The following two chapters describe the time leading up to the formation of the Mancunian Film Company and have been written for www.itsahotun.com - copyright CP Lee 2005
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From Penny Gaffs To Electric Palaces
Manchester in the 1890s was a bustling modern City. The Industrial Revolution had created not just wealth, but vast sociological and technological changes. The inventions of Edison and Bell, the harnessing of electricity, steam and petrol, meant that progress was relentless and unstoppable. Who would want it halted? So much had taken place over such a short space of time - the typewriter, the telephone, the phonograph recorder, the Zeppelin, the automobile, the electric light - As early as 1875 the Director of the US Patents Office had resigned claiming there was nothing left to invent! And whilst he was making such a decisive career move other people were struggling to create a system that would capture and then project moving images. Edweard Muybridge, Ottomar Anschutz, Etieene-Jules Marey, and Thomas Edison amongst others, had developed early camera designs. Edison's Kinetograph, had a strip of film which could be projected onto a screen, but that system was rejected in favour of a fifty foot loop of the celluloid being placed inside a cabinet-like peep-show called a Kinetoscope.
More in keeping with our idea of cinema was Wordsworth Donisthorpe and WC Crofts's 1889 moving camera. In an article in Nature, two years earlier they had even suggested harnessing the camera with the phonograph to produce talking pictures. William Friese-Greene, another British inventor is often championed as the founder of modern cinema, but the world's first public screening of a moving image to a paying audience was given in Paris in 1895 by two brothers Louis and Auguste Lumiere. The next year their representative, Lucien Trewey, crossed the English Channel and gave a series of screenings at
On Monday the 4th of May, a selection of one-reel films, including titles such as The Arrival of a Train at a Station, and Workers Leaving a Factory, were shown at the St James Theatre on Oxford Street in Manchester City centre. A week later they transferred the highly successful programme to the Lesser Free Trade Hall, where eighty years later The Sex Pistols would cause another seismic shift in Popular Culture.How Manchester took to these first showings is clouded by time, but how enthusiastically the hard grafting, fun loving denizens of the Victorian stews like 'Little Ireland' and Deansgate took to them is shown by how quickly these early films, so primitive in style and content, were integrated into the machinery of popular entertainment of the time. Within months they were presented on the programmes of Music Hall entrepreneurs, sharing the bill with singers and tumblers, monologists and and performing dogs. However, in very little time, film-makers moved from simply documenting the contemporary life in their vicinity and turned towards narrative story telling. The first person to do this in this country was Robert William Paul.
He took up the offer of a residency at the Alhambra Theatre in London's Leicester Square where his films were shown between Variety acts. In fact it was Variety acts that often provided the material for his fifteen-minute long presentations. Using a make-shift studio built on the roof of the theatre Paul filmed artistes such as Dan Leno, Marie Lloyd, Albert Chevalier and Vesta Tilley. These 'performances' lasted approximately sixty seconds, and are an interesting pre-dating of John E Blakeley and Mancunian Films' use of Music Hall acts in their movies. But in 1896 Paul broke into new territory by filming a short comedy called The Soldier's Courtship. To us now, here in the 21st century, the narrative - a soldier and his sweetheart are canoodling on their theatre seats when they're disturbed by an elderly lady. To get rid of her they tip her seat up and she falls backwards! - can only seem charmingly naive. In 1896 it was groundbreaking.
It was the relative cheapness of cinematic technology and the relative simplicity of its operation that enabled early cinema to break free from the confines of the 'novelty act' label that Music Hall had thrust upon it. Pioneers quickly realized that they could put on film shows in whatever space was to hand and the travelling film show was born. Booths were set up in fairgrounds and markets. Within a very short space of time the booths became more elaborate and with the inclusion of organ music, dancing girls and MC's, the film show had inverted the Music Halls where they had got their start. One travelling showman, Walter Haggar initiated a new trend when, as well as showing other people's films, he began to produce his own, often with a local flavour. This style, or genre, became known as 'Actualities' and sometimes, 'Local Topicals'. Haggar produced quite a few extremely popular narrative movies too. The Life of Charles Peace (1905) was a dramatization of the life and death of an infamous Victorian criminal, and in the days before film rental became the norm, it sold over 480 prints marking it as hugely successful for its time. The Life of Charles Peace was particularly popular in Manchester because only a few years earlier Peace had been interrupted while committing a burglary in a suburb of the City and shot dead a policeman who tried to arrest him. He'd escaped capture for that and only confessed after he'd been sentenced to death for murdering another policeman, this time in London. This was history, folklore, fable and fact all brought to life on a screen in front of people who lived in the very place it had happened in!
