The “Theatrograph” in Court

Source: ‘The “Theatreograph” in Court’, The Era, 18 July 1896, p. 7

Text: At the Clerkenwell County Court, on Tuesday, Robert William Paul, of 44, Hatton-garden, inventor and patentee of the “theatrograph,” and well known for his exhibitions at Olympia, Earl’s-court, and the principal music halls, was the plaintiff in an action to recover from “Wonderland, Limited,” a music hall company conducting their business in Whitechapel-road, £22 10s., three weeks’ rent of electric accumulators supplied to the defendants on hire. The defendants counterclaimed for £15 damages. Mr Gill, barrister, was for the plaintiff; and Mr Dodd, barrister, for the defendants.

The plaintiff’s case was that in April last he was engaged by the defendants, through their managing director, Mr Jonas Woolf, to give performances with his theatrograph at “Wonderland.” For these the plaintiff was to receive £20 a-week, in addition to £7 10s. a-week for supplying accumulators on lire, the defendants to provide the electric current. The plaintiff exhibited for three weeks, and was paid his salary, but had received nothing for the hire of the accumulators.

The defendants admitted their indebtedness for two weeks only. In support of their counterclaim they alleged they had bet heavily through the neglect of the plaintiff, whose performances were a complete failure. It was his duty to provide the electric current, but he had not done so, contenting himself with the use of weak batteries obtained from the defendants, and afterwards of limelight apparatus. The result was that the illusions presented by the “Theatrograph” were blurred and indistinct. The audience, it was said, used to hiss the performance, and many people had demanded and received back their money. The “Theatrograph” was the “star attraction” and, owing to its failure, the takings of “Wonderland (Limited)” fell in one week from £128 to £73, and in the next to £58.

Mr Gill (to Mr Woolf) – You say the “Theatrograph” was your star attraction, and that the losses of your music hall were due to its failure? Witness – The rest of the programme was mere padding.

Mr Gill (reading from a poster) – Do you call the Bear Lady padding – “A native of Africa, full grown, whose arms and legs are formed in exactly the same manner as the animal after which she is named?” Witness – Yes, the Bear Lady was padding.

Mr Gill – And the Fire Queens, “who have appeared before the Prince of Wales, the King and Queen of Italy, and King and Queen of Portugal, who pour molten lead into their mouths, lick red-holt pokers, and remain several minutes enveloped in flames and fire?” Witness – Yes, the Fire Queens were also padding.

Mr Gill – I am not surprised that these monstrous exaggerations damaged your business. It was not the theatrograph.

Judge Meadows White held that it was the duty of the defendants to have supplied a proper light, the absence of which had caused the failures of which they complained. He gave judgment for the plaintiff, with costs, and disallowed the counter-claim.

Comments: Wonderland was an entertainment venue in Whitechapel in London’s East End. It was best-known for hosting boxing bouts, but included other kinds of entertainment, including the Theatrograph projector of British inventor Robert Paul, whose poor reception in April (two months after its public debut) Clerkenwell County Court decided was due to poor illumination from the venue’s accumulators, at a hearing on 14 July 1896.

Links: Copy at British Newspaper Archive (subscription site)

Faces in the Audience

Source: Carothers, ‘Faces in the Audience’, Motion Picture Magazine, February 1915, p. 140

Comments: A cartoon from the American fan magazine Motion Picture Magazine, signed (it would appear) ‘Carothers’. The film actors referred to are J. Warren Kerrigan, Ford Sterling, Broncho Billy Anderson, Grace Cunard, Mabel Normand, child actor Little Billy Jacobs, Francis X. Bushman, Blanche Sweet and Cleo Madison. ‘The Mutual Girl’ refers to Our Mutual Girl, a serial made by the Mutual Picture Corporation, starring Norma Phillips.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Spain was indeed different

Source: Christopher Clark, contributed by the author.

