Next in our series of guest posts about DIY / emergency screen culture during shutdown, silent film programmer & researcher Michelle Facey writes about Kennington Bioscope’s silent cinema YouTube channel, KBTV.
When the going got tough and the noise of our lives quietened quite suddenly last year, the silent film community knew it had been tough for filmgoers and film production before, when the world was in the throes of the internationally devastating influenza pandemic of 1918, taking the lives of 14 million, including film personnel of the time.
Both the BFI’s silent film curator, Bryony Dixon and Kings College film lecturer, Lawrence Napper, published scholarly blogs in lockdown #1 detailing cinema’s response to the public health disaster of the early 20th Century. Questions of masks, social distancing, enclosed and open spaces, ventilation in cinemas and theatres, clashes between theatrical operators and medical boards, things we are well-versed in now, were also much on the minds of our predecessors, both filmgoers and exhibitors. One enormous difference that presented itself to us from then to now, of course, were our online capabilities, so when it came to a devastating dearth of live silent film events, we were able to step up to the plate, and lo, KBTV (Kennington Bioscope TV) was born!
To fill in anyone unfamiliar, the Kennington Bioscope (est. 2013), consists of a group of silent film enthusiasts, musicians, collectors and historians, programming and presenting regular evening events, plus one-day and weekend festivals throughout the year, all with live musical accompaniment, based at the Cinema Museum in London. The Museum building, known as The Master’s House, was once part of Lambeth’s workhouse, just one such place which famously gave shelter to young local lad, Charlie Chaplin, along with his mother and half-brother.
Today, in this important architectural and social remnant of another age, Chaplinalia is much in evidence in its corridors, along with other antique artefacts of all aspects of cinema. This is where we simultaneously fundraise for the Museum (which receives no public monies) and showcase newly discovered, little known or underseen silents, by kind courtesy of private collectors; Oscar-awarded saviour of silent film, Kevin Brownlow’s being the most prominent of these, or from archives such as the BFI. Projecting film, preserved on various celluloid denominations, resurrecting real rarities seen on 9.5mm, 16mm, 28mm (yes, 28!) and 35mm, is essential to us too. Despite much digitisation, there is a vast amount that exists only on celluloid, and with venues fast vanishing where it’s viable to view film in this way, what we gain the chance to see is lessened greatly in real (reel?) terms.
Each run of a tangibly solid celluloid film print through the projector provides a unique experience. Indeed, a not uncommon theme of conversation amongst celluloid junkies goes something like this: Which print did you see? Was there missing footage/extra footage? What generation dupe was it, or was it from a master neg? (and this next particularly for silent films because of variations in original hand-cranking and automated camera rates in those early years) What speed was it shown at?! And so on.
A silent film screening is all of that, but even more so. Once you add in the element of live musical accompaniment, then all bets are off. Anything can happen and it’s never the same twice, be it a solo musician improvising, sight unseen, a silent standard the player knows backwards, or a full orchestra playing the contemporary score or a modern commission. And it is this live experience the Bioscope offers that regular attendees found, amongst so much else, had been ripped from their lives when Covid saw venues closed. That melding of music and moving image which its followers find so moreish, had been denied them. How could they get their much-needed fix?
Our ideas man, Cyrus Gabrysch (filmmaker, silent film accompanist, founder of the Bioscope and piano-cam innovator), leapt into action to provide an online live-streaming silent film show, with live and pre-recorded accompaniment and live hosting, by mid-April 2020. We’d seen our colleague across the Pond, Ben Model in New York, start his live Sunday silent comedy shows and watched him learn on the hoof as we also would. I’d never Skyped before and had no idea what Zoom was, pre-pandemic, but we got to grips with the technology, found how best to handle this new (ad)venture and reach the silent film community out in the wild. I manage our social media, so spreading the word was no problem.
We started a Kennington Bioscope YouTube channel and commenced output with some pre-recorded documentaries, while we prepped for our first livestream with our digital tech-whiz, Tod Higginson, who assisted greatly in compiling and theming films for the shows and much more besides. Success was also due to the structure of the show, which proved a winning formula. Every episode was framed by charming and clever use of footage Cyrus had shot for a Cinema Museum fundraiser, showing the surrounding area as dusk fell, the Museum stirring as lights shone on a century and more’s objets of film exhibition and memorabilia, customers mingling by the bar, the famed banging of the gong by Museum founder Ronald Grant summoning attendees to their seats, the view of the projectionist positioned in the belly of the booth accompanied by the beast’s whirring as it stirred to life, lamp blazing, ready to cast images from long ago on to the screen, framed by the sound of a disembodied audience applauding, lights dimming and the expectant hush descending…
Such atmospherics added to the KBTV livestream, making the audience feel they were attending a physical space, even within the confines of the virtual auditoria. In my intros, I tried my damnedest to not only research what I could about actors, directors, locations and film companies in our programmes, joining the cinematic dots, as I love to do, giving a flavour of the personalities of people seen on the screen, but to also acknowledge and mark where we were as the weeks, months and more passed under the global pandemic, drawing in isolated people (myself included) to feel they were part of a community, pulling together. Comments left on our Ko-Fi donation page and posted to Twitter proved that it worked and, ironically, we reached a far broader audience than we ever could before.
It was a strange feeling, before I grew accustomed to the experience, to go out live on the internet, talking to my previously unused inbuilt laptop camera, knowing I was presenting to a real audience, as I had last done in person for the final in-venue Bioscope show on 11th March, where you could see and feel the audience and have an instant, visible sense of the film and music’s reception. But now, I was greeted by silence, no excited faces giving feedback on what they’d just experienced. Nevertheless, we improved each time, more or less! I progressed from holding my script printed on rustly pieces of paper, to using my laptop as an autocue with a new webcam perched atop.
The films we utilised flowed generously from the EYE and the BFI, with gratefully received assistance from respective curators, Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi and Bryony Dixon, also providing guest intros, such as the latter’s curation and presentation of a programme of comedy films by British star, Fred Evans, as ‘Pimple’, along with other collaborators such as Fritzi Kramer of Movies Silently website, who supplied us with a restored feature, the first filmed version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s KIDNAPPED (1917). Their involvement though, went above and beyond, as they joined in regularly on the busy KBTV chatbox on our YouTube stream, bringing more insights to the party, as they joined us with viewers the world over. We were amazed to see people popping up to say ‘hello’ during the show from such far-flung places as India, Tokyo, Russia, Brazil, Canada and the U.S.A., mainland Europe and of course up and down the U.K. too! RADIANT CIRCUS themselves enjoyed this function greatly, commenting in their July 2020 Screen Diary review of our sixth livestream, that “…this is a feature of streaming that we’ve come to love. It’s like sitting inside a hive mind where instead of hearing fellow cinema goers cough and shuffle, you get to hear their running analysis of the movie.”
We co-hosted online with the BFI in the 2020 London Film Festival for Australian silent feature, THE CHEATERS (1929), including the crowd-pleasing piano-cam, giving a view of the pianist’s hands dancing across the keys. We collaborated too, in June 2021, with Columbia University’s online conference, Women and the Silent Screen: Entr’acte, for an epic programme consisting of nine films directed and/or produced by pioneer filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché.
One of the 16 livestream shows we produced, of which I’m proudest, is our deep midwinter special, consisting of 12 short films, all wintry scenics and Christmas stories, each accompanied by 12 different players playing, hailing from three continents in a festive feat of camaraderie and global digital coordination conducted by our own John Sweeney. A real cracker, which I know for sure brought comfort and joy to all those wonderful people out there in the dark.
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ALSO IN THIS SERIES:
- Daniel & Clara on their Moving Image Salon for artists & experimental filmmakers
- Julia Brow of eco film club No Planet B on finding new content collabs
- Catriona Mahmoud on taking Screen25 community cinema online with Stream25
- Sarah Kathryn Cleaver on building Zodiac Film Club’s Instagram community
Vol:02 / REVIVAL?
Our next series of commissions will focus on the theme REVIVAL?, taking its title from our audience-backed #ReviveTheDark campaign. If CRISIS? asked ‘what happened?’, REVIVAL? will ask ‘what happens next?’. It will share a series of arguments for more diverse and distinctive cinema. And it will show how, rather than any single ‘great white film’ coming to save the cinema experience, the foot soldiers in this particular fight are the DIY exhibitors hacking the cinema experience to make it matter to them, and to the audiences who find their way to the light.
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