H.A.V. Bulleid: Cinema historian who specialised in the silent era and studied the work of amateur film-makers

I began writing professionally in 1954. My column for the Amateur Cine World was devoted to silent films and I was convinced that I was the first since sound arrived to tackle such an unfashionable subject.

But when I glanced at back numbers, I discovered that I was not. During the shortages of the Second World War, amateur film-makers were deprived of raw stock. Since they could no longer make films, they had to settle for projecting them. Film libraries came into their own, and an ACW writer called H.A.V. Bulleid started a column entitled “Famous Library Films”.

He had been making amateur films since he was at Cambridge in the early 1930s – one was about spies, appropriately enough. He was an assiduous filmgoer and a connoisseur of home-movie presentations (although once, when he invited a girl to see a rare film, she replied, “I’d much rather go to the cinema.”)

Anthony Bulleid was born in 1912, and although well into his 90s when I knew him, he drove a car to the very end, his memory remained sharp and he could bring to life forgotten films like The Girl in the Taxi with Carter de Haven. Bulleid was responsible for donating the sole surviving print of this 1920 comedy to the National Film Archive along with such priceless treasures as William S. Hart’s Hell’s Hinges, and D.W. Griffith’s True Heart Susie (1919).

He was brought up with railways – his earliest memory was wandering across the tracks at Doncaster station looking at rolling stock with his father.

In the bitter winter of 1918-19 he was in Ramsgate. His mother caught Spanish flu and became seriously ill, so Anthony and his sister were sent to a local convent to be looked after.

“He remembered being cold and frightened,” said his son, David. “The experience must have stayed with him. Over 80 years passed before he returned, yet he had no trouble finding that Ramsgate house.”

At his Catholic public school, Ampleforth, in the 1920s, he was fortunate; the theatre was equipped with a 35mm projector. It was excellent training, for he was one of the boys selected to assist the monk who operated the projector. The shows were the highpoint of the week.

“They were enhanced by the fact that one of the monks had a natural gift for piano accompaniment,”

he recalled. “I thought he was very, very good. In Don Q, Son of Zorro there’s a long argument where Douglas Fairbanks is teasing his opponent who doesn’t know who he is, and this monk did a wonderful, teetering sort of argument.”

Bulleid was instructed not to show one of the reels in Wings – the scene of Clara Bow caught half-naked by military police in Buddy Rogers’ hotel room. Bulleid explained that there was perfectly good aeroplane action in that reel – was it all right to run that? The monks good-naturedly granted permission.

He began to go to the local cinema twice a week, seeing such classics as Steamboat Bill Jr, with Keaton, from which he remembered a sequence missing from modern prints in which Buster and Marion Byron get married on the river; Laugh Clown Laugh, with Lon Chaney (another film he donated to the NFA); and The Wedding March, with Erich von Stroheim and Fay Wray. “A tenor came on singing during the long love scenes,” recalled Bulleid. “Quite effective.”

The Bulleid class locomotive was designed by his father, O.V.S. Bulleid, and Anthony was expected to follow him into railway engineering. But he wanted to go into film-making. “My father actually went to Elstree Studios and had a session with the producer Joe Grossman, who said, in effect, that if you want to join the film industry you’ve got to join as a boot boy. ‘Get into a team and then it’s entirely up to you.’ People like Michael Powell did exactly that. He took better stills than the stills man so everybody sent for Michael Powell. I haven’t got that personality and would never have succeeded.

My father said, ‘You’ve got to go on with the engineering course, get a good, pensionable job, then you can do whatever you like as a hobby.’ I thought that was a very good idea.”

After an engineering degree at Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1930, Bulleid was apprenticed at the Derby Works of the LMS. He was not allowed to join the LNER as they had a “no fathers and sons” policy. Anthony was given a thorough training, spending time in all departments.

“Up until 1920, cabs had no side windows and drivers were able to lean out with their arms resting on the scrolled edge of the cab,” the railway historian Tony Sanders said. “Anthony discovered that after the introduction of windows, drivers complained that their arms got sore when they had to lean on the metal channel. Anthony designed a simple yet effective wooden armrest which could hinge up to cover the channel when the window was open.

He managed to get it accepted as a modification. Up to about 10 years ago, our trips always included a footplate ride. He was delighted to see his modification had still been included on the British Rail Class 4 we were riding on.” His interest in railway engineering continued with his own live steam model-making and visits to a number of model engineering societies.

“Talking to him about his father’s railway designs, it was apparent that he was not always in favour of the well known Bulleid trademarks such as enclosed valve gear and air smoothed casing of the original Bulleid Pacific designs,” Sanders said.

He wrote a number of railway books, including Bulleid of the Southern, the biography of his father; Master Builders of Steam, the biography of six mechanical engineers; and The Aspinall Era. His son David, who also went to Ampleforth, remembered that he and his schoolfriends saw the window of the York station bookshop given over to a massed display of Master Builders of Steam. David felt that his father’s best book was about his work – Brief Cases, 12 concise studies about how to run a business.

In 1936, Bulleid became a production assistant at Vickers Armstrong armaments factory, and although he was busy – he was also teaching - he had already begun a column on amateur film-making in Amateur Cine World. When the war started, and he switched to articles about library films, his column was primarily devoted to silents. The first reactions were not encouraging; “I feel I must draw your attention to a matter which makes me boil,” said a correspondent from Surrey. “Why devote so much of your very excellent magazine to a commentary on a film that is l6 years old and in such detail that I don’t need to see the film? Having to share ACW with several other amateur cinematographers, I can assure you that is the feeling in general.”

The editor of ACW, Gordon Malthouse, was not deterred and Bulleid’s pieces became much admired. Whenever possible, he would write to the director or to technicians connected with the film to get background details. Some would decline to answer, saying it was all too long ago, but others supplied unique and valuable information.

ACW had planned to publish his articles in book form, but in 1947, due to the severe winter and the financial crisis, they bowed out. This was a pity, because Bulleid had obtained a preface from the great director, Fritz Lang.

When I asked about that preface he said he still had it, so I was able to add it to his articles on the films to produce an electronic equivalent of his book on a website, silentsaregolden.

Bulleid was a modern renaissance man. He had been aware of musical boxes all his life, his mother having been given one as a wedding present, and he became fascinated by the makers of these instruments, how they worked and how they influenced the Victorian world. He joined the Musical Box Society in 1973 and published Cylinder Box Design and Repair in 1987.

This was followed by Cylinder Musical Box Technology in 1994 and The Tune Sheets in 1999.

Arthur Cunliffe, President of the Musical Box Society, said: “Because of the depth and accuracy of his findings, many believe these books rank above the works of all others. Those who knew Anthony personally will testify how he loved to be presented with a challenge. Discussions were always conducted in a kindly and enthusiastic manner. In the background there would always be his gentle sense of humour. Even if he disagreed with your views, he appreciated your efforts and never discouraged them.”

Kevin Brownlow

Henry Anthony Vaughan Bulleid, writer, film historian and railway engineer: born 23 December 1912; married 1942 Ann McCann (died 2007, two daughters, one son); died Ifold, Sussex 5 May 2009.



Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
footballHe started just four months ago
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Travel
Streets ahead: Venice
travelWhat's trending on your wishlist?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect