South West Silents Film Road Trip
Updated: Aug 10
Back in 2016 we were lucky enough to be invited to make our very own South West Silents BFI Playlist to tie in with the recently launched BFI Player Film Map; the list was made up of early films shot in the South West of England. Since doing that first playlist many more fascinating titles have appeared on the BFI’s Player Film Map, so we thought it only right to go back and make another playlist with a new selection of films to celebrate the many aspects of the region.
However, on this occasion, instead of just selecting a random selection of films our co-director James Harrison has planned out a road trip starting from the sunny Cornish Riviera in the south of the region to the gates of Bristol in the north. Zig zagging (and it really is zig zagging) across the entire south west bringing us some new gems.
So grab your driving goggles, gloves and scarfs and join us for our very own South West Silents Film Road Trip!
What a start and what a film! Made for the Great Western Railway this first title is just beautiful. After jumping on a train at Plymouth’s North Road train station we enter Cornwall via Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge. Keep an eye out for Polperro which was the backdrop for Alfred Hitchcock’s drama The Manxman (1929) seven years later (and one of the first films SWS ever screened) as well as the busy towns of Falmouth, Penzance and the surrounding countryside.
Next there are some incredible shots of the windswept and rugged landscape of Land’s End. The Land’s End Hotel is still there by the way and it’s one of the most atmospheric hotels you will ever stay in, you do actually feel like you are at the edge of the world (nice hotel restaurant and bar as well). Worth just noting the footage of the wreck of The City of Cardiff as well which was a British cargo steamer that ran aground in a gale on 21st March 1912; the steamer was on its way from Le Havre to Cardiff. The ‘First and Last Post Box in England’ also makes an appearance during this sequence and you can still find the post box there; although it is out of action now and a replacement can be found near the hotel.
We conclude our first film with welcoming sights of the streets and beaches of the art and fishing town of St Ives, still one of my favourite places, just watch out for those seagulls!
Following the northern coastal roads from St Ives we meet up with regular amateur filmmaker Lewis Rosenberg and his mates at Holywell (Rosenberg is a very interesting character and it’s worth reading more about him as well as his holiday films on the Screen Archive South East Website). From Holywell we take a quick train journey up to Newquay where Rosenberg and co. setup camp, just watch out for the naked gent at one point!
Newquay is well established as the surfing capital of the UK, but in the 1920s the sport was hardly known in this country. Hence the reason why Rosenberg and his friends (being influenced by Australian newsreels) had the great idea of building their own surfboard and taking it to Newquay and try the sport out for them themselves. What happens next is basically history in the making with and, more than likely, the first major introduction of the now key pastime/sport to the area and possibly the country… and how big is that board?!
Leaving Rosenberg and Cornwall behind us we cross the foot of the south west to the east coast resort town of Torquay for their Alexandra Rose Day celebrations of 27th June 1917. Plenty of craziness taking place throughout the town including dressing up, seaside fun and field games.
While watching you’ll notice a number of Australian and New Zealand soldiers and particularly a lot of recovering soldiers a good reminder about the fact that the First World War was at its height. By the way keep an eye out for the Māori soldiers right at the end of the film performing the ceremonial haka.
Crossing the upland of Dartmoor (if you haven’t already do watch Anthony Asquith’s 1929 masterpiece A Cottage on Dartmoor which is also on the BFI Player) we find ourselves in a rainy North Devon town of Barnstaple just in time for their September Fair in 1915.
The rushes found here are very much the standard for newsreel cameramen (in this case a Gaumont Graphic one) coverage of the time. Get a few shots of the ceremonial officials (keep an eye out for the official trying to hold back members of public so the camera can get a clearer shot) a few wide shots of the crowds in the streets and then head over to the livestock.
All the shots are perfectly framed however. But Barnstaple Fair is renowned for its great fun fair and alas we only get a very brief glimpse of it at the end of the film. But if you jump over to our original BFI Playlist you can see the Fair during 1926 (Film Number 7).
Nothing sells soap better than the Devon countryside apparently; in fact nothing is better than a fictional village called Seaporth on the North Devon coast (the real backdrop is Lynmouth). Lifebuoy soap is the key product in this advert from 1923. The film is entertaining to watch, although, this is mainly down to the location more than the acting or even the story to be honest. But seeing Lynmouth is just wonderful and the footage of the village’s Lifeboat crew (which was active from 1869 until 1944) in action is just great fun.
