Friday, 2 November 2012

Polar Dreams, Ghosts and Psychics, a talk by Shane McCorristine

 On Hallowee’n 2012, Shane McCorristine gave a talk to a mixed audience at the Polar Museum in Cambridge, examining cultural meanings of the Arctic.  It turns out that we betray a surprising ambivalence to what at first glance might just seem an unproblematic place of ice and cold.  McCorristine has utilised a wide range of sources, from explorers’ diaries, memoirs and anecdotes, to folk tales and ghost stories, in order to build a picture of the underside of the top of the world, its, as he called it, “Supernaturality.”  Our standard image of the Arctic is of the landscape as majestic and starkly beautiful, a magical environment, carrying connotations of purity, magnificent beauty, and wonder.  Concomitantly, the image of polar exploration is of the rational masculine explorer, valorising sacrifice and achievement, a story of endeavour, teamwork, of comradeship in a challenging environment, imposing a human presence on a blank canvas.  In short, a Boy's Own story.

Yet but the ice can also be seen as female, an ice maiden, comforting yet treacherous.  There is a dark side to polar exploration, and magic can be two-edged, black as well as white.  Of course the obvious point is that death and injury are ever-present, as is starvation, and even the necessity for cannibalism to survive.  McCorristine had some graphic examples of the damage extreme cold can do to the body, especially hands and feet, from losing fingers to skin sloughing off feet “like a sock”, or a foot becoming so welded to a boot that it was impossible to know where one ended and the other began.  In addition to the physical pain, there is the risk of mental anguish and paranoia.  Even hypothermia is not the peaceful gradual falling asleep of common belief: the American explorer Elisha Kent Kane (who was romantically linked to Margaret Fox, a pioneer with her sisters of the Spiritualist movement) described it as like being electrocuted.

The typical Victorian view of the Arctic was that it was a tablua rasa, a lonely empty region (a common colonial attitude).  But this was wrong, as it is inhabited, with a history and culture.  However, this perceived emptiness, while it made it another place to be conquered, at the same time gave it the character of a realm of enchantment, an entry point to the supernatural.  It was a borderland, liminal, state where science and superstition met and where the supernatural threatened boundaries between worlds, where hallucinations undermined confidence in one’s abilities to distinguish reality from fantasy, and hardened explorers yearned for wives left behind; a dreamscape as much as a landscape.  McCorristine argues that it is the focus of cycles of enchantment in which we become enchanted, disenchanted and re-enchanted.

He touched on Shamanism and traditional beliefs in the region, the use of spirit guides by indigenous peoples to assist with survival in an unforgiving environment.  Their tent ceremonies link to nineteenth century séances as a method of utilising psychic abilities to obtain information.  The talk though focused on two aspects of the region’s uncanny.  The first is the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), a sight guaranteed to fill the viewer with awe in any case, but accompanying which, folklore had asserted, are strange rustling noises, just at the threshold of perception.  The Lights bestow a kind of anthropomorphic quality, and the locals attribute the mysterious sounds to the souls of the dead.  Hesitation in determining the cause is a sign of the uncanny, unheimlich, as we struggle with interpretation.

Drawing of an aurora in Fridtjof Nansen's In Northern Mists (1911)

The bulk of the talk was devoted to the ill-fated expedition of Sir John Franklin and his gallant crew who in 1845 set out with two ships to locate the Northwest Passage, and then vanished.  The resting place of the ships, and Franklin himself, are unknown, and only a few bodies, remarkably well preserved, have so far been recovered.  McCorristine discussed the place of Franklin’s expedition in cultural history.  Its disappearance was a topic of enormous importance in the 1840s, fuelled by Jane Franklin, who refused to believe her husband was dead.  Sir John pushing out into the wastes while Jane stayed at home mapped directly on to the ideal of Victorian domesticity, but her behaviour after his disappearance indicated that she possessed steely determination of her own as she did all she could to locate her lost husband.

Franklin and his officers, Gleason's Pictorial, 18 October 1851

Efforts to find out what had happened took two forms, one physical, the other mental, as naval expeditions were supplemented by psychical investigations.  The mystery came at a time when interest in mesmerism was at its peak, and ascertaining the expedition’s whereabouts was a prime focus of animal magnetism’s “higher phenomena”, with clairvoyants submitting their accounts of what their visions told them.  Reports were generally positive, with most claiming that Franklin was still alive.  McCorristine gave us some examples, including the ‘Seeress of Bolton’ (a name perhaps modelled on the more celebrated Seeress of Prevorst) who psychometrised Franklin’s possessions, and Louisa “Weesy” Coppin, a dead four-year old child who appeared as a ball of bluish light.

This clairvoyant network covered the globe in parallel to more conventional methods of communication.  Information gleaned from mesmerised subjects from as far away as Australia and India was the best they had, given the information vacuum into which the expedition had sailed.  Given the vast publicity which caught the public imagination, Franklin became an industry, with ballads and knick-knacks to commemorate him, perhaps the best known being the folk song Lord Franklin (which begins, appropriately, with a dream).  McCorristine played a snatch of Martin Carthy’s version, but it is also well known through versions by A L Lloyd and more recently by Eilis Kennedy.  The Franklin industry continues today in both non-fiction and fiction, attempts, like the efforts of Victorian clairvoyants, to re-imagine his fate, while Sir John enjoys a vigorous afterlife online.  You could perhaps call it a Franklin mint.

HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, Illustrated Lonon News, 24 May 1845

The disaster was a turning-point in our view of the Arctic, as it became ghostly (a Canadian blog devoted to the search is called ‘Franklin’s Ghost’).  The linking of the Arctic to the controversial pursuit of mesmerism served to promote the frozen north as a region of secrets, and a gothic atmosphere was incorporated into its persona.  Even the names of Franklin’s ships – Erebus and Terror – seem to claim a mythic status.  The hunt for the two lost ships continues today, with Parks Canada still looking on an annual basis.  According to McCorristine, Canada has claimed Franklin as their own as part of their geopolitical aspirations in the region, with its considerable untapped resources.  Unlike earlier searches, the Canadians have taken Inuit testimony into account and found it surprisingly accurate, including accounts of cannibalism among the crew which have been confirmed by autopsies of the recovered bodies.

Part of McCorrstine’s research builds on Ralph Lloyd-Jones ‘The Paranormal Arctic: Lady Franklin, Sophia Cracroft, and Captain and 'Little Weesy' Coppin’  (Polar Record Vol. 37, pp.27-34, 2001), much of the research for which was also undertaken at Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute, but as this fascinating talk demonstrated, there is a huge amount of mileage in exploring the polar uncanny.  Perhaps though, as the ice recedes and sea routes are opened, much of this mystery will be lost.  The sea passage, and exploitation of resources, may make the place grimy and banal, and its associations with exoticism seem as quaint as mesmerism does today.  In the meantime, McCorristine has done an absorbing, if occasionally macabre, job of highlighting the Arctic’s darker side, and our consequent fascination with the mysteries it refuses to yield.  One wonders what will happen when we voyage out into deep space.   Will that become a dreamscape as much as the Arctic was in the Victorian imagination?

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Edward Turner, George Albert Smith, and the Race for Colour

Mr and Mrs Turner
 The National Media Museum in Bradford has just put on display the earliest films shot in ‘natural’ colour (that is, not applied artificially by hand, or toned or tinted, but inherent in the photographic process).  These were tests produced by Edward Raymond Turner (1873-1903), and show a variety of scenes designed to demonstrate the effect to best advantage: a scarlet macaw on its perch; a view of Knightsbridge; Turner’s three children – Alfred, Agnes and Wilfred – sitting round a table covered in a deep red tablecloth with a goldfish bowl on it while waving sunflowers; the fishbowl on a striped cloth; Agnes on a swing; two other children by a different swing, dwarfed by a huge ladder; a panning shot on Brighton’s sea front; and marching soldiers.  They are generally of surprisingly good quality, given their age.  The system with which they were produced was a failure, but the museum has digitised the surviving footage, allowing it to be seen without the need for a suitable projector.

The history of these film fragments is as convoluted as the technique, but is worth telling as the narrative surrounding the museum’s announcement has been streamlined to the point of distortion.  Initial experiments were conducted by Turner, who lived at Hounslow.  He initially had backing from wealthy horse owner Frederick Marshall Lee, and they filed patent No. 6202 (Means for Taking and Exhibiting Cinematographic Pictures) on 22 March 1899, just five months after signing their agreement on 11 October 1898.  For the “Lee and Turner Process”, as it was known, a camera was fitted with a rotating wheel divided into three filters coloured blue, green and red, alternating with opaque sectors.  Successive frames recorded through the filters in turn onto black and white stock.  That was the easy bit.  A three-lens projector enabled the three images to be projected through each lens in turn.  As the film moved down past each lens, the light passed through a filter wheel with three sectors, each divided into three, a single colour being on the outside, in the middle and on the inside in turn as the wheel rotated.  A frame taken through a particular filter would be synchronised to project three times though its own colour, in all three permuted positions, and combine with the other two colours by superimposition to form a full-colour record.

Scarlet macaw

In a move designed to involve someone with greater knowledge of the trade than they possessed, Lee and Turner contacted Charles Urban, manager of the Warwick Trading Company and already well known in the film business.  They granted Urban a licence, dated 1 June 1901, for six months, to “experiment with the said process with a view to improving and perfecting it…”, though Lee and Turner would patent any improvements.  If Urban so chose within those six months, he could have exclusive rights over the process for fourteen years but still terminate the contract with three months’ notice.  It was witnessed by Joseph Baucus, Warwick’s chairman, and although Warwick made a £500 investment, the agreement was with Urban.  An aluminium camera was built by Alfred Darling (who had been associated with Urban as an engineer since 1897) in October 1901.  It took 38mm film instead of the already standard 35mm, perforated between its frames, an increase presumably to try to compensate for the loss of light caused by the filters.  Darling constructed a projector in early 1902.

Unlike the Warwick directors, who wrote off their investment when results were not forthcoming, Urban saw potential, because on 1 September 1902 he signed another contract with Turner – Lee having dropped out – to form a company to exploit the three-colour process.  Urban was to have two-thirds of any profits, with an option to purchase the invention outright, a split which certainly casts doubt on Turner’s business acumen, and perhaps suggests a certain desperation.  The agreement was witnessed by Urban’s brother-in-law Jack Avery.  Unfortunately, Turner was unable to overcome the system’s deficiencies.  The need to approach a speed fast enough to overcome flicker in turn led to a washed-out look, caused by underexposure of each frame.  The speed also created severe implications both for the cost of stock (three frames being required for a single colour image) and the stresses imposed both on it and on the equipment.  The film was less sensitive to the green and red end of the spectrum than the blue-violet, so achieving the correct colour balance had to be achieved by adjusting the opaque sectors.  Yet another concern was that of ‘fringing’, or time parallax, in which the colours of moving objects were not in perfect register from frame to frame.


In order to bring a fresh perspective to these problems, film pioneer George Albert Smith by his own account became involved as a collaborator with Turner in 1902 (he gives this date in his 1908 talk to the Royal Society of Arts on his own colour process).  By that point he had a strong business relationship with Urban because his GAS films were distributed through Warwick, and he also developed films for them.  This move, certainly at Urban’s instigation, did not betoken confidence in Turner’s abilities.  Any potential conflicts were averted, however, when Turner died of a heart attack on 3 March 1903, at the age of 29, leaving Smith with a free hand to explore alternatives.

His first act was to switch to standard 35mm film so that standard equipment could be used.  More radically, he also abandoned the three-colour system, a switch he had been contemplating even during Turner’s lifetime.  As he stated in a reply to a letter from Mrs Turner on 22 June 1907 (she had apparently seen a newspaper account of Smith’s work): “Your husband used to condemn the methods I used to advocate & which I am now making use of – partly I think because they were not in harmony with his patent, but mainly because he knew that the results could never be really true to nature.”  This letter by the way is further evidence that he was not brought in by Urban after Turner’s death, as much media coverage since the National Media Museum’s announcement has claimed.  Smith felt he was on the right track with his innovations as early as March 1904, when he wrote to Urban to tell him that he had effectively solved the technical issues and that the main point of discussion was now exploitation.  The solution was his own system, which he patented in November 1906 (No. 26,671, Improvements in & relating to Kinematograph Apparatus for the Production of Coloured Pictures).  He used only two filters, red and green, the process that would become known as Kinemacolor.

Agnes Turner

Urban retained the three-colour test footage and donated it to the Science Museum in London with his archives in 1937, where it was kept until the Urban Collection was sent to the National Media Museum in 2009.  To be able to view it, Brian Pritchard and David Cleveland, experts in early film technology, and who had already recreated Kinemacolor, had to build a special gate for a projector so that its four thousand frames could be copied, a frame at a time, on to 35mm film.  These copies were scanned and the digital files supplied to a company which combined the red, blue and green frames to make a colour record.  In the original, these would have been seen sequentially, the colour being synthesised by the viewer.  Combining the frames using a computer is a long way from lacing up Turner’s film and projecting it through the filters that would have been required to see the original as he intended.

The National Media Museum can be rightly proud that it has these films in its possession, and has managed, using modern technology, to show them after more than a century, but some unfounded claims have been circulating since the National Media Museum started promoting their digitisation of the footage.  For a start the films have not been sitting neglected in a tin unrecognised for a century until Michael Harvey, Curator of Cinematography at the museum, realised what they were:  D B Thomas, who worked at the Science Museum, reproduced strips showing the two children at the swing, the three children with the sunflowers, and the macaw (albeit all in black and white ) in his The First Colour Motion Pictures, 1969, p8, captioned, “Experimental Lee and Turner 38mm film showing the unusual perforations and the colour records recurring every third frame (1901-02)”.  There are also photographs in Thomas’s book of the projector, the projector’s filter wheel, and the 38mm perforator.  Macaw frames feature in Brian Coe’s 1981 The History of Movie Photography, along with the same photograph of the projector.  It is clear that Science Museum staff as far back as 1969 knew what the films were, and it should not have taken any effort to work out what treasure the National Media Museum had on its hands.  They even managed to use the children and swing (in colour) as the banner for their information sheet on Smith which was revised in November 2008!  When Harvey tells The Guardian “We didn’t know they were in the collection,” one wonders what is going on.

Pioneers of Early Cinema: 9, November 2008

BBC Yorkshire and South-East broadcast an unreliable programme on 17 September 2012, called The Race for Colour, with the Turner film ‘discovery’ as a hook, and a series of authorities on early film, including Martin Scorsese, lining up to say that the recovery of the film clips “rewrote film history” and was “an astonishing discovery”.  Paul Goodman, Head of Collections at the museum, seems to be the source for this hyperbole.  His statement to the Guardian that, “We believe this will literally rewrite film history, I don’t think it is an overstatement” certainly is an overstatement.  It is not as if nobody knew about these experiments and why they were abandoned (and they were abandoned not because Turner died, as some of the media coverage has suggested, it was because his approach was not viable).  The recovery of the colour information in these films after so long is certainly remarkable, but it is essentially of antiquarian interest, and does not rewrite history, which was already well known, not least from the Urban papers in the museum’s own possession.

Alfred, Agnes and Wilfred Turner

It may be the case that not all these three-colour test films were taken by Turner anyway.  The fact that one of the films involved Brighton pier suggests that Smith, a local, was involved in its production.  Also, the National Media Museum thinks the scene of the boy and girl with the swing may have been shot at Smith’s home at St Ann’s Well, Hove, during 1902-4 (the latter date is unlikely as Smith moved to Southwick, along the coast, in late 1903), so possibly after Turner’s death.  The children may well be Harold and Dorothy Smith.  Harold was born in 1889, and Dorothy in 1891, so they look the right age, whereas Agnes Turner, according to the museum’s research, was born in 1896.

Harold and Dorothy Smith?

The BBC programme greatly simplified the description of Turner’s method, which was understandable, but in so doing downplayed its complexity and impracticality.  Worse, in the programme it was suggested that Smith was being duplicitous because the process made a lot of money, none of which Mrs Turner saw.  Harvey quotes a sentence from Smith’s 1907 letter to Mrs Turner to suggest that Smith was telling her lies to avoid having to pay her any money, the assumption being that she was owed something as Smith’s approach grew out of that of her late husband: “I am now beginning to think that the final result will be that I have made an interesting scientific observation with no commercial interest attached to it.”  But Smith did not want to give away information that might fall into the hands of competitors, hence his caginess.  Anyway, to give her money was not his responsibility, that was down to Urban, if anybody.  Urban wrote to her on 2 April 1903, just a month after her husband’s death, to say that she had no rights as he was now the owner of Turner’s patent, but that should it be successful, he would allot her “a certain small interest” at his discretion.  But success was a long – and expensive – way off, and when it came it was not with the system with which Turner had struggled.  Perhaps Urban felt that Turner had been fairly rewarded during his lifetime commensurate with the futility of his efforts, and that he had no moral responsibility towards Mrs Turner.

Goldfish bowl on striped cloth

Would Turner have made a go of it had he lived?  Smith thought the three-colour additive system was unworkable with the technology at his disposal, and he was right.  Computerisation has ensured synchronisation and prevented flicker, and tweaking has allowed a decent result from Turner’s orthochromatic stock, which Smith improved in addition to his more obvious switch to two colours, but even so the results are far from perfect.  Whether Turner would have reached the same conclusion as Smith had he lived we can never know.  Even if he had somehow solved the technical issues, it seems unlikely that he would have capitalised on the invention.  When he was working with Lee he found his name placed second, and the terms of his agreements with Warwick and Urban do not suggest he was a canny businessman.

We should not to make large claims for Turner’s achievement and consider him the father of colour moving film.  It was clearly a leap to deduce that one could use black and white stock to produce a colour record, but he was only applying principles well established by Thomas Young and James Clerk Maxwell.  Smith made the more significant deduction that for the brain to see a satisfactory colour film it was not necessary to use three filters, but a compromise could be made with two.  That allowed him to develop a viable process, though strictly speaking not “natural colour.”  Whatever its deficiencies, Smith’s Kinemacolor, not Turner’s more elaborate, but flawed, approach, was the first successful colour-on-film process.  This is hardly news.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Popular Exhibitions, Science and Showmanship, 1840-1910

Edited by Joe Kember, John Plunkett and Jill A Sullivan, Pickering & Chatto, 2012.

The fourteen papers in this collection originated in a conference, Instruction, Amusement and Spectacle: Popular Shows and Exhibitions 1800-1914, in 2009, itself an output from an AHRC-funded project, Moving and Projected-Image Entertainment in the South-West 1840-1914. Pickering & Chatto have published them in its Science and Culture in the Nineteenth Century series. Together they explore the important nexus of entertainment and popular science in the nineteenth century.

Science-based entertainment was astonishingly popular in the period with all levels of society, mostly occupying the place television later would. Developments in science and technology were seen as exciting, large sections of the population wanted to know how they worked, and canny exhibitors worked hard to stimulate and satisfy the demand. It was a national phenomenon, not one confined to metropolitan centres, and science lectures and shows took place in a wide variety of venues, appealing to men and women of all classes and ages.

The practical element was particularly important, a tradition of demonstration still with us in the shape of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures which began in 1825. But exposure to science did not only take place in halls, institutes and museums, it entered the home in the shape of educational toys and the popular press. Such pursuits were encouraged by increasing amounts of leisure time, a greater disposable income, and improving public transport, all of which made science increasingly accessible.

These displays were not merely designed to appeal to the intellect as rational recreations; for them to engage popular attention they had to have emotional and aesthetic components able to evoke a range of responses. Education was intertwined with spectacle, the whole comprising a satisfactory package. Even more, the educational rhetoric could be borrowed for less lofty enterprises, such as the freak show, where an emphasis on the sober scientific aspects conferred a sense of respectability, even though rather baser attitudes might also be present among the audience.

Highbrow and lowbrow may have been two ends of a spectrum, but there was an extensive amorphous middle ground where they merged. Skill was required in pitching the presentation: projecting a sense of wonder was perfectly acceptable within bounds, but likely to be dismissed as pointless, or even manipulative, if the scientific ingredients were deemed to be lacking in depth. Treading the line between earnest dullness and superficial flamboyance needed a great deal of care.

The essays focus, as the title suggests, on cultures of performance and exhibition as promoters of scientific and technological knowledge. There has been a great deal of interest in this area in recent years, aided by easier access to rare documentary sources. As is shown here, the enterprise has become increasingly interdisciplinary, drawing on a range of perspectives to integrate scholarship and give a rounded picture of the ways in which popular science seeped into the public consciousness.

The papers are grouped into four sections, though there is much overlap. The first part, Science and Spectacle, looks at the regional dimension of the promotion of science, and at James Wyld’s Great Globe in Leicester Square, a rival attraction to the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. The chapters in Word and Image discuss how audiences were engaged by verbal techniques as direct support for the visual aspect – in fact the personality and skill of the speaker was often considered more important than the visual element – but also at the popular science literature that formed a mutually-reinforcing knowledge network with shows, and which foregrounded the laudable aim of self-improvement. Included are papers on the Great Exhibition itself, and the intersection of religious, political and scientific discourses in the figure of Daniel William Cahill.

Science itself was in the process of transformation at this time. Not a static body of knowledge, its boundaries were constantly being renegotiated, but it itself was not a homogeneous domain, and different disciplines within it lent themselves more or less favourably to explication. Staging Knowledge examines how scientific exhibitions changed to keep pace with these various boundary changes, both by defining what was inside science, and by attempting to determine what was outside it: talking fish, for example (actually a seal with a very limited vocabulary).

As that example might suggest, hoaxing was frequent. The presentation of such wonders demarcated the science lecturer from the showman, throwing up issues of what counted as evidence for the authenticity of an exhibit. It also highlights the willingness of audiences to collude, sharing the joke and even subverting the hoax, by absorbing whatever instruction was available while discounting the clearly fanciful.

Finally, The Politics of Display considers the political environment and power relations in display, both in terms of the presenter and audience, and audience and objects viewed, as well as the influence of the exotic on presentation. Such displays served to reinforce stereotypes, as well as national identity, stressing England as a colonial centre, able to draw on the resources of its overseas possessions.

The essays cover a huge amount of ground. In general, they are accessible, only occasionally slipping into jargon. Along with the ‘talking fish’, giant globe and the more sedate magic lantern lectures, experiments, conversaziones and exhibitions, there are freak shows, panoramas and dioramas, Egyptian mummies, wrapped and unwrapped (distant in time certainly, though not the “thousands of centuries” claimed), Spiritualist séances (the weakest chapter in the book), the Great Gorilla Controversy of 1861, Zulus brought to London who didn’t appear to know their place, heated international disputes over how dinosaur skeleton casts should be mounted – the authors collectively, and very effectively, demonstrate the many pleasures of combining rational recreation with something a little less elevated.

Monday, 16 July 2012

We Bury our Own, an exhibition of work by Christian Thompson

Christian Thompson, an indigenous Australian artist currently studying for a DPhil at Oxford’s Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, has a small exhibition at the city’s Pitt Rivers Museum. It comprises eight large C-type prints plus a 2-minute video installation, artworks made as a result of his intensive study of the museum’s Australian photographic collection. Despite their formal simplicity, the artist’s ethnicity prompts a variety of responses by the white European to his responses, constituting a thought-provoking loop.

The photographs consist of self-portraits, and in each the inscrutable face is obscured to a greater or lesser extent. It is an oblique comment on the Australian Aboriginal experience, as he has eschewed traditional graphic styles and dress. Given these notable absences, the images achieve their depth only with knowledge of the artist’s background. He is shown in formal western clothing, indicating that while he holds on to his tribal heritage (which must be the “We” of the exhibition’s title) in some manner, he has been ready to adopt at least the outward trappings of his new, if temporary, home. Yet the parodic Oxford student formality, crisp white shirt and white bow tie, is a dry comment on the fustiness of hidebound western civilisation compared to the spiritual freedom of nomadic life.

Covering the eyes is a nod to the idea that they are the window to the soul, and by occluding them, the viewer is denied the opportunity to see into Thompson’s, while he simultaneously refuses to gaze at the representatives of his people’s oppressors. His hidden features symbolise the apparent invisibility of Aborigines historically, yet at the same time, while superficially offering himself up as an ethnographic subject, in taking charge of his presentation he is denying the ability to objectify him. Byrecovering ownership, he has transformed anthropometric scrutiny into art.

There is also a sense of the belief that a photographer is able to steal the subject’s soul, as Aboriginal bodies were once stolen, and that opportunity is now denied. Coming back to European myth, flowers on the eyes evoke coins placed on those of corpses, and the still features suggest the post-mortem photographs that were once popular in Western culture, the effect enhanced by the funereally black jacket and white shirt. Thompson seems dressed for death, yet his optimistic project is to disinter values buried in the archives, and help them to live again, not to weep over them.

The photographs circle round these issues, challenging the viewer to examine his or her attitude to imperialism and the effect it has on those imperialised. The bluntest expression, both in title and content, is Invaded Dreams, in which a model of the Mary Rose, a Union Jack anachronistically flying from the mainmast, conveys, none too subtly, both a sense of colonisation and the fragility of conquest. Similarly, in Down Under World, the most direct reference to Australia of all the titles, and emphasising the European frame of reference (it’s only Down Under if you are here), Thompson is formally dressed but with crystals on his head and over his eyes, ambiguously conveying a sense of healing, but also alluding to disputes over land and mineral rights. He looks rather like a barrister wearing a crystalline wig, throwing up legalistic interpretations of human and property rights.

Gender issues are raised, but always interweaved with wider issues of exploitation and identity. In Forgiveness of Land he is wearing a headscarf, the one glimpse of traditional Aboriginal art, and the viewer half expects to see curlers peeping out. The title poses the questions – whose land, whose forgiveness, and forgiveness for what? If the land is feminine, is Thompson drawing a parallel between the ill-treatment of the soil by whites, and the ill-treatment of Aborigine women by men of all colours? In Lamenting the Flowers the artist has butterflies over his eyes, the print black and white apart from the colour popping of bright blood-red flowers in his hair, his face lent an air of vulnerability by a net veil. The title again refers to the land, the butterflies signify fragility, the flowers and veil femininity, and the veil also mourning. Three Sisters shows him covered with flowers in even greater abundance, three red candles bright in the otherwise monochrome print. The title references a fabricated ‘Aboriginal’ myth, which highlights the issue of cultural authenticity. Desert Melon, the image on the front of the exhibition leaflet, combines black jacket and white bow tie with yellow coin-shaped flowers concealing his eyes, and a paper hat with a picture of a tree: natural and artificial, life and death, complementing each other.

The other photographs are more resistant to interpretation, at least perhaps outside traditional belief systems. Energy Matter shows Thompson standing with his hands over his eyes, backs facing out, black dots on both in a circular pattern, possibly representing unity and integration. Danger Will Come shows only a pair of hands holding a frame, with a flowery border, in which what look like stars, at least sparkly somethings (perhaps the crystals again) can be seen. The video installation, featuring a topless startled-looking and startlingly blue-eyed man singing a repetitive song about family and loss, while hypnotic and poignant, feels out of place alongside the hermetic purity of the photographs.

Unlike physical remains, which are unique, and for which the struggle over ownership is as much about a refusal to be ignored as about regaining relics of ancestors, photographs can exist in multiple copies, held by the creator, or curator, but available to be licensed to anyone. Many photographic collections are being ‘returned’ to indigenous populations in Australia, but the beauty of the photograph is that someone’s gain does not entail another’s loss. Even in the context of the Pitt Rivers Museum, though, the photographs are more than objects of dispassionate study. These beautifully produced images are dreamtime made manifest, and the rather stark corridor, where the loos are sited, becomes a place of meditation and peace. Rich in meaning, they transcend the sterility of grievance and guilt in their embracing of European technology to reflect on the Aboriginal experience. Thompson, with his joint Bidjara and English heritage, seems comfortable in both spheres, ready to move on from the injustices of the past to imagine a better future.

The photographs and video installation are on display in the Pitt Rivers Museum’s Long Gallery, on the ground floor, from 26 June 2012 until 3 January 2013. The exhibition is open 10–4.30 Tuesday to Sunday; 12–4.30 Monday. Admission is free.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Warning: this review contains spoilers

In Lorene Scafaria’s directorial debut, Steve Carell is Dodge, the archetypal dull ordinary schmuck living in New York, an insurance salesman no less. Keira Knightley is Penny, a much younger English neighbour who has relationship issues. They might never have got to know each other if it hadn’t been for an asteroid called Matilda heading Earthwards and promising the destruction of human life (though doubtless not for the cockroaches) in a mere twenty-one days.

To begin with the bigger picture and then move on to the relationship at the heart of this black comedy/satire/road movie/romcom hybrid, does it convince as a faithful depiction of the end times? It is surprising that the electricity stays on for so long, but without it we wouldn’t get the rolling news updates, and Dodge poignantly wouldn’t be able to play Penny’s much-loved vinyl LPs after he thinks he’s lost her. There are riots, though they seem to die down quickly. Perhaps it's all just so pointless. Most individuals are well behaved, if occasionally a little tetchier than usual. They cope with impending disaster in a spectrum of ways: there are hedonistic ones naturally, finding release in drug taking and sex. Others embrace religion, or picnic on the beach. Some kill themselves in despair to put an end to the awful anticipation, or get others to do it to them.

A few act as if nothing is wrong, such as Dodge’s Hispanic cleaner who insists on coming in once a week to vacuum his flat. People have yard sales, or mow the lawn. Some go to work, though in diminishing numbers; even Dodge for a while – ridiculously discussing the purchase of Armageddon cover with a potential customer – until a jumper lands on his windscreen in the car park. Pretending that things are normal retains control in the face of hopelessness, and keep a lid on the bubbling hysteria, though nobody is keen to take on the new vacancy of Chief Finance Officer offered by the unfeasibly optimistic supervisor, even if it does mean more money. Survivalists in their titanium-reinforced bunker, refreshingly depicted as tough black soldiers rather than the stereotypical white rednecks, are happy because they think they are going to inherit the earth as long as they have enough guns and crisps squared away, though they may have forgotten about having to share it with the cockroaches.

These all seem plausible responses, and make you wonder how you would behave in such a situation, knowing that nothing mattered anymore, while social pressures to conform were negligible. The major problem with the film, apart from a weak script with a heavily-contrived narrative that sets up its situations crudely, is the relationship between the two leads. Dodge is stupefyingly dull, albeit partly from the shock of his wife literally running off to be with someone she actually cares about. The most exciting thing about him is his name, though he does loosen up enough to take to drinking cough syrup for a kick, probably the only person over 16 ever to do so. Penny is the sort of kooky, feisty, flaky ‘free spirit’, but hiding a touching vulnerability, so beloved of Hollywood films but who would get up anyone’s nose in real life (she is probably in America after having worn out the patience of every late-twenties male in England). Yet they are thrown together when rioters come a-calling.

Thus the odd couple go on a trip away from burning New York (though fortunately when Dodge gets back his flat is tidy and his cleaner is, as always, just finishing the vacuuming with a cheery “see you next week”). Dodge wants to visit Olivia, an old girlfriend he has only just discovered cares about him, thanks to Penny having held on to his wrongly-delivered post. If only she had given him his letters a bit sooner, he could have contacted Olivia before things went completely tits-up (but really, how was Dodge ever the love of her life?). Meanwhile Penny, distraught at having put selfishness before family all these years, wants to make amends by choosing now, when there are no commercial flights, to go back to Surrey, England, to be with her relatives. Fortunately Dodge knows someone with a light aircraft capable of flying the Atlantic, so they can help each other out, and he can make peace with his estranged father as a bonus. You can see how Dodge and Penny’s relationship is going to end, if not any reason for such a depth of feeling between the pair. Ultimately, the key song missing from the soupy soundtrack is Stephen Stills’s Love the One You’re With.

While the focus is on these two ordinary characters trying to find meaning in absurdity, the film isn’t really about Dodge and Penny. It’s about what people do in extremis, though one that is surely sanitised – would we on the whole be this sane in an insane place? Its message is one not just for the end of the world, but for now: don’t have regrets over things not done, but do what you can in order to give your life meaning while you have time. Whether that is licence to take heroin is debatable, but it is not a bad principle. If the Mayans got it right, the world will come to an end in December 2012, and we will have similar decisions to make, so seize the day. I’m going to draw up a bucket list, immediately.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Baskerville, by John O'Connell

Baskerville, by John O’Connell, Short Books 2012, first published as The Baskerville Legacy, 2011.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was a sensation on its serial publication in the Strand magazine from August 1901 to April 1902, and book publication just as the serialisation concluded. It marked Holmes’s first appearance since he apparently fell over the Reichenbach Falls clutching Professor Moriarty at the climax to ‘The Final Problem’ in 1893, and a nation rejoiced, even if it was a prequel rather than a resurrection. But a mystery surrounds its creation. Credited solely to Arthur Conan Doyle, the elusive figure of Bertram Fletcher Robinson hangs over it.

John O’Connell has taken the uncertainties of the novel’s genesis and woven a factional account using the old conceit of a manuscript hidden away for a century and now published for the first time. Taking what little we know about the collaboration, he has added an elegant, if not particularly thrilling, recreation of their relationship, Robinson rather playing a resentful Watson to Conan Doyle’s high-handed Holmes, spiced up by Robinson’s demons, swigging laudanum and visiting a prostitute (O’Connell says in an afterword that the invention is fanciful and that Robinson was doubtless “solid” and “uncomplicated” in real life).

In the novel, they meet on board a ship returning from South Africa in July 1900, where Conan Doyle had volunteered his services as a surgeon at Bloemfontein and Robinson had been covering the conflict for the Daily Express, of which he was about to become Editor. The two strike up a friendship, and Conan Doyle suggests that they work together on a “real creeper”. These shipboard scenes are the most vivid in the book.

The pair holidayed together at Cromer in Norfolk in 1901, where folkloric accounts of Black Shuck became the germ of the hound (in the novel Robinson decides it should be a wolf, but Conan Doyle is not convinced). They then visited Dartmoor, Robinson’s home turf, an area with its own tradition of Wish or Wisht Hounds. In the book their relationship reaches a crisis at Princetown from which it never recovers, though in real life Robinson merely claimed that “One of the most interesting weeks that I ever spent was with Doyle on Dartmoor”, and, the two played golf together later.

If Robinson stretches credulity, Conan Doyle comes over as entirely plausible, a charming, sunny and genial what-you-see-is-what-you-get clubbable type of soul, but expecting to get his own way (his poor treatment of his children by his first wife Touie after his marriage to Jean gives a flavour of his hard streak). That is, he is plausible until they get to the moor, when the atmosphere, like the weather, gets darker, and Conan Doyle shows a surprising side to his character. The problem is of course that we are seeing him through Robinson’s eyes, and he is hardly a reliable narrator.

The intriguing twist is that Conan Doyle does not want Robinson for his plots but for his clout as a newspaper man able to promote Conan Doyle’s obsession, Spiritualism. It is ironic that in pursuit of The New Revelation he is willing to commit what he would see as a pious fraud, others as something less honourable, using the real-life medium Madame d’Esperance. They tell Robinson that he is psychic, but the alleged spirit communication it transpires is a hoax; yet in one of the feverish dreams that Robinson suffers he appears to witness the force-feeding of a suffragette, suggesting that he actually does have psychic abilities.

The novel has a playful side, and O’Connell is not afraid to slip in anachronisms. Sometimes they are acknowledged, such as Robinson’s fiancé’s backstory as a suffragette (a term not coined until1906), which O’Connell discusses in his afterword; and sometimes they are not, such as the line “science annihilates distance, someone one said”. They did, but not yet, it’s a line from Brideshead Revisited (1945) – perhaps it’s an indication of Robinson’s precognitive ability. Baskerville is a curious title because although Harry Baskerville, the Robinson family coachman, appears briefly, he is not the significant character the title promises. But, playfully, there is an epigraph from Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, the main character in which is William of Baskerville, itself harking back to Conan Doyle. And what font have Short Books used? Yes, of course: Baskerville.

An obvious question is why such a successful author would want a collaborator. Robinson was not well known, and had a background in journalism, not fiction (though of course the two do possess similarities). Perhaps Conan Doyle’s inspiration was flagging and he needed Robinson’s stimulus to help with the story outline and some local colour, which he was then perfectly able to work up into a gripping narrative without assistance. There were certainly affinities between them, Andrew Lycett in his biography of Conan Doyle referring to Robinson as “a chip off the Conan Doyle block”. Their interest in sport would have been a strong element of their friendship, and both shared a love of adventure and detective stories, though Robinson’s creation Addington Peace is not quite at the Sherlock Holmes level in terms of familiarity.

We do not know why Robinson dropped out of the venture, and the extent of his contribution. Likewise, his initial expectations of what the partnership would entail are unclear. Perhaps he was not happy that it was to be another Holmes story. It could have been pressure of work, as indicated in O’Connell’s afterword. Herbert Greenhough Smith, editor of the Strand, may have been unhappy at the thought of having Robinson’s name on the story. Bearing in mind that Conan Doyle probably did write the whole book as published, Robinson was paid well, yet may have felt that he deserved more recognition than Conan Doyle paid in public.

Robinson died of typhoid in 1907, and O’Connell implies that his early death at the age of 36 was caused by his involvement in publicising an allegedly cursed Egyptian mummy lid acquired by the British Museum, which he had done in 1904. Conan Doyle himself thought that these were murky waters, having warned Robinson not to involve himself with the business; he considered that typhoid was the sort of method a curse might employ. At least there is nothing here about the preposterous theory that Conan Doyle poisoned Robinson in order to shut him up trying to take credit for The Hound of the Baskervilles.

This isn’t the first time that Conan Doyle has appeared as a character in a novel, and comparisons are inevitably drawn with Julian Barnes’s Arthur and George. That work’s solid achievement rather shows up the slightness of Baskerville, but O’Connell gives us an entertaining read, and brings Bertram Fletcher Robinson out from Doyle’s very broad shadow, even if it probably distorts what little we know about him in the process. Anyway, I was pleased to see the Plume of Feathers at Princetown mentioned, albeit briefly, as a relative of mine runs it.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Supernatural Cumbria, by H C Ivison, and Paranormal Cumbria, by Geoff Holder

Given their extensive range of titles on paranormal Britain, it is not surprising that Amberley Publishing and the History Press have produced volumes with similar geographical coverage. The two here are directly comparable, allowing the literary equivalent of a ‘Battle of the Bands’. Should the purchaser wanting to know more of this region’s paranormal heritage buy both, or will one – or perhaps even neither – do?

Supernatural Cumbria, by Helen Ivison, is the earlier book. Its advantage is that it is written by a local historian who has long experience of the area’s legends and has easy access to the paranormal grapevine. It is reasonably well organised, with a mix of thematic and geographic chapters. While there isn’t an index of locations, it is easy enough to skim down the contents pages to find a particular place. The style is very readable but the text is full of spelling errors, which let it down and suggest that editing was minimal.

It contains a typical mixture of recent ghostly accounts, usually unattributed, and older folkloric stories, boggles and brownies for example. Significant localities have their own chapters. Slightly more unusual are a couple of vampires – Croglin Grange, of course, plus another at Workington – a timeslip and golden coffin stories. The Souter Fell ghost army has a brief chapter: Peter McCue and Alan Gauld wrote a significant paper which included this case, ‘Edgehill And Souter Fell: A Critical Examination of Two English “Phantom Army” Cases’, in The Society for Psychical Research’s Journal of April 2005, but Ivison does not refer to it.

Unlike Ivison, Perth-based Geoff Holder is not local to Cumbria, but he is a professional writer with long experience of producing regional paranormal gazetteers. Paranormal Cumbria has fewer pages than Supernatural Cumbria, but more words per page, so they are roughly comparable in length. It is a follow-up to Holder’s The Guide to the Mysterious Lake District (2009), though with completely new material. The contents, conveyed in his usual humorously perceptive style, are arranged thematically, but a map at the front shows where the places mentioned are, and there is an index, not that common in this type of book, to allow places to be found easily.

The other obvious difference between this and Ivison’s effort is that Holder has undertaken more archival work, delving back where possible to the sources and examining secondary layers that may have accumulated errors. He supplies references for all his stories, the result of which is a three-page bibliography of books, journals and newspapers that allows readers to double-check for themselves. This rigorous analytical approach is rare in the field, and all the more welcome for it. He does not use Ivison, though he must have been aware of her book given the amount of research he has done.

The usual suspects, psychic abilities and witches, for example, are present, but Holder takes a more Fortean approach than Ivison, with an analysis of the various types of fairies and kindred creatures that may be found in the area; lake monsters and alien big cats; an amusing overview of the bizarre controversy which followed the installation in an ex-underpass of the Cursing Stone of Carlisle, a large lump of granite; and ending up with a look at the Solway Spaceman (a more thorough treatment of the history of this strange photograph can be found in an article by Andy Roberts and David Clarke, ‘Farewell to the Solway Spaceman?’, in the April 2012 issue of Fortean Times). Souter Fell does not appear as it was included in the earlier Lake District book.

Obviously there are some areas of overlap between Supernatural and Paranormal, and these are instructive. Thus the Croglin Grange vampire appears in both, but whereas Ivison gives it half a page and repeats the bare bones, Holder delves into the various accounts as they evolved from the first reference in print by Augustus Hare, showing what a complex narrative it actually is. Both discuss a witch called Mary Baynes who lived at Tebay, but Ivison gives the story without any sources, whereas Holder does.

As expected, both books are nicely produced. Supernatural Cumbria is well illustrated, mostly with the author’s photographs, though a number show the same scene from different angles, which seems redundant. Paranormal Cumbria too is generously illustrated, but as well as the author’s own photographs he has included archival material, which makes it visually more attractive as they not just a series of snapshots illustrating the places referred to in the text.

The Amberley offering is entertaining, but its lack of references and ‘friend of a friend’ reliance limits its use to a casual read. If this is what the reader requires, then Amberley has delivered a book that will be of use to anyone keen to find out about the darker side of Cumbria’s beauty. Holder has more historical material, well referenced, but fewer recent stories than Ivison was able to gather through local contacts. Ivison does have ghost stories, Holder none in this volume, so if that is the primary interest then Ivison’s is the one to purchase. She is though often frustratingly vague on detail, and it is fair to say that her book provides spread but not depth, and Holder’s, with a different though overlapping focus, provides spread and depth.

To sum up, the resident of Cumbria may well want both (plus Holder’s Lake District book) in order to ensure that they have maximum coverage of the county. But the visitor who does not want to purchase both will be better off with Holder’s book. And it’s three quid cheaper. I therefore declare Paranormal Cumbria the winner.

Supernatural Cumbria, by H C Ivison. Amberley Publishing, October 2010. ISBN 9781848689091

Paranormal Cumbria, by Geoff Holder. The History Press, March 2012. ISBN 9780752454122

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Some Reflections on ‘Some Reflections on the Loss and Return of a Small Harp’

In ‘Some Reflections on the Loss and Return of a Small Harp’, Paranormal Review, Issue 61, January 2012, pp.28-31, Robert A Charman discusses Dr Elizabeth Mayer’s experience of recovering her young daughter’s stolen harp through the offices of a dowser. This is to be found in her book Extraordinary Knowing: Science, Skepticism and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human Mind (2007), ‘The Harp that Came Back: My Journey Begins’. For Charman it is a compelling story and he concludes that “Given the unchallenged facts of this case it would seem reasonable to accept that the faculty of psi, or ESP, exists...”

Charman is not alone in his admiration. Lawrence LeShan thought highly enough of Mayer’s account to reprint it as a “case history” in A New Science of the Paranormal (2009). Jeffrey Krippal also discusses it in Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (2010), and continues: “The remotely viewed harp, after all, strongly suggested that consciousness is not bound to the brain or the body...” He assumes that the dowser viewed the harp remotely and gave accurate information to Mayer. Most recently, Russell Targ mentions it in passing in The Reality of ESP: A Physicist's Proof of Psychic Abilities (2012). Yet there is an evidential gap which it seems strange that its enthusiasts have failed to note. It can certainly be challenged, on rather obvious non-paranormal grounds.

So what happened? In December 1991, Elizabeth Mayer was an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. Her eleven-year old daughter Meg possessed a small valuable harp on which she had become an accomplished player. At some point during a Christmas concert in Oakland it was stolen. The police could not help, nor could instrument dealers across the country, the American Harp Society or CBS news, leaving the family frustrated and Meg disconsolate.

A friend suggested Mayer try dowsing as a last resort so the friend contacted the American Society of Dowsers and was given the telephone number of Harold McCoy, the Society’s president, who lived 2,000 miles away in Arkansas. Mayer rang McCoy and explained the situation. He said to wait a moment and he would see if the harp was still in Oakland. It was, he said, and he asked Mayer to send him a map of Oakland so that he could locate it for her.

The map was sent, and two days later McCoy telephoned Mayer, naming a specific street and giving the location there of the house in which he said the harp was being kept. She went to the police saying she had had a ‘tip’, but not unreasonably they said that they could not obtain a search warrant on vague information. With no other avenue open to her, Mayer fly posted the two blocks around the house, offering a reward for the harp’s return. She did not visit and challenge the occupier.

Three days later, she received a phone call from someone who said his next-door neighbour had the instrument. After some negotiations, she went to a car park at 10pm and retrieved it from a teenager. As she turned into her driveway with the harp safely secured she thought: “This changes everything”. Mayer finishes her account of how she recovered the harp and the confusion it engendered in her as she tried to rationalise what had happened with a quote from a friend at Berkeley: “Get over it and get some sleep, Lisby. As a statistician, I can promise you the odds that dowsing works are a lot greater than the odds that this could have been coincidence.”

It didn’t have to be coincidence though. Potentially the posters could have been seen by hundreds of people living in the area or passing through in the three days between them going up and Mayer receiving the call from the person who said his neighbour had the harp. Those people could have told others, so a large number of individuals who did not watch CBS news or read the American Harp Society newsletter would have heard that the owner was looking for the instrument, and offering a reward, always an incentive for news to travel. The possessor may even have heard about Mayer’s quest previously but not had an easy mechanism to contact her, one now provided by a telephone number on a poster.

The possibility that McCoy correctly dowsed the precise house where the harp was being kept has to be balanced against the possibility that the thief still had it, or had sold it locally, and someone in the know happened to see a poster and thought that the reward money available for its safe return was worth more than it would realise elsewhere; a harp which was so distinctive, having been custom-made, that it was perhaps effectively unsellable by the possessor. The posters were in a small area admittedly, but perhaps Mayer was just lucky. We can’t know.

Charman asks if this experience would have “changed everything” for the reader as it did for Mayer. No, it wouldn’t have for me. It may have done if the police had gone to the specified house and found the harp there, but they didn’t, which means that there is enough uncertainty to weaken the case. To see how leaky it actually is, it is worth examining the links in the chain from theft to recovery. Charman provides “four apparently indisputable facts:

1 That Meg’s small harp was stolen from a theatre in Oakland during a Christmas concert.
2 That some two months later, McCoy pinpointed the exact house where it was hidden.
3 That he achieved this feat from nearly 2,000 miles away.
4 That acting upon this information Dr Mayer was able to effect the safe return of the undamaged harp from that address.”

Of these, only the first can truly be said to be indisputable. Of the others, McCoy was certainly 2,000 miles away, but we do not know that he pinpointed the exact house. And Mayer did not effect the return of the harp from that address; she effected it from a Safeway car park. We only have McCoy’s word for it that the house was involved at all. There is nothing in this that says that he was a fake, of course. He may well have been sincere, and thought that the harp was at the place he specified. If the police had obtained a warrant, and not found the harp there, he might well have been genuinely surprised. But his sincerity does not mean that he was right. This was not a controlled test, in which dowsers tend to do badly.

Charman does not consider the possibility that the dowsing (or rather, McCoy’s remote viewing intuition using dowsing as a method) was not causally linked to the recovery of the harp. He wonders if we can spot a non-psi explanation that passed Mayer by – “Did she really miss something here that lets the sceptic off the psi hook?" – but the only counter-possibility he entertains is that McCoy in Arkansas might have known the thief and where he lived. He provides biographical details about McCoy which indicate that this was most unlikely, though it raises the issue of how unlikely something has to be before it is ruled out completely. He does not entertain the possibility that someone with knowledge of the harp saw a poster in the street and got in touch.

The episode was certainly convincing for Mayer, changing the way she looked at the world and sending her on an intellectual journey, but from the outside her experience is not nearly as compelling. It is interesting, certainly, and suggestive, but not of sufficient quality to stand on its own. The possibility that the house McCoy identified from a map in Arkansas had nothing to do with it, and the posters alone did the trick, is too plausible to take this case as particularly strong evidence for either dowsing or remote viewing.

The Paranormal Review is a quarterly publication of the Society for Psychical Research. See for further details.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The Death of Poor Joe – The earliest surviving Dickens film?

Conveniently in Dickens’s bicentenary year, the British Film Institute (BFI) claim to have “discovered” a film which they are trumpeting as the earliest surviving film based on a Dickens story.  They are making the most of the find: their 9 March 2012 press release shouts:  MAJOR DISCOVERY – EARLIEST EVER DICKENS FILM FOUND BY BFI NATIONAL ARCHIVE.  The director was George Albert Smith, who made films at St Ann’s Well in Hove (the press release incorrectly states that the film was made in Brighton).  It’s hardly an extensive adaptation, being merely a minute in length, but the BFI are saying that it depicts the death of Jo from Bleak House.  According to Bryony Dixon, the BFI’s curator of silent film who made the identification, it dates to before March 1901, which means it predates the previous record holder, Walter Booth’s Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost, which was released later that year, though to be fair to Booth, The Death of Poor Joe is a very loose adaptation…

The film shows a policeman on his rounds walking past the gates of a churchyard (the church can be glimpsed on the painted flat) in the snow, the fall of which is quite convincingly simulated presumably by bits of paper.  Slowly he shines his lamp around, and we see its beam as he examines his surroundings.  He exits left, and there enters from the opposite direction a figure in rags, carrying a broom.  It makes an ineffectual attempt to sweep, and gestures forlornly in the direction taken by the policeman.  The policeman re-enters and initially motions the sweeper (clearly played by a woman despite the male garb) to go away, but the sweeper melodramatically collapses into his arms.  He tries to give the sweeper something, possibly a restorative handkerchief, but to no avail.  As the policeman helpfully plays the lamp over the sweeper’s face, the tragic figure briefly rallies, puts ‘his’ hands together in prayer, and then goes to a better place.  Death is tested in that time-honoured theatrical tradition, the policeman holding up the deceased’s arm and letting it drop.  Finis.

According to the BFI’s press release, the film was donated in 1954 by a Brighton collector who had known G. A. Smith.  They have not given the name, but was presumably Graham Head, a near neighbour in Hove to whom Smith gave items.  This early date is curious as Smith died in 1959, so one wonders why he didn’t donate it himself.  Also, the Smith-related items that belonged to Head now in Ronald Grant’s Cinema Museum were only given by his widow after Head’s death in 1980.  There is no doubt that the film was made by Smith, because of its provenance, and it probably features Smith regular Tom Green acting with Smith’s wife Laura Bayley; though it may be one of Laura’s sisters.  The sweeper does not display Laura’s overbite, though that was exaggerated by her for comic effect (most notably in Mary Jane's Mishap; or, Don't Fool with the Paraffin), and as the sweeper collapses it looks as if the policeman cups his/her breast, which might be seen as a liberty too far when acting with the boss’s wife, though one might still wonder at its propriety with his sister-in-law.

We are told that Bryony Dixon found the film lurking in the BFI National Archive in unusual circumstances.  She was researching early films from China when she came across a catalogue entry for The Death of Poor Joe, which she recognised as a (misspelled) reference to the minor character in Bleak House.  However, in the BFI database the film had been listed as Man Meets Ragged Boy, and dated to 1902.  Having realised the spurious nature of the title Man Meets Ragged Boy, and based on the catalogue entry, the film was retitled The Death of Poor Joe.  That title was listed by the Warwick Trading Company as number 1021 in its 1901 catalogue, issued in March of that year, hence the date given by the BFI for its film as no later than that for its production, and the claim that it was the earliest extant Dickens film.

