Transport of delight: Porters on a railway platform in Liverpool, 1890s. Photo: Getty
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Making tracks: the parallels between cinema and train travel

All was harmony, until Jon mentioned the legend of how people in the audience in 1896 had ducked when the train suddenly appeared on-screen.

World at One
BBC Radio 4

When did a paying audience first watch a film in Britain? To the Regent Street Polytechnic and a short report for World at One (weekdays, 1pm) from its long-shuttered, vaulted hall, undergoing renovations in advance of a spring 2015 reopening. Here, in 1896, Auguste and Louis Lumière screened a selection of their short films to an audience of just 54 men, women and children.

The correspondent Jon Manel interviewed film conservationist David Cleveland as he fed a spool of film into a cinematograph machine and cranked the handle to project the Lumières’ 50-second film that shows a steam train pulling into a station.

“We are about to re-create a little bit of history,” said Jon. “David – ACTION!” The noise of dogged mechanical rattling. “You are turning a handle,” breathed Jon, like someone reporting live from the scene of a delicate crime. “I am turning a handle,” confirmed David, seriously. All was harmony, until Jon mentioned the legend of how people in the audience in 1896 had ducked when the train suddenly appeared on-screen.

“Do you really think they did?” scoffed David. “I mean, it’s a nice story but . . .”

“Oh, don’t spoil a good story, David!” begged Jon.

Whether that part of the story is true or not, is it not perfect that the first film ever shown in the UK was of a train? In many ways, train travel (and later driving) is even more intrinsic to cinema than romance. That kind of movement is cinema. You sit down in a space separated from the world and you observe it for a while, watching things change through the rectangular screen of the windows. Trains, cars and cinema are about a strange acceleration of time. Just as a movie jumps alluringly from day to night, such vehicles are there to take you faster than you know you really ought to be going.

Even emerging from a cinema evokes how it feels at the end of a long, lonely train or car journey: the checking of a watch, the coming-to as if from a dream of motion and space, legs stiff, brain still blurred and smudged. Within just 40 years, those 54 paying audience members on Regent Street had mushroomed to more than 1.5 billion a year in cinemas across the UK. Our minds had officially been blown. Those 50 seconds changed us as a species for ever.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue