Yesterday, I went to a showing of old amateur ciné films of Canterbury. It was very interesting to see the city as it was in the 30s-70s, and the changes it’s been through over the years. The greatest changes were mainly due to the city being bombed during World War Two – I hadn’t realised before how much of it had been destroyed. Canterbury is a beautiful city now, but I think it was probably even lovelier in the past, when all the old buildings were there, and the moat still existed (before it was concreted over to widen the ring road). I didn’t even know there had been a moat, before yesterday. I don’t know if it was ever a moat with water in, but the film of it during the 1950s shows it as a nice green area of grass and trees between the city wall and the road.
There were lots of clips of various civic and cultural events that have taken place in Canterbury over the years, such as the investiture of the mayor, and people participating in various slightly odd games and activities on recreation grounds – many of which health and safety would soon put a stop to nowadays! For example, there was a clip of some young lads, about 5 to 8 years old, blindfolded, with boxing gloves on, being encouraged to beat each other up – much to the delight of the onlooking crowd! There was also a clip of someone and his wife riding a motorcycle through a flaming hoop, various people and animals trying to stay upright on a spinning table (the goat came out best), and drivers swapping cars while still in motion (in the 1930s when cars went at suitably slow speeds).
Lots of people in the audience had lived through the times being shown in the films, and they were able to provide details about what had happened which were unknown to the projectionist (although the films were digitised so I’m not sure if this is the right word)/narrator, and correcting his information at times! As a fan of steam trains, I was pleased to see some film of what was probably the last journey made on the old ‘Crab and Winkle Line‘, AKA the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway. This line no longer exists, so if you want to get to Whitstable from Canterbury you have to either go on the bus, or go on the train and change at Faversham, which is a bit of a dog-leg.
We also saw some rare film of Count Louis Zborowski, probably most famous as the creator of the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang cars that were the inspiration for Ian Fleming‘s book which was made into the more famous film of the same name. Apart from cars, the Count was also interested in railways, and had a miniature railway built in the grounds of his house near Canterbury. The film we saw was part of a drama film he made in 1924, which was a rather confusing tale of kidnap and stolen jewels, with a starring role for his railway.
I’m not sure why, but I think my favourite piece of film was a series of shots filmed by someone who was a big fan of buses. He had followed several (possibly all, at some point) of the bus routes around Canterbury, filming the buses on their journeys. Although this might sound rather dull, it wasn’t – both because I think the old buses are lovely, and also because the filmmaker captured a lot of the Canterbury of old (1950s-60s I think) in the background. Apart from anything else, I admired the his dedication in following all those bus routes – definitely a labour of love, as all of the films we saw yesterday obviously were.
I think one reason I enjoyed yesterday’s screening so much is that my dad is a keen collector of ciné film (or should it be cinefilm? – perhaps it doesn’t matter) and has made quite a few amateur films himself over the years, starring various friends and family members. He likes to take a small ciné camera with him on holiday, and filmed my brother’s wedding on film, rather than video (to which he is only a very recent, and reluctant, convert, due the increased cost of ‘proper’ film and its processing). Unfortunately, amateur cinefilm-making seems to be a dying art, so projects like the one in Canterbury are going to be increasingly important as the years go on, in order to preserve and celebrate the work of people like my dad. Unsung cinematographers, directors, writers and producers (and composers, in some cases), whose work has often only been seen by a handful of people, but is now being recognised as being of importance both as a record of British cultural life, and in terms of the history of-making in its own right.
The projectionist and narrator of yesterday’s films, Tim Jones, is a lecturer at the university who is doing a lot of research into amateur film-making. As part of this he is collecting amateur ciné films of Canterbury and the surrounding area, and making digital copies of them, for preservation and research. If you have any knowledge of amateur cinematography in Canterbury, or you have any film or old photographs of Canterbury you would be willing to contribute to the project (I think he can probably return them once they’re digitised), please contact him via his staff page on the university website.