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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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Flicker_Alley 02_500

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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