Silent Britain Review
Previously screened on BBC4, Silent Britain affords a rare and welcome glimpse into the UK’s cinematic output during the medium’s first three decades. Our host is Matthew Sweet, author of Shepperton Babylon and regular contributor of late to The Culture Show, the latter proving instructive here. As with those pieces we find Sweet in affable, boyish and enthusiastic mode – and by extension Silent Britain becomes an accessible and entertaining 88 minutes. The style is populist, never bogged down by overtly technical or historical concerns, and garnished fully with an array of enticing clips courtesy of the BFI, many of which exist in truly excellent condition despite their age.
Sweet describes the filmmakers he touches on here as the “lost generation”, and in effect Silent Britain is a primer into these forgotten faces. To this day the UK’s earliest efforts at moving pictures come to us in drips and drabs – an occasional DVD release thanks to the BFI; the intermittent appearance or two of a short as a special feature; such download sources as the Creative Archive – and as a result this approach is to be welcomed not only by the newcomer but also the cineaste. Some of the filmmakers and performers may be familiar to us – Hitchcock, of course, Ivor Novello, Anthony Asquith, William Friese-Greene – others less so, such as Mabel Poulton, Joan Morgan or Percy Smith. Likewise the sheer array of films covered, including early dabblings into animation and science-fiction as well as the expected comedies and melodramas, means that everyone who sits down to this documentary is going to discover something, or someone, entirely new to them.
Of course, three decades into just under 90 minutes doesn’t allow Sweet to go into the greatest of detail and so his efforts are governed by an overriding thesis. Essentially he wishes for Silent Britain to become a reclamation of an era, a means of spurring us on to further investigations and, more importantly, a much greater enthusiasm. Thus he pitches the films we glimpse here against their contemporaries and those which have come since. As a result we find an argument for British silent cinema versus that of Hollywood, versus Méliès and Edwin Porter, versus Chaplin and DW Griffith, even – in a slight stretch of the imagination – Star Wars!
All of which makes for a hugely enjoyable hour and a half, yet the reason for settling down to Silent Britain time and again lies more heavily with the fascinating array of clips. Sweet keeps his on-screen appearances to a minimum and relies much more on voice-over narration, the result being a little more time in which to pore over such enticements as an early series of Sherlock Holmes adaptations, the curious and naïve comedies of the Tilly franchise, Percy Smith’s intriguing insect documentaries, and many, many more. Indeed, we can only hope that Silent Britain acts as a catalyst for further silent cinema DVD releases, from the BFI or anyone else. With the enthusiasm that Sweet generates here, there should hopefully be a sizeable and willing audience for this “lost generation”.
Giving the array of clips and excerpts contained within, Silent Britain really does need to offer a superb presentation in its DVD incarnation. And thankfully this Region 2 release from the BFI does exactly that. Here present in a 1.33:1 ratio and standard DD2.0 sound (not that we’d expect otherwise) the documentary easily comes across just as well as it has in previous BBC4 screenings. The clips look superb – demonstrating the quality of their respective restoration jobs – whilst the newer footage of Sweet and his interviewees demonstrates the exact levels of contrast and clarity we should always hope for. In other words, no problems here.
As for extras, the disc has three to offer beside the tiny booklet of notes which is standard for a BFI release. First up we find an interview with composer Neil Brand which in many ways extends upon material covered in the documentary proper. Ostensibly about film music and the early methods of accompaniment, Brand (and Sweet, his interviewer) also touches on more general observations with regards to silent cinema, discussing the likes of those Sherlock Holmes films or Asquith’s A Cottage in Dartmoor. Also present on the disc we find Cut It Out, a half-hour 1925 silent comedy from Adrian Brunel which makes for terrific entertainment. Poking fun at both censorship and the melodrama of films made at the same time, some of its satire may be a little flimsy by today’s standards yet it’s told with such brio and charm that it’s impossible not to be suckered in. As a final extra we also find a photo gallery to round off the package, one which offers production stills from many of the films covered and those who made them.