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.

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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 presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

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

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