If Glasgow’s the answer, what is the question?

A year ago, during the HoMER meeting at NECS conference in Milan, we offered to host the next gathering for the international network of researchers working on historical cinemagoing, exhibition, and reception. Shortly after, our advisory board and guests gathered for a colloquium, and helped us come up with a title proposal. Now the day has come to welcome our friends and colleagues to Glasgow, for two and a half days of discussions around the question, ‘What is Cinema History?’

Screenshot from 2015-06-11 10:17:14

This question echoes two short, polemic, vibrant books from the middle of the 20th century: EH Carr’s What is History? (1961) and André Bazin’s What is Cinema? (Qu’est-ce que le cinéma?, published in French 1958-1962). Coming from two very different perspectives, these two authors pose the problem of our relationship with (historical) reality, the ability of various methods and tools to apprehend it, and the status of its material traces. With this in mind, there is no reason why combining the two nouns should then result in an unproblematic sidebar to social history. If you add to the mix the transformation in the field brought about by digital methods, and their challenge to the historian’s privileged access to primary sources, then the need to understand what we’re doing and why becomes even more pressing.

The diversity of topics and approaches represented in the conference shows that the title question does not have an obvious answer. From the camera obscura to the digital archive, from medical films to motorcycle movies, and covering local film culture from the Highlands to Rio, from Brooklyn to Smyrna, the programme is a real treat and we are honoured to be hosting it. Thank you to those of you who have travelled to be here, and to everyone involved in the organisation. Welcome to Glasgow!

Follow the conference on Twitter: #HoMER2015

Film and History screening and roundtable

This year marks the centenary of an important moment in Glasgow social history – the widespread rent strike movement that opposed the landlords’ greed in wartime. This famous victory of the Glasgow working class, led and organised by women, culminated in mass demonstrations in October and November 1915, and compelled Parliament to pass a Rent Restriction act.

Histories like this – of protest, resistance, and working-class solidarity – are often poorly documented in dominant narratives and archives, as the Sheffield Film Co-op filmmakers found while researching the Glasgow rent strikes of 1915 for their documentary Red Skirts on Clydeside (1984). As Glasgow starts to commemorate the centenary of the rent strikes, this event explores stories of collective struggle and resistance told through film.

The day’s programme includes two screenings spanning a hundred years of Glasgow social history on film, and a roundtable discussion bringing together filmmakers and historians to raise questions about archives, memories, voices and silences in historical documentary. How does the use of archive footage, still images, and oral history expand conventional notions about primary sources? What audiovisual strategies do filmmakers use to contest established historical narratives? How do these films engage with audiences within and outwith their community?

The screenings and roundtable are open to all, no need to book. Tea and coffee will be provided.

Date: Thursday 4 June 2015, 1.30-5.00pm

Venue: Gilmorehill Centre, 9 University Avenue

Click here to see the full programme.

After the roundtable, head to Govan for more films!

Johnny Chalmers – reclaiming a film pioneer?

Today’s blog post is a new contribution by Janet McBain, the Scottish Screen Archive’s first curator, who is a member of the steering committee for the Early Cinema in Scotland research project. Janet has published widely on Scottish cinema history, including important work on local non-fiction films. Previous contributions to this blog include articles on Scottish film trade pioneer, Thomas Ormiston, local topicals, and local newsreels.

John Charles Chalmers has been, up until recently, a mere footnote in early cinema in Scotland.

In the Special Jubilee Number of the Educational Film Bulletin (September 1946) commemorating 50 years of Scottish cinema Chalmers get two brief mentions in the series of articles and essays on the early days of the industry in Scotland.1 Firstly he is recorded as projectionist for the cinematograph showings at the 1896 Christmas Fair at the Glasgow Colosseum Warehouse, so evocatively recalled by Maria Velez-Serna in her blog elsewhere on this website. Further on in the same Jubilee article we find a reference in a report on activities in 1897 : ‘John Chalmers, for nearly fifty years Scotland’s best known technician, was hovering around the Zoo’. That year the entrepreneurial entertainer E H Bostock had taken the lease on the huge, but run down, New Olympia Hall at Cowcaddens in Glasgow. He equipped it with electric lighting, erected cages and installed a circus in the centre of the building – establishing the first permanent zoo in Scotland. Known as the Zoo-Circus and later Zoo- Hippodrome it was the venue for some of the first regular showings of the cinematograph, a programme which included a coloured animatographic film of the pantomime Cinderella that Bostock had brought over from Paris. Chalmer’s Cinematograph was contracted to run the film shows, the Era reporting at the end of 1898 that he had just concluded a 6 month run and had been re-booked for the following year.2 Chalmers now had his own Cinematograph show, claiming both to have invented and made the apparatus. It could throw 30 foot pictures. By February 1899 the Era was advertising it as Chalmers ‘Giant’ Cinematograph.

Bostock's circus

Programme for Bostock’s Zoo, 1899, from The Glasgow Story

Chalmers took his Cinematograph show on the road in the first years of the new century visiting locations as far afield as Shetland, Barrow in Furness and Lowestoft. He toured a programme of Transvaal Pictures, marketing his show as Our Army At Home and Abroad, and for the holidays the pantomime films Cinderella and Aladdin. (Presumably obtained from Bostock.) From 1900 he appears to have signed up with entertainment agent J F Calverto, of Union Street, Glasgow.

The Bioscope, 12 February 1914

The Bioscope, 12 February 1914

Chalmers was however first and foremost an electrical engineer. He is credited with having fitted installations in the first two Glasgow shops to be lit by electricity. From the earliest engagement with cinematograph he is associated in his inventing and manufacturing activities with the Glasgow firm of Robertson, electrical engineers. By February 1900 Chalmers ‘Famous’ Cinematograph was offering limelight or electric shows. In October 1900 Chalmers Virograph , ‘the latest form of the cinematograph’ was showing war pictures in Falkirk. Robertsons are listed as ‘Kinematograph Specialists’ in the 1901 Glasgow Post Office Directory, supplying cases stands and screens.

