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After Helen Szamuely passed away earlier this year, I thought I’d published everything she’d done for us, but I was wrong. This piece was from LH Members’ newsletter of October 2013. 

by Helen Szamuely

Everyone who likes mooching round second hand bookshops, print shops, shops with theatre programmes and knick-knacks knows Cecil Court, the alleyway that runs between Charing Cross Road and St Martin’s Lane. It has been there, apparently, since the seventeenth century but only since the second half of the eighteenth in its present state and it has been the centre of the second hand book trade for decades.

Some time ago I noticed that apart from the tablet on No. 9 that tells us of the child Mozart staying there with his parents on their visit to London in 1764 others have appeared on some houses that tell us about the various film companies and related businesses that existed in Cecil Court during the first flowering of British cinema between 1894 and 1914. Near the Charing Cross end of the alleyway there is a green plaque, which explains that it was known as Flicker Alley (though this name is rarely if at all mentioned in histories of the silent film) and was home to offices by British film pioneers like Cecil Hepworth and James Williamson as well as international companies like Gaumont, Nordisk and Vitagraph. Other plaques, blue this time, are on the various buildings where these companies were.

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27 Cecil Court, where one can find Stephen Poole Fine Books, has three plaques though two are clearly for one company as it evolved. One tells us that Gaumont had an office here from 1904 – 1906 having expanded from 25 Cecil Court (now Goldsboro Books, specialists in signed first editions but also a shop that from time to time has a stall of second-hand paperbacks outside it, many of which are detective stories and all at a reasonable price). After Gaumont, the building was taken over by James Williamson and Co that turned into Williamson, Dressler and Co. in 1908, staying in Cecil Court for another year. James Williamson was a chemist in Brighton where he started film manufacture, moving to London later. In 1901 his made what must have been an exciting and sensational film about the Boxer Rebellion, Attack on a China Mission. According to the Stage Year Book for 1908, the previous year saw two very popular films from this company: a drama entitled Just in Time and a comedy, Bobby’s Birthday.

On 13 Cecil Court where Motion Books is to be found now the plaque says that in 1914 it was the home of Quo Vadis Film Company, described as a Cinema Services and Rental Agency.

18 Cecil Court, where Peter Ellis Bookseller is now, also has two plaques. One is for Nordisk Film Company, a UK representative for a Danish film studio that traded at this address from 1908 to 1910 and was responsible for a very successful film in the first of those years: The Lion Hunt. Where there are films there are cinemas and where there are cinemas there are chocolates. The same address accommodated the Theatre Chocolate Company in 1911.

There were other companies in Cecil Court in that period, and probably there will be more plaques up soon. Hepworth Manufacturing Company was at 15 – 17 Cecil Court (Motor Books and Travis & Emery Music Bookshop) for some years. It had been established by Cecil Hepworth in 1899 and manufactured such essential objects as arc lamps and provided printing and developing, all under the special trade mark of Hepwire. They also made films, the most popular of which was Dumb Sagacity in 1907, the year in which the comedy That Fatal Sneeze came out.

The Cinematograph Syndicate was at 23 Cecil Court (now part of Goldsboro Books). They manufactured films and other supplies but also made their own films like The Gamekeeper’s Dog and Tommy’s Box of Tools. Hepworth also made a number of films about cars, which in those days meant films about car disasters. 1900 saw the ominously titled How it Feels to be Run Over and Explosion of a Motor Car.

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Cecil Hepworth (1874 – 1953)

At the other end of the alleyway, at 3 – 5 Cecil Court (partly Storey’s Ltd now) was the New Bioscope Trading Company, which had been established in 1904. It made and hired films and was the manufacturer of the “Dreadnought” Bioscope.

While Cecil Court was not the only place where film companies and related businesses moved in the early years of the twentieth century (there were some in Charing Cross Road and even in Soho), this was clearly a magnet for many of them both British and foreign. The British film industry was buoyant for a number of years. However the film historian Ian Christie says in The Last Machine:
“In 1914 The Times reported that only 2 per cent of the million feet of film sold for exhibition in London each week was home-produced. The writing was already on the wall: having been a leading exporter from 1896 to 1907, Britain could now be the first country to have gained and lost a film industry in a little over twenty years.” (p. 135)

The dates on the plaques confirm this: most of the companies seem to have left Flicker Alley by 1908. Professor Christie speculates about the reason for this collapse and suggests that the British film industry, successful though it was for two decades, lacked support both from business with bankers and financiers remaining sceptical and from the intelligentsia, even writers who could be described as prophets of modernity and whose works were filmed at the time, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling or G. B. Shaw. Not so in other countries, says Mr Christie, where the financial and intellectual importance of the cinema was perceived very early on. Not till the thirties did Britain recover ground in film-making.

 

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dsc02112cIn anticipation of our live Water Music concert on the Thames this coming 17th of July, I’ve been boning up on George Frederic Handel (1685 – 1759), the German baroque composer who spent most of his life here in London. To give you an idea where he fits in, he was an exact contemporary of JS Bach (1685 – 1750) and Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741).

Handel left his home in Hanover for London in 1710, and stayed. He was employed by Queen Anne and various British aristocrats, notably the fantastically sophisticated 3rd Earl of Burlington. In 1714, his former boss, the Elector of Hanover, became George I, King of England. Awkward. The Water Music of 1717 is seen as a reconciliation piece. It worked.

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Handel, late 1720s, by Denner. NPG London.

The composer existed at the heart of London society, leading a highly productive professional life. Along with William Hogarth and other worthies, he was a founding governor of Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital, playing a key role in its early success. His home still stands in Brook Street, Mayfair, as the Handel House Museum.

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Handel lived here from 1723 until his death in 1759

The Best Of…
Like most of us I suspect, I knew what the famous bits of the Water Music * (1717) and the Messiah (1741) sound like. I had also heard the haunting Sarabande in D Minor (1733) without knowing it was by Handel. It featured heavily in Stanley Kubrick’s Georgian masterpiece Barry Lyndon (1975). I also would have not easily recognised Scipio from the three act opera Scipione (1719) which is the regimental slow march of the Grenadier Guards. Zadok the Priest (aka Coronation Anthem No 1) was written in 1727 for the coronation of George II. For obvious reasons there has been no official call for it in recent times. However, lovers of association football will recognise it from Champions League on the television. Never mind. But it is utterly mesmerising. If you’re ever feeling a bit low, The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba from the oratario Solomon (1748) should always raise your spirits. Finally (for now), Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749), hitherto for me known only by name. Turns out it’s an easily digestible 22 minute joy.

G.F. Handel. Wow. What a guy.


* Water Music, just the famous bit.


A selection of some of the Handel favourites above will be performed on the 300th anniversary of the Water Music by a live orchestra on the Thames on 17th July. Hosted by the Georgian Dining Academy and London Historians. Tickets are already selling briskly: don’t miss it.

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A Guest Post by Robert Cox.

The Life of the Inimitable Mrs Jordan

“Thank you my dear, for twenty years of love, happiness, financial support and ten children – now kindly leave the stage!”

200 years ago last year (2016) Dora Jordan died in poverty in St Cloud, Paris, aged 54. Her death followed an incredible life from impoverished Irish actress to greatly loved and admired celebrity, causing ‘Jordan-mania’ as one contemporary newspaper described her impact on the British public. She was the best-loved and greatest comedy actress of her day, alongside the acclaimed Mrs Siddons.

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Mrs  Jordan as Hypolita, 1791, after Hoppner. British Library.

As a star of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, Dora caught the attention of the Duke of Clarence, later to become King William IV, and for twenty years they lived and loved together as ‘husband and wife’ at Bushy House, Richmond Park. During all these years she maintained a furious pace on the theatre circuit whilst giving birth to ten children by William, acting throughout her pregnancies – often feeding the latest new arrival between scenes.

So why did she die penniless and alone – and how is her name virtually unknown?
Quite simple. This devoted hard-working mother who ‘kept’ her wasteful man for most of their twenty years together was ultimately betrayed by the Royal Family and their ruthless advisers.

This is nothing unusual you may think, but how could it be that Dora Jordan (born Dorothea Bland), until quite recently, failed to appear in the official history of the theatre where she was greatly acclaimed as actress and singer in roles from Shakespeare to farce, and where she was close friends with the theatre’s owners as well as major public figures of her day?

