The Glastonbury Past and Present Film
One hundred years ago Glastonbury was the first UK town to have its history recorded in film. ‘Glastonbury Past and Present’ was made by the Avalonian poet Alice Buckton, featured local people as the cast and was released in 1922. The same year saw the premiere of Nosferatu in Germany and the release of Robin Hood, starring Douglas Fairbanks, it was the era of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.
“In the shadow of the Glastonbury Tor, locals re-enact their town’s history: from the early Mendip encampments, through King Alfred’s defeat of the Danes, to a more contemporary staging of the Michaelmas Fair. The film was the brainchild of writer and teacher Alice Buckton (1867-1944) who was devoted to preserving the region’s rich historic legacy. Look out for her in the opening shots.
Alice Buckton was one of the founding members of the ‘New Avalonians’, a movement that emerged in the 20s to research, preserve and celebrate Glastonbury’s rich past. Other members included writer and spiritualist Wellesley Tudor Pole (grandfather of punk singer and actor Edward Tudor Pole). A contemporary article in The Times described the ambitious Glastonbury Past and Present as “the first film record of the history of a British town”.
The British Film Institute’s introduction to ‘Glastonbury Past and Present’
In February I went to a public showing of the film in the Town Hall to celebrate its centenary year. The film was introduced by Councillor Liz Leyshon and historian Tim Hopkinson Ball, who have kindly allowed me to publish their introductory talks here, I’m sure you will find their accounts as interesting as I did.
You can watch the film on the BFI website for free by clicking on the image below
Liz Leyshon and the Glastonbury Film
Liz Leyshon, Strode Theatre’s manager from 1993 to 2017, was born in Glastonbury. She was involved in the search for the film “Glastonbury Past and Present” due to a family connection, as she recalls:
“Growing up in Glastonbury in the 1950s and 60s was great. We had the perfect playground in Bushy Coombe and the Tor, where we were able to spend many happy and healthy hours. We also used to walk up to Chalice Well to collect drinking water from the overflow in Wellhouse Lane, my mum pushing my little sister Nell in her pram. One day, probably around 1962 there was a big clear out going on at the Tor School and lots of rubbish was left outside in dustbins. My mother, Pat, saw that there was a box of magic lantern slides in one of the dustbins and, as we had a magic lantern at home, she picked them up and tucked them safely in the pram.
She remembers that my father, Alban, showed them to a number of Glastonbury people at St John’s some time in the 1960s, but he didn’t document any of their comments and so most of the knowledge of the slides was effectively lost, although we knew that they were from a Pageant and we could deduce from the history of photography that they came from the early part of the 20th century.
The slides survived house moves, our own clear-outs and numerous attempts by other people to identify the cast and locations, which were extremely varied and appeared to be from many different eras.
While working on a book published to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Strode Theatre, I offered to photograph the slides and see if I could track down the Pageant from which they appeared to be taken. The writer, Gay Pirrie Weir was commissioned to take a view of the arts in the mid-Somerset area as well as covering the history of Strode Theatre. The writer’s brief included looking at the early 20th century influences of both Rutland Boughton, Alice Buckton and Laurence Housman on arts activity in Street and Glastonbury.
Both the Fosse Way Magazine and the Central Somerset Gazette were good enough to run some of my photographs of slides with editorial asking for any assistance in tracking down their origins.
After a few false starts, a telephone call promised a contact with a “man who might be able to help”. Dr Tim Hopkinson Ball had done his thesis on Bligh Bond and Glastonbury Abbey and was now working as an archivist at Chalice Well, which Alice Buckton had owned from 1912 to 1944.
The phone call from Tim was astounding. He told me that he believed the images came from “the Glastonbury film”. My response was simple: “What Glastonbury film?” Although Strode theatre has been screening film since 1968, I had never heard of a film made in the town.
He went on to explain that it was a silent film made in 1922, written by Alice (or Alys as she was credited) Buckton and produced by a London company, the Steadfast Film Company. My immediate response was to ask what had happened to it as there appeared to be no local knowledge. He replied that he believed it was still in the national archive at the British Film Institute and, as we had worked with the BFI for many years, I promised that I would speak to them and ask about possible costs of restoring the film. My aim, of course, was a public screening at Strode Theatre.
In the post, from Tim, came a wonderful package of cast lists, location lists, some more photographs from the film and a meticulous letter giving me all the details of the making of the film with its producer/director H O Martinek and cinematographer M G Benson.
Also enclosed was a photocopy of a playbill for the Electric Theatre in Weston super Mare where Alys Buckton had delivered a lecture, illustrated by magic lantern slides – probably the very ones we rescued so many years before.