Chalmers may have stopped his travelling show around 1904 when he married Nellie Finlayson. In the following years he takes out three patents in partnership with William Alexander Robertson of the Robertson company in Wemyss Place , for improvements in mechanical parts for projectors and fire proof magazines. Robertsons move to Burnside Buildings about 1911 leasing from EHA Bostock the premises formerly known as Herbert Hall.

Images from Chalmers’ patents via Espacenet – European Patent Office

espacenetImage-chalmers1espacenetImage-chalmers3 espacenetImage-chalmers2

By 1913 Robertsons have ceased trading and Chalmers buys from Bostock the premises at Burnside Buildings and all Robertson’s stock and fittings establishing a new company, Chalmers Ltd, electrical engineers and manufacturer and supplier of all kinds of kinematograph apparatus ‘required for filling up, furnishing music halls, picture palaces’ etc. The principal subscriber and Director is EHA Bostock, son of EH Bostock the Zoo -Hippodrome proprietor. At the same time a William Robertson appears in the Post Office Directory as Exhibitor at 252 Sauchiehall Street. Could this be his former inventor partner?

Chalmers Ltd was a successful and enduring business, Johnny Chalmers becoming a respected member of the cinema fraternity in Scotland. He was active in the Glasgow Cinema Club being appointed Hononary Life Member. After his death in 1944 a fund was established in his name, the John Chalmers Memorial Trust awarding a prize for the best apprentice in the technical side of the industry. His obituarists are fulsome in their tributes to this Scottish kinema ‘pioneer ‘– ascribing to him the invention of the electric film rewinder ‘as we know it today’.

Belatedly perhaps but at last he is getting the recognition he deserves as one of our film pioneers.  An entry for Chalmers is being submitted to the website Who Was Who in Victorian Cinema.

1. Educational Film Bulletin no 33, published Scottish Film Council September 1946. Scottish Screen Archive ref 5/7/1
2. The Era, 19 November 1898.

Cinema histories at SCMS in Montreal

Two years ago, as I reported in this blog, I attended the conference of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies for the first time. Its staggering scale and diversity served as a reminder that anyone’s research interests are only a tiny part of the ever-expanding spectrum addressed by SCMS, and an invitation to step outside one’s specialisms, if not outside the conference venue. This year,  SCMS took place in Montreal, still covered in snow at the end of March, but buzzing with political energy as the Printemps 2015  anti-austerity movement kicked off, with student strikes and night-time demonstrations proclaimed unlawful via bilingual police megaphones. Thanks to the system of subterranean passages that shelter Montreal residents from the cold, it was possible to ignore this and make it through the five days of the conference without ever going outside. Even though I opted to see daylight (and blue flashing lights) on occasion, the panels I attended and the conversations started or resumed with colleagues from all over the world provided all the intellectual stimulation and collegiate enthusiasm I craved. It was a good opportunity to hear updates about projects I knew about from previous conferences, and to find new examples of recent research on historical cinemagoing and exhibition. The vitality of the field makes me very optimistic about the event that now occupies my attention: our end-of-project conference, on the question of ‘What is Cinema History?’ Registration, by the way, is open for this event until 15 May, and a draft programme can be found here.

Montreal against austerityP1030217

Back to SCMS, it was interesting to see how the themes I had followed and reported about two years ago have developed. Case studies of local exhibition continue to add pieces to the puzzle of how cinema emerged as the popular vernacular of the 20th century. From the importance of air conditioning in Rio, explored by Rafael de Luna Freire, to Louis Pelletier’s talk featuring historical venues not far from the conference hotel, these presentations demonstrated how researching the experience of cinema is a vivid way to engage with the urban environment. The locatedness of collective cinemagoing is inescapable, but as new spaces and platforms for media consumption dominate, this materiality is increasingly recognised as historical (or packaged as ‘heritage’). Two fascinating presentations offered an insight on these contemporary engagements with cinema history. Focusing on the Urbana-Champaign area, Joshua Vasquez looked at the current uses of old cinemas and the ways in which these spaces “perform their own historiography”, mixing community-owned local history with the nostalgic celebration of film as medium, both glamorous and familiar. An extreme instance of this love for the cinemagoing era, meanwhile, featured at the end of Ross Melnick‘s sharp, ambitious investigation of Paramount and MGM’s cinemas in Latin America: The Centimetro Tijuca, a perfect reconstruction of the Brazilian town’s MGM theatre, built and operated in a local cinephile’s backyard as a love letter to classical cinema.


The old Odeon Chaplain, St Catherine St, Montreal

There is no doubt that historical cinema venues command public affection like no other form of commercial architecture. Cinema historians can help us understand why this is so – what is so alluring and important about cinemas and the collective memories that inhabit them. On the last day of the conference, a perfectly co-ordinated panel on Cinema Memories threw more light on the subject. Matt Jones, talking about Leicester cinemas, argued that while mapping their locations shows how cinemagoing was embedded in everyday life, a standard pin-point approach falsifies the instability of memories. (This discrepancy between the supposed accuracy of digital mapping and the vaguer spatiality of social phenomena is something I have explored in a previous post. In another panel, Sébastien Caquard discussed his team’s approach to mapping uncertainty, implemented in their exciting online application to map the spaces of fiction in Canadian films). Turning to a different type of digital tool, Pier Ercole discussed some of the preliminary findings of the Italian Cinema Audiences project, which used quantitative analysis software NVivo to tease out insights from oral history interviews and get closer to what films have meant for audiences. Emma Pett‘s talk on cinemas in 1960s Britain catering for South Asian immigrant communities had surprising findings from audience research – such as the enduring appreciation for unexpected films like DeMille’s Ten Commandments. Apart from watching and re-watching favourite films with friends and family, cinemas had an implicit political potential for newly arrived migrants, functioning as a place for discussion and information-sharing. This sense of the cinema as a meaningful community space was also present in Jacqueline Maingard‘s research on cinemagoing in Cape Town’s District Six, during the period leading up to the forced removal of the neighbourhood’s 60,000 inhabitants by the apartheid regime. Instead of deploying newfangled digital tools, Maingard described how the District Six Museum has laid out a historical map of the neighbourhood on the floor, for former residents to walk on as they recall their experiences, activating their performative memory. In a society defined by exclusion, the neighbourhood cinemas offered something valuable – what Maingard called ‘cinema citizenship’.

