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Winter 03/04

Bryony Dixon

Supported by an AHRB Research Exchange award, this project aimed to produce a comprehensive overview of moving image and associated materials held in the National Film and Television Archive that relate to music hall and popular theatre in Britain before 1930. Outcomes will event-ually include an academic article, a cata-logue of titles to foster further research, a DVD, and public screenings with com-mentary, which began at the National Film Theatre in May 2003. Bryony Dixon is Archival Bookings Officer in the Access Department of bfi Collections.

The parallels between music hall and early cinema are obvious. Both 'music hall' and 'cinema' describe places as well as forms of entertainment. Both are specifically 'popular' entertainment. Both became organised as mass entertainment industries with their own peculiar codes of practice and traditions. Both were driven by the demand for novelty. Both developed 'star' systems and encouraged an increasingly homogenous, family oriented pro-duct as the industries became more integrated.

Music hall and early cinema shared content, an aesthetic, personalities and programme structure. For many years, film and variety were seen in the same programme, by the same audience at the same theatres, shar-ing the stage and the orchestra. Structurally the film programme reflected in microcosm the music hall programme with its mixture of topi-cals, interest items, novelties, humorous and dramatic songs and recitations. The newer industry inherited much from music hall then, gradually superseded it, and one could argue that for several years it kept it alive as mixed film and variety bills were briefly popular. In business terms the cinema developed along similar lines to the music hall, as a series of interconnected private businesses run for profit, unlike radio (and later television), which were spawned by technological innovations like film, but in Britain were co-opted by government for public service use, despite being ultimately conveyors of mass popular entertainment.

There were other similarities too. Music hall appealed to the same audiences that subsequently became interested in cinema; broadly speaking the urban working classes, although that appeal cut across the classes at times. The glamour of the cinema, as with the music hall before it, provided a welcome escape or diversion from the confines of crowded city dwellings. Both industries were in general politically conservative, in their structure and in the content which they encouraged. They shared a sense of humour, which encompassed the specific and the individual within the 'type'. They shared desires for popular music, dance, novelty, spectacle and colour, for fantasy, storytelling. In terms of text and the treatment of that text the similarities between music hall and early cinema are striking.
It was not inevitable that cinema should have developed from the music hall and fairground businesses. As Nicholas Hiley has observed:

If celluloid had been only a fraction more expensive to produce, or just a little more fragile, it would have been impossible for travelling showmen and entertainers to adopt the new moving pictures. The film camera would have remained a scientific instrument, and there would have been no impulse to develop dramatic narrative or to appeal to a mass audience. There would have been film, but not film history as we understand it [which is] the story of how that medium was adapted to the needs of a paying audience.[1]

However, the two industries began to diverge in the years just before the WW1, that great watershed in this as in all other areas of life. Yet it was not the rise of narrative filmmaking which split the music hall from the cinema - music hall already had plenty of narrative forms easily adapted to the screen - but rather the rise of the feature film, which would become the dominant form in the cinema industry.
This project was designed to make accessible the resources of the National Film and Television Archive at the British Film Institute to shed light on the complex relationship between music hall and cinema. Current research into the important contribution made by the music hall to the development of British cinema is hampered by a lack of awareness of key archival resources. As the major national collection of moving images, and as the most important site holding relevant material, bfi Collections was the necessary point of departure for this programme of work. The project's ultimate objective is to contribute to interdisciplinary debate about this significant area of British popular and film culture while also stimulating future research. The starting point was to catalogue four types of material:

  • Films of music hall artistes, including actualities.
  • Films featuring music hall artistes in comedies or dramas made as original works for the cinema.
  • Film based on music hall sketches or plays, including foreign renditions of British acts.
  • Later fictional films about the traditional music hall.

In addition to identifying these specific film materials, the project contributes to a number of broader areas of current film and media research, such as:

  • Technology. What sound systems were used for filmed theatrical performance before the coming of synchronised sound?
  • Aesthetics. What can be learnt from film records about the music hall's performance modes? And what was their influence on early cinematic performance?
  • Economics. How did the companies involved in the production and exhibition of these films function? And how were their products received by contemporary audiences?
  • National identity and popular culture. How does early cinema contribute to the study of British national identity? What is the place of British cinema in the wider frame of international film culture?

The context for this programme of work is provided by a recent convergence of interest on the subject of early cinema. As well as the growth of international interest in silent cinema, of which the present increase of work on British silent cinema is a part, scholars in theatre and performance studies are undertaking significant work on the inter-textual relation between film and their fields.[2]


Betty Balfour in Life, Love and Laughter, 1926


1. Nicholas Hiley '"At the Picture Palace": The British cinema Audience, 1895-1920', John Fullerton, ed., Celebrating 1895: The Centenary of Cinema (John Libbey, 1998), p. 96.

2. The interest in this field is evidenced by regular conferences and festivals on British Silent and Early Cinema such as the annual British Silent Cinema Festival (organised by the BFI and Nottingham Broadway Cinema) and Visual Delights, a biannual conference organised by a consortium of Northern Universities. Many UK independent cinemas have regular programmes of silent film (including the NFT, the Barbican, the City Screen circuit, Nottingham Broadway, The Festival Hall, and the Hyde Park Leeds). New studies are published every year by the academic press and there is a lively internet scene.
International interest continues to increase, with specialist film festivals and conferences (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Sacile; Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna; the annual University of Udine conference, and biannual Domitor Congress). Research on American comedy is also often concerned with British music hall, in Frank Sheide's work on Fred Karno.


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