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BSFF Issue 2

The 15th British Silent Film Festival WHY WATCH SILENTS? Coupled with a look of sheer bafflement, the question “Why on earth would you want to watch a silent film?!” is one I hear frequently. Contrary to the stereotype, this is not spluttered forth by folk who can’t be bothered with subtitles, think black and white movies indicate pretentiousness or that ‘Hazanavicius’ is an eastern European football team.

Open your eyes (and, ironically, ears) to a great cinematic experience.

Ivor Novello in “The Rat”

Often, it is folk who happily watch cinema in any of its contemporary formats. They view silent cinema as an anachronism, even gently mocked by near-silent homage THE ARTIST. People holding these views are genuinely missing out, and The British Silent Film Festival is the perfect stage to open your eyes (and, ironically, ears) to a great cinematic experience.

As a relative newcomer to the format, each of the small number of silents I have seen has been an absolute delight, and I hope to increase that number as the festival moves into full swing. In order to truly appreciate the majesty of silent cinema, the novice viewer needs to see the medium on its home turf – in a cinema, with live accompaniment. This weekend alone will see us journey through stunning African scenery with LIVINGSTONE, and to the South Pole with Captain Scott in THE GREAT WHITE SILENCE. THE GHOST THAT NEVER RETURNS, accompanied by The Dodge Brothers, should also prove a great way to bring the curtain down on the festival. In a day and age when cinema owners are selling the cinema ‘experience’ to punters, offering something unique is more important than ever. The British Silent Film Festival offers exactly that by simply turning back the clocks to an era of British cinema that is still refreshingly relevant and inspired. Don’t miss out. -JIM ROSS

“Who needs 3D when you’ve got rattling washboards, crazed prison riots, political uprisings, lyrical pianos, lonesome trainwhistles, heartbreaking mandolins, hallucinatory dream sequences, twangly guitars, love, death... and theremins!” - Mark Kermode on THE GHOST THAT NEVER RETURNS




TM: Obviously the festival is screening numerous films that have had their image DIRECTOR OF THE BSFF restored, or a new soundtrack composed. Is it Toby Miller: In its very first years where was like trying to restore a National Trust house, British cinema screened? Was paying a visit to in that everything has to be a replica of the the cinema seen as a lower class entertainment period? Or is setting a film in amber a mistake, that took over music halls for certain times of - should you try to add something new? the day?

Laraine Porter: It did come out of the music hall and the fairground. Many early directors were entrepreneurs who foresaw cinema’s commercial potential. Then, around 1909, the first purpose built cinemas started to pop up. These were, primarily, working class venues. We were the pioneers of the single reel gag. It’s not until you get the bigger picture palaces, with the full orchestras, that you get the involvement of Adrian Brunel and H G Wells, taking an interest in cinema and making their own amateur movies.

Even now we struggle to accept cinema as an art form. Cinema going begins to have more status; you start to get adaptations of Oscar Wilde, PG Wodehouse, authors that people are reading. And the class issue starts to become less prevalent. But you still see the evidence, cultural critics talking about cinema as a childish and lower class entertainment, and the kind of thing that they would not want their children to have to watch. But this critical prejudice, which continues through out the silent period, has remained a problem in the UK. Even now we struggle to accept cinema as an art form.

LP: Remember that these films were on nitrate, there is no finer medium for a large scale projected image. With the music you have to let the film take the lead, and the musicians must remain sensitive to the narrative on the screen, helping the audience to understand characters, mood and emotion. But of course you can use a contemporary score, during the festival we have The Dodge Brothers scoring a gala screening of THE GHOST THAT NEVER RETURNS and The Bronnt Industries will be playing a new soundtrack for the Soviet masterpiece TURKSIB. TM: To wrap up, tell me more about the festival.This is the first time it has taken place in Cambridge? LP:Yes it is. I hope people will want to come and see the films as they are meant to be seen; on a big screen, with orchestral accompaniment. People think they are slow, but they are not; the best silent cinema has a beautiful dreamlike quality. I’ve met people that, after they experience a proper screening, say that it has actually changed the way they think about cinema. And that is what this festival is trying to do.

Listen to the whole interview at:





Dir: Adrian Brunel. With Ivor Novello, Nina Vanno, Sergio Mari, Christopher Walker. GB 1923, 107mins

Before Richard Burton, Hywel Bennett and Michael Sheen, Ivor Novello was the top Welsh totty among film lovers. MGM found him “too English” for Hollywood, but in Britain he was known as the “handsomest screen actor” -

although some scoffed at his pretentious choice of screen name - Novello was born David Davies. Novello never admitted he was gay - because you can’t admit to something you haven’t hidden.This may have led to some of the more homophobic criticism of his work - detractors persistently jeered at his androgynous appeal and shameless vanity. Siegfried Sassoon famously sneered at him, only to be notso-famously shagged and dumped by him during Novello’s stint in the West End hit “The Rat” (pictured on the cover). This year’s BSFF offers the rare opportunity to see Ivor “Dave” Novello in A MAN WITHOUT DESIRE (1923). Novello primed himself in between takes with the music of Wagner, driving himself into a melodramatic

“Obscurity and I were bad companions” - Ivor Novello reverie that fuelled a characteristically unfettered performance to fit the German expressionist style. One might imagine that the BBFC would turn their noses up at a sci-fi fantasy about impotence - but it was accepted without objection. Authentic Venetian locations are the backdrop for the story of a silly Count who loses the will to live when his lover is murdered, and has a magician chum place him in suspended animation - only to find himself in need of Viagra 200 years further down the family tree. Fans of “Dr Who” will surely enjoy the time travel romance, and Novello’s androgynous, asexual lead. -ROSY HUNT Screened at 17.30 on Friday 20th April

BRITAIN COULD MAKE IT! Each year the British Silent Film Festival holds the Rachael Low Lecture, as tribute to the film historian and writer. Lowe wrote what has been described as one of the cornerstones of film scholarship and a vital work on twentieth century British film culture; the seven-volume “History of British Film”. Documenting the origins of the nation’s film production between 1896 and 1939, this historic work clearly places Low as one of the foremost advocates of British cinema, especially during the silent era. This year the Rachael Low lecture is titled BRITAIN COULD MAKE IT!, and is presented by Ian Christie, who will be looking back at some of the festival’s discoveries, and taking a closer look at the period we still know least about - the mysterious ‘teens. Ian Christie is a film historian, critic and curator, who teaches at Birkbeck College. The Annual Rachel Low lecture will take place on 22nd April at 15.30 at Cambridge Arts Picturehouse.




Dir: Jacques Feyder.With: Jean Forest,Victor Vina, Arlette Pevran, Henri Duval. France 1925, 114mins

Thankfully, the journey of discovery for cinema lovers is one that never ends, and is occasionally marked by those significant milestones when you come across a film that is truly extraordinary. Courtesy of the British Silent Film Festival, I was privileged to experience one of these special cinematic moments, when they presented on the big screen Jacques Feyder’s lyrical and moving 1925 silent film, VISAGES D’ENFANTS, complete with live piano accompaniment from Neil Brand. The story concerns a sensitive young boy, grief-stricken by the death of his mother. When his father remarries, the boy finds it difficult to adjust to his new family, which now includes his step mother and a step sister. As the title suggests, Feyder’s chief interest is to develop the story very much from the point of view of the children: the camera often carefully observing their faces as they react to the adult world around them, or picking out the small but significant details of their surrounding as they see them.

... a wonderful, deeply touching experience; a clear demonstration of just how powerful an art form silent cinema can be. Feyder is keen to avoid over sentimentality, encouraging delightfully naturalistic performances from the the young actors. The beautifully photographed dramatic mountain landscape in which the story unfolds provides a counterpoint to the small, unfolding domestic drama, while simultaneously reflecting the immense personal impact of the grief felt by the characters. Neil Brand’s masterful, finely judged accompaniment emphasised the deep humanity of the film, while never overpowering it. His sensitivity to the nuances of the story meant that he always found the perfect melodic motif, the most effective modulation of key, or the most authentically appropriate harmonic colour to exactly match the needs of the onscreen drama. At one point, for instance, a family friend breaks the news to the boy that his father is to remarry. Neil subtly underlined the scene with a motif consisting of a simple repeated note, an elegantly precise musical expression of the uncertainty and awkwardness felt by the characters. This screening was a wonderful, deeply touching experience, a clear demonstration of just how powerful an art form silent cinema can be. For me, this was one of those great cinematic moments and is surely destined to be one of the highlight of my cinematic year. - MIKE O’BRIEN

TAKE ONE RECOMMENDS: BSFF 2012 HIGHLIGHTS Dogs and comics collide at 11am on Saturday: will it be FUN BEFORE THE FOOTLIGHTS, a programme of short films exploring the origins of university humour? Well before the Footlights, a group of young literati, including Elsa “Bride of Frankenstein/Charles Laughton” Lanchester, got together to produce witty satires. Alternatively, see the family matinee FUN WITH ANIMAL STARS, a celebration of canine contributions to silent cinema - in recognition of the real star of the Artist, Uggie the dog. Make your choice: both are screening at the Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge.



Take One BSFF2012 #2  
Take One BSFF2012 #2