Last autumn the respected French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma published a poll conducted among 78 film critics and historians to select the ’100 films for an ideal archive’. The list caused some consternation on this side of the Channel because it included not one British film. A matter of opinion and French opinion on matters of films is unlikely to coincide with that of others. Even so, the effect of that apparent slight was mitigated to some extent by the fact that the second film on the list, The Night of the Hunter, was directed by a Brit, Charles Laughton. In a separate list of the 50 greatest film-makers, the second and the fourth were also British-born: Alfred Hitchcock and Charles Chaplin. Curiously, five of the top directors were born in Austria, although Austria is not conventionally considered a great film-making nation.
Another poll that could be said to be a matter of opinion is one commissioned by Sony, described as being among 3,000 UK respondents to find the ‘most memorable/favourite “World First” moment caught on TV’. The results, published today (28 January), in descending order are:
- Moon landing (1969)
- First inauguration of an African American president (2009)
- Televised assassination of a president (1963)
- Dolly, the world first cloned sheep
- First test tube/IVF baby (July 1978 )
- First images from a satellite—Sputnik
- First flight—100 years ago
- First ‘male’ pregnancy
- Four minute mile—Roger Bannister (1956)
- First televised coronation—King George VI (1936)
- First 3d crop circle (found 11 July 2006)
- First Queen Speech (1952)
- First televised football match (1938 )
- First UK election (1950)
- First use of test card (July 1967)
- Elvis’ world first TV appearance on the Dorsey Brothers Stage Show
- First black Oscar winner—Sidney Poitier
- First live sporting event—Olympics (1936)
- First Eurovision song contest winner—Lugano, Switzerland (1956)
- First televised beauty competition—Miss Universe (1955)
I do not express opinions on polls, however contentious, on the Terra Media site. But this one is so spectacularly bizarre that it cannot pass without comment.
In fact, it can be dismissed as literally incredible, mainly because of its origins. It seems it was compiled on the basis of a list of images for a video production rather than by historical research. How far down the list did you read before thinking there was something odd? You may have raised an eyebrow over number 4 and the other eyebrow at number 5, but my guess is your jaw dropped at number 7. The Wright Brothers’ first flight ‘caught on TV’?
Several entries are events on US television that were not seen on UK television, some perhaps not even subsequently. Sputnik issued only a beep, no pictures. The first test cards were transmitted in the mid 1930s, not 1967. The ‘Queen Speech’ (correctly Christmas message to the Commonwealth) was first televised in 1957, not 1952 when it was only on the wireless. The UK did not participate in the first Eurovision Song Contest. There was no coronation in 1936 and the one in 1937 was seen on television by 50,000 people tops. Yet millions saw the 1953 Coronation, which produced a surge in television sales that Sony could only dream of today. Oh, and the Wright Brothers’ first flight was not televised as even primitive television was still 20 year away. Even Sony thinks the list may be suspect as the press release for the listing notes that there is no recording of the first televised UK election. Nor is there of that first television football match, which was an England v Scotland international, a couple of weeks before the first FA Cup Final from Wembley was show in its entirety.
Television is perhaps the most nationally distinctive of all media, perhaps even more so for everyone than films are for the French. Preferences in programming, perhaps also for historical events, reflect these boundaries. But if anyone anywhere in the world were asked to name several memorable TV moments, most of the above list would never arise. So how could this happen? Simple. The list of events offered to respondents from which to make multiple selections was drawn up on the basis of images that were to be used in a three-minute promotional video for a Sony product launch.
The aim was obviously to attract attention to the product. The poll has done that, albeit not as successfully as intended (at least in this space). Fortunately for the sponsor, Sony, the product—a new range of Bravia TV sets—will suffer no setbacks because of a spurious poll. Indeed, with luck the poll will probably pass almost unnoticed, except for this space and in The Sun, which did not seem to notice the anomalies and commented only on the absence of Lily Allen from the list. So no harm done.
Yet one day fifty years from now, a media historian will discover the reports and wonder what to make of them. This should at least make us media historians of today think twice about the validity of evidence from the past. Was Madonna of the Seven Moons really the third most popular film of the war years in Britain? According to the Daily Mail in 1946 it was.