My next telephone call was even more extraordinary. Bryony Dixon at the BFI has a database of all the films in the national archive and she typed in “Glastonbury” and found the film immediately. My question about the cost of restoration and making of a new print was totally superfluous. Bryony announced “no problem – it’s just been done” and she went on to explain that all the old films, originally printed on nitrate stock (which was highly flammable and deteriorates badly) are being re-printed on modern stock to secure them for the future. The film had not been restored, she said, just a new print made which was available for booking – whenever we liked.
She then asked me if I wanted to book “the other bit of film” which turned out to be a sort of five-minute trailer on the activities at Chalice Well under Miss Buckton. Of course, this was of particular interest to Tim Hopkinson Ball, who was still busy cataloguing the archive at Chalice Well and is always looking for photographs from earlier decades.
My next concern was the fact that the film is silent – no soundtrack at all. I mentioned to Bryony that we used to have a connection with Andrew Youdell at the BFI who played for a number of films here. She told me that he was sitting next to her at that very moment so I responded “tell him he’s engaged”.
Meanwhile, Tim was collecting information from his own records, from Chalice Well and from the microfilm records of the Central Somerset Gazette which are held by the library service. A further piece in the local press confirming the screening of the film in the new season at Strode, plus of course the mailing of the new brochure, meant that a number of people came forward with memories and photographs from both Buckton productions and also from Rutland Boughton productions in Glastonbury during the same era.
One of the most confusing aspects of the research was the fact that very few people had memories or photographs from the film. Our only clue is a mention in the Central Somerset Gazette that no one was allowed to take photographs of the filming and so the only records are the official stills photographs which had to be purchased from Miss Buckton’s Corner Shop. Perhaps, having given their time freely, the cast members simply didn’t feel moved to pay for a memento. Perhaps the experience of actually filming especially when the weather was bad on a number of days, put them off the whole project. Certainly, if Tim Hopkinson Ball had not followed up on his research in the microfilms at the library, we would still have no knowledge of the film. One wonders how many other locally made films may be in the national archive with no knowledge in the home town.
Further research was to follow as Tim revealed that the original Buckton plan was to film the pageant in 1922 and then to recreate it as a piece of live theatre in 1923. The press reports of ‘23 give no indication of these plans and it could be that Miss Buckton’s often precarious financial situation had deteriorated to such a degree that the plans had to be shelved. Certainly, music had been written for the Pageant as Muriel Mudie of Street discovered. Written by Frederic Brooks of Nottinghamshire, the six episodes are held in the British Library. There must also be a script somewhere in someone’s attic or drawer or old suitcase. The costumes must have been retained and, presumably, the actors approached to ascertain their availability for the following summer. Yet no record is available – so far.
The Strode Theatre plans for the screening had to include the modification of the Cinemeccanica projector to take this archive film, which ran at a speed of 18 frames per second. Modern film runs at 24 frames per second and a clever box of tricks had to be added which acts on the electrical supply to the projector, thereby changing its running speed.
On the subject of projectors, another interesting piece came to light on the Central Somerset Gazette microfilm. In 1923, far from reporting the success of the plans for a live pageant, the Central Somerset Gazette was reporting on a County Court case where the Steadfast Film Company was suing the Electric Theatre in Magdalene Street, Glastonbury, for damage to the print of Glastonbury Past and Present, caused when the print was brand new and had only been shown in London at a preview screening. The judge awarded £39 to Steadfast Films including costs. It’s interesting to note that the main film was completed during September and the entire production schedule finished in October. The print was ready for its first screening early in November. In 2004 it would be closer to a year – and maybe longer – from end of shooting to a screening for the public.
Whatever happens to the film, Alice Buckton will not be forgotten nor her work go unnoticed. Hopefully, some permanent record of her artistic achievements will be possible in the town she obviously loved so much”.
Glastonbury Past & Present: A Brief Introduction by Tim Hopkinson Ball
It is a pleasure and an honour to be asked once again, to introduce this beautiful example of early cinematography. ‘Glastonbury Past & Present’ is an undeservedly neglected element of the town’s 20th century heritage and it’s important to the town’s social history, as it demonstrates how Glastonbury saw itself, and wished itself to be seen, almost exactly a century ago. The story behind the film’s making is almost as interesting as the film itself, but I will only touch on a few elements here today.
Alice Mary Buckton, the film’s ‘creator’, arrived in Glastonbury in 1913 and, as I’m sure many of you know, established at Chalice Well a ‘Training College for Women’ and the ‘Chalice Well Hostel’. Buckton was already well known before she came to Glastonbury; a published poet, educationalist and the author of ‘Eager Heart: A Christmas Mystery Play, which at the time was extremely well known and performed annually, the length and breadth of the country.
