Three hundred and fifty-nine degrees

Made in Brighton Film Festival

The latest project is a spin-off from the nearly-finished book, nay encyclopaedia, about film and cinema in Brighton & Hove since 1896. Planning actually began last autumn but has been picking up speed over the past couple of weeks. The best way to sum it up is to post the first press release, which has still to go out to the press, so you get to read it here first.



A celebration of more than a century of local film-making

Brighton & Hove’s long association with film will be celebrated during this year’s Brighton Festival Fringe. Brighton was one of the first places in the world where films were made, starting in 1896, little more than a few weeks after the wonders of moving pictures were first witnessed by astonished audiences.

There have been numerous film festivals in the city before but none devoted to the many films made in Brighton & Hove. The Made in Brighton Film Festival, part of the Fringe at this year’s Brighton Festival will assemble around 50 films ranging from the very earliest silents (Scene on the West Pier from 1897), through archive documentaries to recent low-budget independent features and short films. The festival, to be held at the Old Courtroom in Church Street, Brighton (opposite The Dome), runs from 1-21 May.

Among the films lined up for the festival are several feature films from the 1950s and 1960s. Lady Godiva Rides Again (1951) is a comedy by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliatt about rigged beauty contests that stands comparison with the Ealing comedies of the period and includes scenes in the Regent ballroom, in Saltdean and up Albion Hill. Much British film-making was arguably not at its finest then but the selections are very much of their time. The Gelignite Gang (1954) is a crime story with scenes in Kemp Town and Hove. Interior scenes were shot at Brighton Film Studios in St Nicholas Road, as they were for The Battle of the V1 (1958), in which Shoreham beach, gasworks and airport are turned into the Nazi rocket site at Peenemunde; the resistance headquarters are in the Rothbury cinema in Portslade.

‘Part of the fun of watching these films is spotting the locations,’ says media historian David Fisher, the festival’s organiser. ‘A few of the places have disappeared but many are unchanged—some even more than a hundred years later.’ Locations from Shoreham to Rottingdean, from the West Pier to the downs will be seen on screen.

From the 1960s comes the underrated Smokescreen (1964), with a stunning opening sequence that leads into an intriguing story of insurance fraud. Be My Guest (1965) is a product of the swinging sixties, with David Hemmings and Steve Marriott (later of the Small Faces) playing the leads in a musical that features performances by the Nashville Teens, Jerry Lee Lewis and, yes, Slash Wildly and the Cutthroats. Another side of the swinging sixties is on show in the films of Brighton-born Pete Walker, such as Strip Poker (aka The Big Switch, 1969)—‘not sixties Georgy Girl,’ as he himself put it, ‘this was sixties naff.’ Nonetheless, the climax on a snowy West Pier is a classic B-feature moment.

If Brighton & Hove were used in those earlier times by visiting productions, in the new century the city has developed a thriving, if half-hidden film culture of its own. The festival will be screening four feature-length works by local film-makers, typically made for less money than the cost of the coffees on ‘major motion pictures’, although cheapness rarely shows now in the way it did 50 years ago.

Ross Shepherd’s Heathen (2009) is a stylish psychological mystery that uses local settings to great effect. In Ambleton Delight (2009) a town is divided over plans to build a motorway across the nearby downs. It won director Daniel Parkes the award for Best Feature Film at the British Independent Film Festival 2010. Mark Jay’s Dolphins (2007) is an action romance set among the boy racers and the local indie music scene. Richard III (2005) is indeed Shakespeare’s play but is excitingly transposed by director Maximilian Day from the Plantagenet court to the gang world of Brighton’s Whitehawk estate.

As well as these feature films the festival will include a wide variety of short films from the very earliest times to archive documentaries and recent independent short fiction films. The festival will also include talks and discussions about aspects of making films, featuring directors and actors, as well as experts in funding and distribution.

Watch for regular reports about the development of the festival.


Ally Pally with Freeview

This is the National Media Museum's set

A Marconiphone Model 702 from 1936. This is the National Media Museum's set

The BBC News website has a story today (21 July) about a 1936 Marconiphone television receiver being used to receive digital television channels via a Freeview box. The set apparently turned up as a result of a competition run by  Digital UK, the organisation co-ordinating the switch to digital television. The story is to support Digital UK’s contention that ‘just about any television, however old, can be used to show digital channels’ (BBC website quote).