Text: During the 1960s I often used to spend summer holidays with the Nadal family in Cadaques. My father and Angel Nadal collaborated at the time on the Buster comic strip: Dad wrote the storyboard and dialogue and posted the sketches to Angel who applied the artwork at a desk on the balcony of his apartment, fishing rod to hand. His eldest children, David and Ana were a little younger than me and had a large circle of friends whose families typically resided in Gerona or Barcelona for most of the year but escaped to the Costa Brava villages during the summer months. Talk between us kids was mostly about pop, heard intermittently over the radio: I taught them ‘A hard day’s night’ and the English words to ‘Amarillo el submarino es’ (Yellow Submarine). But we also talked about cinema.

General Franco and the Church ensured that censorship remained tight. The Spanish children could sense that things were different and more exciting across the Pyrenees. A few years later this translated into queues at the border to see ‘Love Story’ while it was being shown in Perpignan. I was quizzed about the supposedly lurid details and caused them immense disappointment, and even more surprise, when I told them I hadn’t seen it and was not inclined to do so either.

Cadaques is a very special place, isolated for decades by the surrounding mountains from the interior. Artists loved it: Dali had a house in neighbouring Port Lligat. Film makers loved it too and I remember witnessing a scene being shot that I was told included James Mason, though I only saw the large car that brought him there. Social life revolved around the beaches during the day and the bars and casino during the evening: dancing sardanas on Sundays. Children largely made their own entertainment, fishing, playing games of tag or going on late afternoon hikes up the mountain. Spanish TV in the 60s was uniformly dreadful, replete with overdubbed American and British movies from previous decades.

So I was surprised one evening (in 1966 or 1968) when David and Ana said we were going to the cinema. They didn’t say which film: I was just curious about where the cinema might be. I have failed to remember exactly where it was but it was close to the imposing church and may have been in the church hall. The noise was unbelievable as we went in: a bare room, concrete floor and metal-legged chairs scraping or falling by the dozen as throngs of kids (I don’t recall seeing many adults present) joked, poked and generally misbehaved at the tops of their voices – illegally in Catalan. As soon as the lights were turned off and the projector warmed up the noise level dropped but then the fingers and occasional head silhouettes started to appear on the blank screen and the hubbub resumed.

The film was Las Minas del Rey Salomon (King Solomon’s Mines, 1950) with Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr. I’d pretended to read the book at school so didn’t really know the story but was cross that the Spanish couldn’t get the King’s name right.

About ten minutes into the film the audience noise had subsided enough to be able to hear the dialogue, breathlessly dubbed in Spanish. Then the projector broke down, which it was prone to do regularly during that screening. The light went back on, the shouting and yelling resumed, this time levelled at the hapless projectionist.

I honestly cannot remember a single scene from that film: all I can bring to mind is the audience behaviour and the sonorous bareness of the venue. That was the only time I went to the cinema in Cadaques.

Several years later, just before and while studying Spanish at university, I went to several cinemas in Barcelona. The cinemas in central Barcelona were then, as you’d expect in a cosmopolitan centre, high class establishments and the experience was similar to an evening out in London or Paris. But out in the suburbs the experience could be closer to that evening in Cadaques. People came in and went out of the cinema when they felt like it: our group of about six lads arrived late for El Graduado (extensively cut, I later realised) and so we sat through part of the next showing to catch the opening scenes we’d missed. I decided I needed to see it again so took the bus down the hill to a small cinema next to Plaza Lesseps, which was more bar than cinema. The film was shown in two parts, so after more booze the audience was even more prone to participate during the second part than in the first. I had to wait a couple more years before I could see it properly, in the original, uncut version, on the telly back home.

Comments: Christopher Clark (born 1952) is a musician and former sound archivist at the British Library. His father was cartoonist and film animator Ron ‘Nobby’ Clark. He adds: “I’ve always enjoyed going to the cinema, ever since my Dad took me to the cartoons at Victoria Station to fill in time before our train departed. I knew from matinees in my home town of Horsham that a cinema full of kids was prone to occasional disturbances but in all my childhood years of half-term Disney first releases and westerns I can’t remember any noise above the occasional rustle of sweet papers intruding on the film’s progress. Spain was indeed different.” The films mentioned are Love Story (USA 1970), King’s Solomon’s Mines (USA 1950) and The Graduate (USA 1967).