The idea of the cinema as an alternative public sphere, addressing and welcoming social groups that were excluded from other spaces, is one of the foundational myths of cinema history. To a certain extent, this has always been as much about the cinemas as third places as about cinema as a medium or language. The local phenomena of exhibition and cinemagoing, along with any transgressive or communal practices enabled through them, however, need to be understood in their reciprocal relationship with the global dimensions of cinema as an industry. On the one hand, Maingard’s ‘cinema citizenship’ is the sense of being both at home in a physical space, and connected to a transnational network, no matter how peripheral a node one occupies. On the other hand, this is a commercial network within capitalism, and the way it is instantiated locally demands a critical approach. Maingard’s work again provides a useful example of how to implement this tension as a research method, when she builds her argument in the space between her District Six witnesses and the correspondence from studio distributors found in Hollywood archives.

While it is true that cinema history is not a priority area for SCMS at the moment, the quality of the work I saw at the conference negates any need to be defensive. I could mention many more excellent papers and presenters, but I prefer to let the reader look forward to our conference in June (did I mention we are organising a conference? Glasgow, June 22-24, you should come), and visit the HoMER Network website to find out about related research.

The other topic I had written about after my first SCMS was the use of local newspapers as sources for cinema history. As digitisation projects continue to advance, it was exciting to see how they are being used to great effect by researchers in the discipline. Paul Moore’s paper about the relative popularity of moving pictures and vaudeville in the first few years of cinema is available, graphs and all, on his website. His co-occurrence plots illustrate the analytical power of simple ‘distant reading’ methods using digitised newspapers.

There were also exciting developments related to the Media History Digital Library, with Eric Hoyt giving the first public demonstration of Arclight, a web-based tool using scaled entity search to explore and analyse their vast collections.

Another related announcement is a conference on digitisation, movie magazines and historical audience studies, to be held in November at Ghent with the support of DICIS (Digital Cinema Studies). The call for submissions is open until 15 May.

All this, and I didn’t even mention the incredible screening of Norman McLaren’s 3D films and a documentary about his astonishingly precise approach to sound creation. That, and the paper about filing cabinets, will make sure I don’t forget this SCMS.

If you are curious about the paper I presented at SCMS 2015, here it is, with the usual caveats about unpublished, unpolished work: An Intermedial Geography of Cinema in Glasgow

Bonus image:

Couple of riot police inside UQAM Metro station

Screened: Couple of riot police inside UQAM Metro station.

The Great Fire of Bridge Place, in ‘Natural Colours’

We are happy to present this guest post by Stephen McBurney, PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow. Stephen is researching the integration of colour films into the Scottish film market between 1896-1916, with an empirical approach that incorporates a wide range of contemporary materials, including newspapers, trade magazines, periodicals, and film programmes. In the absence of the films themselves, Stephen argues, this peripheral approach is the best suited to recognise and illustrate a nuanced and distinctive picture of early colour cinema in Scotland. In this blog post, Stephen discusses his recent research on William Walker of Aberdeen.


Untitled example of a yellow tinted film

Tinting is perhaps the hardest of all the colouring methods to document from the silent era. The process itself involved applying a translucent dye to the entire film stock, resulting in the hallmark colouring around the perforations. The dyes of the earliest tinted films were simply applied by hand using a brush. As the process became industrialised chemical baths became the norm, which resulted in greater efficiency and a more even distribution of colour, as exampled in the image opposite.

If the process itself is well documented and evidenced by technical manuals dating from as far back as 1913, its earliest applications and the integration of the process into the market remains somewhat of a black hole in film history. I want to tease out some of these issues using Aberdeen based filmmaker and exhibitor, William Walker, as a case study.

Picture of burned out building - taken by Walker. Bon Accord, 29 April 1899.

Picture of burned out building – taken by Walker. Bon Accord, 29 April 1899.

On 24th April 1899, Aberdeen Journal (AJ) reported on a fire at the premises of Messrs J. and W. Bisset’s warehouse on Bridge Place (p. 4). Walker was quick to react, ‘Thanks to Mr Walker’s energy, the great fire in Bridge Place was cinematographed when the flames were raging at their worst, no fewer than 2500 impressions having been taken on celluloid films’ (Bon Accord 27th April 1899, p. 13).

On the evening of the fire, Walker premiered his film in the Salvation Citadel, a prearranged show not connected with the recent events (AJ 24th April 1899, p. 6). Bridge Place Fire was also a feature of Walker’s next show on 27th April in the Music Hall, again a prearranged booking originally promoting a separate Walker production, The Launch of the S. S. Salamis (AJ 25th April 1899, p. 4). The first mention of colour appears several days later in an advert for a show specially arranged to exploit this latest production.

Advert from the Aberdeen Journal, 29 April 1899

Advert from the Aberdeen Journal, 29 April 1899

AJ’s review for the latest show makes direct reference to the feature of natural colour, describing it as ‘interesting’ in its ‘astonishing fidelity’ (20th May 1899, p. 6). Newspaper reports and adverts for Walker’s shows before this screening make no reference to colour, and there is no evidence of Bridge Place Fire being screened since. Consequently it is reasonable to suggest this was the first and only time colour was a feature in the projection of this film.