There are one or two problems with this account.  The press release maintains in effect that the film sat on a shelf for the best part of six decades unrecognised, and the Death of Poor Joe title only came to light by accident.  Yet not that long ago the BFI’s database, SIFT: Summary of Information on Film and Television, had an entry for The Death of Poor Joe.  I printed off all of its records relating to G. A. Smith in August 2003.  One of these is for The Death of Poor Joe, dating it to 1900.  I did not find one for Man Meets Ragged Boy.  Even more surprisingly, according to this record there was a viewing copy of The Death of Poor Joe available at the BFI, which made me wonder to what that referred, if the film had only just been ‘discovered’; the BFI are not saying that they have found a second copy of the same film.  The most likely explanation of this puzzle is that it was not in fact lost when the SIFT database was compiled as someone in the organisation knew that a copy was held in the archive.  The BFI press release is wrong to assert that the film which Dixon pulled off the shelf was “hitherto unknown”.

 Naturally I asked Dixon about the inclusion of The Death of Poor Joe on SIFT, and she acknowledged that there was a viewing copy of the film, but said that it was listed under the title Man Meets Ragged Boy.  This was certainly not the case as recently as 2003, which suggested that somehow in the last nine years an incorrect title had been substituted for the correct one by a member of the BFI staff.   Why someone would take what sounded like a description – man meets ragged boy – and make it the title, a significant and worrying piece of clerical carelessness, was a mystery.

The second issue is how sure the BFI can be that they now have the correct title for the film in their possession.  The SIFT entry for The Death of Poor Joe (as at August 2003) reads: “A man walking through the snow on a cold winter night, meets a boy, thin and dressed in rags.  The boy collapses in the man’s arms (74ft)”.  That sounds roughly like the right one, though there are no references to broom or police uniform.  The character in the film is carrying a broom, as does Jo in Bleak House, and each is praying when he expires, clear links between the two.  But Jo in the novel dies in bed, not in the snow.  The BFI release gets round this awkwardness by theorising that the narrative conflates two stories, that of Jo, and Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Matchgirl, which does have a child dying in snow; quite a feat for a film a minute long.  That would mean immediately that the declaration that this is the earliest extant Dickens film is not completely accurate.

 However, the reference to The Little Matchgirl is not required.  While there are obvious discrepancies between the film and Dickens’s book, the former bears a greater similarity to the conclusion of a stage adaptation made by George Lander in 1875: Bleak House; or Poor ‘Jo’.  In the play, not only does Jo die by a churchyard after collapsing into the arms of Bucket (a detective) and Snagsby, but a line refers to a light: Jo says, “It's turned wery [sic] dark. Is there any light comin' ?  Snagsby replies, “It's coming fast, Jo”.  Jo then dies while repeating the Lord’s Prayer.  This may be an intermediary source for Smith’s film and account for its curious conclusion where the policeman very deliberately shines the light into the dying sweeper’s face, who puts his hands together in prayer – presumably interpreting the lamp as a divine light – just before his death.

 Even so, while the BFI were busy booming this film as based on a Dickens story, there was yet another candidate for the title, one made by Smith but dated to 1902, the date attributed to Man Meets Ragged Boy in the BFI database which Dixon consulted.  As described in Denis Gifford’s The British Film Catalogue, Vol. 1: The Fiction Film, 1895-1994 (3rd edition, 2001), After Dark; or, the Policeman and his Lantern, was a “comedy” in fifteen scenes starring Tom Green: “PC’s lantern illumines scenes of waif, drunkard, burglar, cook, beggar, pie, etc.”  This is more elaborate than the description of After Dark, or the Policeman and his Lantern as given in the November 1903 Charles Urban Trading Company (CUTC) catalogue (p.107): “A most successful film.  Amusing and very original.  The police leave the station on their night beat.  Then follows a series of views as seen by the lantern rays of one of the force.  Interest is kept up by beggar boys, drunken swells, latch-key troubles, and burgling episodes are presented.”

 As well as a slightly different description, Gifford’s version has variant punctuation for the title, so he may have used another source.  However, he calls it a comedy, the CUTC catalogue calls it “amusing”; Gifford refers to a “waif”, the CUTC catalogue to “beggar boys” (the use of the plural is possibly rhetorical).  Both the Gifford and CUTC entries state that it was 225 feet in length.  Neither refers to Bleak House or Poor Jo(e).  The film we see doesn’t look particularly comical admittedly, though the cross-dressing puts it in pantomime territory, but it does have a policeman, and it does have a lantern, which is actually a major element of the action.  In fact the first part is devoted to showing off the lamp effect, and the running time is almost half over before the sweeper even appears.  The catalogue descriptions of After Dark, showcasing the simulation of the “lantern rays”, seem a good fit.  What we see could be one part of that film, with a generic waif/beggar boy perhaps inspired by Bleak House’s Jo via George Lander.  Yet the BFI release does not mention this rather obvious possibility.

 Finding out whether there was a link between the film and After Dark was not difficult.  Barry Salt in his Film Style and Technology: History and Analysis (second edition, 1992, p.43), refers to After Dark’s technique: a “very early attempt at a lighting effect is the use of the sun reflected in a small mirror to produce a patch of bright light which is intended to simulate the light from a lantern.”  That is precisely what we see, a day-for-night shot with someone attempting to direct sunlight to match the movements of the lamp, not very well synchronised.  When I contacted Salt with my suspicion that the film might be the one he had described as After Dark: or, the Policeman and his Lantern in his book, he replied that he had seen the BFI archive’s viewing copy of After Dark more than once, and this was the film now identified by the BFI as The Death of Poor Joe.

 He added that in the National Film Archive’s 1966 Catalogue Part 3: Silent Fiction Films 1895-1930 (ie produced by what is now the BFI National Archive), the film which he saw was identified by a ‘supplied title’, as the Archive calls it, and this was Man Meets Ragged Boy.  This means that the title was printed in brackets to indicate that it had been supplied by the cataloguer, as the real one was unknown.  The National Film Archive’s 1985 Catalogue of Viewing Copies identified it in the same terms.  Unfortunately, presumably for simplicity but misleadingly, the BFI’s press release merely calls Man Meets Ragged Boy an “alternative title”, as if it originated with the filmmakers, rather than being a working title given by themselves.

 So three titles – and one film or two?  It may be that the correct title for the BFI’s film should be The Death of Poor Joe (assuming the Lander play was a source) rather than After Dark, or the Policeman and his Lantern.  But there has to be an element of doubt, given the lack of a definite chain linking the film we see and either of the titles.  The possibility that this is part of a later film does warrant consideration.  Perhaps the date posited when the film was labelled Man Meets Ragged Boy – 1902 – is accurate, and it is a surviving fragment of an entirely different, and non-Dickens, film, After Dark, or the Policeman and his Lantern.  Or it is conceivable that the pre-March 1901Dickens-themed The Death of Poor Joe was recycled as part of a longer film, one scene among a variety of situations exploiting the mirror/lantern effect, collectively called After Dark.  More research needs to be done by the BFI’s curators to establish the relationships of these titles and the film or films to which they should be assigned.

Clearly the BFI have not “discovered” the film as it wasn’t lost, just mislabelled.  It is curious that they seem to be unaware that within the last decade their own publicly-available database had already contained the title (together with the information that they possessed a viewing copy) upon which they bestowed such fanfare in 2012.  Had this not been Dickens’s big year, it is unlikely that the BFI’s announcement would have created a stir, and it seems unlikely they will now bother to correct the widespread misapprehension their press release has created that a “hitherto unknown” film has been unearthed after nearly sixty years lost in the vaults.  The best one can say about the affair is that the BFI have rectified a cataloguing error, an achievement really not worth a press release, but at worst that they may well have misidentified the film, which does not depict Bleak House’s Jo at all, and is not the earliest surviving Dickens film.

I would like to thank Bryony Dixon and Barry Salt for responding to my questions.

First published 13 March 2012, revised 6 December 2012.