Before Hollywood there was “Dog Kennel Hillywood”, birthplace of British film

2 Sep
Gaumont film still

In How Percy Won The Beauty Competition (1909), director/star Alf Collins runs straight past the Gaumont stage, left. The sign is Photoshopped by the Friends of Dog Kennel Hill Wood.

At the turn of the 20th century, Hollywood had only just become a place: it was incorporated as a municipality in 1903. It was just starting to become an idea, as film-makers headed west for the perpetual sunlight, and also to avoid being sued by Thomas Edison who held movie-making patents on the East Coast. But down here in South London, we were already the real deal, a regular Dream Factory. The UK branch of the Gaumont Film Company was founded in Camberwell’s Dog Kennel Hill in 1898. Its head, Alfred Bromhead, was soon boasting in Magic Lantern magazine of getting through 80,000 feet of film a week. This was, as local historians are now calling it, Dog Kennel Hillywood.

Gaumont still exists – it is the oldest surviving film company – but nothing remains of its early Dog Kennel Hill studio. I lived here for more than a decade, in this birthplace of the British film industry, and didn’t even realise it. The early Gaumont never even had a building: until better electric lighting was invented, they had to use natural light, so they shot interiors on a couple of roofless walls set up on a stage in a field. For exteriors, they shot guerrilla-style in the surrounding streets.

More than 500 shorts were filmed here between 1904 and 1912. Of the 30 that survive in the BFI archives, 14 were exhumed by the Friends of Dog Kennel Hill Wood and given a one-off outdoor screening on Saturday night, in the very place where they were first shot. Most have not been seen on the big screen in over a century.

Poster for Gaumont screeningThe comperes, dressed in Edwardian clothes, kicked off this special night with the unpromisingly titled Adventures of a Roll of Lino (1907), which turned out to be slapstick of the kind we’re all familiar with from the much later films of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Laurel and Hardy: a chap carrying a long roll of lino on his shoulder keeps turning round carelessly, whacking passers-by, with escalatingly hilarious consequences. Clichéd stuff, until you remember Gaumont did it first.

The director of these films, and star of several, was music-hall veteran Alf Collins – “an auteur before his time, and our equivalent of DW Griffiths,” says film historian Tony Fletcher of the Cinema Museum, with a dash of overstatement. Collins pioneered the use of close-up, chase scenes (he would corral drinkers from local pubs as extras with the promise of a free pint), and that peculiarly British obsession with dressing up in drag. His handbaggings could easily have inspired that Monty Python sketch in which the Batley Townswomen’s Guild re-enact the Battle of Pearl Harbour.

How Percy Won The Beauty Competition (1909) shows Alf dressed, as so often, in drag, but this time playing a man playing a woman, rather just simply playing a woman. Deep. The BFI has made this one available on YouTube. Pause it at 3.56 minutes, as the thwarted female contestants chase Alf through a field of sheep, and you can see the Gaumont ‘studio’ and crew on the left.

Perhaps the most extraordinary film shown was It Was A Nice Quiet Morning (1906). After watching a number of silent shorts, brilliantly accompanied in a live improvisation by pianist Neil Brand who was also seeing these for the first time, it was astonishing to hear dialogue issue forth from the screen – just as it must have astonished contemporary audiences. Yes, this was a talkie, fully 23 years before The Jazz Singer revolutionised the film industry.  

Gaumont went on to construct the UK’s first purpose-built studio building, in Lime Grove, West London in 1915. By the ‘30s it had bought out its parent French company and become the UK’s largest studio. But in that first decade of the 20th century, in “Dog Kennel Hillywood”, it made history on a simple Field of Dreams. And on Saturday night, as benign nitrate ghosts flickered back to silvery life above us after a century’s undisturbed rest, we were sitting right there in it.

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