A Night at the Cinema in 1914

Peter Morrell previews a new compilation of early films from the BFI National Archive with music by Stephen Horne

Opening on 1 August 2014 at BFI Southbank and selected cinemas nationwide, with special screenings at 21 independent cinemas on 4 August

Marking the centenary of the start of World War I, this special programme of early films recreates a typical night out at the cinema in 1914. A glorious miscellany of comedies, adventure films, travelogues and newsreels, it is released in selected cinemas around the country on 1 August.

Cinema a century ago was a new, exciting and highly democratic form of entertainment. Picture houses across Britain offered a sociable, lively environment in which to relax and escape from the daily grind. With feature films still rare (The Birth of a Nation was to arrive the following year), the programme was an entertaining, ever-changing roster of short items with live musical accompaniment.

Among the highlights of this selection of 14 short films are a quirky comic short about a face-pulling competition, a sensational episode of the American film serial The Perils of Pauline, an early aviation display, scenes of suffragettes protesting at Buckingham Palace and Allied troops celebrating Christmas at the Front. There is also an early sighting of one of cinema’s greatest icons …

The BFI has commissioned composer and pianist Stephen Horne, one of Britain’s leading accompanists of silent film, to create a new improvised score – with abundant references to music of the period – which reflects the spirit in which the films were made.

Bryony Dixon, Curator of Silent Film, BFI National Archive says: “We’ve trawled the Archive to find films that will give audiences a real taste of what it felt like to go to the cinema in 1914. Cinemas, or ‘picture houses’ as they were known then, were beginning to boom and attract millions of people, from courting couples to children who would go regularly. It wasn’t only a social event, but also a chance to catch up – via newsreels and travelogues – with the world beyond your local high street. Amazingly, some of the original cinemas that opened in Britain around 1914 are still operating today.”

I recently previewed the film and it proved to be fascinating viewing. The travelogue of Egypt showing uncrowded streets and no cars, Fred Evans, the comedian in character as ‘Pimple’ showing early Monty Python ideas and the British troops at the Front eating Christmas lunch were all enthralling.

But the one short which really amused everyone was The Rollicking Rajah, originally run with a synchronised disc to emulate a ‘talkie’, the soundtrack, complete with singing Rajah, is hilarious.

To read more about this and other BFI 1914 projects click here…