‘In Natural Colours’ suggests a simple ambition to reflect reality, to convey an extra element of the world around us that had yet to be mastered in the standard black & white film productions of the time. When placed in context, however, Walker’s use of colour transcends such a simplistic reading. We need to go back two years to trace this context, and in the process uncover the primary function of colour during the Trades Hall screening.

Bon Accord 1 April 1897, p. 9

Bon Accord 1 April 1897, p. 9

On 1st April 1897, Bon Accord (BA) reported on the much needed addition to the fire brigade of an experienced firemaster, ‘There is now no laugh at the breakdown of the hose, & c., and Mr Inkster must be heartily complimented on the perfect working of his apparatus and the businesslike way in which he and his men go about their work’.

A clearly defined character was constructed through the press, and he was quickly credited with transforming the brigade through nothing more than his personal qualities and positive influence. Yet this initial optimism slowly transformed into a picture of a skilled professional being thwarted by inadequate facilities, as the slapstick-esque report reproduced below exemplifies.

Bon-Accord, 16 September 1897

Bon Accord, 16 September 1897

On 17th February 1898, BA reinforces this image of the brigade by poking fun when reporting on an upcoming dance, ‘Will you oblige us, Mr Inkster, by seeing that all your men wear pumps, and that there are no holes in their hose [emphasis in original]’ (p. 3).

With the reporting of the Bridge Place fire the following year, the theme of a skilled firefighter frustrated by inadequate tools remained distinctive, however the tone changed from one of hilarity to sombre damnation:

We hope the lesson will not be again thrown away on our City Fathers. For years we have heard it said that Aberdeen should have a permanent Fire Brigade, and for years simply nothing has been done… the present arrangements are a disgrace to a city of the size and importance of Aberdeen (BA 27th April 1899, p. 9).

BA was careful not to place blame on the few firefighters within the brigade, stating they ‘did what they could right bravely’ (27th April 1899, p. 9). The onus was on the lack of infrastructure, resources and investment the brigade was subject to, and the inability of the council to react in any meaningful way. In a separate article BA implores Firemaster Inkster to present a case to the council for further investment, and use this disaster as a catalyst for change (27th April 1899, p. 10).

Walker’s first mention of colour in his marketing materials occurs two days after BA’s polemic against the council. In this light, Walker’s use of colour transcends a simple desire to reproduce the world more accurately. It can be read as a contribution to a local debate and a demand for change. Such a reading is supported when considering the inclusion of The London Fire Brigade within Walker’s programme (AJ 24th April 1899, p. 6). The contrast between red saturated images of a local business burning down, with that of the brigade’s highly respected London counterparts displaying their facilities, only serves to feed the local debate and express Walker’s opinion. After all, Bridge Place was literally round the corner from Walker’s premises on Bridge Street, and the well publicised Paris tragedy, triggered by volatile nitrate film, occurred less than a year ago.

The earliest dyes applied to films were notorious for damaging the emulsion and rendering the film quickly unusable. This explains the sudden omission of Bridge Place Fire from Walker’s subsequent performances, while the remainder of the programme stayed intact. However ephemeral colour may have been for this production, it nevertheless contributed to the formidable catalyst for change triggered by the disaster, fed by the local press, and felt by the local public.

About the author, Stephen McBurney: I first became interested in colour during my MA at University of Bristol, where I came to focus on the evolution of the Technicolor Hollywood Musical for my dissertation. Keen to build on my interest in colour cinema, I came across the work of the Early Cinema in Scotland research team, which to a large degree inspired my current project and helped shape my methodology. More than any other period, cinema’s first twenty years contained a fascinating and evolving range of colouring techniques and systems, often intensely debated in contemporary publications. The continuing growth of digital archives makes this an exciting time to be re-visiting early film history, and to build on the ongoing research into early cinema.

Related posts:

A charming dash of colour

Hogmanay at the pictures

Co-operation and Cinema – Making Films Work

Commercial picture houses were not the only places where Scots encountered cinema during the early period. As discussed in previous blogs moving pictures were also enjoyed in other venues such as town halls, churches, theatres and after 1930 even in schools. In some of these places cinema inhabited a role that was less defined by commodification and commercialisation. Non-commercial agencies envisaged different roles for cinema and film. Education authorities, for instance, were interested in film as an aid supporting knowledge transfer in the classroom. Some town councils, for instance, Glasgow, Kirkintilloch and Montrose, used cinema in an attempt to expand municipal services into the realm of information and leisure. To these civic agencies using early cinema in rather unconventional ways, we can now add the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society (SCWS). The story of the society’s relationship with cinema is interesting because it seemed to be in constant flux and took on manifold forms. In this blog I want to sketch these out one by one.

Advert for the S.C.W.S. Cinematograph Service

Advert for the S.C.W.S. Cinematograph Service

I first encountered the cinematic activities of the society, which started as a distribution agency for co-operative retail societies in Scotland in 1868 and ventured into manufacturing in 1881, in the book The British Consumer Co-operative Movement and Film by Alan Burton. Consulting the journal The Scottish Co-operator I discovered to my surprise that the SCWS started to engage with cinema not long after its emergence. In 1902, the society acquired a portable bioscope as part of its optical and photographic department. Henceforth, its director, J.R. Hunter, went out to local co-operative societies to show moving pictures at propaganda meetings and social gatherings. Most of the activity occurred around Christmas and during the winter months. The selection of films was renewed annually around September and local societies interested in renting it for an event could choose between programmes lasting from 15 to 45 minutes. These included amusing films such as The Adventures of the Bath Chair or non-fiction films like The Village Fire Brigade at Work. Some of these early programmes in addition comprised of films taken at the quarterly meetings of the SCWS as well as tradesmen at work in Shieldhall, the society’s factory complex at Morrison Street in Glasgow. In this capacity, Hunter and the SCWS bioscope travelled around the country from Glasgow to Alloa and Stirling to Leith, until about 1917 when this service seemed to have ceased.