There have been many films about film-making. My personal favourite remains François Truffaut’s La Nuit Américaine (Day for Night, 1973). Even the title refers to the medium’s deception. But I am hard-pressed to think of many films about cinemas, the exhibition end of the film chain.
Even one of the most cinéphile nations, France, has tackled the theme sparingly. Truffaut makes several autobiographical references to cinemas, notably in Les Quatre Cent Coups (1959) and again in La Nuit Américaine. In a restless dream in the latter he remembers his childhood self stealing lobby cards of Citizen Kane through the shutters of the cinema. Jean-Luc Godard has a scene in Les Carabiniers (1963) in which one of the gunmen naively leaps onto the stage to see where the pictures are coming from. However, the subject of that film is not the cinema, except to the extent that all Godard’s films are about the cinema.
Two films from either end of a spectrum of views about the cinema. At the joyful end Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988), with its evocation of the child-like magic of moving pictures. At the sad end, The Smallest Show on Earth (Basil Dearden, 1957). The depressed atmosphere of this light comedy must have been poignant at the time. Cinema in the UK had already gone through a decade of decline that was yet to have its onset in continental Europe, athough it was then imminent. The theme is essentially the same as in You’ve Got Mail (Nora Ephron, 1998)—itself a sort-of remake of The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940). The little local cinema cannot survive against the shiny super cinema. For the regular cinemagoers who still turned up at the box office, watching this film must have been rather like contemplating the move into an old people’s home. Of course, even many of the shiny super cinemas disappeared over the coming years.
Both these films—and the previous references—were nostalgic about the cinema’s past, or cinemas of the past. So too was Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, where the scenes on the screen and in the audience become confounded in true metafictional manner. (More on metafiction upcoming in this place.) Perhaps film-makers do not consider cinemas as attractive thematically as their own studios (or do I mean navels?). Even multiplexes could be interesting. You’d think that if films are reckoned to influence public behaviour, people in films would be shown going to the cinema more often—pour encourager les autres.
What have I missed or forgotten?
Anyone who has been through certain London Underground stations in the past year or so will have been struck by the video advertising sites that have replaced hoardings and posters alongside the escalators. How very modern, you think. Well, actually the idea celebrates its centenary this year.
On 29 September 1909, one Robert Fox, engineer, of 15 Werter Road, Putney applied for a patent on a ‘means of producing cinematograph effects, more especially for advertising purposes, by means of the motion of a railway carriage or like rapidly moving vehicle. The invention is especially intended for use in “tube” railways and employs walls of the tube as the means of display.’ This is his description of the technique:
On the walls of the tunnel, or mounted on suitable supports by the side of the line if in the open, I place, as in apparatus already proposed for this purpose, a long succession of photographic enlargements or pictures taken from a cinematograph film or otherwise produced in such a manner that. if viewed in rapid succession they give the effect of a moving picture, such pictures being separated by wide blank spaces, preferably black or darkened, as viewed by the observer, and placed on a level with the windows so that they are readily seen by passengers. They are illuminated by light thrown upon or through them from the carriage or from fixed lamps. The separating or stopping off portions are, according to my invention, wedge shaped or triangular in. plan with the front face at right angles to the picture and a blank sloping face in the direction meeting the train. The front face may be provided with the lamps.
These pictures are placed along the line in parts where the train maintains a fairly constant speed and the width of the pictures is calculated upon the speed the train is expected to reach. The eyes of the passengers are caused by the brilliantly illuminated pictures to rest momentarily on each picture as it arrives and pass rapidly over the blank space to the next slightly differing one, so that the effect produced corresponds to that of an ordinary cinematograph, although the person viewing moves while the pictures retain their position, in contrast to the ordinary arrangement.
Mr Fox, who by then, perhaps bored by travelling through dark tube tunnels, had moved to Westcliff-on-Sea, was rewarded with a patent on 11 August 1910. Not quite flat-screen video panels but a bold effort that had to wait almost a century to be realised.
In 1996, to mark the centenary of the cinema the British Film Institute backed a scheme called Cinema 100 to place 300 commemorative plaques on a number of locations associated with the beginnings of the cinema in Britain. Revisiting the ones along the Sussex coast recently revealed what a sad state some are in.
The worst case is probably the plaque which marks the location of the first UK film show outside London, at what was then the Pandora Gallery, on 25 March 1896. It was also, after the name changed to Victoria Hall, where R W Paul ran a season of film shows starting on 6 July 1896. However, the plaque is virtually illegible.
But at least it is still there and it may catch the eye of visitors who sit outside the restaurant in the sun (or wind) as they gaze across the road at the West Pier, which is in an even sorrier state. Another of the Cinema 100 plaques, to mark the site of the Maguire & Baucus Kinetoscope parlour at 70 Oxford Street, London
—but actually placed on no 76
—has disappeared altogether. As also has a plaque that was placed by the Cinema Theatre Association to commemorate the Regent Cinema in Brighton. It was unveiled by Susannah York as recently as 24 May 2001 at what is now Boots store opposite the Clock Tower. So far enquiries have failed to ascertain what happened.
Another of the surviving Cinema 100 plaques is on the building that was 144 Church Street, Hove (since re-numbered as 156). Is it appropriate that today the shop where James Williamson had his pharmacy and photographic processing business is now called The Eyecare Centre?
The plaque, however, somewhat misleadingly, calls it the ‘Site of the First Studio and Laboratory created by James Williamson’ and gives the dates 1896-1898. As far as film goes, the dates are the right ones. Williamson actually moved into the shop in 1886 but did not start processing films until 1896 and he did move on (to 55 Western Road, Hove) in September 1898. However, this is the actual building, not merely its site, and it is stretching a point to refer to a ‘laboratory’
—he processed film along with the rest of his photographic processing
—and even more to call it a ‘studio’. Most of his films at this time were actualities and even the comic and dramatic films were shot out of doors.
This misleadingness is as nothing compared with another plaque, to which bombshell we shall return anon.
I’ve just been reading the 1907 patent for the device that became known as the Spirograph. It was a disc, packaged rather like a 78rpm audio record, that carried a spiral of microscopic images. It was invented by a British media journalist, a precursor of mine. Theodore Brown edited the Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly; I edit Screen Digest. I’ve never invented anything as far as I can recall.
Mr Brown was quite a prolific inventor, mainly of mechanical toys, puzzles, games, kaleidoscopes and advertising devices that used changing images or patterns to attract attention. Some of his patents were held jointly with his wife, Bessie Kate Brown. Indeed, for the ‘spirograph’ her name precedes his and she gives her occupation as ‘lady’. However, unlike some pictures promoting home cinema at that time, she was not shown turning the handle to show just how easy it was to use.
The images were reduced through a microscope lens system from 35mm film to form a series of tiny images in a spiral around the disc. That makes it a proto-video disc. The advantage of a disc, of course, it that it can be copied easily
—without having to spool through film or tape.
I first saw this device, or something like it, in 1980 in the Smithsonian in Washington DC but never managed to trace much information about it. Now, courtesy of the excellent European Patent Office site, I can read exactly what Brown had in mind. Which turns out to be even more like a video disc than I realised. As well as (or more accurately, instead of) forming a spiral on the disc, the images can be in the form of concentric rings, with the mechanism moving over by one ring at the end of each revolution. However, as Brown points out, if the disc does not advance, the images can go on repeating themselves. In principle this is exactly the same as the concept used in the Philips VLP/MCA Discovision of the mid 1970s. Discs could be mastered with either constant linear velocity, in which the laser follows the spiral track at a constant rate (the rate of rotation reducing as the laser moves towards the outer edge of the disc), or constant angular velocity, in which the disc rotates at a constant speed and each revolution carries one frame of picture. So if the disc is held on a given revolution, the image on the screen is frozen.
What goes around, comes around.
- More than coincidence?
- Booked up: Cinema-by-Sea
- Made in Brighton Film Festival 2
- Made in Brighton Film Festival
- Ally Pally with Freeview
- On demand
- Nothing new 3: Victorian Disneyland
- Greasy polls
- Films about cinemas
- Nothing new 2: Moving ads in railway tunnels (1909)
- Missing and faded memorials