl, came next. She seemed uncannily clever. She must have been. She was only sixteen when I saw her name on a playbill in South London five years later.

‘Not bad turns this week,’ observed the sophisticated Blodwen. ‘Not bad!‘ They were magic people, so clever, so beautiful! Aladdin himself couldn’t have been more dazzled, when the Genie’s lamp transported him to the treasure cave, than I was that first night in the Olympia picture house, Shoreditch.

The film, Drums of Love, was completely lost on me. The heroine lying about on skin-covered divans, languishing for whatever it was she was missing, didn’t have my sympathy.

Comment: Winifred Foley (1914-2009) gained fame through her memoir of an impoverished childhood in the Forest of Dean, first serialised by BBC radio in 1973. The book covers time spent in London in the 1920s. Shoreditch Olympia had been a variety theatre which included films in its programme but became a full-time cinema in 1926. However, Drums of Love, directed by D.W. Griffith, was made in 1928. Possibly memories of the show and the film seen have been confused.

R.D.B.'s Diary

Source: R.D. Blumenfeld, R.D.B.’s Diary: 1887-1914 (London: W. Heinemann, 1930), p. 69

Text: 1 October 1900
I looked in at the Empire last night and saw some Boer War pictures on the bioscope. They were very lifelike, and almost free from flicker, which usually makes these moving pictures so objectionable.

Comment: Ralph David Blumenfeld (1864-1948) was the American-born editor of the British newspaper Daily Express 1902-1932. The Empire is probably the Empire Theatre of Varieties in London’s Leicester Square. The Anglo-Boer War ran from October 1899 to May 1902.

Links:
Copy at Hathi Trust Digital Library (under the title In the Days of Bicycles and Bustles)

R.D.B.’s Diary

Source: R.D. Blumenfeld, R.D.B.’s Diary: 1887-1914 (London: W. Heinemann, 1930), p. 69

Text: 1 October 1900
I looked in at the Empire last night and saw some Boer War pictures on the bioscope. They were very lifelike, and almost free from flicker, which usually makes these moving pictures so objectionable.

Comment: Ralph David Blumenfeld (1864-1948) was the American-born editor of the British newspaper Daily Express 1902-1932. The Empire is probably the Empire Theatre of Varieties in London’s Leicester Square. The Anglo-Boer War ran from October 1899 to May 1902.

Links:
Copy at Hathi Trust Digital Library (under the title In the Days of Bicycles and Bustles)

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.

The Edwardians

Source: J.B. Priestley, The Edwardians (London: William Heinemann, 1970), pp. 175-176.

Text: The final act in most of these variety shows when all the glory of the programme had vanished, was a few minutes of jerky film, generally called ‘Bioscope’. But we rarely stayed to discover what the Bioscope was offering us. Now that we have so many accounts of the early history of films, we know that men in various places were taking them very seriously indeed. But that was true of very few people. My friends and I waved them away. Apart from halls where films were occasionally shown, I seem to remember – as my first genuine cinema – a certain Theatre-de-Luxe, where for sixpence you were given an hour or so of short films, a cup of tea and a biscuit. I tried once, and once was enough. Not until the First War, when I was in the army, did I begin to look for films, not simply to take girls into the back rows for canoodling, but in search of the early Chaplin shorts that were arriving then. Before that, in the Edwardian years, like most other people I spent very little time looking at films, which were just so much prolonged ‘Bioscope’. And for that reason I shall spend no more time with them here, leaving them to flicker away, a final disregarded item in the great gaudy programmes of the music hall.

Comment: John Boynton Priestley (1894-1984) was a British novelist and playwright, known for Time and the Conways, An Inspector Calls and The Good Companions. His history The Edwardians is a classic account of the social, political and cultural aspects of the era. His dismissal of cinema is typical of many nostalgic accounts of the era which favour theatre and music hall over the upstart new medium. Theatre de Luxe cinemas were part of Electric Theatres (1908), the first cinema chain in London.