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.