But the portable bioscope was not just deployed to entertain members. At the eve of the First World War, the SCWS’s advertising department began to use the apparatus to support a travelling lecture service. Between 1914 and 1917, co-operative lecturer James Orr travelled the country to speak on ‘The Rise and Progress of the SCWS’ at meetings organised by local branches and retail societies. The increased effectiveness of such cinematograph aided lessons was stressed by an observer after a propaganda meeting in Greenock:

‘the co-operators of the Clydeside town were favoured with the SCWS kinematograph lecture … the figures and views proving a revelation to many present. His [Orr’s] pawky remarks kept the audience attentive and in good humour. If “seeing is believing” then more practical interest in Wholesale productions by the Greenockians in the future may be expected.’ (‘Greenock Central Propaganda’, The Scottish Co-operator, 18th December 1914, p. 1153.)

Scottish Co-operator 28jan28 james orr
To this propagandist function we may add advertisement. The 1920s saw an expansion of the SCWS’s advertisement campaigns through offering courses on and holding competitions in shop window dressing as well as organising local and regional exhibitions of co-op produce. In March 1928, a much more comprehensive event, the National Co-operative Exhibition took place in the Kelvinhall on Argyle Street in Glasgow.

Front Cover of Exhibition Catalogue

Front Cover of Exhibition Catalogue

The SCWS was heavily involved in this fortnight long exhibition and the position as manager was occupied by no other than James Orr himself. Seventy-two stalls were set up for this event, forty of them showcasing working machinery manufacturing shirts, hosiery, soap, candles, shoes and many other products on site. The exhibition occupied a floor space of four acres and included a cinema that could seat up to 1000 people!
Two films commissioned by the SCWS, Making Soap (c.1928) and How Guild Margarine is Made (c.1928), available for viewing on the Scottish Screen Archive’s website, were shown at this exhibition for free alongside commercial films.

What is particularly interesting about these two films is that they are different from films made by the English Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) around the same time, such as The Magic Basket (1928). The latter contained narrative sequences and to speak with Burton an ‘overt ideological message’, while the films commissioned by the Scottish society are simpler, portraying only the ‘manufacturing processes involved’ in producing soap and margarine. (Alan Burton, The British Co-operative Movement Film Catalogue, Trowbridge: Flicks Books, 1997, p. 10)

Considering the context in which these films were shown might hold the key to explaining this difference. Burton stated that the films of the CWS were shown in commercial cinemas to a general audience but could find no supportive evidence to confirm this for co-operative films made in Scotland. The fact that these were shown at the National Co-operative Exhibition (perhaps even exclusively produced for this event) rather than to the general public might go some way in helping to understand their industrial aesthetic and the absence of attempts to persuade the viewer of the benefits of co-operation.

Making Soap: How SCWS Soap Manufacture (SCWS, 1928)

Click to view a clip of the film ‘Making Soap’ (SCWS 1928)

I have come across no other story that demonstrates the various functions of film and cinema during the early period better. The story of the SCWS’s manifold engagement with cinema’s sociability and film’s attributes as a visual tool illustrates poignantly the many facets of early cinema even outside of the commercial realm, an area of research that deserves more attention it seems to receive.

How Guild Margarine is made (SCWS, ca. 1928)

Click to view the film ‘How Guild Margarine is Made’ (SCWS 1928)

Further reading:
Burton, Alan. The British Consumer Co-operative Movement and Film, 1890s-1960s. Studies in Popular Culture. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005.

Kinloch, James, and Co-operative Wholesale Society. History of the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society Limited. Manchester: Co-operative Wholesale Society, 1981.

An Early Cinema in Scotland round-robin

Looking back to the year ending, it is gratifying to see the variety of things in which we were involved. Apart from conferences, writing, and teaching, we spoke at three film festivals, organised an international colloquium, ran a screening of 1914 films with gramophone music, and delivered a teaching resource for schools. We have talked about Rob Roy and Daisy Doodad, felt the poignancy of wartime local films, written about moral panics and cinephile socialists, about maps and scrapbooks and silver shields. This diversity of contexts, sources and purposes for our activities is, in part, our response to the challenge of doing cinema history that matters.

Cartoon from the Sunday Post, 27 Dec 1914

Cartoon from the Sunday Post, 27 Dec 1914

Responding to events such as the centenary of the start of WW1 was, for me, a vivid example of how history is always written about the present, and with today’s tools. In the summer, we met with some of the colleagues we admire to learn about their digital humanities projects and their methods, and we discussed questions of how: How can we do research in cinema history that is relevant, creative, connected and open? This conversation in turn produced more questions. As the interlinked nature of cinema as a social and material phenomenon becomes prominent in the research design of historical projects, their boundaries become diffuse. History is a changing landscape – and cinema history doubly so, as new ways of watching and new places to encounter moving images take us beyond the idea of cinema as a bulky building with a box office at the entrance.

Cinema has meant different things to different people at various points in time and space, but rather than seeking a dictionary definition, asking an ontological question can work like a sonar pulse, sounding out the shapes and positions of current projects in relation to longer intellectual quests. Research fields shift like sandbanks and need to be surveyed constantly – not to fix them down, but to get your bearings and not sink! This is what we will try to facilitate with our end-of-project conference, which will take place at Glasgow in June 22-25th 2015, and will provide a snapshot of how researchers are responding to the question: What is cinema history?

The conference is organised in collaboration with the HoMER Network, an international group of researchers interested in the history of cinemagoing, exhibition and reception. The existence of this thriving network is in itself evidence of the changing times; an interest in empirical and multidisciplinary research is common to many of the projects. Whatever your definition of cinema, or of history, if you would like to be part of the conference please send us an abstract by 9 January 2015. If you would like to attend without presenting, please get in touch.

