Making Yet More Noise: Interviewing the Women Behind the New BFI Suffragettes in Silent Film Collection
Rebecca Harrison interviews two of the prime movers in this groundbreaking and timely theatrical and DVD release
From the determined expressions of women marching past cameras at protests, to the grins of the mugging Tilly girls, the BFI’s Make More Noise! Suffragettes in Silent Film collection puts faces to both the named, and unnamed, women and men behind the suffrage campaign. Spanning 18 years, from 1899 to 1917, through 21 films, the programme gives contemporary viewers insights into the many different experiences of women from the period.
Here, I review the collection in conversation with two women central to its creation: Bryony Dixon (Silent Film Curator at the BFI and lead curator of Make More Noise!) and Lillian Henley (Associate Artist Composer with 1927 theatre company and composer and accompanist on the collection). Both Bryony and Lillian talked to me about their involvement in the project, their responses to the films, and (a marvel given that we’re talking about silent cinema!) how the collection gives women a voice.
In part, it’s the score that enables the women to speak. Composed and recorded by Lillian (whose career in silent film was inspired by seeing Stephen Horne accompany Pandora’s Box in 2006), the piano accompaniment is never intrusive and remains sympathetic throughout. When composing the score, Lillian says she used various historical materials to inspire her, including ‘Emmeline Pankhurst’s story, and I stumbled across photographs from the same period, looking at the work by Christina Broom [pioneering female press photographer] to help spark my musical imagination.’ But, when she saw the films, the research was set aside: ‘I had to just remember to score the films in front of me. If there wasn’t anything that I wasn’t seeing in the films, I couldn’t score my research, even though it was hard not to let it effect my interpretation on the film collection.’ Through interpreting the women on film, rather than the ones we read about in books, Her score has succeeded in giving life to the shadowy figures of the suffragettes that we see onscreen.
Additionally, the intertitles framing the films give the viewer context while refraining from judgement, so that the filmic women retain both authority and autonomy. However, it’s through the programme selection that Make More Noise! really succeeds in revealing the diversity of women’s attempts to gain equality, as the juxtaposition between tragedy and comedy, and the serious and the anarchic, plays with our expectations about the stereotypical suffragette. Bryony has brilliantly curated films that depict a range of women’s experiences, and, in doing so, shows us that there is light and shade in a history remembered in black and white. For example, newsreels including Scenes from Suffragette Demonstration at Newcastle (1909), Suffragette Riots at Westminster (1910) and Trafalgar Square Riot (1913) represent a range of approaches that different suffragettes used in their demonstrations. While the protests in Newcastle were peaceful, violence erupted at the latter two events in central London, and so the films remind us that not all women behaved the same, or believed in deploying the same tactics to achieve their goals.
Hats off to the suffragettes
Beyond recognising disparate attitudes within the suffrage movement, Make More Noise! also reveals class and regional variations between the suffragettes. Contrary to the popular imagining of women chained to railings in Downing Street, there were groups affecting change in areas such as Newcastle, Bolton (Bolton Election Result, 1912) and Scotland (Scottish Women’s Hospital, 1917). It’s in the Bolton film, in particular,that the class differences between women are most visible onscreen. In many of the other films (including newsreels and comedies such as the 1913 Milling the Militants) women are middle or upper class, with bourgeois hats and lavishly decorated drawing rooms. However, in Bolton, there is a distinction between the campaigners, and the women they attempted to recruit. While women in wide-brimmed, milliner-made hats stand on the back of a cart, a mass of mill girls, whose heads are covered with plain woollen scarves, hang about in the street beneath the speakers. As the intertitle tells us, these are ‘Suffragettes amongst the lasses.’ This is the point at which Make More Noise! most resonates with the recent Suffragette feature film (2015), which focuses on Maud, a working-class suffrage campaigner. Consequently, Bolton Election Result is a timely reminder that not all women encountered the idea of equality in the same way.
