Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema a treat for the eyes - and ears

Pola Negri, the Polish screen siren of her day, will appear in Mania, The Story of a Cigarette Factory Worker with live score from Polish supergroup Czerwie

Pola Negri, the Polish screen siren of her day, will appear in Mania, The Story of a Cigarette Factory Worker with live score from Polish supergroup Czerwie

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It is a unique celebration of the silent movie era - but the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema 2016 will be far from quiet.

Now in its sixth year, HippFest 2016 in Bo’Ness draws together red carpet glamour, rarely seen cinematic gems and world class music in the small town of Bo’Ness by Falkirk.

Betty Bronson in the first adaptation of Peter Pan in 1924. It will be screened at HippFest with a live harp accompaniment

Betty Bronson in the first adaptation of Peter Pan in 1924. It will be screened at HippFest with a live harp accompaniment

At the festival’s heart is the Hippodrome Cinema, Scotland’s oldest picture house that was built in 1912. Like many before it, the cinema became a bingo hall until it was taken over by a community trust and re-opened in 2009.

From today (Wednesday, March 16) thousands are expected to be drawn to the Hippodrome for its colourful, varied programme which strikes at the heart of cinema’s golden age.

While films will be the stars of the programme, so will be the musicians who will perform often specially-commissioned scores to accompany the moving images.

The festival will open tonight with Earth, regarded as one of the most important films of Soviet cinema which was commissioned during Stalin’s regime a propaganda piece.

These musicians were really skilled at telling the story through the music and it is an art that so few people practise in the UK.

Alison Strauss, Hippfest director

It will be screened alongside a live performance of a newly created score by pianist Jane Gardner and percussionist Hazel Morrison.

READ MORE: What six Scottish films tell us about romance

Alison Strauss, director of HippFest, said: “The Hippodrome itself is part of the festival. It is Scotland’s oldest cinema and it became really clear that to put it on the map, a festival of some sort was needed.

“The nature of silent cinema seemed to be a perfect fit to the heritage of the building which just connected with the film industry and film itself.

The Hippodrome in Bo'Ness gets ready for the festival

The Hippodrome in Bo'Ness gets ready for the festival

The festival began in 2011 on a “modest” then-Screen Scotland grant which allowed for a three-day programme.

Ms Strauss said: “The festival has really grown and we are now at a stage where we have a five-day festival and its reach extends beyond the cinema and into the town.

“It is not something just parachuted in and alienates our loyal audience.

“It has grown from something quite small to its impact now being felt across the town, across the community and across the UK.”

It is expected that the reach of the 2016 event will extend further than before, with new music commissioned for HippFest due to be performed at The Barbican later this year.

They include a brand new score by Stuart Brown and Paul Harrison of Scottish jazz duo Herschel 36 for the 1925 German documentary Wunder der Schopfung, or Wonders of Creation.

Revered contemporary composer Craig Armstrong has mentored the pair on the project with Stuart’s father, John C brown, the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, to introduce the music and the screening at its Hippfest premiere.

Other highlights include a performance of Polish supergroup Czerwie, who will perform their score for Mania: The Story of a Cigarette Factor Worker starring Pola Negri, a true siren of the era who is often described as Holywood’s first foreign import with “the most kissable hands in the world.” She most definitely kept a leopard as a pet.

For audiences seeking a Scottish touch, the festival will also present the very first film adaptation of Peter Pan, which was personally approved by author JM Barrie before it first screened in 1924. Audiences will get to see his hand picked Peter - a teenage girl called Betty Bronson - and hear an accompanying performance by renown silent film harpist Elizabeth-Jane Baldry.

Ms Baldry will also perform at Sunday’s closing-night show of Stella Dallas - described as the definitive tearjerker - along with celebrated accompanist and composer Stephen Horne. Together, they will perform the world premiere of his score for the drama of broken families, class divisions and the female status.

Ms Strauss said: “Silent cinema was never silent. The small cinemas would have a pianist and the larger ones an ensemble. Back in the day, the original Hippodrome had an orchestra pit.

Ms Strauss said the musicians that played the film scores had “such a unique talent” and would constantly learn new pieces at a time when cinemas would often be showing a new film a week.

“Some musicians would look up at the screen and played as they went. There were also published books of themes, such as a love theme or a Western theme.

“These musicians were really skilled at telling the story through the music and it is an art that so few people practise in the UK.

Of the musicians playing at this year’s Hippfest, Ms Strauss added: “It is unbelievable how talented they are.”

She added: “One of the greatest compliments they say they can have is that the audience forgets they are there as the music has made them so lost in the experience of watching the film.”

Ms Strauss believes that Hippfest has helped to lift the profile of silent cinema.

“It is still considered to be a bit niche but that has been changing over the last 10 years or so. I like to think that Hippfest has had some part in making it more accessible.

“Our second season came around the time of The Artist. I can’t say we brought about the phenomenon that followed that film but it is just interesting to me that silent film is more popular, and I think we had a part to play in that.”

The festival also features the HippFest Speakeasy, a late night cabaret show with the Bevvy Sisters and the Bad Boys.

For more information and tickets, visit www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org

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