City based showmen around the country opened up what became known as 'Penny Gaffs', and sometimes in a more descriptive fashion, 'Flea-Pits', the names being an indication that moving pictures were still, in the early 1900s, regarded more as a diversion for the working classes than a pursuit of the bourgeoisie. These Penny Gaffs were situated in vacant shops, disused chapels, old school halls, anywhere in fact that you could fit an audience. All the showmen needed were a projector and a sheet - and films of course - and they were becoming more and more readily available through the rapidly increasing number of production companies that were springing up to accommodate the growing demand for moving pictures. Over the Pennines in Sheffield, for instance, Jasper Redfern and Frank Mottershaw progressed from filming on spare ground near the City centre, to building a studio on Hanover Street. Here they filmed parts of A Daylight Robbery (1905?), starring members of the local fire brigade as a band of outlaws on horseback. It cost less than £100 to make and was hugely successful on the circuit, the rights eventually being sold to producer/director Charles Urban of the Warwick Trading Company for £50.
Just to the north of Manchester two film pioneers, Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon set up a studio at 40 Northgate Blackburn. From there they went out across the north of England and beyond, producing 'Actualities' to order for local entrepreneurs to show in their tents or Penny Gaffs. Between 1900 and 1913 they made hundreds of short films, usually of only a minute or two's duration, totalling over twenty-eight hours in length. The themes were the standard ones of 'local topicals' - workers leaving the factory, Whit walks, a day at the seaside, anything which would guarantee attracting an audience of working people prepared to spend a few coppers on seeing themselves on screen.
Towards the end of the century's first decade the Penny Gaffs were beginning to give way to more permanent, more comfortable premises, specifically adapted for motion picture viewing. Often, in the early days, the only concession was to perhaps fit a sloping floor in whatever converted shop or hall the films were being shown in. This was what it was like in the 'Musee of Mirth' on Market Street in the Manchester town centre. It wasn't unusual for the crowded audience to topple forward into one another. Businessmen soon began realizing that there was potential in properly fitting out a 'Kinema'. Arguably the first proper City centre cinema in Manchester was the Grand Theatre of Varieties on Peter Street. Shortly after opening it was sold to Jasper Redfern, the Sheffield showman who was expanding his business empire to include exhibition as well as production. Within a few short years Manchester had the largest number of cinemas per capita than anywhere else in England - 111 for a population of 714,000.
As the buildings became more elaborate and the films themselves more sophisticated the Government and local authorities began to take a greater interest in the goings on inside them. In 1910, Gladstone the Home Secretary introduced the Cinematograph Films Act. Originally designed to ensure there were adequate fire exits and such like, the term 'public safety' became high-jacked to mean 'public morality'. For the moment issues of censorship were left in the hands of local authority Watch Committees. There was also confusion over showing films on Sundays. In some areas it was strictly forbidden, in others it was allowed as long as the exhibitor donated all the takings to charity. What had started out as an attempt to bring order to a form of entertainment that was attracting a more and more middle-class audience was becoming more chaotic than the original situation it was supposed to be correcting. Despite the legal situation's fluidity people weren't deterred from setting up film related business, and Manchester too had its own movie companies.