The comedic films especially attest to the women having multiple points of view. As Bryony says: ‘putting those two things [comedy and tragedy] together told you something interesting about how women of the time saw themselves and how other people saw them’. Indeed, there are the Tilly girls, who ‘refused to conform to Edwardian standards of behaviour’ in Tilly’s Party (1911), and amid riotous scenes involving a teacher being locked in a cupboard, abandon their music lesson and ride off on bikes with the local boys. The sisters’ riding of bikes would have been a significant act of rebellion in Edwardian Britain, owing to polite society’s’ intolerance of female cyclists. The Tilly girls are similar to the women who, Women’s Weekly reported, were ‘brave girls dauntlessly presenting themselves in knickerbocker costumes at inns, half hoping to be turned away, and thereby to be created holy martyrs of their cause.’ Of the anarchic, lighter films in the collections, Lillian says that she had ‘permission to have fun, play, mock, enjoy the antics of strong, brilliant women, like the Tilly girls. I enjoyed daydreaming with them, and had fun playing alongside them.’ In addition to the cycling Tilly sisters, there are also the errant wives in Wife the Weaker Vessel (1915) who leave their hen-pecked husbands rocking the babies while the women go to play golf. And, of course, there is the wonderful, feather-hatted wife who uses a well-aimed bucket of water to douse her husband’s dreams of putting her in the stocks in Milling the Militants. The wife’s hat, which bears a strong resemblance to that of Flora Drummond, visible in the Will There Be Women MPs? (1917), is a fantastic comedy element. And it’s one that Bryony (who exclaims, ‘It’s a marvellous thing!’) thinks Drummond was aware of – suggesting that women could, and did, laugh at themselves. On the inclusion of comedic films, Bryony tells us:
‘We were trying to tell a different story. The story of the events surrounding the real people has been told a lot, and the very difficult story about oppression, violence and hunger strikes continues to need telling. But we thought we would do the positive side: it’s really more about people. [In the films we see that] something has happened already, in that women are not behaving like, or having expectations of living like, their grandmothers. So something’s already happened in the world—industrialisation, urbanisation—and so there’s this progressive push and this sense of independence that comes out in the comedies.’
The comedies therefore offer women performers an important to space to do what they want regardless of the consequences, in tongue-in-cheek and often self-aware films that enable women to laugh at their situations.
Pressing a point
Self-awareness is also apparent in the suffragette’s savvy media campaigns, in which the newsreels played a large part. Bryony reveals that the women presciently knew the value of film as propaganda and would ask newsreel cameramen to attend the rallies for publicity purposes; they were ‘very media savvy.’ She explains, ‘The whole campaign is a media campaign, the whole purpose is to be seen and be heard, so if there’s a camera, you will make sure you go and stand in front of it.’ To make more noise, the women had to be seen onscreen, and so the suffragettes positioned cameramen in ideal spots to catch the passing faces, whether in Trafalgar Square for the Mass Meeting of Suffragettes (1910), or in the high-angle shots of the 1915 Women’s March Through London. That the newsreel cameramen both attended the demonstrations and remained neutral in representing the events was, thinks Bryony, because they ‘had to appeal to the whole spread of the population very widely, so they tended to play it safe.’ That many of the faces filmed at the rallies belonged to men not only supports Bryony’s case, but also contradicts the notion that suffrage was a fight just for women. The hundreds of bowler hats criss-crossing the screen are yet another reason why Make More Noise! is a historically significant collection.
What we cannot ever know from watching the films is what went through Emily Wilding Davison’s mind when she stepped into the path of the King’s horse at the Derby in 1913 (The Suffragette Derby, 1913). The collection is, for the most part, chronologically organised, but it’s the moment of Davison’s death that gives the programme structure and a hook from which the other films hang together. As you watch the films, there’s a real sense of anticipation, because while the newsreels and comedies might challenge your expectations, you know Davison’s appearance is coming – and how it will end.
During the footage, Lillian’s score is beautifully effective, maintaining the light-hearted bounce of an entertaining day at the races before ethereally dying away as the horse strikes Davison’s fragile figure. Lillian’s quick return to the faster-paced refrain reflects both the continuation of the race, and the press’s initial disregard for the incident. Lillian describes how she was ‘genuinely upset’ when she saw the Derby film. ‘I wanted to be respectful of her life, and for all the women who pledged their support and gave their time to the cause. I think that’s why the Derby music has a slightly eerie, dreamy quality that tries to highlight the shock of the incident, and yet still play the camera’s refusal to look at the accident, preferring to follow the winner of the horserace.’ Lillian then used the music she composed for Miss Davison’s Funeral (1913) as the overall theme for the collection, and chose the motif to ‘highlight the utter tragedy and sorrow I felt; that a brave woman lost her life, whether it was an intent for suicide or to make a bold loud statement in the name of Women’s Suffrage.’ In the film, we see the consequences of the suffragette’s either brave, or naïve, decision play out, and can ponder a moving shot as her coffin passes by a group of young girls who, in time, would get the vote that Davison so longed to achieve.
Making more noise today
Make More Noise!, then, not only reminds us that the battle for equality in Britain was hard-won (and not just by women, for over 50% of the population, including men, were enfranchised in the Representation of the People Act 1918), but also encourages us to reconsider our assumptions about the suffrage movement. From the hats and shawls that are markers of class difference, to the absurd comedies and self-consciously staged newsreels, there are revelations aplenty throughout the films. Make More Noise! offers a timely preservation of our film and cultural heritage and, according to Bryony, represents nearly the entire suffragette collection held in the BFI archive. She points out that ‘most film from that era doesn’t survive. The suffragettes themselves didn’t make their own films. One didn’t, it was a very difficult thing to do.’ The collection, then, is a great advertisement (if one was needed) for the BFI’s ‘Film is Fragile’ campaign, which aims to preserve and restore both our film history and history on film.
Despite the lack of films made by suffragettes, the collection’s release comes at a moment when there is a huge impetus to restore, remember and record women’s histories across a broad media spectrum. Alongside Suffragette, Sight & Sound’s recent ‘Female Gaze’ issue (October 2015) highlighted one hundred ‘over-looked’ films by women directors, and there is a campaign underway to preserve suffragette film Mothers of Men (1917) in the USA. At the University of East Anglia, the East Anglia Film Archive is digitising and distributing the work of amateur women filmmakers. In London, a group of volunteers hold events to recuperate and share women’s histories from the local area, and aim to open an East End Women’s Museum. Additionally, Bryony suggests that there are plans for Sight and Sound to examine the work of other women working in the film industry (with a particular focus on scriptwriters) in the near future. Where more work needs to be done (as mentioned by many critics of Suffragette) is in telling the stories of women of colour and their enormous, and overlooked, contributions both to suffrage and filmmaking. This is an issue about which we all need to ‘make more noise,’ even today, and it’s evident that women’s histories still need more attention. But as Lillian, who has been touring the UK to accompany cinema screenings of Make More Noise! attests, ‘these films are quite stunning and thought-provoking. Audiences seem to hang around afterwards to talk, so if the films encourage conversation about what they’ve seen, that is hopeful.’ She adds ‘it’s important to be involved in the debate about what’s happening now with the female voice today.’ Amid an increasing appetite to see and hear about women’s lives, no doubt the BFI Make More Noise! collection will inspire, and contribute to, the telling of women’s histories from many different perspectives.
Bryony Dixon is currently working on silent Shakespeare, and is planning to explore the careers of women scriptwriters.
Lillian Henley will next perform Make More Noise! Suffragettes in Silent Film in Clevedon in late January 2016. She’s currently finishing a curated album of 1927’s theatre show Golem, which is being performed in Brighton’s The Old Market. Her next recorded project is a piano album called 298, and she’s looking to score a silent (preferably horror) feature film.
The Make More Noise! DVD includes a 30 page illustrated booklet, featuring several essays, and has 2.0 and 5.1 stereo soundtracks. It’s region 0, PAL format, so will play in most of the world. Don’t miss our previous overview:
Bryony Dixon’s full interview
Why these particular films? What were the aims in putting together this particular collection and what did you want to convey about the suffragettes to contemporary audiences?
It’s something we’ve wanted to do for a while but we were waiting for a hook. The programme has been in gestation for really quite a while, as I did something way, way back in the mists of time about the ‘Bad Girls of British Silent Comedy.’ I noticed some common things about the female comedians of the time and within that programme there was Milling the Militants, which is about suffragettes… it set me off looking at the suffragette material.
There is a fascinating mix of the serious (newsreels, tragedy of Davison’s death) and comedy throughout the collection. Was this a deliberate decision?
I programme at conferences and festivals and stuff – sometimes there are overlapping combinations of suffragettes and comedy. Putting those two things together told you something interesting about how women of the time saw themselves, how other people saw them and whether that had any kind of interaction with the films of events of the suffragette campaign. And it seems they do – people pick up on that when they see the suffragette programme.
A mix of tragedy and comedy gives a dynamic to the programme, which is always useful. If we were just doing a programme of the factual stuff, there’s not that much, so it would have been running very short. We were trying to tell a different story. The story of the kind of events surrounding the real people has been told a lot and the very difficult story about oppression, violence and hunger strikes has been told and continues to need telling. But we thought we would do the positive side: it’s really more about people. [In the films we see that] something has happened already, in that women are not behaving like, or having expectations of living like, their grandmothers. So something’s already happened in the world—industrialisation, urbanisation—and so there’s this progressive push and this sense of independence that comes out in the comedies and not so much in the pictures of marches and demonstrations.
How much footage was there to choose from?
