HELEN OF FOUR GATES
Wednesday, 26 May 2010
Heart-rending tale returns to its Yorkshire roots
Cinema-goers to see film ‘lost’ for 90 years
Back in 1920, cinema-goers packed into the Co-op Hall in Hebden Bridge, eager to see a new film; a harrowing, heart-rending story shot in the countryside around their town.
Then the film disappeared, considered lost, until detective work by a local film-maker uncovered it, squirreled away in a Canadian archive.
On June 10, local people will be flocking to the Picture House to watch the film — Helen of Four Gates — as it shows on a public screen for the first time in 90 years.
As part of the HB500 celebrations to mark the 500th birthday of the town’s packhorse bridge, Hebden Bridge will be the very first place in Britain to screen the silent classic. The British Film Institute (BFI) will be screening it the following month as a key part of their Lost and Re-discovered Films festival.
It will be a unique event for the town, and the end of a long, hard endeavour for film-maker Nick Wilding, who has worked tirelessly to bring the film home after discovering it in Canada.
“It is a very important film in the history of motion pictures,” explains Nick.
The film was directed by pioneer of early motion pictures Cecil Hepworth. His daughter, the late Valerie Williamson, had dreamt of bringing the film back to Britain, preferably to be looked after by the BFI.
“Valerie said something to me that now feels really sad. She watched the 10-minute sequence of stills and music that I compiled for the end of Hebden Royd at the Movies. It included her father’s words from the brochure that was handed to audiences at the premiere, 90 years ago,” relates Nick. “She said she would always feel she had at last seen the film, even though she would probably not live to see the actual screening. I shall always cherish those words.”
Helen of Four Gates is based on a novel by former mill girl Ethel Carnie Holdsworth, who lived in Heptonstall in the 1920s. It stars Alma Taylor in the title role.
“Helen is treated very badly by all the men in her life and there are some shocking scenes in the film, including one in which she is whipped. Who knows what this must have seemed like in 1920 to those audiences who were more used to seeing Charlie Chaplin?” says Nick.
After a little detective work, Nick discovered it was Ethel Carnie Holdsworth who persuaded Cecil Hepworth to use Hebden Bridge as a location. There are scenes of the countryside around the town, including the beauty spot of Lumb Falls.
“She took Hepworth up the moor,” says Nick. “He writes in his autobiography about being taken there. He had a good look around and decided where he was going to film.”
Sadly for Hepworth, his days of pioneering British cinema were soon over. According to Nick, the director constructed a massive studio complex at his home on Walton-on-Thames, which led him into bankruptcy. Most of his films were melted down for their silver nitrate content.
That, says Nick, explains why copies of Hepworth's films are now so rare and why this is such a special event for the audience in Hebden Bridge.
“It is a very sad story and there are only, I think, about three surviving copies of his full-length films and one or two of them are in very poor condition.”
Now, Nick and local audiences have a nail-biting wait while the film is copied and shipped from Canada. It’s due to be screened at the Hebden Bridge Picture House on Thursday, June 10, accompanied by live music, as it would have been in 1920.
Tickets are available in advance from the Picture House (during opening hours) and the Hebden Bridge Tourist Information Centre.
There’s a full listing of HB500 events at www.hebden500.co.uk.
Guardian — After global search for last remaining negative, Cecil Hepworth's 1921 classic to be shown in Yorkshire town where it premiered