A Time to Speak

Source: Anthony Quayle, A Time to Speak (London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1990), p. 52

Text: What flicks they were in those days. Not only did they flicker, but they whirred. The pianist was usually thumping away too loud for you to hear the film running over the sprockets; but when the love scenes came and the piano went soft and mushy, then the projectionist came into his own. Every time Rudolph Valentino narrowed his eyes and the heroine shrank from him in mingled love and loathing, then, just as surely as the next caption would be ‘I Love You!’ and the one after would be ‘No, No!’, so without fail would be heard the whirring, chirring rattle of the projector.

Sometimes the machine broke down. When that happened the whole audience, Aggie and me included, would groan loudly; then, as the lights came on, we would all laugh and applaud ourselves for being such audacious wags. After a few minutes the lights would be turned out again to renewed cheers and whistles. The whirring started up once more, a few feet of film jerked onto the screen – only to suffer a further collapse. Louder groans from the audience: more ribald cheering. No one ever made a fuss or complained about breakdowns; they were accepted as part of the entertainment. You paid your money, you came out of the cold and rain, and whichever way things went you had a good time.

Comments: Anthony Quayle (1913-1989) was a British stage and film actor and theatre director. His family lived in Southport. Aggie was his maternal grandmother. At the time of this extract from his autobiography he was aged around eight.

Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years

Source: Michael Palin, Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006), p. 71

Text: Thursday, February 10th, 1972
Assembled for an all-Python writing meeting at Terry’s at 10.00. John sends word that he is ill. Extraordinarily sceptical response. However we work on, and for a laugh decided to write a truly communal sketch. Accordingly all for of us are given a blank sheet of paper and we start to write about two exchanges each before passing on the paper. After an hour and a half we have four sketches – with some very funny characters and ideas in them. They may all work if interlocked into a four-sketch mixture. Eric suggested that we all be very naughty and go to see Diamonds are Forever, the latest of the James Bond films at the Kensington Odeon. After brief and unconvincing heart-searching we drive over to Kensington – but, alas, have not been in the cinema for more than 20 minutes when the film runs down. After a few minutes there is much clearing of throat, a small light appears in front of the stage and a manager appears to tell us that we are the victims of a power cut (this being the first day of cuts following four weeks of government intractability in the face of the miners’ claim). For half an hour there is a brief, British moment of solidarity amongst the beleaguered cinemagoers, but, as we were shirking work anyway, it looked like a shaft of reprobation from the Great Writer in the sky.

Comment: Michael Palin (born 1942) is a writer, television presenter and member of the Monty Python’s Flying Circus television comedy team. The other members of the team referred to here are John Cleese, Terry Jones and Eric Idle. The coal miners’ national strike ran from 9 January to 25 February 1972. Power cuts were introduced to conserve electricity.

London Particulars

Source: C.H. Rolph, London Particulars (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 104-107

Text: It was in the company of Mr Herbert and his Sunday School following that I made my second visit to a cinema. (The first had been in my mother’s arms at about the age of twelve months.) Since then, I had grown accustomed to the marvels of the magic lantern: first, through visits to Wally Gerrard’s house, where a magic lantern was one of the attractions, and from about 1908 onwards through our acquisition of an Army and Navy stores magic lantern, price 92 shillings and six pence with eight slides. Four slides told the story of a London Fire Brigade hero called Bob the Fireman. It seems odd to me that the second cinema visit, after a lapse of nine years should (in contrast with the first) have left in my mind virtually no record of what was shown on the screen. The explanation probably is that I was absorbed in the mechanics and showmanship of the whole thing. In the Fulham Road near the Fire Station a shop had been converted into a tiny cinema, though that is not what it was called. It was called the Parsons Green Moving Picture Theatre; and it seems a happy thought that the wonder and magic of ‘moving pictures’, even then probably twenty years old and yet growing year by year, should sustain the word ‘movie’ in our language to this day. (Not that we ever used the word then: I believe its public admission to un-American English happened in Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House towards the end of the war.) I suppose the Parsons Green Moving Picture Theatre seated an audience of thirty at the most, the front three rows of chairs being very small ones of the kind seen in nursery schools, and behind those (for the grown-ups) there were padded forms with no backs to them. Saturday performances started at 3 p.m. and the price of admission was twopence-halfpenny.

