London is probably the only place where people will sit on stone flooring, outdoors on a cold night and watch silent movies about transport 100 years ago – was roughly how last night’s event in Trafalgar Square was introduced to the audience.

For indeed, a few hundred people had turned up to watch a selection of old film clips about various transport systems in London captured on film over the past hundred years – with the silent movies wonderfully accompanied by a live piano performance.

I am quite a fan of these old clips as they look almost like a different world, even though the time being shown is only a few generations ago. Most of our grandparents would recognise some of the scenes being shown last night.

However, one aspect that never comes across in silent moves – for obvious reasons – is the noise of Victorian London. We watch the film clips and the past seems not only monochrome, but also very quiet. We listen to the modern city and bemoan the loss of peace and quiet. That is a myth – Victorian London was noisier than it is today.

We forget that horses clattering over stone cobbles are actually quite noisy, not to mention the iron shod wheels of the trolley buses. The din caused by road transport was such that many attempts were made to dull the noise. Posh hotels would often cover the road with straw in the morning so that early traffic wouldn’t disturb their guests, although after a couple of hours the straw would be beaten to a flattened pulp. There were also experiments with using wood instead of stone for the street cobbles, and even some attempts to cover the wooden blocks with India rubber.

Add in the industry that dominated London – and you have a very noisy city. But last night, we watched an eerie silent city that was presented as swift moving vehicles to the sound of a pianist.

Oh, there was one bit of noise – the idiots behind me in the crowd who TALKED THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE EVENT. What part of silent did they have problems understanding?

I left the event after about 40 minutes, which is when the talkies started, as I had work to get on with, and trying to listen to talkies with my background commentary going on would have been intolerable.

Of the films shown, some of the memorable notes.

Following a barge along the Regents Canal – might be fun to redo the same journey and see how things have changed. (YouTube link)

The Fire Brigade rushes out of Southwark Fire Station – apart from seeing the old horse drawn fire engines, what I noticed is that there was a large crowd watching them, and each engine got a round of applause as they left to race to the fire. Can’t really imagine that happening today. (BFI Link)

Ealing from a Tram – thought to have been taken just after the tramway was opened due to the amount of bunting and union flags hanging all over the place. Also was noticeable was that every shop had a canvas canopy over the front. I used to work in a shop that still had them, and they are far more useful than the modern tiny canopies that some shops pointlessly use. (YouTube link)

Gas powered cars – tried out when petrol was in short supply and included footage of buses with vast “balloons” on their roofs to hold the gas supply. Raised quite a laugh.

Then on to a colour film shot in 1926, and even though we are used to colour TV/films now, thanks to the 30 minutes of b&w footage, to see colour “for the first time”, was actually still quite surprising, and I did feel some of the excitement those original audiences must have felt when seeing colour for the first time. (YouTube link)

Overall, the whole evening was hugely enjoyable – save for the gossiping idiots behind me – and the BFI plans to run a series of London themed film evenings starting next April(ish).


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  1. DAn says:

    People talking in the background are mad. they follow me about. at HIGNFY last night there was a couple who i think thought it was audience participation. They were trying to work out, accurately, the odd one out and missing words round. So odd. Sounds like good event.

  2. Greg Watts says:

    It sounds like it was a great evening. More of these sorts of events should be organised.

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