SPECIAL FEATURES #2 – PART 1: Michelle Facey of Kennington Bioscope talks about silent film

Have you spent a lifetime loving film? When did you first realise you were smitten? In our continuing series of interviews with London’s independent curators, Michelle Facey of Kennington Bioscope talks about her teenage discovery of silent film stars, the kindness of strangers and the power of live accompaniment.

Kennington Bioscope’s next screening is THE SPANISH DANCER (1923), a Famous Players-Lasky production starring Pola Negri, Antonio Moreno and Wallace Beery (23 MAY 19:30, The Cinema Museum). As usual, a programme of silent shorts precedes the main film.

Michelle will next be introducing Kennington Bioscope’s screening of THE ROAD TO HAPPINESS aka Fiaker No. 13 (1926), directed by Michael Curtiz (13 JUN, The Cinema Museum). A programme of silent shorts from the collection of Bob Geoghegan will get things started.

More links after the interview.

Radiant Circus Special Features: Michelle Facey at the Phoenix Cinema. Picture by Ian Mantgani.
Michelle Facey at the Phoenix Cinema. Picture by Ian Mantgani.*

[RADIANT CIRCUS]:
London’s film culture is so rich, not everyone knows every element of it. What is the Kennington Bioscope and how did you get involved?

[MICHELLE FACEY]:
The Kennington Bioscope is a group that mounts silent film events once every three weeks at the Cinema Museum in the evening, plus one-day and two-day silent film festivals throughout the year. It started in 2013 and I started going from its inception, just as a punter, as an interested party.

I’d started to go to the Cinema Museum museum in 2012. It was either that year or the next that Kevin Brownlow put on three evenings of silent films at the Cinema Museum. I’d been to see him introduce films before at the Phoenix in East Finchley, and I met and spoke to him then. I wanted to learn more about film – having had an interest for a long long time – and these seemed like wonderfully curated events, where they’d have a knowledgeable speaker, show film clips and a feature film. I went along to two out of three of Kevin’s evenings at the Cinema Museum – so that must have been 2013.

Following on from that, a young silent film accompanist, Cyrus Gabrysch, had the idea to start the Kennington Bioscope: to have a regular silent film event at the Cinema Museum. He talked to a long-time archivist and film collector, Bob Geoghegan, who runs his own Archive Film Agency and has been organising events for thirty or forty years, and they decided to start this event up. He then asked another silent film accompanist – the very well-known chap called John Sweeney who accompanies films at the BFI, and has done so for many many years, records scores for silent film DVDs and plays all around the world – and he joined as well.

I didn’t know any of these people then. I just started going along. It was on every two weeks in the first year, from September 2013 to June/July 2014 and I never missed one. I went to every single one and that was a hell of an education in itself. It’s still educating me now. It really helped to expand my knowledge. I was seeing things that weren’t being shown anywhere else. Some occasionally well-known titles – that didn’t get showings very often – but because of the way the evening is constructed, it’s not just you turn up and see one film and you go home… It has a whole shorts programme from 7.30 to about 8.30, and a break: you can support the Cinema Museum by using the bar and café, meet people and look at the bookstall. By about 9.00, you get the main feature.

Another advantage of that setup is you get to hear different accompanists. Not only do you get to hear them, but the accompanists get to have the practice. I’ve watched some of the younger accompanists come up over time: Cyrus, Lillian Henley who went on to record a score for the BFI’s MAKE MORE NOISE Suffragette DVD. And more recently, Meg Morley too. I’ve watched them develop and where else would they have had the chance to play, particularly in the first year where there was a variety of programming plus a feature, every two weeks? You can hear two, sometimes three people play in an evening and it’s been a wonderful journey

[RC]:
Did you know much about silent film before you went along to those early screenings?

[MF]:
I knew some. I’d read Kevin’s wonderful book, The Parade’s Gone By…, which is an absolute bible for silent film fans and fans of film generally. It increasingly has meant so much to me to know about the beginnings of film and the impact on what came after. But it’s all the people involved in silent film I find so fascinating. Even when I was a teenager of fifteen, my bedroom wall was covered with postcards of silent film stars. I wasn’t really seeing any silent film, but I just knew that they fascinated me.

[RC]:
What was it about those images? The historic perspective, the aesthetic, the personalities of the people in those images?

[MF]:
All of the above! Thanks for saving me a job… The images are amazing: studio portraits of silent film era personas are gorgeous. I was fascinated by the characters: I had Theda Bara on my wall, Gloria Swanson, Roman Navarro and a huge poster of Louise Brooks that I got in Kensington market. My Dad was… We’d just moved to that house and mine was the only room that got decorated. I’d chosen the wallpaper and I’d smothered it with all these postcards and my Dad said “Why have you covered the wallpaper with all this stuff?” But it meant so much to me. I just would look at them and they would interest me.

[RC]:
Do you remember the first spark? Was there a first image or somewhere that you went… Because, sadly, it isn’t commonplace now for a fifteen-year-old girl to have a handful of postcards of silent film stars. Do you remember?

