Summer 2016 gave us the opportunity to highlight some of the great archive gems found within the BFI’s Britain on Film map. With this, the BFI allowed us to make up our very own South West Silents Playlist. Click on the titles of each film to watch them on the BFI Player.
Co-Director / Co-Curator James Harrison has chosen a selection of early films which showcases the many different aspects of the South West of England. From flying boats to Cornish coves, from Cheddar Cheese to pram races. This South West Silents playlist should give you a good sense of the early history of film from the region.
1: View from an Engine Front – Barnstaple (1898)
At the birth of cinema Phantom Ride films were all the rage and this particular film, shot on the now lost Ilfracombe Line from Barnstaple, is one of the earliest titles known to exist. Plenty of cameramen took their chances and locked themselves onto the front of steam trains and hoped for the best, and the reaction from the Devonshire signalman at 01:36 in this film shows how daring they were!
The Phantom Ride genre might have been forgotten by many but its influences are still here with us. Whether it is BBC Four’s recent two hour long ‘Slow Television’ All Aboard! programmes, the popular flight simulators at theme parks or even the opening to Get Carter (1971) – The Phantom Ride genre is still with us.
2: Panorama of the River Avon to Portishead (1902)
This is a wonderful film. It might not mean much to some, but to Bristolians it gives a rare look at a now lost part of their city. For a start the film shows the Clifton Rocks Railway, an incredible lost treasure hidden within the rocks of the Avon Gorge. The railway was opened in 1893 but closed in 1934 and ended up as a secret transmission base for the BBC during the Second World War. Another treat is a short glimpse of trams running alongside the river Avon as well as shots of what the dock area looked like before much of it was flattened by German bombing.
The film also gives a general idea of the kind of traffic which was on the river at the time, particularly the range of vessels. There are small sailing boats, tugs and barges but one of the key highlights is the haunting appearance of the well-known 84 gun, two deck training ship HMS Formidable which was then owned by the infamous National Nautical School which was based at Portishead.
3: Plymouth’s Pram Derby 1923 (1923)
Babies, prams and racing what could possibly go wrong? Over-crowding in the streets mainly! Many film archives have these odd little gems waiting to be discovered. This is one of those special gems from the South West Film and Television Archive.
There are some great little moments in this film, such as the mothers waving aside the crowd to get out of the way of the speeding prams. There is also a real sense of fun and laughter throughout the film as seen on the faces of the crowd. If only the pram derby could return to the streets of Plymouth!
4: Coves & Caves (1920)
Part Four of Claude Friese-Greene’s (son of Bristol born film pioneer William Friese-Greene) travelogue Beauty of Britain film series gives one of the most enchanting observations of Cornwall in the entire Britain on Film catalogue. Many early films show off Cornwall’s treasures but Friese-Greene has the eye to make every shot worth watching. The way he frames and lights each shot is just perfect, whether he is in a cove, in the Allen Valley, in the streets of Padstow or even when he is trying his luck at aerial photography, which he does admirably. A truly wonderful film by one of the great men from the British silent film era.
5: Lynton and Lynmouth (1921)
When it comes to the coast in the south west everyone thinks of the incredible Cornish beaches. But the north coast of Devon has its fantastic locations as well. This film really does show off the rugged and beautiful landscape of north Devon, it also showcases the romantic streams and waterfalls that inspired many an artist and writer, including Blackmore’s Exmoor based novel, Lorna Doone.
6: Where the Cheese Comes From (1926)
You can’t say you have visited the south west until you’ve dropped into the Somerset village of Cheddar, the birth place of the country’s favourite cheese. Thanks to this lovely little film, part of the travelogue series ‘Wonderful Britain’, you get to see the village in the early part of the 20th Century when it was at the height of its production of the now famous Cheddar cheese.
Cheese isn’t the main feature in this film however. It also gives you a general idea about the importance of agriculture and tourism in the region, as well as some haunting shots of Glastonbury abbey and the natural abbey which is the Cheddar Gorge.
7: Barnstaple Fair in the 1920s (1926)
I could not include a list of the South West on film without at least one title showcasing fairgrounds in the region. I love watching archive footage of fairgrounds, especially busy ones like this one at Barnstaple. Throughout the film you get to see classic fairground rides such as a British Galloper ride (not carousels mind you), a glimpse of a scenic railway ride designed around Venetian gondolas, a swing ride as well as some classic side shows, great stuff.
8: Flying boats visit Plymouth (1927)
What’s not to like in this film… it might take a few moments to wake up, but when the propellers are up and running and the sea planes (or flying boats) begin to move into open waters you know you are in for a treat.
The quality of the film itself may not be up to certain standards (it is nearly 90 years old) but the footage taken on board while flying is great to see as well as the landing itself. Another key moment in the film is seeing the brief sight of Plymouth pier before it was lost due to bombing in the Second World War.
9: The Cornish Riviera (1916)
The title might give you the impression that this is going to be another picturesque run of the Cornish coastline; in fact, Cornish Riviera highlights a far grittier illustration of life along the coastline in the 1910s, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t a delight to watch. We get see the industrial side of fishing villages such as Looe, Polperro and the town of Falmouth, while later, we get the hint of the early artistic side of St Ives.
One highlight for me is the shot of children grinning towards the camera whilst climbing all over the wooden skeleton of a wreck. Another, is the shot of the fishing boats leaving Polperro, a reminder for me of not only of Hitchcock’s stunning The Manxman (1929) in which Hitchcock filmed in and around Polperro but also Visconti‘s La Terra Trema (1948). So they you have it! Italian Neorealism on the Cornish coast!
10: A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)
We truly madly deeply love Anthony Asquith at South West Silents! With stunning films such as Shooting Stars (1927) and Underground (1928) in his silent filmography how can you blame us? But it his final silent film A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) which truly blows us away every time.
Beautifully executed, beautifully shot (by the much forgotten Stanley Rodwell) A Cottage on Dartmoor is the film to introduce new audiences not only to silent films but also to British silent films. I was lucky enough to see a Swedish version of the film at Le Giornate Del Cinema Muto in 2013 (called Fången N:R 53 / Convict No 53). Which told this thrilling story in chronological order, it was great fun to see, but nothing compared it to Asquith’s original flash back version.
The BFI Player presentation comes with a superb score by pianist Stephen Horne. It’s hard for me to imagine watching this great film with any other score. Highly recommended for all film fans!