Suffolk: Old film show near Ipswich

They’re back! The two pals on a mission to help us enjoy the early days of cinema are putting on another show – using a projector with ‘Mickey Mouse’ ears, and a few more gadgets besides. Steven Russell reports

THEY’RE the men who put the ‘ooh’ into movies. Enthusiasts David Cleveland and Nigel Lister have long been pooling their energy and skills to bring history to life and help us experience the pioneering days of film. They’ve shown old movies on a restored hand-turned Gaumont Chrono projector from the early 1900s, for instance, and also demonstrated the development of colour from those initial faltering steps in the dark. For their next trick they conjure the magic of sound.

Their latest offering will present early “talkie” films using an original Simplex projector. The programme includes one of the earliest sound movies ever made, along with film David found last year in a former bomb bunker on an old Essex airfield. There’s also one of the first audible news items filmed in East Anglia – the opening of a bridge at Yarmouth 80-odd years ago by the Prince of Wales – and a good old Suffolk boy enjoying a moment of fame in the 1930s as he sowed seeds by hand.

Many of these early sound films have undoubtedly not been shown for decades – perhaps 80-odd years – so the show at Chelmondiston Village Hall, near Ipswich, on Saturday, March 12, promises to be a real treat.

That exceedingly old “sound” movie actually dates back to 1901. It features music hall star Lil Hawthorne singing the song Kitty Mahone. She mimed to a record while being filmed. The record has been synchronised as closely as possible with the picture, although David says there are hiccups from time to time.


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That piece of film is an example of the earliest attempts at combining sound and moving images. Songs were recorded on the then-new 78rpm records and the singer would mime to the playback while being “shot”, mouthing the words as accurately as possible.

“The problem on projection was synchronising the sound disc with the picture, and the lack of amplification equipment. The gramophone by the side of the screen was not loud enough to reach the whole audience and the projectionist had to try and keep the two in sync as near as he could!”

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In 1920 the opera singer Dame Nellie Melba gave the first ever public radio broadcast from the Marconi works in Chelmsford. She was paid an astonishing �8,000 for the 15-minute performance. Two years later there were regular broadcasts from a wooden hut at Writtle – with records, plays and comedy sketches. Radio was truly born.

“Now amplification was possible. From 1922 experiments took place of filming and recording sound and picture at the same time, and projecting them in synchronisation,” explains David.

The main system first adopted for cinema presentation involved the action being recorded in the camera and the sound on large discs running at 33-and-a-third revolutions per minute. This resulted in the famous Al Jolson picture The Jazz Singer being released in 1927. “But it was only part-talking and it took some time to prefect the system and to understand how to make talking pictures,” says David.

“There were problems with the needle jumping during projection, and the film breaking and being repaired, losing frames – both of which could throw the sound out of synchronisation with the picture.”

He explains: “It took time to get the technicalities right, and to get the industry to take seriously talking films. Lee De Forest was the leading technician in making it work and promoting sound films. Tests went on in America and England.”

David has been busy searching for and restoring De Forest Phonofilms of the 1920s – a process that photographed the sound modulation down the side of the film. “Sound-on-film was the system adopted” – it took over from sound-on-disc within five years – “and is still with us today, though of course digital projection is rapidly taking over the projection of films.”

By 1926 radio was popular and stars from the airwaves were persuaded to perform. “In New York Frank Wright and Frank Bessinger recorded their song I Want To Go Where You Go To Be Happy and in England radio comedian John Henry presented his Stocking sketch for the camera.”

Both these films were found years later in a bunker in Essex. Now restored, they will be part of the evening on the Shotley peninsula – shown in their original format of 35mm film on a restored 1930 Simplex sound projector, as audiences would have experienced them 85 years ago.

n Talking Pictures is at Chelmondiston Village Hall on Saturday, March 12, starting at 7.30pm. Running time is about 90 minutes, plus an interval. Tickets cost �5 and can be bought from Orwell Stores and the post office in the village, or by ringing 01473 780 855.

The lights dim . . .

AS well as the Lil Hawthorne “sound” film from 1901, the Talking Pictures evening includes four short silent films showing the inside of a cinema, the R33 airship at Pulham in Norfolk, and the making of a 78rpm record.

These will take the audience back to 1925, just before experimental sound films were made. One film shows how Baird’s television system worked. These are followed by Sam Bennett playing the fiddle to dances at Illmington in Warwickshire in 1926 – one of the first outdoor sound sequences filmed in this country – and American wireless stars The Radio Franks (Frank Wright and Frank Bessenger) singing I Want To Go Where You Go To Be Happy, also in 1926.

John Henry was a popular radio comedian on the BBC in the mid-1920s, delivering humorous monologues and comic scenes in a mournful Yorkshire accent. Here, he and his radio wife present John Henry and Blossom in The Stocking, a comedy sketch adapted for film.

Directed by Widgey Newman, a 26-year-old director just starting out, this film and The Radio Franks one were discovered in a bunker in Essex in 2010 and have now been restored.

One of the first sound newsreels to be made in East Anglia showed the herring industry at Yarmouth and the opening of the Haven Bridge there on October 21, 1930, by the Prince of Wales, later the Duke of Windsor.

“The newsreels had not yet found their proper voice, and this item has actual sound, including the singing of the fisher girls gutting the herring and the noise of the boats’ hooters,” says David Cleveland. “There is one short piece of commentary delivered live at the scene.

“I those first few years of the ‘Talkies’, it was actors and actresses with the right voices that appeared in films, but in the early thirties one film-maker, Mary Field, recorded ordinary people talking to present her educational films on farming. She recorded William Aldred of Sibton, in Suffolk, and he describes for us, facing the camera, his life at sea, then his work as a farmhand broadcast-sowing small seeds. He then proceeds to show how he did this.”

The presentation will also explain how sound-on-film was made. The films will be introduced by David , with Nigel Lister talking about how the projector works and the technicalities of sound reproduction.

Behind the scenes

NIGEL Lister has been a lifelong film enthusiast. He was an engineer with BT and projectionist at the Corn Exchange cinema in Ipswich.

Nigel is also a musician, and plays to the silent films that he and David Cleveland take round as part of their At The Picture Palace A Century Ago presentation.

He is a long-time restorer of vintage film equipment and has breathed new life into the Simplex portable sound projector being used at Chelmondiston.

The machine was made in 1930 to show 35mm motion picture sound films in non-theatre halls. It’s a unique machine; no other has yet been found.

It uses the sound-on-film method. The modulations of sound, recorded down the side of the film in the form of a sound track, can be reproduced in perfect synchronisation with the picture on the screen.

Colleague David Cleveland had his imagination caught by film at a young age and worked as a projectionist in a cinema in Norwich in 1959 before joining the BBC. He went through a film training scheme, covering all manner of film handling and production at BBC Ealing Television Film Studios. This led to freelance film-making for BBC Television children’s programmes – writing, directing and appearing in comedy/animated film sequences for Vision On, Jigsaw and regional programmes.

David founded the East Anglian Film Archive in 1976. Now retired from the archive, he continues to work as a film archive consultant. He is also author of several books on films.

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