As part of the London International Mime Festival I attended a screening of the 2010 documentary Puppet at the Barbican Cinema. Made by David Soll, the film followed the New York puppeteer Dan Hurlin as he worked on his production Disfarmer, based on the life of Depression-era photographer Mike Disfarmer. I thought it was fascinating, an intriguing glimpse into how an adult puppet show is made interspersed with the history of puppetry. As someone who loves this art form I found it fascinating.

Phantom Phenomena

I recently attended a talk at the Guildhall School entitled Phantom Phenomena, about the many ways in which Gaston Leroux’s original novel has been reinterpreted and remade over the past century. Researcher Cormac Newark specialises in studying the reception of operas, and noticed that many critics who wrote about opera in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also wrote novels featuring scenes set at the opera. Leroux was one such individual, and his most famous novel The Phantom of the Opera was published serially in 1909-10. The novel, which employs traditional clichés about the emotional and spiritual power of opera, makes heavy reference to the opera Faust, which would have been familiar to many readers at the time as one of the most important operas of the age.

The original Phantom book has spawned musicals, ballets, spinoff novels and over fifty films. The talk focused largely on the film and TV versions, which come from all over the world: the USA, China, South America and Italy are just some of the places which have created their own versions of the Phantom story. We saw several clips from different versions: one early black and white version had the Phantom admiring a male protégé rather than a young female singer, while another had a bizarrely cheery musical number. A telenovela version from South America saw a woman being doused in acid – the implication being that the Phantom was originally disfigured in some way. Yet another version combined the characters of the Phantom and Dracula, and I was particularly intrigued by the Eighties horror version with the music being played on a computer.

Full, very long list of films and TV shows

The continued popularity of the story in the modern age can be largely attributed to the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, and fans continue to explore and develop the story online via websites. I enjoyed this interesting talk and it’s certainly made me want to see some different versions of the Phantom story.

Labyrinth Masquerade Ball


I’ve wanted to go to one of the Prince Charles Cinema‘s famous Labyrinth Masquerade Balls for a while, but it wasn’t until the sad death of David Bowie recently that I was finally prompted to go, along with some friends. The Masquerade Balls are designed for die-hard fans of the film (that’s definitely me): attendees are invited to dress up (although I didn’t do this!), sing along, cheer and generally take part in the action.

On entering the auditorium you are given a little goodie bag: I won’t give away the surprise, but you need to keep it handy as the various things inside it will be used at different points in the film. Once seated, you get to enjoy a bit of pre-show entertainment, including a judging contest for those people who did turn up in costume. And then the film begins!

I usually hate it when people talk, sing or move around in the cinema, but this kind of event is completely different – everyone there knows the film back to front anyway and the emphasis is on enjoying it as a community. I have to admit I did really like this way of enjoying one of my favourite films! Of course, I could have stayed at home and watched it on DVD for free – but then I wouldn’t have got to experience the atmosphere. An entire roomful of people singing “Dance Magic Dance” is not to be missed!

I definitely recommend the Labyrinth Masquerade Ball for any fans of the film. They do run fairly frequently, so check out the cinema’s website.

Reel History: The World According to the Movies – Kings Place

I went to this discussion with Alex von Tunzelmann, inspired by the Guardian column and the newly-released book which looks like it would be an interesting read. It was lots of fun: as someone who studied history at university I thoroughly enjoyed this look at the historical accuracy – or otherwise – of movies.

Shot on Site: The Somerset House Film Tour

Somerset House is one of the most interesting buildings in London, with a long and rich history – in terms of the site itself, not just the existing building. It’s also been used as a film set on numerous occasions. I signed up to the Shot on Site tour to learn more about this aspect of the building’s history.

Our tour guide was enthusiastic and knowledgeable and I learned a great deal about the topic. Around 40 films have been captured here to a greater or lesser degree over the years, beginning with The Long Arm (1956) and The Day of the Jackal (1973), in which Somerset House effectively played itself, as the home of birth, marriage and death records that it then was.