Buckton’s tenure of Chalice Well was a successful one; she organised a variety of activities, everything from musical recitals and visiting professors giving formal lectures, to pottery classes and outdoor theatre. As the vicar, the rev. Lionel Smithett Lewis put it, Miss Buckton made Chalice Well ‘…a centre of art, music, drama, crafts and lofty thought’. By 1920, Buckton decided that Glastonbury should be brought to the attention of the ‘American people’ and that the best way to do this would be to combine a traditional pageant with the contemporary medium of film. This would, in Buckton’s mind, fuse the ancient and modern, and upon its release, would have the benefits of promoting Glastonbury to potential tourists, educating children and, perhaps most importantly, renewing community spirit in the years after the Great War.
Now the organisation of the project – the committees, finances, company, casting, filming and editing – was an extremely complicated and drawn-out process, which took some 18 months, so I won’t dwell on it now, apart from making a few brief observations. The film consists of five scenes which were chosen to highlight the venerable associations of the town and to represent (and I quote), the ‘variety of class and temperament’ of the people of Glastonbury. The film was scripted (despite it being a silent movie) as Buckton also intended that the ‘Glastonbury Pageant’ could be performed annually during the summer months. Sadly, the script does not survive.
There were the usual problems which go with filming – people were promised parts which they didn’t get, other people were given parts due to their social standing (as opposed to their ability) and the weather was cold and very windy – in the first scene that was filmed, Guthrum the Dane’s moustache was blown off (which was taken as a bad omen by cast and crew alike). Just like today, two important scenes were cut from the film, as it was feared that they might cause offence to the religious. This is why Glastonbury’s two greatest historical figures, St Dunstan and Abbot Richard Whiting, are conspicuous by their absence, as it was thought that their portrayal on celluloid might be considered frivolous and disrespectful.
The public were allowed to watch the filming in Bushy Combe for a shilling (note the fake papier-mâché rocks in the Combe when you watch that scene), but this resulted in people appearing in modern dress too often in film, to the extent that a scene with King Edward, shot in front of Abbey House, had to be entirely cut, as it was realised too late, that a man in bowler hat, lurking in bush, was visible throughout. Other scenes ended on the cutting room floor, for fear of coursing adverse publicity for local businesses – the proprietors of the George Inn for example, complained that a scene set outside their hotel featured their cellarman (acting as an extra) accidentally falling into the gutter, while ‘sampling’ the contents of a fake ale cask. It was thought that this might lead people to think the George & Pilgrims Inn was a den of licentiousness, so it was cut.
Filming lasted from Monday 25th September until Thursday 5th October. Editing then followed and after two initial test screenings were shown in London (one of which was a private viewing for the Prince of Wales). Then, on Monday 13th November 1922, the first showing of the film in Glastonbury took place at The Electric Theatre, Magdalene Street (now Heritage Court, next to the kebab shop) where it ran for a week. Other screenings were peppered around the South West, including Wells, Bath, Weston-Super-Mare and, for some reason, the Isle of Wight.
Reviews, it’s fair to say, were mixed. The critic writing for the Kinematograph Weekly stated: ‘Acting – In criticising one has to remember that the performers have not before faced the camera; moreover, there is very little opportunity for “acting” and none at all for display of facial expression. Close-ups are never given except at the introduction of a character. Considering these things, performances are adequate, but not in any way outstanding. Suitability – Exhibitors must decide how far a local historical pageant is likely to go down with their patrons.’ (November 16th, 1922).
Sadly, the public didn’t take to the film either. Judge Parsons, K.C., a viewer in London noted: ‘I have myself been to one or two picture shows’ but with the Glastonbury film, I ‘… have been entirely unable to grasp the meaning of it’. Anna Tatchell, a regular at the cinema in Glastonbury said that she ‘…did not think much of the film’ – Charlie Chaplin movies were better.
So why confusion in viewers? Well, in addition to the film being a simple and somewhat disjointed historical pageant, it was meant to be read on a more profound level. As Buckton wrote to one of her supporters in 1923, Glastonbury ‘…belongs to the governance of the Holy Spirit… and its possession is – The Cup – The Invisible, Ever-Present. It is felt. Do you know how we used this idea subtly in the late Glaston Pageant (film)? It struck people enormously, those who were ripe to see (it)’. Ironically then, this most important element for Buckton, may have inadvertently resulted in the film’s commercial failure.
