Interviewing BFI’s Silent Film Curator Bryony Dixon

Interviewing BFI’s Silent Film Curator Bryony Dixon

If you’ve ever visited the British Film Institute’s Chaplin site, you know the work of Bryony Dixon. I met Bryony for the first time at the Charlie Chaplin Conference in London in 2005, where she was one of the organizers. Given the overwhelming nature of that whole event, of course, a person has to be immediately awed at what Bryony and her colleagues were able to do and are able to do. That was a great event and I’m still in touch with most, if not all, of the contacts I made there and have gained much from all of them. Thank you, Bryony! Perhaps the best venue for getting to know Bryony, though, is not at something as lofty as the Charlie Chaplin conference, but at dinner. But isn’t this always the case? I find her to be an authentic, no-nonsense sort of person, which I appreciate very much. So, if you ever get to meet up with her—at one or more film festivals in Europe—Nottingham, Bologna, Pordenone, etc., introduce yourself and consider yourself lucky. I know I do!

Bio:Bryony Dixon has worked at the BFI National Archive for 15 years and has developed a particular interest in early film. She has written on British silent comedy, the relationship of early film and the music hall and programmes archival material of all kinds for the BFI’s own cinemas as well as internationally. She founded and co-programmes the British Silent Film Festival with Laraine Porter of the Nottingham Broadway Cinema. This festival, now in its 11th year has transformed the way we think about British film history. In the last few years she ran the BFI’s Chaplin project, organised the first international conference on Chaplin and designed the BFI’s dedicated Chaplin microsite ( She is now a curator with a special responsibility for the BFI’s collection of silent film.What is the Charlie Chaplin Research Foundation and who can utilize it?

The original idea of the Foundation was to promote interest in and study of Chaplin in the country of his birth. Lord Attenborough in particular was keen that the Chaplin story could be used to inspire young people particularly in deprived areas around where Chaplin was born and brought up – which of course happens to be where the BFI Southbank is located. At one time there was to be a physical presence at the newly developed Southbank site but although the space for educational functions, development of a Mediatheque and other innovations does cater more to the local community, the Chaplin project itself became more focused on maximising access to the collections, setting up the conference to assess the interest in the academic community and restoring the films. Of course we also have our consultant David Robinson on board and the project with some firm foundations can grow from here.

Can you talk a bit about creating the BFI’s Chaplin website? How did you decide what you would like to put on it, for instance? What will you add to it in the future, if anything?

When I was thinking about designing the Chaplin website – I thought about what would be the most useful contribution that the BFI could make to the study of Chaplin. Essentially we deal in collections and knowledge, so it seemed logical that supplying access to as many original materials as possible was a good place to start. So much has been written on Chaplin–some good, some bad–that to add to this huge volume of opinion seemed unlikely to make the kind of difference I was looking for. So I decided to play to our strengths and digitise as many of our materials as I could for people to see and make up their own minds about Chaplin. I was also aware of other people’s sites and wanted ours to be complementary – particularly to the official archives. I also gave the BFI site a British slant and so commissioned some pieces on Chaplin’s relationship to Britain specifically. I scanned reviews and promotional material for Chaplin films in the British press which would have been very tedious to access previously, and I tried to make connections with Chaplin’s British stage background. One of my favourite parts of the site is the section on the restoration of the Keystone films – this really explains in detail the complexity and work involved in bringing these films back from obscurity. I think people are really interested in these processes. There is a great little film showing the technicians at work making difficult decisions about which materials to use in the restoration as well an interview with film historian Glenn Mitchell explaining why the Chaplin Keystones are so important and why the restoration project has transformed his opinion of the films. We will continue to update the site about the restoration project as the work is done and hopefully long term we will be able to stream the films themselves on the site.

What restoration work is currently going on with Charlie’s films, if any? Can you talk a bit about this process?

It may seem slightly odd that the BFI should be a major player in the Chaplin Keystone restoration project. There are two reasons for this – one is that the BFI happens to have a very large collection of original nitrate Keystone material, which we have been allowed to keep, unlike archives in some other countries, which have been obliged to dispose of their nitrate for safety reasons. The other reason is that the BFI National Archive has a preservation laboratory and expert staff that can take on a project like this. We have particular expertise at handling early material.