There are some more comedies and random bits of newsreels but not very much at all; that’s pretty much it. I left out some overseas stuff and chose to focus on the British story. It’s a programme of the stuff there is. Most film from that era doesn’t survive. The suffragettes themselves didn’t make their own films. One didn’t: it was a very difficult thing to do. Although at the end of the period there were 3,500 to 4,000 cinemas in the UK, no one would make a long documentary about suffragettes’ issues – just newsreels. The survival rate is not bad actually: there wouldn’t have been a lot more but most of the film from that era is long gone – no one thought to keep it.
The suffragettes seem ahead of the curve in using newsreels for propaganda.
Newsreels started in this country in around 1910 and they [the suffragette leaders] soon realise the potential and are very media savvy. The whole campaign is a media campaign, the whole purpose of the MMN! thing is to be seen and be heard, so if there’s a camera, you will make sure you go and stand in front of it. There’s not very much written about this except one or two things – the cameramen do say that they negotiated rights to occupy the best positions and get exclusive footage. There’s one case where they negotiate with Flora Drummond and Christabel Pankhurst to get footage of the Hyde Park demonstration [on the DVD]. There’s crowd waving – they’ve obviously been told. They do seem to get good shots and clearly don’t have an issue politically with the campaign – there’s no animosity at all. It is completely neutral.
You mention that the newsreels seemed more neutral than print media at the time. Can you explain why this might have been the case?
There was a huge amount of support for votes for women from men in various walks of life and in the press, but there was also this pretty nasty stuff as well [right-left divide]. You’ve got to appeal to the whole spread of the population very widely so they tend to play it safe. If you’ve got 3,500-4,000 cinemas by the end of the period—fewer earlier on, but not many fewer—that’s a potential 20 million cinemagoers a week. However, the people in power are probably not the people who go to the cinema every week and it tends to be a working class audience on the whole – not entirely, but on the whole. The battle for the vote is really a battle about politics and power, it’s not really a battle of the sexes, and I think it often gets confused in people’s minds because a lot of campaigning was on general women’s issues, as well as just trying to get the vote. The male suffrage campaign has an interesting relationship with the campaign for women. Half were against and wanted to get there first. Half were for, but they said joining with women ‘will take much, much longer to get it through parliament.’
Do you think it’s important for viewers to see the women involved in the campaign and present them as ‘real’ people?
It’s very interesting to see what everybody looked and like and seeing peoples’ reactions. And you do wonder, apart from the very pretty Christabel Pankhurst, they’re often middle-aged and bulky – if they’d all be cute young girls, would they have got the vote sooner? That’s what film does to people, it instantly puts people into a category – Tilly Girls vs ‘battle-axes’. Like Flora Drummond’s hat – the hat! Yeah, exactly. It is a comedy hat! I think she knew that and was playing up to it. Same hat in Milling the Militants. It’s a marvellous thing!
Are there plans to feature more women filmmakers in forthcoming restoration projects at the BFI?
There will be, I’m sure – we’ve always got this heightened awareness and there’s a lot of work going on around women’s work in silent film in particular, but generally – obviously the BFI’s had a big hand in this [Sight and Sound reference, conferences, an international working group]. The problem is that a lot of those things are written by people who come from a contemporary film background, so the questions they ask are always the wrong ones! Instead of saying “What were women doing in filmmaking historically?’, they go ‘Where are the women directors?’ There are few directors, but there are lots and lots of women working in the film business in all sorts of capacities. I told the S&S people, and that’s what they wanted to start with, but I think there’s a more interesting story that will unfold and we do need to make those films available, I agree. I do think they will come up in the future, probably screenwriters in particular, who have been very influential. I think we’ll certainly do some work on Lydia Haywood, who wrote some fabulous scripts in the ’20s – but that’s far in the future.’
Lillian Henley’s full interview
Can you talk through the process you go through when you’re writing a new score? Do you take inspiration only from the films, or from outside influences?
It depends, but for Make More Noise! I tried to research around the period of Women’s Suffrage reading Emmeline Pankhurst’s story, and I stumbled across photographs from the same period, looking at the work by Christina Broom to help spark my musical imagination. I found it fascinating, heartbreaking and uplifting, learning about the fierce fight these strong women were forced into and in turn this research definitely brought me to question my own thoughts on gender today. When I actually saw the films, I then had to put my research to the side, and to just remember to score the films in front of me. If there wasn’t anything that I wasn’t seeing in the films, I couldn’t score my research, even though it was hard not to let it affect my interpretation on the film collection. The music for Funeral of Emily Davison came from an improvisation I started when I first saw the film, and I re-worked it into what you hear today.
What were you trying to convey about the films to audiences, and did you see them as telling an individual, or one continuous story?