Those films were unusual in that they used interior shots: this is rare as Somerset House, being designed as an office building, does not have particularly lavish interiors. For instance, the exterior stood in for the Devonshire residence in London in the film The Duchess (2008). In children’s movie Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang (2010), Flyboys (2006) – about a group of American pilots – and even Sleepy Hollow (1999), with the aid of some green screen, aspects of the Somerset House courtyard stood in for various locations, including a London street and a French hospital.

Somerset House has appeared in two Bond films, Tomorrow Never Dies and Goldeneye, standing in for a St Petersburg car park in the latter. It has “played” Buckingham Palace three times – in TV series Spooks, comedy The Worst Week of My Life and in children’s sequel Agent Cody Banks: Destination London (2004). The site has appeared in X-Men: First Class (2011) and in the 19th century-set romantic comedy Hysteria (2011) with Maggie Gyllenhaal, who apparently took several takes to cycle away wearing cumbersome Victorian skirts!

For me, the most fascinating part of the tour was the visit to the Lightwells and Deadhouse in the basement. The Lightwells, narrow passages running around and underneath the courtyard, are gloomy and atmospheric and acted as a prison in the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes movie. In the Deadhouse, so named because it is the last remaining part of the palace that once stood on the site and still contains graves of palace staff, we were informed that it stood in for a bunker below the Ministry of Defence in the World War II thriller Glorious 39.

Finally, we were shown some glimpses of forthcoming movies which used Somerset House for filming, including the soon-to-be-released Suffragette. I really enjoyed the tour and if it comes back next year – which it may well do as part of the Film4 Summer Screen season – it’s definitely worth getting a ticket.

Tour of Ealing Studios

The original entrance to Ealing Studios, with blue plaque dedicated to Michael Balcon

On Friday I was lucky enough to be able to go on a tour of Ealing Studios as part of the Ealing Music & Film Festival. The studios are the oldest continuously working film studios in the world, and have played a huge part in the British film industry for over a century, encompassing silent film, the onset of the “talkies”, the upheaval of two world wars and technological developments such as motion capture.

The site was originally occupied by Will Barker Studios from 1902, later becoming Associated Talking Pictures Ltd. Ealing Studios was built in 1931 and in 1938 Michael Balcon (who gave his name to the local branch of Wetherspoon’s) from MGM took over, issuing films under the Ealing Studios name. Many memorable films were produced in the 1930s and 40s, including documentary war films, but the studio’s heyday was during the post-war 1940s and the 1950s when celebrated Ealing comedies, including Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers, were produced.

The studios were purchased by the BBC in 1955, leading to nearly half a century of location filming for television dramas and serials. After a transitional period late in the century, the studios entered new ownership in 2001. The five original sound stages are present, and are now listed. As well as offices and bases for modern production and related companies, the studios produce films and television shows: recent films include The Importance of Being Earnest (2002) and St. Trinian’s (2007), as well as the hugely popular Downton Abbey. In addition, the Imaginarium, a performance capture studio set up by Andy Serkis and Jonathan Cavendish, is based in one of the sound stages: famously it was used to create Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

Inside the complex, looking towards reception

To reach the tour meeting point, which was the reception area, I had to go through the security point. There were several of us on the tour and we were taken to see the white building which was the original studio entrance in the 1950s. Famous figures including Michael Balcon and Alfred Hitchcock had offices here. It is looking slightly shabby these days but they are hoping to get the funds to restore it shortly. We were taken around the large complex and saw some of the modern companies, including a casting company and a hair and makeup studio, present on-site. One of the buildings, which includes the original sound stages, is listed but the newer building in front of it is due to be demolished and replaced with up-to-the-minute production facilities.

The original entrance, seen from the back

The most exciting part of the tour was being able to go on to the sound stages. On one, we saw a set being built, consisting of a theatre foyer and a staircase. This set is for a remake of the 1983 film The Dresser, and will star Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen. The top of the staircase leads to nowhere: a real theatre is being used for the auditorium (Hackney Empire). Thanks to a question from another person on the tour, I found out that this was the sound stage on which Scott of the Antarctic was shot. It was huge and still had some of the old safety notices on the walls.

Listed building containing sound stages

The second sound stage was even more exciting: crew members and carpenters were preparing for the filming of Downton Abbey. Much of this popular show is filmed at Highclere Castle, but a significant proportion is filmed at Ealing Studios. As they were busy creating the set, we couldn’t see much but I could see into Lady Mary’s bedroom – which was in the process of having wooden “fireplaces” fitted – and had a peek into the servants’ corridor. We also saw the large backdrops used behind the windows, to give the illusion that it is a real room in a real house with a view. I also had a very brief glance into the Dower House sitting room.

Plaque commemorating famous films made here

The tour was fairly short – it is a working studio after all – but very interesting. I was thrilled to have had the opportunity to visit.

Man With a Movie Camera – Barbican Cinema

Shown as part of the City Visions series at the BarbicanMan with a Movie Camera is a 1929 experimental silent film with no story or dialogue, directed by Dziga Vertov and made in the then USSR. This showing was accompanied by Paul Robinson’s HarmonieBand, and preceded by a 3-minute showing of Hungerford: Symphony of a London Bridge, a pilot for a projected London Symphony film.

I went to see this because I am interested in Russia and Russian culture, and I really enjoyed it. The film is full of life and interest, filmed in different Russian towns and including lots of different people. Unusual angles and quirky happenings made it a fascinating watch.

The Cinema Museum

I’d never heard of the Cinema Museum until I saw it appear on Groupon. I mentioned this to the very knowledgeable and informative guide who conducted my tour, and he said, “If I had a pound for every time I heard that…” I think the museum deserves to be better known, as it is fascinating.

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The Cinema Museum

The address of the Cinema Museum is The Master’s House, 2 Dugard Way, London SE11 4TH. It is near Elephant & Castle tube station, surprisingly near to where one of my friends used to live. Other than organised events, it is only possible to visit the museum via a conducted tour, and this was how I got to look round on Saturday.

I’d booked in advance, but was disconcerted to find the place so quiet – I wondered if I’d turned up at the wrong time, but luckily someone opened the door for me. The first part of the tour involved watching a couple of short films while sitting in original theatre seats. One was a rather abstract promotion for the Post Office while the other was about the last tram in London – which fitted in well with my London Transport obsession. We joined up with the previous tour to visit the display of cinema uniforms, which came from a variety of different periods and cities and which varied considerably in colour, style and appeal.

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Exhibition of cinema uniforms

After the first group left, their tour completed, our guide took us around the rest of the museum, which holds a wide and varied collection based around the concept of going to the pictures. Fixtures and fittings (e.g. carpets and signage), marketing materials, photographic images and publications such as fan magazines, films (e.g. B-movies, ads, trailers), equipment (e.g. projectors, sound systems and uniforms) and other random items. I was surprised at the number of items which seemed to be from Cumbria: when I asked the guide at the end he said that this was because one of the major contributors to the museum lived in a nearby town, and always made a point of turning up at cinema closures to get hold of bits and bobs. A piece of carpet from Workington and a sign from Egremont were just two of the items I spotted.

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Old cinema signage

As a librarian by profession, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the museum has a library, which has been sorted by a volunteer (from what I could work out, the vast majority, perhaps even all, of the people associated with the museum are volunteers). There is also a room devoted to pictures of different kinds, such as stills from film sets.

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On the first floor, there is a room devoted to Charlie Chaplin. Fittingly, the man actually spent time here: the building used to be the Master’s House of the former Lambeth Workhouse, where Chaplin entered alongside his mother when he was a child. The room we ended up in, the former workhouse chapel, was beautiful and the ideal place to rest and have a cup of tea.

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Collection of Charlie Chaplin postcards [flickr id=”9235710278″ thumbnail=”medium” align=”left”]
Former workhouse chapel (complete with giant Charlie Chaplin sculpture!)

I definitely recommend a visit to the Cinema Museum. It’s a hidden gem and well worth a look if you’re remotely interested in cinema. Get in touch on 0207 840 2200 or email info@cinemamuseum.org.uk to arrange a tour, which costs £10 for adults and £7 for children and concessions.


Address: 2 Dugard Way (off Renfrew Road), London, SE11 4TH

Website: cinemamuseum.org.uk

Opening Hours: Pre-booked visits only

Prices: Adults £10, children and concessions £7

A busy Saturday in east London

I had a very busy and tiring Saturday. I visited 11 tube stations. Eleven! And they were all in east London, most of them on the Central Line.

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I began with a visit to Bethnal Green, as I wanted to go to the nearby Museum of Childhood. I tell you what, you know you’re getting old when the toys you played with as a child go on display in a museum. I enjoyed reminiscing about the 90s and learning about toys in ages gone by – some of the dolls from a century or half a century ago were terrifying.

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I took a walk through Victoria Park; the day was cold and cloudy but I enjoyed the walk. The park was the first royal park open to the public, and it provides a much-needed recreational green space in east London. I imagine it is lovely in the summer.

My travels took me through Leyton and Leytonstone up to Woodford and Snaresbrook. The most notable part of my journey was seeing the Hitchcock mosaics at Leytonstone tube station. Director Alfred Hitchcock grew up in the area and a few years ago several mosaics picturing scenes from his films were installed in the corridor leading to the ticket hall. I had fun trying to guess which film each mosaic represented.

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Hitchcock as a child, outside his father’s grocery shop
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Hitchcock, directing
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The Pleasure Garden
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Strangers on a Train
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The Skin Game
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The Birds
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North By Northwest
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Hitchcock with Marlene Dietrich
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Rear Window
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Osterley Park and House


Last year, I visited Osterley Park which is situated in between Ealing and Heathrow Airport in south-west London. At the time of my visit, the Long Gallery in the house was closed for filming purposes. I asked one of the volunteers what was going on, and she said that it was top secret – not even they were allowed to know. All she could tell me was that it was a major production.

I got on with my life and thought no more of it, until earlier this year when I found out what the production was – no less than the new Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises! The Long Gallery, main staircase and a number of other rooms stood in for various rooms in Wayne Manor, while the Library served as the entrance to the Batcave via a door in one corner disguised as part of the bookcase.

The National Trust are capitalising on this and have put on an exhibition (Real to Reel) about filming at Osterley over the last half-century. The house’s location inside the M25 and within easy reach of central London, Heathrow Airport and Ealing Studios has made it the ideal location for filming and it has appeared in many productions including The Grass is Greener, BBC titles and – I’m sure – the recent BBC production of Parade’s End (it wasn’t mentioned in the exhibition but I could swear I recognised the entrance hall masquerading as a hospital!).

The house itself has a long and distinguished history, described by Horace Walpole as ‘the palace of palaces’. Robert Adam, architect and designer, created the house in the late eighteenth century for the Child family. Today, the house is presented as it would have been in the 1780s, and it is very beautiful, with gorgeous furniture and impressive artworks.

I enjoyed the exhibition, as well as my visit to the house, and was glad to be able to see the Long Gallery for the first time. Osterley Park is aptly named as the grounds are vast and beautiful, ideal for talking a walk on a crisp autumn day.


Address: Jersey Road, Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 4RB

Website: nationaltrust.org.uk/osterley-park

Opening Hours: Wed-Sun 11am-5pm during the summer (house), extended opening times for the park. Check the website for winter opening times.

Prices: £11 adults, £5.50 children (house); National Trust members free.