So – exciting stuff. But it is not the only thing we will be doing next year!

Advert for Chaplin films, Pictures and the Picturegoer IX:58, January 1916 (via MHDL)

Advert for Chaplin films, Pictures and the Picturegoer IX:58, January 1916 (via MHDL)

What else do we have for 2015?

As five researchers with different backgrounds and contiguous interests, we have taken various aspects of the project to film festivals, universities and schools; we have found gems in archives both local and central; we have read mountains of newsprint, but rarely on paper; we have built relationships with people and organisations where we can learn from their wealth of knowledge and hopefully offer something back; and we have made Scottish cinema history relevant for colleagues here and abroad. In 2015, we will bring our project to conclusion, with the conviction that there is always more to discover but the confidence that we have made a contribution and learned a lot in the process. We have a few events already lined up in the New Year – please do get in touch if you would like any more information on any of them.

  • 5 February 2015

    GYFF: Early Cinema in Scotland during WW1

    A screening for Secondary 3-6 pupils, in connection with the teaching resource about Scotland, cinema and the First World War produced in collaboration with Glasgow Film and the Scottish Screen Archive.

  • 12-28 February 2015

    Jeely jars and seeing stars: Glasgow’s love affair with the movies

    Exhibition organised at the Mitchell Library by Glasgow Film’s Cinema City project in collaboration with Glasgow Life, bringing together archive research and oral history. We will contribute to the exhibition panels and to some events, to be announced shortly.

  • 18-22 March 2015

    Bo’ness Festival of Silent Cinema

    As in previous years we will be delighted to participate in this unique festival, with a workshop for schools on the 18th of March. More details to follow.

Until then – happy holidays and all the best for 2015. Thanks for reading!

Mapping settings and locations

In a previous post, Caroline Merz explained how the image of Scotland as a setting for fiction films did not necessarily match with what the country offered as a film location. The most famous case is, obviously, the producer of Brigadoon (1954) claiming that the film, whilst set in a fictional Highland village, would not be shot on location as Scotland wasn’t “Scottish enough”. As Caroline shows in her blog post, this was not the first time this divergence between ‘setting’ and ‘location’ came up in relation to cinema in Scotland. Throughout the silent period, film adaptations of Scottish literary works, and original screenplays with Scottish themes, were very popular; however, few of those films were actually filmed here. This disparity may be one of the characteristic elements of Scottish cinema history, and mapping offers a way to interrogate it.

In works of fiction, the relationship between location and setting is unstable, because fictional settings are often less specific and it is not always possible to pin-point them on a map. Like the characters, fictional settings may combine characteristics of different real places, or refer to a broader region or type, or be entirely made up and physically impossible. Therefore, mapping fiction is difficult, but it is also a very interesting opportunity to bring together cartographic and humanities approaches in ways that transform both.

Franco Moretti considers Scott. From Atlas of the European Novel, p. 41.

Franco Moretti considers Scott. From Atlas of the European Novel, p. 41.

Literary studies have blazed the path for these text-centred geographies. The most influential work in this area is Franco Moretti’s Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900, published in 1999, which uses spatial tools and categories to think through historical and stylistic aspects. Since the publication of Moretti’s book, new tools have become available to extract, map and analise the settings of literary fiction, leading to an explosion of such geographies for individual works, authors, or national literatures. Websites such as BatchGeo and the National Library of Scotland’s  geocoding tool allow people to create map visualisations based on tabular data simply and quickly. The Ordnance Survey even offers a geoparser tool which can extract placenames from text files and map them using several very detailed gazetteers. The best examples of literary geography, however, are much more than a technical solution to plot the places named in a novel. While doing that on a basic level, they also grapple with questions about blurry boundaries, ambiguous and imaginary spaces, and a sense of place that is not captured by coordinates. Some of these issues, for instance, are being discussed around an ambitious project at ETH Zurich, called A Literary Atlas of Europe. Amongst their work-in-progress outputs, the researchers offer discussions of the new data models proposed to model uncertain geographical information and express the ‘imprecise geography‘ of literature.

Mapping imprecise literary geographies in Prague, by the Literary Atlas of Europe

When bringing these models into film studies, a new layer of complexity comes in with the distinction between location and setting. In film analysis terms, this is often described as a distinction between the ‘profilmic’ and the ‘diegetic’ world. The profilmic event is what goes on in front of the camera – the actors (and their actions and words), props, light, and the space they are in, whether it is a studio set or a natural location. All these things exist outside the film. On the other hand, the diegetic world only exists as constructed by the film; it is the world that fiction characters inhabit. It may be very similar or very different to the world inhabited by the audience, but it is separate. Geographically, the profilmic and the diegetic world overlap when the film is shot at the same places where its narrative is set – like an actor playing themselves. But more often, the profilmic location is disguised as a different setting. For instance, what is really a studio in LA is meant to be a Wild West saloon, or a spaceship, or a New York flat. Or, as in Braveheart (1995), Ireland may be called upon to ‘play’ Scotland.

Mapping diegetic locations, a practice often referred to as cinematic cartography, is closer to the text-centred literary tradition. On the other hand, mapping shooting locations has become an extremely popular practice – for tourism offices around the world, as well as independent enthusiasts like Doug Hill, who created the very extensive and detailed website ‘Scotland: The Movie‘. In the introduction to his site, Hill argues that “Part of the appeal of movies filmed in Scotland is the spectacular scenery of mountains and lochs seen in the background and in some cases center stage of many movies”. This is a very similar statement to that on the VisitScotland page on film locations: “Scotland provides the perfect backdrop for the world of cinema with its rugged landscape and stunning scenery”. In these two statements, the emphasis on dramatic scenery is evidence of the continuing influence of some long-standing tropes in the visual representation of Scotland – despite the fact that most contemporary Scottish films are urban.

“Doesn’t it make you proud to be Scottish?” The Rannoch Moor in Trainspotting (1996), not so well liked by the tourism office.

Studying the overlap or divergence between narrative settings and shooting locations is a way to understand how these representations are constructed and how they operate. A particularly illuminating example of a similar approach, incorporating literature and drama as well as film, is the Cultural Atlas of Australia. Visualising both settings and locations, the map has allowed researchers to investigate the cultural power struggles that shape film’s relationship with and representations of the land, and to see how these operations change when particular narratives are adapted to different media.

In previous discussions on this blog, we have argued that being attentive to the places and spaces of cinema is important, and that incorporating spatial data into our database model allows us to form connections between disparate types of evidence, from the demographic to the anecdotal. Thinking about film settings and locations allows us to bring the film text back into our sphere of enquiry, and to ask questions about representation and style even in the absence of surviving films. This will hopefully help us understand why we have so many ‘Scottish-themed’ films on our filmography, and so few ‘Scottish-made’.

Protest and parades

This blog post is based on research and discussions with Dr David Archibald (Glasgow) in preparation for our talk, ‘Protests and Parades: the First World War in Glasgow’s Cinemas’, at the ‘Switzerland in Dialogue’ symposium: Nations Facing War:
Neutrality, Refusal, Engagement?
, Glasgow, 31 October 2014. Opinions are my own and don’t necessarily represent the Early Cinema in Scotland project.

Clydeside during the war years was turbulent and newsworthy. The struggles of industrial workers, the political awakening of women, and the agitation efforts by writers, publishers and speakers intertwined in a volatile mix. The war exacerbated some of the forms of oppression that socialists and anarchists denounced, giving the State greater powers to compel workers to sacrifice labour rights to the needs of wartime production, allowing profiteers to increase prices for basic necessities, and introducing legislation to suppress strike action and censor political discourse. On the other hand, the war also created a point of contact at which these struggles could and did join up, through a broad sense of class solidarity to reject the use of patriotic rhetoric for militaristic (and capitalist/colonialist) ends.

Guy Aldred, At Grips with War (Glasgow: Bakunin Press, 1929)

Guy Aldred, At Grips with War (Glasgow: Bakunin Press, 1929)

By the time the war started, there were three main newsreel series in the UK, all issued twice a week: Gaumont Graphic, Pathe Gazette, and Topical Budget (Eclair also issued a newsreel with a smaller circulation). Their format was similar – about five stories per issue, each about a minute long. They all had correspondents (‘stringers’) in Glasgow, and included Scottish items with some regularity. Their production plant and staff could also be hired for local topicals, such as the Campbeltown film we have discussed in this blog before. So, it was easily possible to film the striking workers and the women of Govan kicking out the sheriff officers. However, documentary filmmakers dredging the archives for exciting images of Red Clydeside have had to make do with a scrap of badly-scratched film from 1919. These iconic few seconds, with the red flag rising over an unsettled crowd on George Square, are well known and memorable. But there is nothing else (that we know of). No cinematographic record of the rent strikes of 1915, of John Maclean or Helen Crawfurd making speeches, or of the munition workers confronting Lloyd George. Furthermore, despite the fact that Glasgow was home to “the largest and most vocal working-class opposition to the war experienced in wartime Britain” (Royle 2011: 350), we have no images at all of its initial moment.

On 9 August 1914, speakers from the Independent Labour Party (ILP), the British Socialist Party (BSP), and the Peace Society addressed the crowd on Glasgow Green. This demonstration was not advertised in the papers and not covered by them, with the exception of the socialist periodical Forward, which reported a turnout of 5000.

Forward‘s report on the Glasgow anti-war demonstration, 15 August 1914

Of course, Forward had a vested interest in claiming a large turnout for their anti-war rally, as much as the mainstream press had an interest in ignoring it. It is not unfeasible that there were indeed a few thousand people at the Green (it was Sunday), but the lack of photographic evidence means it’s hard to know for sure. A week before, the founder of the ILP, Keir Hardie, had addressed an anti-war demo in London – an event that was photographed and filmed for the Gaumont Graphic newsreel. The Stop the War demonstration in Trafalgar Square was included in the issue 352 of the newsreel, sandwiched between images of the cabinet meeting for the declaration of war, and various reactions to it. In the week between the two demonstrations, life in the UK had been turned upside down. The country was now at war, and the Defence of the Realm Act meant that extraordinary measures could be taken against anyone who attempted to disrupt the war effort.

John Maclean conducting his own defense on sedition charges at Edinburgh, May 1918

There is no need to claim that official censorship restricted the newsreels’ coverage of anti-war protest. The convergent interests of the cinema trade and the British state during wartime shaped the image of the home front through a more organic process of collaboration, which Dr David Archibald and myself discuss in a forthcoming article for NECSUS journal. Throughout the first year of war, the three newsreels included on average one recruiting march or soldiers’ parade per issue. From Durham to Portcawl, Dublin to Birmingham, and Croydon to Newcastle, these films are very similar to one another, and part of a vast genre of parade films that links the appeal of recognising familiar faces (for a local audience) with the neat rhythmic spectacle of uniformed marching. So, in that first few weeks of war, instead of the 5000 anti-war protesters on Glasgow Green, we have images of the 1500 new recruits from the Glasgow Tramways, and this pattern continues throughout the war, both in the newsreels and in local topical productions.

Response of the Glasgow tramway men to the country’s ‘call to arms’ (Gaumont) 7 September 1914

In 1925, Laurence Stallings and King Vidor wrote and directed a First World War romance and problematic masterpiece of classic Hollywood cinema. The title was The Big Parade. If we had only the British newsreels to draw on for our understanding of the war, it would indeed look like an endless succession of parades. There is a gap in the visual memory of the 20th century, and we’ll have to use our imagination (and the paper archives) to keep the history of dissent visible amongst the deluge of militaristic imagery.


