Josh Cheetham talks to director Barry Bliss about Walthamstow’s contribution to the early British film industry
In the movie business, fame has its price. But 100 years ago, it might have only cost you a bus ticket to Walthamstow.
Around 400 silent films were produced in Waltham Forest between 1910 and 1926 according to local film director Barry Bliss who, with film group ‘Hollywood E17’, is campaigning to bring the borough’s pioneering cinematic heritage into focus.
“We have been incredible innovators in Walthamstow and a really important element within the history of British cinema,” he says. “Most people, even people who have lived here all their lives, if you talk to them about it they’re absolutely gobsmacked, they have no idea.”
So how did this come to his attention?
“I’ve lived here for 35 years. When I first got married we moved to Ravenswood Road. I remember my next door neighbour, her elderly mum lived with her and she was chatting with me and told me about when she was a small girl and these guys from the local studios had tried to film in her front garden and her mum had chased them away because they hadn’t asked permission.”
Years of research and campaigning later, Barry hopes to place commemorative plaques at the sites of these studios. Former Doctor Who star Paul McGann will be unveiling the first of them on Monday 1st May at Buleigh Court in Wood Street, the former site of groundbreaking firm Precision Film Studio, which was the first in Walthamstow.
“What was unique about Precision was that the whole company was in one studio,” says Barry. “You’d have the production offices, you’d have the costume department, you’d have the props department, carpentry, everything that you need to make a film would be on site.
“The first floor was just like a giant glass greenhouse and the reasoning was that they had artificial lighting at that point, it was expensive and it wasn’t reliable so they would film using natural daylight as much as possible.
“It was just a really logical, rational answer to filmmaking issues… and it was copied right across the UK.”
Precision also caused a stir in 1909 with Anarchy in England, a dramatisation of the infamous Walthamstow Tram Chase of that year in which two Latvian anarchists killed a child and policeman after robbing a rubber factory. But what brought the movie business to Walthamstow?
“The two major problems that early film makers were facing were, number one, the pollution in London was so bad, and also by this stage you also had problems with crowds and so to avoid both these things they came to Walthamstow where it was still rural enough for the air to be quite clean.
“And Walthamstow was very good because it had great transport links, it had the railways, and it had trams, so most of the stars in the films would be theatre actors and it meant that they could get back for the evening performances to the West End after a day’s filming.”
But while the borough was once a shining light in the British movie industry, it quickly burned out. Precision, which came to Walthamstow in 1910, survived just five years.
“I think were multiple reasons they didn’t survive,” says Barry. “Some of it was financial, some of it was aesthetic. I just don’t think they had the inventiveness of other filmmakers in different countries and even over here.
“Between 1910 and 1915, people’s expectations of films grew exponentially because of the stuff they were getting from Europe and America.”
“Film was still considered a bastard art, still is in some quarters, so they just didn’t attract the investment they needed.”
This attitude continues to plague the film industry, Barry believes, and has dampened enthusiasm for the borough’s cinematic roots.
“It’s just an indifference,” he says. “People will come from all over the world to visit Walthamstow because of the William Morris legacy. But the irony is that these studios affected more people and in terms of everyday culture are more important than William Morris ever was.”
So how will a few blue plaques help?
“It’s about the physical commemoration of the site which is really important, but also as equally important is actually getting the story out there so people will start looking under their mattress to see if they’ve got any old family photographs… local people would have worked in the studios.”
Beyond May, Barry hopes to have plaques at the former sites of the borough’s three other movie studios: Broadwest, also on Wood Street; British and Colonial, in Hoe Street; and I.B. Davidson, in Lea Bridge Road. A website, interactive culture trail, and museum, may also be on the cards.
“We have to be aware of the cultural history of communities otherwise they become dead things, a petrified past.”
Hollywood E17’s first blue plaque unveiling ceremony will be held at 12pm on Monday 1st May at Buleigh Court, 280 Wood Street, E17 3PA. To find out more: