The wonderful CP Lee (a living Manchester legend) didn’t quite complete his film course on a mission, Filming in the Rain, last night having snuck off on holiday and handed over to ever reliable Andy Willis. This meant we lost the Frank Randle impressions, but never mind.
CP’s current mission is to remind a world that has almost completely forgotten that there once was the Mancunian Film Company; for forty years the only British feature film studio outside London. It was a family business of sorts. James Blakeley bought a cinema in 1908, then moved into distribution with sons James Jnr and John E. John E was to turn film producer and occasional director, a role his son Tom was to inherit. The studios were sold to the BBC in 1954, becoming their first regional presence (famous home to Top of the Pops). Tom’s son Mike’s a former Granada (now freelance) cameraman, who cheerfully admitted during a Q&A that the films are ‘garbage’.
Mancunian produced more than sixty (mostly feature length) films and there’s something of a revival thanks to the Cuthbert Club, alongside which CP’s role is to awaken academia and carve out a place for Mancunian in film history and theory. Hence the course.
John E’s first big idea was the Cameo Opera. These were silent films of opera classics. The audience would be supplied with song sheets and the more upmarket cinemas would supply musicians and perhaps a professional singer to help them. Sounds mad, but they made twelve of these back-to-back in 1927. These evolved into Song Scenas, of which three were made. These were original pieces, one a story, one a travelogue and one nobody knows. Everyone got the benefit of singers and musicians (as well as song sheets, of course).
All that was enough to get Mancunian launched. It was to concentrate on translating music hall to the big screen and, to make a bad thing worse, was responsible for launching the career of George Formby. These films consisted of a series of music hall acts and slapstick set pieces, loosely linked by very limited narratives.
Tom continued filmmaking in London after the studio sale (they’d always made some films in the capital) and some of these were more sophisticated and featured many of the stars we associate with Hammer, like Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.
Anyway. Truth be told, with so many of the films lost, there’s little in the way of legacy. For CP, Mancunian’s ‘criminal overlooked’, yet the course suffered from a lack of significant material and he was forced to rely on anecdote. It made for an entertaining five weeks – and I’ve clearly learned a lot – but could easily have been compressed into a day school.
We saw Holidays with Pay, a film’s whose title is an insight into the time, although that this was one of the first times the working class enjoyed paid holidays wasn’t referenced in the film itself. It was mere slapstick and music hall and I enjoyed it for that. But it’s clear Mancunian wasn’t interested in having anything to say. Historical worth comes from the window it opens on a long gone time when the sense of humour was very different; that is, from reading between the lines. Yet even in 1948, the rest of the world had moved on considerably; how primitive these films must have looked alongside Bogart masterpieces.
While Mancunian’s an historic legacy that’s worth preserving, it has little (if anything) to offer cinema theory and practice. Like a family line that’s died out, it’s no longer represented in the gene pool and, sadly, there’s nothing there for CP to bring back Jurassic Park style.
UPDATE: Hooray for Jollywood!