Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Capital Tales: Wonderful London II

Harry Parkinson and Frank Miller were two British filmmakers of the 1910s and 20s. Amongst the many films they made together were a series, in 1924, of just over 20 travelogues, each averaging around 10 minutes in length, based on a popular fortnightly magazine of the period called Wonderful London. The films focused largely on the lesser known areas of the capital: the parts neglected by your average visitor. Their historical value has become more significant in the ensuing years, as many of the locations they filmed have subsequently disappeared, leaving behind this rare footage of their existence. 

In 2011, the BFI compiled a selection of these films for show, gleaned from their National Archive, which was a sell-out, and so decided to repeat the success with another compilation on Friday, 15 February, at BFI Southbank with Capital Tales: Wonderful London II. Not having seen the original selection I thought I'd go along and sample the second offering. 

BFI Southbank was formerly known as the National Film Theatre and has been in existence at this location since 1957. The complex has three cinemas and a studio space: the cinema showing this programme was suitably large and very comfortable indeed. In fact the seats were just about the comfiest I've ever sat in to watch a film. 

The selection was introduced in person by Bryony Dixon, Silent Film Curator at the BFI National Archive, who set the scene with a brief history of the series. She explained that the shorts were not in any restored state and warned the audience to expect some 'scratching', jumps and shakiness due to the rough quality of the footage. 

Throughout the showing, the audience were also treated to live musical accompaniment from Stephen Horne, who was billed as pianist, but in fact played flute and accordion too, at the same time in some parts! Very talented. Seven shorts were screened in all, including some with subtitles, possibly written by someone who had a family connection to Dick Van Dyke, judging by the comical 'mockney' phrasing used, much to the general amusement of the audience. In one, a Cockney coster tries to encourage his moke (donkey) to travel to a number of famous London locations, when all the poor donkey wants to do is go home! In another, the driver of a horse-drawn carriage treats his passengers to a running commentary of the history of various places he drives them past. 

Titles shown included 'London's Outer Ring', 'Dickens' London', London Old and New', and 'London's Contrasts'. Some of the landmarks (no longer with us) that appeared in these shorts were the Crystal Palace near Sydenham Hill (destroyed by fire in 1936) and Jacob's Island in Bermondsey (an area immortalised in Dickens's novel 'Oliver Twist', but extensively bombed during the Second World War). 

After the film finished I decided I'd try a beer in the adjoining bar/cafe, called The Riverfront. A nice place, but one was enough (I was still feeling a bit delicate, trying to overcome a virus I'd recently acquired) and I left for the quieter and more relaxing surroundings of the member's bar in the Royal Festival Hall for one last drink before finally heading home.

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