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.

The Child and the Cinematograph Show

Source: Canon H.D. Rawnsley, The Child and the Cinematograph Show and the Picture Post-Card Evil (reprinted from the Hibbert Journal, vol. xi. 1913), pp. 3-11

Text: It is not improbable that the cinematograph film has a good deal to answer for in this matter of the public demand for horror and sensation. On many of the hoardings near the cinematograph halls or pavilions, beneath the sensational programmes are written such words as “nerve-thrillers”, “eye-openers tonight”, and when we turn to these programmes we cannot help noticing that it is the horrible that draws. “Massacre; a terrible tragedy, 2000 feet”; “The Wheel of Destruction”; “The Motor Car Race: the car when going at prodigious speed overturns and buries its living occupants. Don’t miss this”. “Dante’s hell”, the Devil film, with a huge invitation beneath it, “Don’t miss this opportunity of seeing Satan – Satan and the Creator; Satan and the Saviour, 4000 feet in length”; all these are signs of a downgrade pandering to a sense of horror which is being fostered throughout the length and breadth of the land by the downgrade film.

I spoke to a boy, about twelve years old, who had attended a cinematograph show in a little country town a week or two ago, and he positively trembled as he reported what he had seen. He said, “I shall never go again. It was horrible”. I said, “What was horrible?” He said, “I saw a man cut his throat”.

As I write, a friend tells me that a week or two ago his neighbours, seeing pictures of Sarah Bernhardt advertised as the chief item in a cinematograph show, visited the hall with their little daughter. They found to their disgust the bulk of the entertainment was sensational horrors of such a character that in consequence they were obliged to sit up all night with the child, who constantly woke with screams and cries …

Nor is this sense of horror alone appealed to. Many of these films prove to be direct incentives to crime. Clever burglaries are exhibited before the eyes of mischievous boys, who at once have their attention called to the possibility of the “expert cracksman’s life” …

In the face of the claims of the cinematograph proprietors that the exhibitions are for the moral improvement and amusement of the masses, and in opposition to all the tall talk about the educational value of the film to which the trade from time to time treats us, we have only to reply, “Look at your posters and the items of horror or fierce excitement or degrading sensationalism which, in spite of Mr Redford and his censorship, are still being exhibited up and down the country, to the detriment and discouragement of the nobler feelings of gentleness and compassion!”

The worst of it all is, that neither the police nor the agents of the cinematograph firms who are sent out as exhibitors, are sufficiently educated to know what is horrible and what is not. Thus, for example, when the mayor was appealed to in a town where the most terrible exhibition of the horrors of hell and the tortures of the damned were being visibly enacted as illustrations in gross caricature of Dante’s Inferno, he in turn appealed to the police to visit the cinematograph hall and report. The officer who was well up in the legal aspect of the case and was probably on the look-out for a criminally indecent film as a thing to be objected to, reported to the mayor that he could see nothing objectionable in this horrible Hell film, and therefore had not thought it necessary to speak to the exhibitor …

It is not only the sensational, cruel, or crime film that is sowing seeds of corruption among the people. The film manufacturers have invaded the most holy mysteries of our religious faith. There can be no question that in suitable surroundings, and with specially reverent treatment, pictures from the life of our Lord may be impressive and educational, but the idea of exploiting the life of our Lord as a commercial speculation, and the getting of a troupe of actors to go out to Palestine and pose in situ as His disciples, and as impersonators of the scenes described in the Gospels, is in itself abhorrent; and the quickness of motion needed by the film takes away reverence and imparts a sense of what is artificial, and sometimes almost comic …

It is not only the health of the religious and moral sense and spiritual understanding of the child which needs safeguarding. The time has come when the educationists of the country must realise that it is no use spending millions of money upon elementary education if children beneath school age are allowed to attend a cinematograph show till eleven o’clock at night, and then go home so overwrought and excited by the scenes they had witnessed that sleep is impossible.

I say overwrought advisedly, for it was reported in the press a short time ago that a child going home from a cinematograph hall pleaded piteously with a policeman to protect him from those two men with long beards that were following him. The two men with long beards were two ruffians that he had seen, and actually supposed to be living beings, in a cinematograph film that night …

… A census was taken on a certain Saturday in November last, in Liverpool, with the result that it was proved that there were 13,332 children below the age of fourteen present at matinees held in twenty-seven halls in that city, which appeared to cater especially for children so far as the price of entrance was concerned. The children’s ages … ranged from four or five up to thirteen, and they were viewing the ordinary films shown at the other performances during the rest of the week. Parts of the programme were composed of pictures of a sensational character, some showing crimes, others serious accidents, while not a few were suggestive of immorality.

Comment: Canon Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley (1851-1920) was an outspoken critic of the cinema, who wrote and lectured widely on its supposed evil effects on children. The Dante film referred to is the Italian production L’inferno (1911). The troupe of actors going to Palestine is a reference to the American film company Kalem’s production of From the Manger to the Cross, made in 1912. George A. Redford was the first president of the British Board of Film Censors.

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.

At the Works

Source: Lady [Florence] Bell, At the Works: A Study of a Manufacturing Town (London: Nelson, 1911 [originally London: Edward Arnold, 1907]), pp. 185-186

Text: At the moment of writing there are ten music-halls in full swing, at all of which Moving Pictures are shown on the Cinematograph, and at seven of which a variety entertainment is given as well. These pictures have made an extraordinary difference to the leisure hours of the working class, adults as well as children, to whom they seem to give untiring delight. The price in most of the halls ranges from 6d. to 2d., children being half price: in two of them the best places are 2s. and 1s. respectively. The seating capacity of the biggest of these halls is about 2,000; of the smallest, 350. It may appear to many of us that if a wisely tolerant supervision could be exercised over the selection of the pictures, excluding the actually harmful, but not always insisting on the improving, it would be an innocuous and not undesirable form of amusement. The front row of the gallery generally consists of children, mostly little boys between seven and ten, eagerly following every detail of the entertainment. Each of them these must have paid for his place – how he did it who can tell? perhaps either by begging or by playing pitch and toss in the street. One may sometimes see a queue of women waiting to go to the cheap seats, often with their husbands accompanying them. These women, many of whom have their babies in their arms, come out of the place looking pleased and brightened up. The kind of variety entertainment usually offered does not to the critical onlooker seem either particularly harmful or especially ennobling. The curious fact that, in almost any social circle, it makes people laugh convulsively to see any one tumble down, is kept well in view, and utilized to frequent effect. Six of these halls show their moving pictures on a Sunday, an incalculable boon.

Comment: Lady Bell (Dame Florence Eveleen Eleanore Bell) (1851-1930) was a British aristocrat, playwright and author of At the Works, a study of working lives in Middlesborough in the 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’.

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.

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.