I’ve long had a fascination with the art of Victorian photography – how those grainy old sepia images enable us to peer straight through a historical mirror into the past: for the very first time to be able to see exactly how people looked back then. Even the sparkle in their eyes.
Because of this I think it was a natural progression for me to want to write a novel themed on moving film. But with The Last Days of Leda Grey I wasn’t concerned with the Hollywood age of Keaton, or Chaplin, or Louise Brooks, or the host of other femme fatales of the 1920’s silver screen. My story is set in Edwardian times, in the seaside town of Brighton, which is where many English directors were based and worked until the First World War.
A lot of the films they used to make were documentary ‘actuals’ – observations of everyday people going about their everyday lives. It was one of these in particular (one financed by Thomas Edison) that first inspired and drew me.
This film was made in 1901. Now, it has been digitised and preserved by the BFI. Simply titled as Morecambe Sea Front, it’s well worth taking a look at it – to see the clarity of the film, with the people as they stroll along, and all the children running by, so excited to know they are being filmed – though I find it very poignant to know these people are now dead: indeed that many of those boys would have grown up to find themselves in the trenches of the First World War.
The desire to see oneself on screen, or to watch imagined fantasies was no less intense than it is today. Of course, all the technology was nowhere near as sophisticated as that we have grown used to. But then, rather than being lower, expectations were simply different when viewing this particular art form, which relies on music instead of words to heighten emotional response. It could be a kind of pantomime, with so many novice movie stars making the transition from stage to film – either coming from the music halls, or else as Shakespearian thespians – and for some time they still performed with exaggerated flourishes, or with facial expressions you’d hardly call subtle, which we often find ridiculous. However, essential dramatic responses haven’t really changed that much. We still enjoy laughing at comedies, or weeping at a good romance, or gasping at a horror film. We still enjoy the rushing thrill of being transported beyond ourselves and into ‘other worlds’ on screen – just as my character Leda was when going to see old movie shows:
It was like being caught in a time machine. It was like a living miracle. Oh, such an age of wonders! But, for me, the greatest wonders were the films we knew as ‘narratives’, with proper actors playing parts in rip-roaring adventures, or comedies, with motorised cars and aeroplanes, or rockets that flew to the moon and back, with skeletons that came to life, or people so reduced in size they might be Lilliputians.
Papa would sometimes spoil things by telling my brother and myself how those effects had been achieved, and very often based upon the smoke-and-mirror tricks performed by stage magicians in their acts. Or else the methods first contrived by charlatan Victorians who cruelly tricked all those who thought their loved ones’ souls could reappear as spirits in the photographs.
It was double exposure, nothing more. He showed me how to do it once, when he stood me in front of a black velvet hanging, then re-exposed the film again while I was posing differently, when my previous image then appeared like a will-o’-the-wisp within the frame … no more than scraps of fantasy.
As early as 1897, the Brighton director G. A. Smith made The Haunted Castle – which my fictional Leda might have seen – which was also filled with fantasy. And, how the audiences lapped it up. But then, they’d already been flocking along to the French Phantasmogorias, which might be compared to our theme parks today, where ghost trains are constructed with special effects to terrify anyone who rides in them, when the punters – in Leda’s words once more –
…would be primed into states of anxiety. Feet tingling as they walked across electrified metallic plates when they entered auditoriums. Or being led through graveyards where invisible drums were heard to beat, with rattling drums from tombs around … or eerie twisting moans created by small glass harmonicas … to have an audience believe themselves immersed in spirit worlds.
Early silents were often ghost stories, with all sorts of smoke and mirror tricks, with the pioneer directors often making their own transitions from careers as stage magicians, when they would then exploit their well-honed skills to great effect in film.
One of the most famous was the French director, Georges Méliès, whose enchanting, often eerie plots, have very much inspired the films made by a man called Charles Beauvois (my fictional director), who happens to be a genius in creating suspense upon the screen.
Charles Beauvois uses every trick in the book – such as cameras looking down from heights, or drawing outwards from a scene, or moving in for close-ups. Lenses are blurred or veiled to enhance the sense of mystery. The celluloid can be cut away so that light from the lantern flickers through. Exposures are tinted with colour, to provide a vivid contrast when the rest of the film is black and white. Movements speed up, or are slowed down. Sometimes they violently jerk about. Objects sometimes disappear or else change size completely. Figures can be reproduced, or simply vanish in thin air – as they do in one imagined film that I have called The Cursed Queen, which is filled with supernatural themes that may or may not blur the veils between what readers will perceive as fiction … or reality.