Local topicals

Advertising the ‘Empire Kinematograph and Grand Concert Party’ at the Victoria Halls, Campbeltown, in October 1900, the Campbeltown Courier asks,

Have you been cinematographed? Come and see yourself as others see you.

Have you been cinematographed? Come and see yourself as others see you.

Promising ‘Miles of Animated Pictures’, the show is to include:
Interesting Local Subjects specially taken for this Entertainment. The Kintyre Cattle Show, Parade of Prize Stock, Horses, etc.; The arrival of the “Davaar” at Campbeltown, Return of Local Volunteers from Camp.

The combination of the local and the personal was a key marketing device for early cinema exhibition. Deriving from the exotic topicals that had been filmed from the earliest days of cinema by travelling operators for the Lumière Brothers, for Méliès, or for Pathé, the local topicals offered local audiences familiar localities and everyday activities, and they anticipated the ‘selfie’ with an animated picture of oneself on the screen. Cinema showmen famously would film audiences queuing for their shows with the promise that they would see themselves on the screen next week. The strangeness of cinema and its still surprising life-likeness made this a cunning attraction, bringing audiences to the cinematograph and bringing them back again.

Apart from the possibility of ‘seeing yourself as others see you’, the locally produced film, featuring local events and annual local fairs as well as everyday life, was an important element of early cinema programmes, establishing itself in the 1900s before the rise of the feature film but continuing, particularly in small towns, into the 1960s. Several companies offered a topical film service, shooting local events by request of exhibitors, and making a single film print. The Blackburn-based company, Mitchell & Kenyon, is the best-known example, as hundreds of their films have survived, some of them from Scotland. These include factory-gate films, street scenes, and parades, commissioned by travelling exhibitors like George Green. As permanent cinemas became more common, some managers continued to use local films as a way to offer something unique and up-to-date - from the latest big football game to the children's galas and charity sports days.

Besides specialised services like Mitchell and Kenyon's or Lizars, newsreel camera operators could also be hired in Glasgow from Gaumont and Pathé offices. In Campbeltown, for instance, Fred Randall Burnette commissioned Gaumont operators to film the arrival of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlander Territorials for training at Clochkiel camp, only days before the outbreak of the First World War. Populated with holiday crowds and cheerful, kilted volunteers, the film unwittingly captures this poignant moment more directly than newsreel footage. The border between these two non-fiction genres (the local topical and the newsreel) is more blurred in the case of Green's Topical Productions, the company set up in connection with George Green's cinemas and fairgrounds to produce local topicals on commission. In 1917, as the company tried to expand, their activities developed into the Scottish Moving Picture News which produced local newsreels into the 1920s.

Cinema managers or projectionists with some technical affinity could also produce their own local films. In the West End of Glasgow, James Hart made Grosvenor Topical News for the Grosvenor Cinema, and in Dundee, C.F. Partoon, a photographer, made ‘Partoon’s Pictorial of Local Events’ for the Kinnaird Picture House. Topicals are, however, particularly associated with exhibitors and photographers in small towns. Louis Dickson, the proprietor of the Hippodrome in Bo’ness, made a number of local topicals, including an annual record of the Bo’ness Children’s Fair; W. P. Gaylor, an optician in Hawick, made topicals through the Borders Kinematograph Company, including films of the annual Hawick Common Riding; Tommy Timmons made or commissioned topicals for the Cinema de Luxe in Lochgelly; and Harry Kemp made topicals for the Regal Cinema in Saltcoats.

Many of these films are held in the Scottish Screen Archive. There are records of films in other locations — J.D. Ratter, for instance, made films of bird-life in Shetland — but these are not held in the collection. On the basis of the surviving films in the Scottish Screen Archive, the evidence is that as many local topicals were made around Hawick or in Saltcoats, Rothesay or Bo’ness as were made in Edinburgh, Dundee or Aberdeen.

These were films of Ardrossan School Sports Day, Broxburn Children’s Gala Day, Peebles War Memorial, the Camperdown Works, Great Western Road (1915, 1922), Lochgelly Old Age Pensioners, Saltcoats Flooded, or Wishaw Co-op Gala Day. Made before people knew how to behave in front of the camera and before Grierson had made documentary an art, they are unpolished, accidental and, oddly, with subjects gazing back at the camera, intimate; films of record with no apparent value outside the community in which they are filmed.

The social historian, G.M Trevelyan, says in his autobiography in 1949
The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing into another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone, like ghosts at cockcrow._ftnref1">[1]

The continuing significance of the local topicals for the present day is the way they seem to sit between memory and history, evoking a local past that is not yet ‘another place’ but is still resonant and populated; different, but not yet absolutely different; familiar and modern in a way in which the ‘modern’ early feature films never seem to be. In the terms of Walter Benjamin, they have awakened from the nineteenth century in which many early twentieth-century films still seemed to slumber._ftnref2">[2] Curiously, it is when one comes to look at the local topicals in the Scottish Screen Archive, about 300 titles filmed between the 1890s and the 1920s, most of them less than ten minutes long, that cinema seems new again. It is in these topicals, in the fascination of the amateurs with the new technology, in the experience of seeing their lives recorded, in their unmediated behaviour, in the immediacy of their localities caught on film, in the commonplace, the everyday, and the accidental, that cinema, again, seems most modern.

_ftn1">[1] G.M Trevelyan, ‘Autobiography of an Historian’, in An Autobiography and Other Essays (London: Longmans, Green, 1949)

_ftn2">[2] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 464. Also Convolution K, pp. 388-404.