Martin, our tour guide, has been involved with the Cinema Museum since it started in its Brixton premises in the 1980s. After several moves, it’s now in Kennington in a listed building which started life as a work house in which Charlie Chaplin lived as a boy due to his music hall singer mother falling on hard times when she lost her voice.
After our brief history of the museum, the tour began with a projector dating back to the 1930s which we were allowed to touch, as with many of the exhibits.
We moved along the downstairs corridor and Martin told us of the earliest days of cinema. We learned that the earliest films were shorts depicting actualities, films of people going about their daily business. Mitchell and Kenyon were a company based in Lancashire which made such films, once seen as having little worth but are now seen as valuable social documents.
Comedy films were also popular in those early days, the most famous being that made by the Lumière brothers of a boy standing on a gardener’s hosepipe. The gardener holds the hose up to look at it and the boy takes his foot off with the obvious result.
In the early days of cinema films were shown in music halls and at country fairs where the projectors would be sited in amongst the viewers, a dangerous practice as the nitrate films were apt to catch fire if the film jammed in the machine.
In the early 1900s feature films started to be made and purpose-built cinemas followed shortly afterwards. In 1910 a law was passed ensuring that projectors were housed away from the cinema goers, hugely reducing the danger of fires spreading to the seating area.
There were some wonderfully tactile exhibits along the lower corridor, including a grid showing the seats still available for a particular showing and signs with pre-decimal prices displayed.
Martin told us of the live music played to accompany silent films, ranging from a lone pianist in small venues to an orchestra in the larger cinemas.
The soundtracks for the first talking movies were played on Shellac discs synchronised with the films. However, these discs could easily be broken, or the films damaged, so frames would be lost and the soundtrack and film would be out of sync. Then the breakthrough was the soundtrack being added to the film so no more getting out of sync.
Martin led us upstairs along the corridor dedicated to Charlie Chaplin, the local boy made good who became arguably the world’s first superstar.
During the days of silent films all that was needed to make the films completely international was changing the title frames with dialogue or explanatory text to the local language. Martin told us that there would be speakers in cinemas to read out the text for those who could not read.
Our next stop was the huge event room where Martin served us with tea, coffee and biscuits and which Barry Cryer had packed out days before speaking about his life and career and which also recently hosted a reunion of the 1970s series, the Professionals.
Finally, we went back downstairs to where we started, a room furnished with cinema-style tip-up seats, to watch some short films, my favourites being The Elephant Will Never Forget, about London trams being taken out of service, and Lovely Time and Coffee, about the booming coffee bars in the 50s and 60s.
Many thanks to the Cinema Museum’s guide, Martin, who gave an excellent tour, fielded all of our questions and obviously knows his subject inside out.
Written by member Rikki