Slo-mo in Sandgate; or, A Wellsian Pilgrimage

Yesterday I was in Sandgate, the Folkstone suburb where H. G. Wells was based from soon after he became a bestseller in 1896 until 1909 – and discovered I was inadvertently marking HG’s or Bertie’s 154th birthday. In 1901 he was able to move from a beach-side cottage into a handsome Voysey-designed mansion, Spade House, with a stunning cliff-top view over the Channel. And it was here that he wrote many of his most famous social and prophetic novels, as well as the part-autobiographical Kipps.  

Spade House, designed for Wells by C.F.A. Voysey in 1901, and now a nursing home

But what drew me to visit Sandgate was one story in particular, ‘The New Accelerator’ (1901), which is one of Wells’ small-scale adventures in speculative physics, following his breakthrough with The Time Machine. Readers of this post will probably recall that Robert Paul read The Time Machine when it was appearing as a serial in 1895, contacted Wells and registered a draft patent for a ‘time machine’ entertainment. Meanwhile, projected films dawned just months later, and turned out to perform the same trick more cheaply and flexibly.

However, the influence wasn’t just one-way. Wells reproduces some of the earliest effects of filmic magic in his fiction – reverse-motion in The Time Machine, huge outdoor screens and miniature playback devices in When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), and in ‘The New Accelerator’, slow-motion enjoys its first apotheosis. As in so many of Wells’ great ‘tales of space and time’, rooted in a down-to-earth Victorian and Edwardian world, the Accelerator involves little more than two gents on an afternoon jaunt around Sandgate, after they’ve both taken a highly unusual potion, which speeds up their metabolism so that everything around them seems almost frozen.

Nicholson Baker may have revived this idea with erotic intent in The Fermata, but for Wells it’s an innocent outing, with a precise local geography. The narrator and his friend Professor Gibberne leave the latter’s house ‘at the western end of Upper Sandgate Road’, to make their ‘little raid on the Folkestone Leas’, a cliff-top promenade, ‘under the influence of the New Accelerator’ – a jaunt that could have been closer to some of the episodes in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas than to the frozen vista of Marienbad.

An Edwardian postcard image of The Leas

Wells’ imagining of an effect we have seen achieved on-screen with growing sophistication is brilliant. ‘And so we came out on the Leas. There the thing seemed madder than ever. The band was playing in the upper stand, though all the sound it made for us was a low-pitched wheezy rattle… Frozen people stood erect; strange, silent, self-conscious-looking dummies hung unstably in mid-stride, promenading upon the grass.’ Our heroes initially resist the temptation to intervene in several tableaux, until Gibberne grabs an offensive lap-dog and starts to run. The narrator urges him to stop – ‘Friction of the air… like meteorites. Too hot!’.

Then they realise the effect is wearing off: nearby figures are starting to move. The pair return to Gibberne’s ‘pleasant detached house in the mixed style’, and the narrator ends by describing how they plan to bring the Accelerator to market, ‘in three strengths’, hopefully with an accompanying Retarder, ‘which has indeed still to be discovered’. I wanted to see this scene of utopian speculation at first hand, to walk around it like Wells’ protagonists.  The day was ideal, and the very same bandstand is still there. Under normal conditions the Leas would have been crowded with people enjoying its spacious views. But of course these aren’t normal times, so I had it almost to myself, free to imagine HG taking a walk from Spade House – and maybe being struck by an idea for a story.  

Folkestone Leas, 21 September 2020

So many of Wells’ stories prefigure the imaginative worlds of cinema, although he had little success developing ideas for films. The one occasion when Alexander Korda gave him a virtually free hand to script Things to Come from his own ‘dream novel’ The Shape of Things to Come disappointed all concerned, including Wells. One reason was that Wells had become too much of a prophet by this stage in his career, too concerned to preach. What was missing was the everydayness that made his early scientific romances so beguiling and infinitely suggestive. Back to the Future is more authentically Wellsian. So too is the little 1928 surreal comedy he scripted for his son, Frank, to work on, Blue Bottles.

Dawn of the Electric Theatres

Just received vol 3 of Tony Fletcher’s heroic survey of film screening within the London County Council region, titled The Kinetograph Theatre Arrives. Based substantially on documentation held by London Metropolitan Archives, this focuses on the emergence of venues dedicated to all-film programming around 1909, with nearly 250 individual entries. Not that these followed any standard pattern, as Tony’s listing shows, with mission halls, chapels, former tram sheds, skating rinks, pubs and substantial theatres, all keen to cash in on an expanding market for cheap entertainment.

What was new in 1909 was the Cinematograph Act, primarily motivated by the danger of fire in poorly-planned premises. This led to the LCC updating its own regulations that dated back to 1897, and becoming responsible for licensing premises, which activity provides much of the fascinating detail in Tony’s book. An especially valuable feature is the large number of architect’s plans and sketches, which show that adding a fireproofed ‘cinematograph chamber’ or ‘box’, to house the projector and film, was the key feature now demanded. And ‘Electric’ was definitely the buzz-word to include in your name – even if this only applied to your house lighting.

Why 1909 is also significant, at least for this blog, is that it was the year when Robert Paul decided to withdraw from the film industry he had helped create. Strangely, no evidence has appeared of exactly when he closed down his film activities, although his last film was released in September of that year (IMDb persists in listing The Butterfly as a 1910 Paul film, but this is almost certainly a confusion with Williamson’s History of the Butterfly). And Paul didn’t comment on his departure until decades later, when he drily described the business as having become ‘too speculative’. Certainly the competition was becoming fierce, with attractive films flooding in from France, Italy, Denmark and the United States. Considerable investment and expansion at his Muswell Hill Studio would have been needed to stay in business. And in view of how his fellow-pioneers fared, Paul’s apparently abrupt decision to focus on his thriving instrument business seems wise.

The Kinematograph Theatre Arrives can be ordered from Local History Publications, 316 Green Lane, Streatham, London SW16 3AS, or by email from celluloidtapestry.@hotmail.com.

Happy returns!

Bradford.Forgotten.titling

The reopening date for the Forgotten Showman exhibition at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford is now confirmed as 19 August. Pre-booking is obligatory, as in all museums at present, but the show will enjoy an extended run until February 2021. During September, it will be enhanced with another of Paul’s original donations to the Science Collections of what was still the South Kensington Museum. The most exciting of these, as previously reported, is a framed selection of film strip prints dating from c.1898, which offers in remarkable detail images from many of Paul’s lost films. An updated overview of Paul’s contribution to British cinema can be found on the museum’s website https://www.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/objects-and-stories/robert-paul; and the graphic novel Time Traveller can be viewed and downloaded at https://simplebooklet.com/YqicBlR7tUKyUpguZBJS9S#page=0

AP.EastWing

Another ‘return’ in the near future may be a Robert Paul display at Alexandra Palace in North London. Discussions are under way for what could be an evolving display in the East Wing of the great Victorian people’s palace, as this starts to re-open. Paul built his studio just a mile from Alexandra Palace in the new suburb of Muswell Hill in 1898. And he filmed in Alexandra Park on a number of occasions, with his Switchback Railway (1898) providing the earliest moving images of entertainment in the park.

Switchback.frame

It’s hoped that the Alexandra Palace Paul display will include screenings of this and other surviving Paul films, as well as images from some of those not yet located – such as the spectacular balloon ascents in the Park by William Beedle in 1903 and Dr Barton in 1905.

Beedle.airship

On the music of colour and visible motion

A reminder that many film historians don’t get out enough comes from the research of André Lange-Médart and his magnificent website on the history of television https://www.histv.net/. André recently posted a fascinating account of the work of William Ayrton and John Perry, two distinguished English electrical scientists who were working in Tokyo at the Imperial Engineering College in the 1870s (where they trained the first generation of Japan’s electricians). In essence, they proposed investigating ‘kinematic art’ initially with a mechanical device to explore harmonic motion – the results of which might remind us today of modern recreational devices like the Spirograph.

Annotation 2020-06-07 163021

They were unable to transport their appratus back from Japan. But in 1878, Ayrton gave a talk with the above title at the Physical Society in London, accounts of which appeared in many scientific journals, including Nature and English Mechanic in December of that year https://www.histv.net/travaux-britanniques-ayrton-perry

And the relevance of this to Robert Paul? Ayrton and Perry were two of Paul’s teachers at the Finsbury Technical College in London in the 1880s. He remained in close contact after starting his own electrical instrument business in the early 1890, producing versions of their designs for galvanometers and other instruments.

Ayrton-Mather galvanometer

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Left: Ayrton-Mather Galvanometer. Above: Ayrton-Perry secohmmeter. Both manufactured by Paul

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Given his eminent teachers’ interest in ‘seeing by electricity’ (the title of a paper they published in 1880: see illustration below), it seems unlikely they would not have discussed Paul’s venture into mechanical ‘animated photography’ in 1895, and that he would not have followed the parallel developments in harnessing telegraphy and radio to transmit pictures. A timely reminder that ‘cinema’ and ‘television’ were born of the same late Victorian technological ambition and vision.

.Seeing by elect