I wanted to unite the collection with an overall theme, whilst still being true to each individual mood of each short film. Emily Davison’s funeral music became this theme that opened and ended the collection. I suppose I chose this motif to highlight the utter tragedy and sorrow I felt; that a brave woman lost her life, whether it was an intent for suicide or to make a bold, loud statement in the name of Women’s Suffrage. I was genuinely upset when I saw the Derby footage, and I wanted to be respectful of her life, and for all the women who pledged their support and gave their time to the cause. I think that’s why the Derby music has a slightly eerie, dreamy quality that tries to highlight the shock of the incident, and yet still play the camera’s refusal to look at the accident, preferring to follow the winner of the horserace. The lighter pieces in this collection gave me permission to have fun, play, mock, enjoy the antics of strong, brilliant women, like the Tilly girls. I enjoyed daydreaming with them, and had fun playing alongside them. I suppose I wanted to play the films as truthfully as I saw them, and if the music helps question what the audience sees or feels in the films, then that’s great. It’s important to be involved in the debate about what’s happening now, with the female voice of today.
You’ve been touring the UK with the film – how have you found the experience? What have the audience responses been like?
I have absolutely loved playing live to the film, meeting different audience members afterwards and hearing their laughter, gasps and their collective stillness when they engage with the film. I really enjoy playing the munitions factory film, it’s a 10 minute journey into the day and life of a munitions factory worker and you feel this story of the women working incredibly skillfully in teams, at such a monumentally scary time in history. The music tries to celebrate this strength of the female character and that their skills were invaluable at that hard time in history. Across the whole music collection, when I play the live music to an audience I feel united with them and it encourages me to see new things and hear new stories in each frame. These films are quite stunning and thought-provoking, I love seeing them on the big screen and playing them live means I get a great view too! Audiences seem to hang around afterwards to talk, so if the films encourage conversation about what they’ve seen, that is hopeful.
You attended the Masterclasses at Pordenone 2013 and play at the Kennington Bioscope, so have lots of experience accompanying silent films. Is there a sense of the environment being male dominated? Do you think there’s a space for more women?
I have been tutored and mentored by some incredible silent film pianists, Neil Brand, John Sweeney and Stephen Horne, who have a wealth of knowledge of early film, that is exciting and inspiring to learn about. At Pordenone 2013 Anne-Marrtje Leremeis and myself were the two Masterclass participants, and it was super to find a fellow female composer interested in film music. I know we both felt incredibly encouraged and welcomed into the world of silent film, and foremost inspired by the knowledge and teaching we were given in Pordenone. Since then, I play regularly at the Kennington Bioscope in London to keep myself challenged and to continue to be inspired. I know Anne-Maartje also continues her interest in silent film and compositions in Holland. There’s space for everyone who wants to be inspired by the wonderful experience of scoring music to film, not just silent films but also other film composition. Cyrus Gabrysch and I are learning together at the Kennington Bioscope; I think he is a wonderful talent too. We hope to keep playing for a long time, and I would definitely encourage others to be inspired to score early cinema. I know of fewer women who score films, but of course anyone should feel they can enter this world and I would love to inspire more women to make music. I hope the next generation of film composers across all kinds of films will be filled with more women getting their voice heard. Yes, definitely. We can all make music, its our musical personalities that should come through and not necessarily be noted or judged by our gender. More great female composers come forward please.
What was the first silent film that you remember watching and what inspired you to work on scoring early films?
The first silent film I watched was likely to have been Charlie Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy on television in the 1980s when I was a child, with my older brother on a Sunday afternoon – we would pretend to be clowns afterwards. But it was my good friend Derek Andrade that took me to my first silent live film screening as an adult in 2006: we heard Stephen Horne’s accompaniment to Pandora’s Box with Louise Brooks in the NFT2 at the BFI. I was blown away and I never looked back. (I had at that time already started work-shopping with 1927 theatre company and writing piano music for our first show, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.) I couldn’t believe all that beautiful piano music was live. I later went home and googled ‘silent film pianists’ and I remember finding Neil Brand’s name and a whole new daydreaming career had begun.
What’s your next project?
I’ll be next performing Make More Noise! Suffragettes in Silent Film in Clevedon in late January 2016. I’m trying to finish a curated album of 1927’s theatre show, Golem, which is being performed at The Old Market, Brighton. My next recorded project is a piano album I’m making slowly called 298, and I’m on the hunt to score a silent feature film, preferably a horror film…
Woman’s Weekly, “In Fashion’s Realm,” August 6, 1898, p.6.
 David Marquand, Britain Since 1918: The Strange Career of British Democracy (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2008), 9.