Tag Archives: shorts

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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Alan Moore channels David Lynch in his film debut

9 Dec
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Siobhan Hewlett as Faith in Alan Moore and Mitch Jenkins’s first short, Act Of Faith

 

The films made from Alan Moore’s comics range from the terrible, bearing no relation to the original beyond a shared premise (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Constantine), to the not-at-all-bad-but-the-best-bits-are-lifted-straight-from-the-comic-so-what’s-the-point? (V for Vendetta, Watchmen). So it’s fascinating to see how Moore approaches writing for the screen himself.

I thought we’d never get the chance: even before he fell out terminally with Hollywood, back in 2002, I asked him to rate his five favourite art forms; cinema did not make the cut. But recently at the Prince Charles Cinema, following a fascinating interview (click here for the highlights), Alan Moore staged a screening of the first two of five projected linked shorts. His reluctant celebrity status has worked to his advantage this time: the fifth and final short recently raised £60,000 on Kickstarter — £15,000 more than they asked for, and many times the budget of most shorts (though a lot of it will go on the Kickstarter perks of T-shirts, DVDs and books).

For me, part of the interest is that both Alan Moore and the director, photographer Mitch Jenkins, are new to film. Both were quite upfront about this at the Prince Charles. “I’d never seen a film script before I got Alan’s,” said Mitch Jenkins. “Since I’d never seen one before writing one, I’m not sure you have even now,” quipped Alan Moore.

How would they fare, free of the “tyranny” of script structure classes and Save The Cat books?

The first short, Act of Faith, is an uncomfortable watch which has already provoked heated debate online about its sexual politics. [SPOILER WARNING: major plot points ahoy. But as you will likely see these two films only when all five are completed, I feel this only gives away the beginning.] A woman, Faith (Siobhan Hewlett), arranges to meet her lover, talking dirty on the phone. We follow her with almost painful slowness as she undresses and dons “slutty” clothes. She places plastic in her mouth, handcuffs herself inside a wardrobe, and settles down to wait…

… until her phone rings: her lover is frantic; delayed by an accident, he can’t get there in time. She wakes up to the danger, too late – and we watch as slowly, helplessly, handcuffed, she suffocates, alone.

It’s especially uncomfortable because for much of the 15-minute short the camera does not show things from her POV: we see her from behind, as passive voyeurs, then peering in at her from outside the wardrobe, unable or unwilling to step in and help her. It’s uncomfortable, too, because there is no clear message. Does she “deserve” to die for being (her words) a “slut”? Is she a damaged individual, showing how a cycle of abuse is endlessly self-perpetuated? Does the film demonstrate that the supposed feminine empowerment behind sexual experimentation can too easily turn to victimhood? Is this is a reactionary message in liberal (un)clothing?

Perhaps all will become clearer in subsequent films. But it’s more likely that Moore sees his role as a writer to pose the questions, not to come up with the answers. Certainly he’s a purist: “I have a kind of Khmer Rouge, Year Zero approach to film-making,” Alan Moore said at the Prince Charles screening. “Nothing which isn’t real, no special effects.” And, as he’s pointed out elsewhere, no non-diagetic sound, ie that the characters themselves can’t hear.

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Jimmy’s End. “I do quite like David Lynch,” says Alan Moore.

The second short, Jimmy’s End, is at over 30 minutes more artistically successful and more cinematically ambitious. A silver-haired gent finds himself in a strange bar in a strange part of town. It’s quickly apparent to the viewer, though not yet to Jimmy, that this is hell, or at least Limbo. “I never knew this was here,” he tells the barmaid. “Yes, you did,” she says, significantly.

The sound engineering is brilliant, with distorted jukebox music and endlessly ringing phones creating an unbearable tension as Jimmy wanders corridors graffitied with magical sigils, encountering a series of laconic weirdos – notably a threatening-looking clown who tells him, by the urinals: “I don’t tell jokes anymore. I just masturbate and cry. Usually at the same time.”

Faith, the woman from the first film, is here, too, in reluctant thrall to a devil figure, and Alan Moore himself makes a spectacular appearance as a god figure, in gold boots and white trousers, his gold-painted face haloed with frizzed-up white hair like Aslan gone Elvis, or a 60-year-old version of The Teletubbies’ sun-baby.

If there is a problem with Jimmy’s End (and there is), it’s that it’s not so much a homage to David Lynch as a wholesale steal.  Alan Moore made light of this: “I do quite like David Lynch,” he said at the screening, “however I would have to say the red curtains were Mitch’s idea. And the only film I can think of without any curtains is perhaps One Million Years B.C.

It’s not just the curtains, though, that recall David Lynch: it’s the eerie soundscapes; the latent menace; the gallery of grotesques; the slow pace and long takes; the red, red lipstick; and the very idea of vaguely cabaret-style waiting rooms that are suggestive of the supernatural.

Ah well. There are worse people to copy. And if you are going to make your film debut, why not dream big, and cut straight to kinky sex, death, and the afterlife?