BUFVC (British Universities Film and Video Council) News on Screen database (British newsreels) http://bufvc.ac.uk/newsonscreen

Couzin, John. Radical Glasgow. Glasgow Caledonian University. http://www.gcu.ac.uk/radicalglasgow/index.html
McKernan, Luke. Topical Budget: The Great British News Film. (London: BFI, 1992).
Royle, Trevor. The Flowers of the Forest : Scotland and the First World War. (New York: Birlinn, 2011).

A Municipal Cinema and its Local Hero

The period after the First World War witnessed the establishment of a number of municipal cinema projects across Scotland, for example in Montrose, Clydebank and Dunoon. However, there is one among these schemes that stands out – the municipal cinema in Kirkintilloch. This small town to the North East of Glasgow pioneered the first consistent municipal cinematograph scheme in Kirkintilloch Town Hall, where it hosted moving picture shows regularly on Friday, Saturday and Monday from 1914 to 1923. It is the longest serving municipal cinema during the early cinema period that we know of.
Kirkintilloch’s municipal cinema was set up and managed by three town councillors, the most driven among them Thomas Johnston. In fact, its time in operation coincided with Johnston’s presence on the town council, from 1913 to 1922.    Johnston was born in Kirkintilloch in 1881. At the tender age of twenty-two, he became a representative for the Independent Labour Party and three years later founded the socialist newspaper Forward. In his career as journalist (and author of the classic The History of the Working Classes in Scotland), Johnston was just as bold and open minded as he was as a politician. Upon leaving Kirkintilloch as local councillor in 1922, he became Labour MP for West Stirlingshire and his time in national politics was crowned when he served successfully as Scottish Secretary from 1941 to 1945.

Thomas Johnston

Thomas Johnston

Johnston was a moderate and pragmatic socialist, a position derived from his upbringing in a middle-class Presbyterian and conservative household as well as his early interest in Fabian socialism. This centrist form of socialism envisioned the gradual change of capitalist structures through education and persuasion rather than class warfare. Furthermore, Johnston’s political vision of empowered municipal councils and local working class organisations echoes the ethical values of small community life and Presbyterianism rather than Marxist ideals. During his time on Kirkintilloch town council, Johnston brought about a number of municipal experiments such as a municipal piggery, a municipal goat herd, municipal jam-making, municipal housing and a municipal bank, his most famous contribution that inspired other burghs to follow suit.

So, the municipal cinema in Kirkintilloch appears to have comprised a small but important part of a bigger idea – municipal socialism. I’m intrigued to find out whether Johnston’s socialist principles are in any way reflected in the weekly programmes of the municipal cinema. Did the councillors in charge choose elevating and educational films over more popular genres like the crime serial or comedies? If so, this would follow a tradition within the labour movement that encouraged working people to seek out rational recreation to improve their lives rather than spending their disposable income on frivolous entertainment or worse, drink. Johnston was also a teetotal and (perhaps more astonishingly) the whole of Kirkintilloch went ‘dry’ following a popular vote in 1920.
This question, of course, can’t be answered without considering the municipal cinema’s relationship with its commercial rival, the Pavilion. Part of the circuit of cinema exhibitor Thomas Ormiston, this local picture house was already in business when the town hall began to operate as a cinema in November 1914. In fact, the Pavilion’s popularity was cited by the council’s hall & park committee (which included Johnston) as the main reason why the town hall ceased to attract touring theatre and concert companies. Lamenting the ‘considerable loss’ this meant for the income of the hall, the committee argued for the installation of a cinematograph to run municipal pictures in a town council meeting in March 1914. Apart from promising returns, a municipal cinema was also regarded as an opportunity to offer Kirkintilloch’s inhabitants ‘first-class entertainment that would be helpful and instructive’. So, the question should actually be: Was the programme of the municipal cinema more elevating and instructive than what its commercial rival, the Pavilion, had to offer? A sample of cinema adverts and reviews of both of cinemas that I have collected will hopefully bring some answers.

Kirkintilloch Herald, 8 March 1922, p. 4

Kirkintilloch Herald, 8 March 1922, p. 4

Moreover, East Dunbartonshire Archives, located in the William Patrick Library in Kirkintilloch, are in possession of nothing less than an archival treasure that includes cash books, account abstracts and financial correspondence, covering the whole period the municipal cinema was in operation. This means that not only can it be ascertained how well the cinema did from year to year but also what films produced the most revenue. Finally, as the profits of the cinema were annually paid into a Common Good fund, the accounts can also indicate whether the community benefitted financially from having a municipal cinema.
The beginning of the 1920s meant bad news for the municipal pictures in Kirkintilloch. An economic downturn in the cinema trade coincided with the opening of a third cinema, the Black Bull, in 1922. Formerly a pub called the Black Bull Inn, this new cinema seems to have been a direct consequence of Kirkintilloch’s declared teetotalism two years earlier. With Johnston departing as town councillor and moving on as a national politician around the same time, it took only a couple of seasons for the municipal pictures to falter and become unprofitable. Sadly, after becoming a target for Unionist rhetoric against municipal projects in general, the municipal cinema scheme ended in June 1923. The town hall did not cease to be an important public space, however, continuing to host many political meetings as well as cultural entertainments. The place of the municipal cinema within that story remains one of interest, calling for further exploration.

Kirkintilloch Herald, 6 June 1917, p. 4

Kirkintilloch Herald, 6 June 1917, p. 4

Consulted Sources:

  • Encyclopaedia Britannica http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/551569/socialism/276343/Fabian-socialism [accessed 30 Sept 2014]
    ‘Corporation Entertainments’, Kirkintilloch Herald, 11th March 1914, p. 8.
  • The Diary of a Town Hall, published Kirkintilloch & District Society of Antiquaries, 2007.
  • Graham Walker, ‘Johnston, Thomas (1881–1965)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/34213, accessed 30 Sept 2014]