In 1994, Claire Tomalin’s brilliantly researched book, “Mrs Jordan’s Profession”, told for the first time the complete story of Dora Jordan’s rise from poverty in Ireland to the pinnacle of fame, fortune and adoration on the London stage. Dora was The Duchess of Drury Lane for 30 years – a testimony to her sheer hard work, enchanting personality and a comic talent second to none. A lady whose infinite goodness contrasts starkly with the deeds of those responsible for her wholly avoidable downfall. The fact that she and the Duke were so close – genuine soul mates as evident from the hundreds of letters they exchanged – makes her story all the more heart-breaking and the actions of royalty all the more contemptable. A poignancy resonating sharply with more recent events involving royal betrayal, as Michael Arditti writes of the biography, “Enthralling … brilliantly brings to life a saga in which the 19th century House of Hanover foreshadows the House of Windsor”.

The first person to attempt a biography of Dora was Elizabeth Inchbald – a contemporary and friend – but she lost her nerve and destroyed her manuscript on the advice of her confessor. For she was a Roman Catholic, and this was 1821.

In June 1830 the Duke of Clarence, son of George III, suddenly and unexpectedly found himself King of England. He was 64 and with his older brother George IV on the throne, had imagined seeing out his days as he’d spent most of his life – with no real responsibility or job. But overnight, King George’s sudden death turned that prospect on its head.

Soon after he took the throne, as King William IV, he was seized with remorse at the way he’d treated Dora. She had been dead for 15 years but one of the new king’s first acts was to commission a statue of her by England’s leading sculptor, Francis Chantrey, soon to be Sir Francis. Lost or forgotten for nearly 200 years, ironically the statue now rests where Dora was never invited, at Buckingham Palace. Not invited because of her wrong blood. A successor to the crown was not allowed to marry a commoner – his wife had to have blue blood. But it was the theatre, not royalty, that pumped through Dora’s heart.

Thankfully Dora Jordan has now been restored to her rightful place in the history of English theatre. Her name now echoes through the corridors and corners of The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane where once her beautiful voice and unique talent graced the stage and thrilled audiences for thirty long, extraordinary years. She is in the theatre’s Souvenir Brochure, talked about in the highly entertaining guided tours, and even on some occasions brought alive in lavish costume beneath an abundance of hair, laughing and lovely as ever she was.

Finally, the words of one of Dora’s contemporary admirers, Leigh Hunt – critic, poet and essayist – speaking straight from the heart after her tragic passing.

“The way she would take a friend by the cheek and kiss her, or make up a quarrel with a lover, or coax a guardian into good humour, or sing (without accompaniment) … trusting as she had the right to do, to the sole effect of her sweet, mellow and loving voice – the reader will pardon me, but tears of pleasure and regret come into my eyes at the recollection, as if she personified whatsoever was happy at that period of life, and which has gone … like herself.”
Robert Cox (February 2017)


More on Dora Jordan here.

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Last week I gave St Paul’s Covent Garden a proper visit for the first time. The church was designed by Inigo Jones, having been commissioned by the Duke of Bedford, who told him to keep it simple. He wanted to keep costs down, so instructed the architect it should be no more than a barn, to which Jones replied: “Then you shall have the handsomest barn in England.” And so it is.

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It is known as the Actors’ Church and once inside you’ll see on all walls, nooks and crannies, commemorative plaques and memorials to notable thespians of the past. This one, to Charles Macklin, immediately caught my attention.

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Just look at that carving of a theatrical mask with a knife penetrating the left eye. Very gruesome you may think, and you’d be right. This must allude to the true tale of the killing by Macklin of a fellow actor Thomas Hallam by fatally wounding him through the eye with his cane. The violent dispute – apparently over a wig – took place backstage at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Macklin defended himself in court and was convicted of accidental manslaughter, resulting in being branded with a cold iron.

Although his actual birthdate is unclear, Charles Macklin (c1690 – 1797) was born in Ulster and enjoyed an extraordinarily long life for his or any other era. A larger-than-life character, he became a leading Shakespearean actor on the London stage as well as writing and producing dramas of his own.

