It’s time to make a full confession. The title of this blog is a terrible deflection from the truth. I am, indeed, a northerner. Please forgive the vagueness. I am from Merseyside, but my family have lived in various places upwards from the middle of England, going back generations. So our accents may wander, but our vowels are consistently flatter than a Yorkshireman’s cap.
All of which means that Echoes of the North: Four Chapters in Time, a new archival film from the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival, is sweeter to me than a barm cake stuffed with hot chips and a mug of strong tea. The film is a stirring collage of silent film footage of northern England, bolstered with a charismatic brass-band score composed by Neil Brand (a southerner, but don’t hold it against him). The score is played expertly by the legendary Brighouse and Rastrick Band, conducted by Ben Palmer. Echoes of the North is produced by YSFF’s Jonny Best and edited by Andy Burns from more than 100 pieces of film. Best of all, it is free to watch on YouTube.
These images, all taken from actuality films covering the full span of the silent era, are pungently evocative. We have steep-roofed mills, trams pottering down busy high streets, market crowds, bomb-ravaged terraces and the grand opening of the Middlesbrough Transporter Bridge (quite a spectacle). And oh my, the Mersey ferry approaching the magnificent Liverpool waterfront.
Footballers, shepherds, coal miners and mountain climbers are here. As are weavers working at enormous looms, a beaming bride and groom, labourers risking their lives as they swing girders into place to complete the Tyne Bridge, eminent visitors from the palaces down south and even Hollywood, and competitive gurners and acrobats at Tynemouth Carnival. There are images in this film that truly make my heart sing. These are scenes my great-grandparents would be very familiar with, but the world changes quite slowly. I can easily recognise the places I grew up in and some favourite holidays, give or take a few decades. Likely you’ll spot a few as well.
The film is structured as four chapters, Rebuild, Recharge, Remembrance and Rejoice, or very roughly labour, leisure, the Great War and parties. These categories, which are focused on the human activity, remind us that we’re travelling in time as well as place. The landscapes, and the largely Victorian architecture, are mostly still standing. These generations have almost entirely disappeared gone. Their suffering, like their jobs and their headwear, now seems foreign. Even these people’s silent words are strange to us, even if the sentiment is timeless: a soldier writing home begins “Dear little woman” and hopes “the kiddies are top hole”.
The rush of emotion that accompanies these sights is certainly guided by Brand’s delicious brass score, which announces itself with a grand flourish and then moves deftly between moods, sometimes beautifully poignant (especially in the third chapter), or as bracing as the sea breeze at Blackpool, building tension as firemen in York demonstrate a daring rescue, and then again picking out the comedy in some inadvertent street slapstick as one of those hats is separated from its owner on the cobbles.
If nothing else, Echoes of the North proves how well suited the gracefulness of brass-band music is to accompanying silent film. But this film does more than that. This patchwork of scenes from the recent past evokes the fondest memories and a certain amount of longing – the very definition of nostalgia. Boldly, it attempts to capture a sprawling region made up of many different places, from those famed dark, satanic mills to the truly green and pleasant. These distant people and these very present landscapes. Simultaneously we witness what has been lost and what remains solidly in place.
Surely, you might say, this film is over-ambitious. Northern England is a district too diverse to be summed up in an hour. Yes, but this film is remarkably successful. After all, it made me homesick.
- Echoes of the North: Four Chapters in Time is available to watch online for free until March 2023 at youtube.com/@yorkshiresilents.
- Echoes of the North was commissioned by No Dots with support from PRS Foundation’s Open Fund for Organisations, and Arts Council England. The premiere performance at the fifth Yorkshire Silent Film Festival in November 2022 was supported by BFI Film Audience Network with National Lottery funding as part of the CURIOUS engagement fund. The online release is supported by The Space, with funding from Arts Council England.
- Browse the full list of films excerpted in Echoes of the North here.
- (I’m actually off to Manchester this week, on silent-film adjacent business, in honour of a famous Mancunian. I love to be mysterious, but this was just the preparation I needed.)
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