One of them, the Lama Film Producing Company, was based at 50 Blackfriars Street in the City centre. Lama had a simple glass-house studio built on the roof and would have used blinds or diffusers to soften shadows when filming. Although officially registered as a film production company from 1913, the building had from 1907 housed the Palatine Photographic Company and popular belief is that they and Lama were one and the same and that they had been involved in making moving pictures since the turn of the century. I fact they are rumoured to have turned out several fake newsreels during the Boer War. This wasn't at all unusual at the time. In Blackburn Mitchell and Kenyon were doing the same thing, loading a charbanc with actors in military uniforms and taking them off to the moors and passing off the resulting footage as authentic. What sets the Lama/Palatine offerings aside is the persistent rumour that several of them were directed by Cecil Hepworth, who was also working for Charles Urban and the Warwick trading Company. Hepworth, then in his early twenties, would become a well-known and successful director in his own right in the decade to follow.
Manchester also had a rapidly expanding group of film renters - Gaumont Film Hire, Bijou Film Services, Ideal Film Renting and the Central Film Agency. This last company was owned by a man called James Blakeley who came from Ardwick in Manchester, close to the City centre, a basically working class area, but one that by the Edwardian era was becoming increasingly populated by skilled artisans and their families. The harshness of the Industrial Revolution with its incessant demand for cheap labour which had seen a City emerge from a quiet weaving town to a seething mass of people forced to live together cheek by jowl was changing again. Necessity had begun to bring changes in the way people lived. 'Municipal Benevolence' had its beginnings in Manchester. In order to retain an efficient, productive workforce disease and poverty had to be fought. Consequently Manchester had led the way in public sanitation, education and social services. The demand for more skilled labour, the beginnings of trade unionism, the slow and gradual increase in wealth, meant that Manchester now had a population that was on the verge of great changes. The average age of mortality for working people was still around the age of fifty, but even that was increasing as the reforms of the late Victorian era began to take effect.
The Blakeleys had lived in Manchester for generations. In 'Hooray For Jollywood' the authors claim that James Blakeley was Jewish and that he converted from Judaism in 1888 to marry his childhood sweetheart Margaret Quirk. This was not so uncommon at the time. The city was a palette on which fate mixed many colours. Within a couple of years, James who was working as a broker, and Margaret had given birth two boys, James George, from then on always called Jim, and John Edward, always referred to as John E. Both boys received a good Catholic education and when they left school Jim became an auctioneer and John a shipping clerk. By 1907 James had changed careers from brokerage to that of a draper and was working the market stalls selling bolts of cloth from off a barrow. John E. was married and living in Moss Side. Looking at photographs of the family from around that period you can get some inkling of their characters. The three men, James, James and John E, watch-chains and waistcoats immaculately in place across solid and respectable mid-riffs, the sons flanking their father, mother Margaret looking proudly on. Another picture (below) of John E. and his wife Bella from 1909 shows a handsomely dressed couple in a traditional Edwardian pose, wife dutifully seated, husband proudly standing beside her, both smiling shyly at the camera. It's clear from their clothes that they are comfortably off. This is a close knit family with everything going for it.
During his travels around the markets of Greater Manchester area James couldn't help but notice the popularity of the Bioscope Penny Gaffs and in 1908 decided to take his first plunge into the world of film by purchasing a cinema in Warrington. James's first venture into film was quite short lived, apparently less than a year, but in an interview in 1949 John E Blakeley claimed that it was so successful that five hundred people would try and cram into a space designed for two hundred. Maybe Warrington was simply too far away from Ardwick? Whatever the reason, James sold up, but he wasn't about to turn his back on the film business. He could see what potential it had. In 1909 the family home at 16 Union Street, Ardwick, became the headquarters of his movie rental business. In no time at all he was acquiring around 80,000 feet of film a week, which he rented or sold at around sixpence a foot. Business was going so well that he was able to persuade his sons to give up their jobs and join him. By 1910 they were making enough money to buy an old skating rink in Levenshulme and convert it into a cinema. More purchases rapidly followed. By the time the Great War broke out they were established players in the movie business.
Part of their success was their ability to pick up films that other renters didn't see the potential in. For instance in November 1914 Blakeley's Central Film Agency gained exclusive rights to a film called The Abduction (1914), and by mid-January they'd shifted every copy to cinemas around the North-West. Their next coup was an Edison ten part serial, The Man Who Disappeared. Billed as a 'gripping thriller'. It was still pulling in the crowds the middle of 1915. When a new Mack Sennett film, Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914) was released in 1915, James was reluctant to take it on despite the fact that it starred Charlie Chaplin. He was popular in Britain but was by no means as big a star as he was to become. The problem lay in the length of the movie. It was 73 minutes long and renters and theatre owners were reluctant to run any film, let alone a comedy of that length convinced that audiences would just simply lose interest half way through. Even though film had been around for fifteen years or so audiences were often patronized by the cinema owners and producers. It took directors like DW Griffiths and Hepworth to 'train' audiences by 'infiltrating' shots such as close-ups and pans. In fact, audiences didn't mind them at all; it was the short-sightedness of the Industry that stifled creativity (plus ca change).
John E. on the other hand could see its potential and managed to persuade his father to acquire the exclusive rights of the new Chaplin movie for Lancashire, Yorkshire and Staffordshire. It made them a fortune and enabled John E. whose own family was now growing, to branch out and start up his own rental business, called, John E Blakeley Ltd, based in Victoria Street in town. Branching out looked like sound sense. He'd proved his business acumen with Tillie. While the War was still raging everything was unstable, not predictable. Why not diversify and spread out? If it didn't work he could always return to Central's offices on Victoria Street. The Blakeley's business empire was looking good - and then Fate intervened and in 1917 both brothers were called up. It was not a good time to be a soldier.
Fortunately for the Blakeley's neither of the sons saw active service and the War would soon be over, but while it was raging it would have other massive effects on UK cinema. Prior to 1914 French movies dominated the market. In these days before sound the country of origin mattered very little. Intertitles could be shot and edited in very cheaply. The American film industry was still in its infancy and Hollywood not yet established as a film-making centre, but the outbreak of hostilities in Europe and the resultant privations almost brought French and British film-making to a standstill. By 1916 the appalling demands of the armed forces for more and more man-power to be sent to the killing fields meant that hitherto protected 'essential' industries were letting their work force go. The film industry was no different, it could hardly claim to be vital to the War effort, so output of British and French companies suffered accordingly. This didn't particularly affect the exhibitors, in fact, the number of cinemas in this country rose during the War, people wanted relief from the relentless misery and suffering it was bringing down on their heads. Manchester was no exception and at least two cinemas opened their doors to an eager public during the Great War, The Cosy Corner on Swan Street by the market, and the Palladium Peter Street.
The Cosy Corner was neither on a corner nor, by all accounts, particularly cosy, cramming in about a hundred people into the ground floor premises between two pubs, The George and Dragon (now The Band On The Wall) and the Burton Arms. It was there primarily to service the needs of the inhabitants of 'Little Italy' as that part of the City was known. The Palladium on the other hand was much grander, having been converted from a theatre. The cinema promised not just upholstered seats, but a 'grand cafˇ rendezvous and promenade'. The first film to be shown there in February 1918 was called The Mad King of Bavaria, and according to its publicity hand-out was 'the only copy in existence'. It was reportedly banned in Germany and this one print had been captured by a British submarine from a German naval vessel. It seems that not much had changed from the days of Lama Films and Mitchell and Kenyon's exploits during the Boer War. At the end of the War out of this country's male population of approximately 23 million men, five million had been drafted and 3,190,235 had become casualties. Manchester's soot grimed buildings cloaked the City in mourning as thousands failed to return. For those remaining entertainment was as much a priority as a necessity.