You’ll also begin to wonder, especially about 3 minutes in, when the Hell is the soap aspect going to kick in… just wait… especially for the ending!
Crossing over Exmoor (it’s a shame I couldn’t find an Exmoor film for this by the way) we head into Dorset and towards the town of Dorchester where Topical Budget is covering the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII) visit to the annual Bath and West Cattle Show. So expect even more livestock action here.
I should just state here that I always love the Topical Budget newsreels. Produced over the course of twenty years (1911-1931) they always seem to have a better essence of quality compared to their rivals such as Gaumont Graphic and Pathé Gazette. Although, this just could be me! This film isn’t a newsreel at all in fact but rushes from the day but it gives you a sense of the kind coverage that Topical Budget wanted from their cameramen.
So as an added bonus you can watch the actual newsreel segment below, much of which covers the Prince of Wales’ attendance alone, although it’s more than likely the segment with the cattle could well be in the missing section at the end of the film.
Leaving the cattle and the Prince of Wales behind we now head further into Dorset and onto the furthest reaches of the south west border. Now there are many things we could’ve looked at here, but you can’t get any more Dorsetine than Verwood Pottery! Produced by American Charles Urban, this great little four minute film really showcases the workmanship needed to produce classic regional pottery like Verwood.
Now pottery can be a very dull subject to cover when it comes to filming (I’ve had to film it over the years) but somehow Urban has been able to bring something rather magical to Verwood’s process. From the boys stamping down on the clay to the potter’s wheel (I feel sorry for the apprentice who has to turn the handle for the wheel all the time by the way) Urban is able to capture and make it into something more than just your standard local craft piece. I’ve watched this film a number of times, the miniature hat and the mini jug that follows is a little gem of filmmaking.
We take one last look at Dorset now with a quick drive down to see the south east coast of the region. On this occasion however we join Stoll Bailey and his coastal adventures involving Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door. This particular film is wonderful for the way in which Bailey is able to take us on a journey through the caves found on the Dorset beaches and then jump up to the highest peaks of the coastal paths… and what views!
From the coastline we head north back into the countryside heading down narrow lanes and across broad plains with the odd stop at a local pub(s) on the way (and why not?). From the pubs we head ever further north and into Wiltshire and spot the famous towering spire of Salisbury Cathedral and while the view of Salisbury is very brief you get a good indication on how beautiful the city as well as surrounding countryside is.
The final few moments of the film highlight the old and the new of Salisbury; the old being the ruins of Old Sarum the initial birth place of Salisbury itself and the location of the first cathedral of the city. To conclude we have the modern Salisbury with its Remembrance Sunday parade through the city streets.
Our final run of the trip is upon us. But before we head towards the city of Bristol we are stopping off at Weston-Super-Mare as the town is in the process of expanding the Grand Pier. Originally designed by Peter Munroe and constructed by Mayoh & Haley of London the pier was originally opened on the 11th June 1904 and given the fact that the pier is being extended merely four years after its opening really does state the popularity of tourism in the town (and in the country in general) at the beginning of the 20th Century.
In fact, in the first shot of the film to the right, you will notice a large towering building in the distance with two turrets on either end. This was (and still is) the famous Grand Atlantic Hotel. The building was originally known as ‘The College’ a boys boarding school (established in 1859). But the school moved out in 1889 and the building was enlarged (with the turrets) to become the hotel it is today; another clear example of the popularity of tourism along the UK’s coast at the time.
We started this journey crossing Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge and we finish by crossing another of Brunel’s grand bridges, Bristol’s very own Clifton Suspension Bridge. Shot in 1900, this film only gives us a short glimpse into Bristol at the turn of the century sadly. Also, you might get a bit dizzy while watching this one. If only we had the camera stop for a couple more seconds looking at the traffic going across as well.
10a: Bristol (1920)
So because of the flaws of this final film let’s check out one title which was shot twenty years later and showcases Bristol a little bit more. Made by Charles Urban’s Kineto Company of America for their ‘Urban Movie Chat’ series Bristol (1920) gives us a bit of a wider view of Bristol, particularly in and around the Clifton area. Highlights include key locations on the ‘Triangle’ including the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery which has hosted some of our silent film nights over the years as well as the Victoria Rooms; another regular venue for silent film screening in Bristol.
Now, don’t forget to check out our series of silent film titles which you can access for free online thanks to a number international archives during lock down. Our previous posts include the American drama The Italian (1915), D.W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat (1909) , British drama Hobson’s Choice (1920) and Frankenstein (1910).