Another year, and another fantastic British Silent Film Festival Symposium last Friday – a chance to catch up with old friends, make new ones, and to finally put a real face to Twitter avatars. Oh, and it was chock-full of film history goodness, as ever.
Among the most interesting papers on offer was Andrew Shail’s forensic detective work, proving that Europe beat Hollywood to the star system by a matter of weeks; Stephen McBurney’s similarly detailed work on the kaleidoscopic colour acts of Aberdeen-based showman William Walker; Lucie Dutton’s ongoing, ever-enthralling expansion of our understanding of the life and career of Maurice Elvey; Malcolm Cook’s wonderful exploration of the significance of sound in the early films of Len Lye; and, Geoff Brown’s fabulous introduction to HMV’s brief dalliance with cinema at the dawn of the sound era.
For what it’s worth, I once again sought to insert Australian cinema where it isn’t really wanted by presenting a paper on the 1908 British tour of The Story of the Kelly Gang (d. Tait, 1906).
I’ll spare you the finer details (ie. save them for a future article), but here’s the basic story, so far as I’ve been able to ascertain. The Tait’s joined forces with a British gent named John Henry Iles, best known as a promoter of brass bands, forming a touring company, the Colonial Picture Combine (although it seems as though it was just another company – St Louis Animated Picture Company – renamed). A show was assembled, the Kelly Gang film taking up about half the bill (so, probably the hour that most people estimate), with a mixture of other films and music/variety acts in the first half, and during reel changes.
The tour started in January 1908 with a week at the Assembly Rooms in Bath, before heading to Barnstaple, Southsea (Portsmouth) and Swindon. From there, they headed to Dublin, leasing the Queen’s Theatre, before taking the film to Belfast, Cardiff, Swansea and Bristol.
One particular highlight occurred in Cardiff, where the local council seemingly deemed The Story of the Kelly Gang to be a ‘theatrical production’ and therefore ineligible to play on Good Friday. This wasn’t made clear in the advertisements, of course, causing something of a mini riot when patrons realised they weren’t going to see the Kelly Gang film that had clearly drawn them in. Cue boos, hisses, etc., before the show finished with people rushing the projection booth, and throwing chairs into a large pile, requiring the police to come and clear the auditorium.
Thankfully, my paper had a slightly less hostile reception, and even garnered a few nice mentions on Twitter:
The 1908 tour certainly makes for an interesting story, and it fills a rather gaping hole in our understanding of how this film – often credited as the first feature-length fiction film ever made – circulated outside Australia, so it will be published in some form in the future. Watch this space!
In the meantime, if you’re keen to see the seventeen or so remaining minutes of The Story of the Kelly Gang (as restored by the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA), and shown here with live piano accompaniment), as well as learning more about its production and circulation, the Australia and New Zealand Festival of Literature and Arts are holding a very special event at King’s College London on May 30. After the film, myself and Dr Ian Henderson, director of KCL’s Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, will be joined on stage by Angus Forbes, grandson of Charles Tait, who will discuss how the film was made, lost, and – eventually – rediscovered. Tickets can be purchased on the ANZ Festival website.