Obviously, movies had to come from somewhere and America was in the perfect position to exploit the gap. What this meant for the Blakeleys was their business was affected in a knock-on way because American film companies set up their own distribution offices in the UK, cutting out middlemen like the Manchester entrepreneurs. In the immediate post-war period the rental business was so sluggish that the family worked out a plan. James would run John E. Blakeley Ltd, Jim would manage one of the family cinemas and interestingly, according to research at the NWFA, John E. was made manager of the American-owned Vitagraph offices in Manchester. This didn't mean that John E. had decided to sit back and give up the family business. For him the early 1920s were a time of learning more about film
Nobody knows for sure, and we're never likely to, at which point in his life John E. decided that he wanted his involvement in film to go beyond mere distribution. It was probably a gradual process that grew from familiarity as much as anything. When we look now at his output as a director it's easy to deride or mock the films for their simplicity but that's to miss the point of them. And there are enough clues in his oeuvre to indicate that he knew precisely what he was doing, it was more of a case that he chose not to. All of this however, lay in the future - 1920 was a point in time when it felt good to be alive. The War was over and the worldwide influenza epidemic that had followed it, killing more people than had died in the conflict, had passed. The League of Nations had been formed to prevent belligerent states attacking others, society was beginning to return to something like normality as far as it ever could. People wanted entertaining and the cinemas were ready and able to cater to them.
The family had played out various tactical manouevres designed to consolidate and protect their enterprises which left them with real estate in the form of cinemas and a registered company despite having dissolved the original one. Even though they appeared to be scaling back they were, in words that would become popular in the music industry, taking care of business - and the business was strictly family. John E. was level-headed but also prepared to take risks, but only if his back was covered, he now had his own growing family to protect and provide for. Business for John E. was still distribution whilst keeping a weather eye open for any other opportunities that might come along.
The Manchester film industry, including screening, distribution and production, was a relatively close-knit community. Renters, by dint of their profession would cross the City visiting cinemas, cutting rooms and manufacturers. Amongst the firms that John E. would have been familiar with were The Progress Film Company which had an office on Deansgate only a short distance away from the Blakeley's on Victoria Street: also on Victoria Street was Walter Stott's National Film Agency which boasted a film processing lab on its premises, and, most interestingly, a studio based in Banba Hall on Upper York Street Chorlton-on-Medlock which went by the name Lancashire Films.
Lancashire carried on where Lama left off. They produced everything from topicals' to slapstick comedy, all the way through to melodramas such as A Marriage Mystery, shot on location in Derbyshire and the terraced streets around the studio, to Orphans In The Storm which was premiered at La Scala. The company's actual business office was on Booth Street East. The back door conveniently led to Banba Hall which in turn was virtually next to the La Scala Cinema which had its main entrance on Oxford Road. Banba Hall had two stages, 50x40foot and 50x30, both fully equipped with lighting and cameras. Footage was processed at the NFA on Victoria Street and then edited back at the Hall. Repairs and splices were carried out on the ground floor. Rushes could be carried next door the La Scala and viewed in the cinema's 2000 seater theatre. We can assume there was more than a casual link between John. E. and Lancashire's founder Gerald Somers. Later on when Somers was working as a cameraman for Universal News, at John Blakeley's request he taught basic camera technique to his son Tom. History repeated itself years later when Tom's son Mike taught camera to Gerald's grandson Howard when they worked together at Granada TV. It wouldn't be unrealistic to assume that John E. also rented out Lancashire product and there are suggestions that he spent quite a lot of time at Banba Hall himself, learning the ropes' in all manner of production skills.
Another firm, not a few hundred yards away on Rosamund Street, was the Manchester Film Producing Company. Again, there is some evidence that John E. spent time there too absorbing the techniques and generally keeping his eyes open. Down in the basement film stock was developed in large tanks and then transferred to dry in electrically heated drums. On the ground floor, intertitles were not just edited into films, they were shot as well. The majority of location shots for MFPC productions were taken down the road in Platt Fields Park. In just over twenty years time, it would be used again by John E's own company Mancunian.
Even though it would appear that the local film industry was thriving the reality couldn't have been further from the truth. By 1925 just over 95% of films shown at British cinemas were American. Only 23 British films were made that year and a previous attempt in November 1924 to have at least one week a year when cinemas showed only home produced movies had failed. Appeals to the government had seemingly fallen on deaf ears and it wasn't until 1927 that they were to act and impose what became known as the 'Quota Act', an attempt to impose an incrementally increasing schedule of British films in UK cinemas over the next decade. Nationalism by imposition, perhaps, and a battle that continues today with the perennial cry of 'the British film industry is dead!' To a business man who was concerned primarily with rental it didn't matter very much where the product came from and all the evidence suggests that John E. in particular and the Blakeley's as a whole were pragmatists to a man. Which is why it's odd that at around this time John E. decided to go into film production.
