What is film? It’s a strip of celluloid - It’s an idea - It’s a narrative - It’s an industry - It’s probably the most important art form of the 20 th C - It’s a lens through which we can study our culture.
My research relates to the story of filmmaking in Manchester. It feeds directly into my teaching and importantly, provides an insight into the University of Salford’s place within the community and so engages with the wider public in knowledge sharing and accessibility. So let me introduce you to some areas of my research ...
Between 1927 and 1968 John E Blakeley and his Mancunian Film Studios produced what John E proudly termed ‘Northern Films for Northern people’. These movies were so well tuned to their times that they often outdrew Hollywood movies at the box office.
From their Film Studios on Dickenson Road in Rusholme, Mancunian played a huge part in shaping and celebrating Northern Popular Culture through a series of comedies. In 1954 the premises were sold to the BBC and the site became the first regional TV studio in Great Britain.
Mancunian’s first foray into film production was silent operas – 20 minute versions of classics such as Rigoletta , Carmen and even Wagner’s Ring Cycle ! These stills are from the only surviving print – La Traviata – the film was backed by live singers who faced the audience and lip synced into mirrors reflecting the screen.
Mancunian Studios made their first sound film in 1934 – Boots! Boots! starred a young Music Hall turn George Formby and cost £3,000 to make. It took ten times that within three months and Formby became a huge international star – Turned out nice again!
But Mancunian’s biggest star was comedian Frank Randle pictured here with co-star Diana Dors in his last film, It’s A Grand Life – In 1940 Randle was the highest paid comedian in the country – He had his own yacht moored off Blackpool North Pier. He also had no teeth and drank two bottles of whisky a day.
The area around the Mancunian Studios was nicknamed Jollywood and local residents got used to the comings and goings of stars such as Sandy Powell, Tessie O’Shea and Frank Randle. Later, when it became the BBC, guests who appeared there included everybody from Frank Sinatra to Jimi Hendrix.
Norman Evans’ most popular sketch character was Fanny Fairweather in Over The Garden Wall . His mouthings, gossip and demeanour stemmed from lip-reading mill girls. Norman was a big influence on later comedians such as Les Dawson and Salford University’s very own Peter Kay.
Standing with me in this picture is Mike Blakeley, the grandson of Mancunian’s founder John E. In the centre is Jackie Herrick, Randle’s last leading lady as Cinderella. The occasion is the unveiling of a blue plaque to Randle on Blackpool’s North Pier, the very pier that he chased impresario Jack Taylor with an axe after being fined five guineas for the following gag – “ Thwarted Again! Never Mind – I’ll open a window!”
The culmination of my research into Mancunian Films resulted in my creating this digital museum and open-access resource website. “Itsahotun” The website houses countless pictures and memorabilia, biographies of the performers and video downloads – And it receives up to half a million visitors a year – I find myself answering up to five queries a week from TV companies and private individuals from around the world!
Music Hall and Variety turns were always a feature of John E Blakeley’s films and very often these scenes are the only filmed record we have of performers such as these tumblers, Donovan & Byl. I am called on to draw from this wealth of rare archival material to write articles such as this one for the British Music Hall Society and to give talks at the BFI and similar institutions.
My research into Regional Film and in particular the creation of Regional Identity through Comedy led to six International Comedy Conferences being hosted by the University. I was also able to obtain over six hundred hours of ‘lost’ BBC archive material, kindly donated by Mike Craig’s widow, now housed in the University archives.
I’ve also been researching a man known as ‘the Orson Welles of Salford’ – Cliff Twemlow – Cliff was a night-club bouncer, novelist, songwriter, actor and screenwriter who set up a one-man film industry in his home town of Eccles. In the ten years up to his death in 1992 he made thirteen feature films.
Cliff gathered around him a core group of actors and crew. His movies were shot in locations ranging from Manchester’s Albert Square to The West Indies. His output included horror films and spy thrillers and they were made to exploit the growing home video market. Cliff was missing from British Film History until the publication of mine and fellow lecturer Andy Willis’ book The Lost World of Cliff Twemlow and now Cliff and his work is being reappraised by film historians and organisations such as Nucleus Films whose Video Nasties Volume 2 will include interviews with me about Cliff and his films.
Keeping up to date with revolutionary advances in digital technology, desktop editing, hard drive cameras, etc, there are more people involved in filmmaking than ever before. In order to pace with this - and the past - I have created the Manchester Film History timeline. Keeping up with this growth is a difficult but rewarding exercise!
Here is a partial list of films that have been shot on location in Manchester and Salford by what we can call ‘The Majors’. Notably, the most recent – Captain America – which was filmed in the Northern Quarter. Nowadays, the fully-equipped sound stage facilities at Media City ensure that we can look forward to a healthy cinematic future …
Being based at Media City with my background in Film and Comedy I am often seen or heard as a guest on TV and Radio documentaries such as BBC 4’s Rude Britannia and this last Boxing Day, BBC2‘s Blackpool Big Night Out . http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01pm7zk/Blackpool_Big_Night_Out/www.bbc.co.uk
I regularly host screenings and events at a variety of venues around Manchester and Salford such as this one at Cornerhouse and Mancunian Film evenings across the North West and as far south as the BFI in London. My presentations, as with my research and teaching here at the University, are a celebration of North West culture as seen through the lens of Film and Television.
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Two Little Drummer Boys (1928) FILMS MADE Boots! Boots! (1934) Love, Mirth & Melody (1934) By Musical Medley (1934) Off The Dole (1935) MANCUNIAN STUDIOS Dodging The Dole (1936) The Penny Pool (1937) Calling All Crooks (1938) Somewhere In England (1940)Cameo Operas Somewhere In Camp (1942)The Bohemian Girl Somewhere On Leave (1942)Lily of Killarney Demobbed (1944) LIST OF FILMS - OLD Home Sweet Home (1945)Rigioletto Under New Management (1945)Maritana Cup-Tie Honeymoon (1948)Faust International Circus Review (1948)Carmen Holidays With Pay (1948)La Traviata Showground of the North (1948)Daughter of the Regiment Somewhere In Politics (1948) What A Carry On (1949)Martha School For Randle (1949)Il Travatore Over The Garden Wall (1950)Wagner’s Ring Let’s Have A Murder (1950)Samson & Delilah Love’s A Luxury (1952) Those People Next Door (1952) It’s A Grand Life (1953) The Trouble With Eve (1959)Song Scenas Rag Doll (1960) Painted Smile (1961)Laughter & Tears Tomorrow At Ten (1962)Ireland (Then and Now) Blind Corner (1963) The Marked One (1963)Musical Memories Devils of Darkness (1964) Island of Terror (1966) The Night of the Big Heat (1968)
FILMS MADE IN MANCHESTER (non Mancunian Studios) Reds Yanks There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble The Resurrection Man The Front Line LIST OF FILMS - NEW The Lovers Mrs Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter A Taste of Honey Hobson’s Choice 28 Days Later In The Name of the Father Raining Stones Looking For Eric Hell Is A City Sherlock Holmes Alfie Captain America Charlie Bubbles Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue East is East The Parole Officer 24 Hour Party People