What a great way to get that message across! No sooner do we get used to the idea that you don’t need to have an HD-ready flat-screen set with integral digital tuner (although it helps), than the news comes out that all you need is a pre-war set working on the 405-line Marconi-EMI standard and a Freeview box. Oh, and perhaps a 625-to-405-line standards converter with time-base correction and preferably a gizmo to strip out the chrominance. (Not sure where you can buy those. They don’t have them in Comet.)

Of course, there is a risk in showing an antiques-collecting electrical engineer*  watching Freeview channels on his old Marconiphone with all the sophisticated gubbins necessary to make it happen. The message that really comes across is that watching digital channels is not the simple plug-and-play operation that it is meant to be.

This could set television back 70 years! (or do I mean a television set from 70 years back?)

*aka nerd to the television viewing public still resistant to digital


On demand

Books can now be produced almost as quickly as photographs.

Books can now be produced almost as quickly as photographs.

More than 30 years ago, when watching Kind Hearts and Coronets for maybe the third of the dozen or more times I’ve seen it, I noticed in the small print of the credits that the film was based on a novel called Israel Rank by Roy Horniman. For more than 30 years I have checked periodically in second-hand bookshops and, since it became possible, online for the book. But never a hint of a copy. Even Amazon, which has a habit of listing any and every book that ever existed, didn’t seem to know of it.

Now I have a copy, courtesy of Faber Finds, the new publishing-on-demand imprint. The idea that it is possible to order a book that has yet to be printed and have it delivered three working days later is remarkable, almost as much as bringing such a long search to a successful conclusion. (The only downside is the astonishingly bad typography of the cover, especially as Faber is a publisher for whose design I have always had the highest regard.)

Of course, this acquisition has been done the easy way and an on-demand paperback is not the same as a dusty casebound original edition. On the other hand, I have spent all those years looking in secondhand bookshops and finding much else along the way. Sadly the serendipity of discovery in such circumstances has almost disappeared. In the 1970s I had a route through the centre of Brighton that took me past (actually in and out of) at least a dozen secondhand bookshops. All but two have gone, partially replaced by charity shops. Ironically, bookdealing has been in the forefront of online selling.

The news that Warner Bros is now offering the DVD equivalent—manufacturing on demand—raises expectations that have yet to be fulfilled. Not only is the website sufficiently obscure to make it difficult to find the titles on offer, when they are found they tend to be ones that are already available on DVD, often at budget prices. And pricing is an issue. Charging a premium price for a film that made its money years ago and now costs a few pennies to copy is out of tune with the times.

Maybe Warner Bros is not the best studio to launch the practice as it has been the most active in developing the video and DVD markets over the past 30 years (that same time-span again!) and has marketed its back catalogue in some depth. The idea still has some way to go.



It came as a surprise to discover an advertisement for a little known film format being shown in Brighton in 1896. Cinographoscope was the cumbersome name of a film system developed, like the Cinématographe,  by two French brothers, Alexandre and Jules Pipon, manufacturers of photographic apparatus at 15 boulevard Saint-Denis in Paris. It was patented earlier in the year (2 March 1896) and had replaced the Lumière Cinématographe at the Olympia music hall in Paris from 23 July. How it differed from the Cinématographe or any other film technology of the time is not clear. However, it came to the Imperial Hotel in Brighton in late September 1896. R W Paul’s ‘celebrated Animatographe’ was just coming to the end of a successful three-month stint at the Victoria Hall on the seafront in Brighton. The Imperial Hotel was a small establishment just down the road from the station.

Although little seems to be known about the Cinographoscope, at least it is an identifiable film system. When the first film show began in Brighton at the Pandora Gallery on 25 March 1896, it was described as ‘the Cinématograph’ (with an accent but no final e). This was soon changed, in the advert for 4 April, to ‘the Cinématographe or Vitascope’. The former suggests Lumière but the latter is a puzzle. The projector known as the Vitascope, designed by Thomas Armat and produced by Edison, was not even shown to the press in the USA until that same date. No one seems to know who ran the shows at the Pandora Gallery, which may have been created and so named especially for the event. By the time R W Paul ran his Animatographe shows there three months later it was called the Victoria Hall. How ‘Vitascope’ came to be associated with it equally remains a mystery.


Nothing new 3: Victorian Disneyland

The idea was that the spectators would stand on a platform that rocked gently to simulate movement as hidden fans blew the air to simulate forward motion. All around them lighting effects, slides and moving pictures would present ‘the sensation of voyaging on a machine through time’. The English showman Robert W Paul, best known now as one of the first film pioneers, described this project in the patent application (no 19984) he made on 24 October 1895 entitled ‘A novel form of exhibition or entertainment, means for presenting the same’. Paul had met H G Wells, whose story The Time Machine had achieved recent resounding success.

Some commentators have seen in this a parallel with Hale’s Tours, the short-lived sensation of a decade later in which audiences sat in railway carriages for journeys through the Rocky Mountains, past the pyramids, up Norwegian fjords. I wrote this poem several years ago:

Hale’s Tours

A Kansas fire chief, George C Hale,
Created tourist trips by rail.
His big idea (no, please don’t laugh):
To use the cinematograph.
The train stood still, the world rolled by.
The carriage rocked, deceived the eye.
His cameras strapped in front of trains
Shot scenic mountains, rivers, plains.
His shows toured cities far and wide
As audiences sat there goggle-eyed.
He made a fortune. His success,
Though quite short-lived, brought happiness.

Let’s travel back to see Hale’s Tours.
I take you through the carriage doors,
I seat you on a red plush chair—
You see it, but it isn’t there.
You look through windows left and right,
You see the world in black and white.
With wanderlust to stir your blood,
See townscapes, mountains and the flood,
Norwegian fjords, the Holy Land,
The golden road to Samarkand.
No need to move—my words, you’ll find,
Create the journey in your mind.

No tickets, waiting or delay,
No checked-in bags to go astray,
No wings or wheels or horses’ hooves.
He travels far who never moves.

In fact, R W Paul’s conception went further than that. He envisaged the protoype fairground ride that began to appear 60 years later at Disneyland and subsequent theme parks, what today would be classed as virtual reality. One of the most popular genres of early film was the ‘phantom ride’, shot with a camera strapped on the front of a moving vehicle, usually a train. Early film-makers can be divided between those who saw the medium as a way of recording actuality and those who recognised it as an illusion that could be exploited. Paul belongs to the latter group, although in his relatively brief career—in common with a number of his contemporaries he had given up the cinema by 1910—he made films of both types. Another was George Albert Smith, who tranformed the phantom ride by interpolating a scene of a couple in a ‘darkened’ carriage as it travels through the tunnel in his 1898 film A Kiss in the Tunnel.

One more thought: if ‘phantom ride’ films were shot with a camera strapped to the front of a train, where was the cameraman who had to crank the handle to shoot the film?


Greasy polls

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:

  1. Moon landing (1969)
  2. First inauguration of an African American president (2009)
  3. Televised assassination of a president (1963)
  4. Dolly, the world first cloned sheep
  5. First test tube/IVF baby (July 1978 )
  6. First images from a satellite—Sputnik
  7. First flight—100 years ago
  8. First ‘male’ pregnancy
  9. Four minute mile—Roger Bannister (1956)
  10. First televised coronation—King George VI (1936)
  11. First 3d crop circle (found 11 July 2006)
  12. First Queen Speech (1952)
  13. First televised football match (1938 )
  14. First UK election (1950)
  15. First use of test card (July 1967)
  16. Elvis’ world first TV appearance on the Dorsey Brothers Stage Show
  17. First black Oscar winner—Sidney Poitier
  18. First live sporting event—Olympics (1936)
  19. First Eurovision song contest winner—Lugano, Switzerland (1956)
  20. 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.

The Wright Brothers caught on television

The Wright Brothers caught on television

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.


Films about cinemas

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.

smallest_show_on_earth_7Two 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?


Nothing new 2: Moving ads in railway tunnels (1909)

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.


Missing and faded memorials

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.

melrose_plaqueThe 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, Londonbut actually placed on no 76has 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.

williamson_church_road_plaqueAnother 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 processingand 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.


Nothing new 1: Video discs (1907)

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.

brown_spirographMr 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 easilywithout 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.