If anything finally decided him it was his collaboration with Leeds based Mercury Film Services Ltd which began in 1925. They'd put back into circulation a movie originally released in 1917 entitled The Lost Chord. Based on a song by Arthur Sullivan and adapted for the screen by Mercury's owner, Booth Grainge, it had become an unlikely hit. Audiences familiar with Sullivan's song could easily sing along with the film and this simple concept was to lead to a succession of 'silent musicals'.
No silent film was ever actually silent of course. Aside from the buzz of human conversation, the reading out of titles for the benefit of the illiterate and the whirr of the projector from cinema's earliest days exhibitors had endeavoured to provide some form of musical accompaniment. As film became more visually sophisticated so did the sounds that went with them. Depending on the venue's financial status silent films could be accompanied by anything ranging from a simple solo piano to a full symphony orchestra, or any combination in between. Often the music would be improvised by the cinema's resident pianist. Increasingly throughout the Silent era scores were specially written for certain films. Director DW Griffith composed music for his own productions. So too, eventually, did Charlie Chaplin. In Ozark Mountain cinemas in the USA music was sometimes provided by banjo and slide guitar. Music was almost an integral part of the cinematic experience and getting an audience to join in with a popular ballad isn't such a strange or unusual idea when you take into account the popularity of Music Hall sing-a-longs. In fact, it's a surprise that no one had thought of doing it sooner.
Booth Grainge was able to offer the Blakeley's exclusive distribution rights for the North West, and once again John E's sense of business acumen was strong. Hard on the heels of The Lost Chord Mercury produced a series of four pictures under the banner heading Famous Melodies. Each one featured songs and tunes from a particular part of the British Isles - Songs of England, Songs of Scotland, Songs of Ireland, and Songs of Wales. Deliberately nationalistic, sentimental and populist they were a box-office success wherever John E. could book them in. This time though, Mercury added a new element, live vocal accompaniment where theatres could afford it. These singers would lead the audience in carousing their way through such standards as Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes and Just A Song At Twilight. Presumably Blakeley was responsible for hiring singers in his distribution area of the North-West.
Mercury and Blakeley's winning streak continued with Booth Grainge's next production The Ball Of Fortune, not a musical this time, but, as its name suggests, a film set around professional soccer. Mercury's publicity trumpeted it as 'A sensational football feature in six reels' and it starred the sporting legend of his day footballer Billy Meredith. Meredith had retired two years earlier at the incredible age, for a professional footballer, of fifty. He was the Bobby Chorlton or Gary Linekar of his day, immensely popular and dearly loved not just by ordinary soccer fans but by the British public at large. He was, without a doubt one of the first 'modern celebrities', to emerge in an increasingly media driven world. Meredith had played for both Manchester United and City for an incredible thirty -five years and was also a veteran of the Welsh International team, so when Blakeley's were given the distribution rights for the North-West of England and Wales they leapt at the chance. The showman in John E. went into overdrive to exploit the film to its maximum. Billy Meredith himself was on hand for the movie's trade showing which took place at Manchester's Piccadilly Picture Theatre in May 1926. The footballing legend also lent an assortment of memorabilia to the Blakeley's which they put on display in the window of their Victoria Street office resulting in crowds causing an obstruction on the pavement when the display was unveiled, for Blakeley's and for The Ball Of Fortune a tremendous publicity boost.
Mercury's venture into Feature length narrative film didn't stop them from following up Ball Of Fortune's success with another series of six musical shorts based around popular songs, Famous Song Scenas. Hot on its heels came Famous Music Masters which were based around music by composers like Bizet, Schumann, Brahms and Strauss, a kind of Classical Lite series. With the continued success of these Mercury offerings John E. finally took the plunge. Instead of renting them he would make them and how he did that, and what kind of films he produced is what this website www.itsahotun.com is about.
Updated: 18.04.2012 or