Earlier in December I met with two resident traders in the bustling sidestreet of Cecil Court to find out more about the plaque-like blue discs dotted round the windows of its many retail outlets. Today referred to as ‘Booksellers Row’ due to its high density of specialist and antiquarian book, art print and map shops, the pedestrian thoroughfare tucked away off Charing Cross Rd has a lesser known but more historically significant identity from around a century ago.
Of the two traders interviewed above, Etan Ilfeld wears several hats: Watkins Books proprietor, Tenderpixel gallerist and digital creative transplanted from America being the simple version. With him was Tim Bryars, whom I first met for November’s interview, owner of an antiquarian maps emporium who also shares his expertise in the field on his rather enchanting blog. Between them they fleshed out the story behind this assemblage of unorthodox blue plaques.
The collection of stick-on plaques were put up in 2010 as part of new festival to celebrate the companies, entrepreneurs and pioneers of the British film industry’s birth and early years. ‘Flicker Alley’ as it was dubbed at the time, drew in the first ever film producers-cum-directors (like Cecil Hepworth and French company Gaumont who went onto global fame) alongside rental outlets, film camera manufacturers, projector hire, travelling cinemas (Bioscope et al) and cinematic contraptions of every conceivable sort. There was even a store that dealt soley in chocolate for re-sale in the picture palaces springing up around British cities at the time.
It was a research project undertaken in 2004-2005 by historians Simon Brown and Luke McKernan into the commercial and technological aspects of the London film industry of 1894-1914 that uncovered the exact whereabouts of all the bygone film enterprises clustered here, and produced a fuller portrait of Flicker Alley’s historically neglected significance as a cinematic nerve centre. You can download an essay (PDF format) by Brown that explores the myths and realities of the era.
Flicker Alley was the textbook innovation ecosystem, close proximity and cheap rents enabling the rapid circulation of inventions and expertise and the ad-hoc pooling of resources on a continual basis during the first two decades of film production and cinematic culture. From advice on business matters and film exhibiting, to referral of customers to neighbouring ‘know-how’ through to sharing the costs for joint newspaper advertisements, there was as much collaboration as competition, as these savvy startups and UK outposts for overseas vendors vied to establish, exploit and grow the emergent film sector.
This wasn’t the wealthy heart of the booming industry, but its streetwise front line and inventive marketplace, a technical and commercial testbed. As a fertile staging post for natives on the way up and incomers spreading their reach worldwide, Flicker Alley can reasonably stake a claim as the first global crossroads for the movers and shakers of cinema, set within the broader dynamic of activity around London.
It’s tempting to draw parallels with today’s digital media clusters of Soho, Clerkenwell and Shoreditch made up of varied businesses based around emergent skillsets and technologies, some founded in the dotcom era of 1997-2001 and currently reaching a zenith of sorts in the East London technology quarter of ‘Silicon Roundabout’ aka ‘Tech City‘. With echoes of Flicker Alley’s melting pot dynamic, much is made of the creative intermingling between homegrown internet startups, co-working spaces, digital marketing outfits, and incoming technology giants gathered in the area.
But the differences are more marked. While the digital startup hub of Tech City covers a sprawling geographical area and depends partly on external corporate and government backing for its existence and profile, the upcoming film entrepreneurs of Flicker Alley established their tight-knit network organically, and usually either went bust or upped sticks for Wardour St, Holborn, Ealing, Elstree and overseas once their enterprises outgrew the small units (although Gaumont at one point did knock three units into one!). Ultimately the comparison doesn’t stand up, the times are too different.
The Flicker Alley ecosystem morphed through several phases and then dispersed as cinema flourished globally with the axis moving West to Hollywood and expertise extending worldwide. From 1911 onwards the film business gradually ebbed out of Cecil Court, as the industry matured and people moved on. But its impact was far-reaching and legacy indisputable.
Moves are afoot for permanent plaque to mark Flicker Alley – listen to the audio interview for more on that. We’ll keep tabs on how it pans out. In the meantime you can join the dots in this exciting time and place in film and communications history yourself, by checking out the remaining temporary blue plaques on display and the July 2012 Flicker Alley Festival.
In 2010 as part of the inaugural festival programme, with the support of the BFI, they screened the original Alice in Wonderland film (Hepworth, 1903) in the very shop basement above where Hepworth’s blue disc marks the spot. How often can you travel back in time and experience cinematic history with such perfect symmetry as that?