[MF]:
I don’t know how I knew about them. I don’t remember watching silent film on TV at that time. It impacted on me when I was a small child, there was regular silent comedy on TV and that hit me: watching Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy (sound or silent ones), they were on every Saturday. There are images of seeing them at that time that have always stayed with me. I’m not aware – as some other people are – of the silent films that were shown through the 80s and 90s on Channel 4: I don’t have any memory of that at all. I may have seen some, I just don’t recall it.

When I was 19, that was the only time I went to see a silent film in my youth. I knew I wanted to see PANDORA’S BOX. Louise Brooks: her image is a way in for a lot of people… A friend of mine Paul – who runs the I Thank You Arthur blog, where he writes about all the silent film he goes to see, he’s got 100s of reviews on there – he saw PANDORA’S BOX first too and it impacted him. So, I must have read about – or seen images – maybe it was in something like the NME? They covered a bit of culture in there… I just don’t know how I knew about it, but I did. I felt she was so striking, so “modern”. I’d certainly got the Tartan video editions of DIARY OF A LOST GIRL and PANDORA’S BOX, so I had those for years and years and years.

At 19 I found out that the Everyman cinema in Hampstead was showing PANDORA’S BOX with a live quartet. So I dragged a friend along to that. I remember we were startled – this was 1991-2 – that the price was about £9-£10 pounds to get in. We were whispering in the doorway going “Oh gosh, £9!” and a lady was kindly saying “How much do you need?” Bless her, we didn’t take any money off her… we did have the money, we just didn’t want to part with quite as much. We did go in and see it and that was wonderful.

PANDORA'S BOX (1929).
PANDORA’S BOX (1929).

It was a long, long time before I went to see a silent film again. It was at the Phoenix in East Finchley which I’d been attending regularly. They started a season of silent films on a Sunday. So I thought “Excellent, I shall take myself along to those.” I saw SUNRISE there for the first time with Stephen Horne playing and an introduction by Gerry Turvey – a film historian who has written a lovely book, The Phoenix Cinema: A Century of Film in East Finchley. The Phoenix is one of my favourite cinemas, I’ve been a member there for years. I like the fact that it was showing film in the silent era and I was seeing silent film in a silent era cinema. It’s very beautiful aesthetically and used a lot for filming: it pops up in all sorts of things.

When Gerry introduced SUNRISE, I was fascinated by the production of the film. I was very moved by the experience and Stephen’s extraordinary playing. He’s a multi-instrumentalist… have you heard him play?

[RC]:
Yes.

[MF]:
So you know what the experience is like… I was sitting there with tears rolling down my face at the end, I was sitting on my own. A couple left, and this was a wonderful silent film moment, because as they were going, the woman stopped in the aisle and looked at me and mimed the gesture of tears running down my face, like a question, “crying?”… I nodded and she tilted her head to the side in a gesture of sympathy and understanding and they left. I just sat there devastated in my seat.

[RC]:
What a moment…

[MF]:
It was a real moment. And then Kevin put on a screening at the Phoenix of… it might have been THE EAGLE or IT… I certainly went to those there. At the time I was reading a book I’d picked up at Hatfield House, a secondhand copy of Swanson On Swanson, Gloria Swanson’s book which I’d heard of and I’d got stuck right into that. Kevin had shown an early Swanson short that afternoon and I told him afterwards I was reading her book: he was so nice to me and said that it was a “hair-raising read!”

It was so fascinating to read an account of what moviemaking was like in the early days and the characters involved. I just found them very alluring, interesting, very complex people with lots of… I don’t want to use the word “spunk”, but that’s what I mean… [laughter].

… Please leave out the “spunk”! [more laughter…] **

To be continued…

Radiant Circus Special Features: THE SPANISH DANCER at Kennington Bioscope (23 MAY).
THE SPANISH DANCER at Kennington Bioscope (23 MAY).

HUNGRY FOR MORE?

  • The second part of our interview with Michelle – where we talk about her research into the many female voices of silent cinema – will initially be posted as a members’ exclusive on Patreon.
  • A prodigious presence on Twitter (@best2vilmabanky), Michelle is also the voice of the Kennington Bioscope (@kenbioscope), so follow her there.
  • You can keep up with Kennington Bioscope’s activities online and discover more treasures of The Cinema Museum – including how you can support the campaign to save it – here.
  • KEVIN BROWNLOW FILM NIGHT (19 MAY 19:30, The Cinema Museum) sees the cinema legend and museum patron interviewed by silent film composer and accompanist, Neil Brand. Including clips from Kevin’s favourite films, this event precedes his 80th birthday and is a Save The Cinema Museum benefit night.
  • Discover more silent film with the specialist listings for UK & Ireland, Silent Film Calendar.

Featured image: THE SPANISH DANCER (1923).

*Thanks to Ian Mantgani for the use of Michelle’s photograph.

**We agreed the “spunk” should stay….

Radiant Circus