The music was provided by an old horn-type gramophone, operated by the ticket cashier, its horn protruding through a hole cut in the wall of the box-office. The films were all very short, and no doubt very old – they broke down many times in each performance. And at each breakdown a stout lady who always sat on a cushioned stool near the Exit (it was the first time I ever saw the word Exit, and to this day I don’t understand why it is better than Out) tugged at a little chain hanging from the gas-lamp near the door and, it seemed to our startled eyes, flooded the room with a dazzling light. Mr Herbert told us that the management had not learned to leave a company of children in the dark with nothing to engage their attention. An audience of grown-ups were allowed to wait in the dark, I believe, during breakdowns. But they probably knew how to pass the time.

It was I think a year or two after that (probably 1912) when my parents first took us all to the newly opened Putney Bridge Kinema: a splendid edifice, we thought, with a domed entrance; two or three hundred seats; a curtain that pulled itself, with an unforgettable swish, across the screen at the beginning and end of each picture – it bore corrugated references to what we had just seen and what was to come next; a little string ensemble eked out by an indefatigable pianist; and brown-uniformed attendants who paraded the aisles from time to time squirting deodorant over our heads (I wonder why?). The lights went up at the end of each picture, and it was then that the attendants began shouting ‘Sway out please’ and ‘Cigarette, Chocleet’. The very first time we were taken to this stately pleasure-dome, and waited while my father paid our admission fees, I leaned over and whispered in five-year-old Roland’s ear the mysterious words he must have been hearing so often from me in recent months: ‘Moving pictures!’ He tells me that once he was inside, and seated on his father’s lap, he noticed that there were indeed pictures all around the walls, and he was waiting breathlessly for them all to start moving when, to his intense disappointment, all the lights went out. It was some time before he found that everyone else was now looking at a huge illuminated square at the end of a searchlight, and even longer before he was prepared to allow that the flickering figures to be seen on it must be the moving pictures for which I had so long and so excitedly prepared him.

Visits to the Putney Bridge Kinema became a weekly occurrence, and it was there that we saw our first Charlie Chaplin film. It was called Laughing Gas, and it established a devoted family of Chaplin addicts who were never, in the next seventy years, to waver in their loyalty. The universal Chaplin impact was something I shall never really understand. For years it seemed to me that there are so many totally humourless people in the world that success on the Chaplin scale simply shouldn’t be possible, that it is a phenomenon calling for some transcendental explanation. Then I saw that this point of view merely rationalizes the feeling, in the breast of each Chaplinite, that Chaplin really belongs to him alone, that there is no one else who quite understands just how funny life can be. I do not see how this universal act of identity could have survived Charlie’s ham sociological period, his City Lights and his Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux and the rest. But when I was a boy no one could have foreseen those aberrations.

Three actresses of the time enslaved us, and at that age I was precociously ready for enslavement: ‘eleven-plus’ was for me, I now realize, a prominent emotional milestone. They personified our more ecstatic dreams of the fair: Mary Pickford, Daphne Wain, and Pearl White. Miss White held us by reason of the terrifying predicaments we always had to leave her in. As the curtain swished across at the end she was always crying for help from a seventh-floor window in a burning building, hanging by her beautifully manicured fingernails from the outside of a balloon basket, or bound and struggling gracefully in the path of an express train. Her films bore titles like The Exploits of Elaine, and it was only the need that she should survive for at least one more advertised Exploit that sent us home partly optimistic about the future. Mary Pickford and Daphne Wain held us by their beauty, whatever kind of story it had to illuminate, and they usually got their stories over in one go.

Comment: C.R. Rolph (real name Cecil Rolph Hewitt) (1901-1994) was the son of a policeman. His family lived in Southwark, then Finsbury Park, then Fulham. He became a Chief Inspector in the City of London Police, Vice-President of the Howard League for Penal Reform and served on the editorial staff of the New Statesman. London Particulars is the first of two classic volumes of autobiography.