Based primarily at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (with whom he was constantly in dispute), he made his name through the realistic portrayal of Shakespearean drama, most famously in his depiction of Shylock. This was a radical transformation, for the first time making these plays as something we would recognise today. Audiences loved it.

He set up an acting school, mentoring among others David Garrick who then took Shakespeare to yet another level again in the decades to come. Lessons were given both at his home and in the upstairs room of the Bedford coffee house where Macklin would also be found expounding cantakerously to all and sundry. Essentially, he had founded London’s first drama academy.

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Charles Macklin in later life, by John Opie

These are just the basics.
Further reading.
Wikipedia is a pretty good start, here.
My first introduction to him was in Mr Foote’s Other Leg (2012) by Ian Kelly, pp90 and ff. Excellent further detail, especially on the coffee shop scene and drama school.

More images of St Paul’s, Covent Garden in our Flickr space, here.

 

 

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Firepower, the museum of artillery in Woolwich, closes its doors today for the last time. This is a tragedy. As a former gunner myself I am possibly biased, but in my opinion it was the best military museum in London with brilliant staff, brilliant volunteers and an outreach programme second-to-none.

The museum’s archive has already been shipped out, leaving military history researchers in the lurch. Now the guns, ammunition, displays, ordnance equipment, medals collection (including 22 VCs from the 62 awarded to gunners) will be crated up, transported and stored at the Royal Artillery HQ in Larkhill, to be seen again when – who knows?

I realise that there were – and are – challenging problems, mainly financial, relating to the museum, but I believe a better way forward could have been sought and found. Surely. The Regiment appears to have taken the easy way out and another strand of the thread connecting Woolwich with gunners has been severed. A “gunners gallery” is to be opened at the Greenwich Heritage Centre later this year apparently. Big deal.

I understand from speaking to various people that the ultimate decision to close the museum came from the Master Gunner, General Granville-Chapman.

Anyway, there you go. More heritage denied. I’ll pop into the museum for one last look today. I’d like to thanks all the staff and volunteers at Firepower for their enthusiasm and hospitality they’ve extended every time I’ve visited, an experience shared by many thousands down the years. Good luck with all future endeavours. Ubique!

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DSC03489_200David Bowie. We’re still smarting, are we not?

Our greatest rock star and the coolest Englishman who ever lived.

Yesterday I popped into this very temporary exhibition, in Heddon Street exactly opposite the Ziggy Stardust plaque. It features a selection of previously unseen portraits by three of Bowie’s favourite snappers: Chalkie Davies, Tony McGee and Denis O’Regan. It runs until Sunday.

David Bowie: Fame Fashion Photography.

Pic: Denis O'Regan, 1978

Pic: Denis O’Regan, 1978

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All the pieces are wonderful: how could they not be? But I particularly like the more informal contact sheet-style series and the informal ones rather than official photoshoot types. But how can you tell? Was Bowie always “on”, or was he simply so cool, so photogenic that it was simply impossible to take a bad picture?

If, like me, you are a bit of a fan, this wonderful show is bitter-sweet. It touches you.

There is a lovely catalogue which you can buy via donation (minimum £5, please) and all the pieces on display (and a few others) are for sale via silent auction. Bid range at time of writing £500 – £3,500. All proceeds to Cancer Research UK.

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On this day in 1809, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane was destroyed by fire. Theatres were always burning down, so nothing really unusual in fact. What made this conflagration different, is the involvement of the magnificent Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Dublin-born, Harrow-educated Sheridan is one of my favourite Londoners. A duellist, MP, playwright, impresario and much besides, he obtained full ownership of Drury Lane in 1778. In 1791 he demolished the 120 year old building which had opened in 1674 (replacing the short-lived 1663 original), and built a fabulous modern theatre more to his liking and ambition. Designed by Henry Holland, it opened in 1794, apparently with the latest fire-prevention features. Here is Rowlandson and Pugin’s depiction of its interior, only a year before disaster struck.
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Sheridan himself witnessed the destruction of his beloved theatre from the street, glass of wine in hand, remarking laconically: “A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside.”

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