There are 4 more Keystone titles to restore after which we will be preparing a DVD release in partnership with Bologna and Lobster films. The last few titles (Recreation, Those Love Pangs, His Favorite Pastime and Cruel, Cruel Love) are going to be difficult, as no good source material exists – so if any of your readers have full frame 35mm Keystone prints under their beds, now is the time to bring them out in triumph!

The Charlie Chaplin Conference (2005) was a big success and an event long overdue. Is the BFI planning any future Chaplin events and, if so, can you tell us about them?

Yes, in August/September 2008 the BFI will be mounting a complete season of Chaplin’s early films at the BFI Southbank focusing on the period between him leaving Britain and the time he returned as ‘the most famous man in the world’ for his first return visit in 1921.

We will also be engaging with other academic Chaplin projects and helping to encourage research projects.

Legend has it that an important part of the BFI’s Chaplin collection was found in a dust bin (trash can for us Americans)? Can you give us the story?

Hmmm, this sounds like one of those urban myths – it’s always more exciting if rare and precious archive materials are found in a trash can or are about to end up in flames on the Guy Fawkes Night bonfire. It belongs with all that imagery which dogs the archivist – cans covered in dust, cobweb strewn vaults, unearthing treasures, discovering ‘gems’ – it’s all nonsense – our vaults are clinically clean, most archives look like science labs, all gleaming metal and bright lights – boring alas, but true.

I have it from Kate Guyonvarch that an important part of the Chaplin archive, the Keystone films scene photo book, was possibly compiled in the 1930s by a Mr. Waley of the BFI. If this is true, it seems very forward-thinking of Mr. Waley-in terms of film history in general and the importance of Charlie’s work in particular. Can you talk more about this?

Yes, the scrapbooks are fabulous – they are very useful for our film restorers – it makes sense of the continuity and helps us with details such as stills of the final image of Kid Auto Races (an emblematic shot, or close up, of Charlie) and lots of information on alternative titles which helps us track down material.

The scrapbooks were allegedly compiled in 1937 by H D Waley who was indeed a key employee of the BFI in the early days – here is what Christophe Dupin, the BFI’s historian was able to tell me:

“HD (aka Hubert) Waley was born in 1892. He was appointed on a permanent basis on 1/4/1936, though he had been the BFI’s unofficial technical adviser since the setting-up of the BFI in 1935. Later known as the BFI’s ‘Technical Director’ in 1936, he was officially responsible “for all technical enquiries and information and is also in charge of the Institute’s theatre”. He was responsible for “advising the Institute on all matters relative to the technical side of cinematography, and answering enquiries on that subject and for similar duties in relation to the vaults of the National Film Library. However his role was not just technical. He was technical editor of Sight and Sound (Autumn 1935) the BFI’s magazine. And co-wrote The Cinema Today (1939). He was made redundant in 1951/52, following budget cuts. Part of his job was then taken over by Karel Reisz.”

And finally, in your opinion, why do you think Charlie Chaplin’s reception in the UK is so poor right now? Why are the British seemingly no longer that interested in either him or his film work?

Again it’s a kind of urban myth – if I had a pound for every time I’ve heard that ‘Chaplin isn’t as funny as Keaton’ I’d be rich by now. I don’t know where this came from originally, but everybody copies each other and people who have never seen more than a clip or maybe one film of Chaplin’s or Keaton’s repeat this phrase as if it were some universal truth. Now it has become almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, there is good news – if you look at everything going on, the picture looks somewhat rosier – you will find that the Chaplin DVD’s which we publish are amongst our best sellers, we have the Chaplin retrospective planned for next year, a festival was held this year at the prestigious Conway Hall (Rollie Totheroh’s son and grandson came all the way to the UK for it), we have just published two books on Chaplin and we have a dedicated website (David Lean and Peter Greenaway are the only other filmmakers afforded such a privilege). So things are looking up!


Speak Your Mind