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There are more film screens per person in Scotland than anywhere else in the world. That beguiling statistic introduces Going to the Pictures: Scotland at the Cinema, the main summer exhibition (running until 28 October, entrance free) at the National Library of Scotland. This collection of photographs, press cuttings, programmes, posters and, above all else, film clips, explores the history of the cinema in Scotland and Scotland’s continuing and passionate love affair with cinema. It also illustrates how the cinema portrayed Scotland.
The majority of the films featured in the exhibition are preserved by the Scottish Screen Archive, part of the NLS since 2007, and many can be viewed online at or by visiting the archive. The samples on view at the exhibition, on continuous loops and arranged by historical period, only whet the viewer’s appetite.
The early days of the art-form are well represented. An 1895 American film, The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots, recreates in fairly gruesome form, the death of Mary Stuart. A 1912 film of the Bo’ness Fair, filmed by the manager of the local cinema, captures pre-First War youngsters enjoying what remains a thriving community event, and not too different in character, to this day.
The first great epoch of cinema development was the period immediately after the 1914-18 War, the era of the silent movies. The John McCallum Steamer Company produced for promotional purposes, a naturalistic documentary of life on St Kilda, including film of the men scaling the cliffs for gannets, a perilous task to capture the viewer’s imagination. The film was made between 1923 and 1928, and is now of major historical significance since it shows St Kilda as it was immediately prior to its final evacuation in 1930. Sir Harry Lauder is seen in 1928 visiting the Regent Picture House in Glasgow to promote his film Huntingtower.
Scotland’s first cinema purpose built for the talkies was the Ritz Cinema in Edinburgh’s Rodney Street which opened in 1929 with Al Johnson’s The Singing Fool, and the Talkie Heyday section includes film of its construction. There is also a short film, made in 1932 for the Picture Palace, Dalkeith, of Laurel and Hardy arriving at Waverley Station. Almost inevitably, there is an excerpt from famous Night Mail documentary, produced in 1936 by Scotland’s documentary master, John Grierson, and featuring the W.H. Auden poem of the same title.
And so it continues, epoch by epoch, excerpts from the monumental successes such as Whisky Galore and from brief but less-well known masterpieces such as Alastair Sim’s documentary on the Edinburgh Festival in 1951. Although the film excerpts are the highlights of the show, the vast collection of posters also acts as a wonderful memory trigger: from The 39 Steps (original version) to Braveheart, from Tunes of Glory to Trainspotting, they run several generations through their cinematic consciousness.
A poster advertising the opening in 1912 of the Bo’nessHippodrome,is now particularly pertinent since the Hippodrome has recently been rescued from its derelict and unused state, thoroughly upgraded and reopened. Cinema is certainly not dead in Scotland.
A poster and a film sequence from Geordie, perhaps particularly relevant given its Olympic theme and the contemporary games, reminds viewers of the kitsch and sentimentalised world often portrayed in the movies. Even more embarrassing, in its sentimentalised view of Scotland, is Brigadoon, but these also remind the viewer of the escapist nature of cinema
The above article was first published in Lothian Life on 2 August 2012:

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