It is the final episode which seemingly caused confusion and puzzlement in many of the film’s viewers. The various themes exhibited in the first four episodes – forgiveness, truth, friendship, freedom, tolerance, loyalty and love – are brought together in the final episode in the figure of ‘Jack the Orphan’. Jack represents Everyman, who having been tested in the trenches of the first world war and having proved his credentials by protecting the weak, is found worthy to accept the quest embodied in the pageant. This quest is to protect and nurture ‘The Child of the New Day’, or in other words, to strive for a better future, informed by the successes and failures of the past. The importance of this struggle should not be underestimated; as Jack puts it: ‘For this child, I will live, work and die’.
In the final scene, Jack is presented with a shield emblazoned with a cup on a background of (presumably) blue and white waves, ‘The Cup of the Great Fellowship’. This symbol represents not only the spiritual quest of the individual across the ages, but its presented as a device which all people can use to foster a unity of purpose and better understanding. At the most literal level, it symbolises Chalice Well (the cup and the waters), but it also embodies the meaning of the pageant film itself – the continuing work in Glastonbury, for the renewal of Britain and its people.
Despite disappearing from local consciousness, seemingly only months after its showing, the film survived in a cupboard at Chalice Well until 1939, when Buckton presented the film to the BFI where it has remained ever since. One hundred years later, ‘Glastonbury Past & Present’ appears like an intrusion from another world, alien, but at the same time strangely familiar. But despite its naiveté, it is important. It’s a record holder – the very first history of an English (or any other) town to be portrayed film. And it is a living memorial to all those Glastonbury inhabitants who contributed to this amazing piece of theatre. It unambiguously demonstrates not just Alice Buckton’s sheer force of personality, in conceiving, writing and producing a feature film in rural Somerset (barely four years after the Great War had ended), but it also demonstrates her foresight. As you will see, in one remarkable scene, she includes an explicit warning about the dangers of anti-Semitism, chilling considering the fate of European Jewry, just 20 years after episode was recorded. Let us hope then, that Buckton’s influence will live on through this film and that in viewing it today, in its centenary year, ‘Glastonbury Past & Present’, will illuminate us also.
Ladies and Gentlemen thank you – enjoy the show.
My thoughts on ‘Glastonbury Past and Present’
I’m not much of a film buff so I’m not going to attempt a review but I enjoyed the film a good deal more than I expected. It helped that a classical soundtrack had been created for it, the original having been lost. The film starts with a depiction of the town’s beginnings as an Iron Age Lake Village. The first townsperson we are introduced to is The Mother of the Tribe, it seemed to me that Alice Buckton was stressing the importance of women throughout history. The costumes were rather good, the locations had changed surprisingly little. I realised that the cute children in the film were most likely the grandparents of some of the local townsfolk. There were laugh out loud moments, with visual gags around flirting and boobs. It looked to me like the locals had enjoyed the dressing up, some of the characters would not look at all out of place on the High St today, particularly the capering fool who appears outside the George and Pilgrim Inn.
I was particularly taken with the actor who played Will Shakespeare in the latter part of the film, he had a great twinkle in his eye. I thought the idea of Shakespeare happening to be passing through Glastonbury and stopping to watch a local play was fanciful, but then it occurred to me that Glastonbury has always had a pull for the creative stars of the age.
As I was putting all these elements together for this post, I discovered that the Jubilee events in Glastonbury are to be filmed in homage to Alice Buckton’s film of 1922. A 45-minute film will be made, but all the footage will be kept as an archive of Glastonbury in 2022. I wonder if people will be watching that film one hundred years from now?
Don’t forget, you can watch the original film here on the BFI website.
Thanks to Liz Leyshon and Tim Tim Hopkinson Ball for kindly letting me reproduce their fascinating insights into the film and Glastonbury’s history here.
Event : Alice Buckton’s Poems at Chalice Well
ALICE BUCKTON POEMS IN THE CRESS FIELD Saturday 4 June 2022 6-7pm
We are honouring Alice Buckton, custodian of Chalice Well before Wellesley Tudor Pole, feminist, educator and writer. It is the centenary of her Pageant play and we invite you to our gathering in the Chalice Well Cress Field to hear Alice’s poems read from her very own poetry book.
Alice Buckton was a leading visionary in the emerging spiritual history of Britain, guided by inner revelation. She dedicated herself to Chalice Well for over 30 years before the arrival of WTP.
Alice Buckton Poems in the Cress Field – Saturday 4 June from 6pm until 7pm
Entry to the Cress Field is from Wellhouse Lane and free of charge. Please bring a blanket or cushion to sit on the grass while listening to some of Alice’s inspiring and beautiful poems. The Chalice Well garden closes at 6pm (last entry at 5.30pm) and will not be open during our gathering in the Cress Field for Alice Buckton
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