Captain Moonlight's Notebook

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The Independent Online
Twins' picture show breaks the silence of forgotten stars

AS THE charity previews took place last week of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical of the film Sunset Boulevard, Captain Moonlight headed in the opposite direction - to the movies. Well almost, it was the Museum of the Moving Image, Momi, where I met two young men from Epsom, twins aged 20, Howard and Austin Mewse. They have been keeping in touch with those surviving and usually forgotten actors and actresses of the silent era.

For those readers who may have forgotten the 1950 screenplay, Sunset Boulevard is about a former goddess of the silent screen, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who wants to make a comeback. She lives with her butler, once her husband and once her director (Erich von Stroheim), in an unkempt mansion on Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood. A hard-up young screenwriter (William Holden) arrives on her doorstep by accident, becomes her lover, is entrapped and eventually dies at her hand when he tries to leave her. By the end of the movie she is crazy, convinced as she sashays down the staircase to a waiting police car that she is on set with Cecil B de Mille.

The Mewse twins - both art students - have uncovered an extraordinary and sad world among Norma Desmond's contemporaries, who are all now in their eighties and nineties. And they have uncovered it by the simple act of writing letters to old women and getting a response. Part of their archive is now on display at Momi in an exhibition called I Used To Be In Pictures. Some of the names on display there are famous, but many are utterly obscure, to me at least: Esther Ralston (the American Venus), for example, or Chillie Bouchier (England's Clara Bow). In fact, the only portrait I recognised at the exhibition belonged to Gene Autry, now 86, the singing cowboy whose plastic grin and song, 'Git Along Little Dogies, Git Along' used to so upset my cousin's sheepdog, which always accompanied us to the Saturday matinee when we were children at Poverty Bay in the Antipodes. The dog howled at the sight of him. That was the same year they made Sunset Boulevard.

The Mewse collection began in 1987 when the twins, then aged 14, wrote to Lillian Gish, the so-called first lady of the American screen who died in February this year, asking for her autograph. These teenagers were not simple autograph hunters; they opened a correspondence and collected her opinions on those times and her colleagues. This led to other contacts. By last week they had reached 350 goddesses (major and minor) of silent pictures in Hollywood and in Britain.

A lot of the former stars are in nursing homes, forgotten and in some cases unwilling to be recognised. They are not likely to say, as the fictional Desmond did: 'I am big - it's the pictures that got small.'

Vilma Banky, the Hungarian Raphsody who gets a mention in Sunset Boulevard when the hero sees Norma Desmond's derelict swimming pool and wonders if Vilma was the last person in it, died in secret in 1991. Her nurse had no idea who she was. Vilma made sure it stayed that way, ordering that her death be kept secret until a year had passed.

Harold and Austin Mewse have never been to the States. They watched old movies on television while their grandmother did the ironing. 'Our Gran used to say, 'Oh, there's so and so . . .'. We wanted to know who they were and decided to write to them,' said Harold. They wrote to the Motion Picture Academy for addresses.

'We found people whose stories have never been told,' Austin said. 'We weren't interested in the Marilyn Monroes. We believe that there is no better way of finding out about the big stars than by going for the little ones.' They don't have much time.

A landmark case for the Harrods name

SIR ALFORD and Lady Houstoun- Boswall like to say they bought the property, some 25 acres of prime open space by the Thames in Barnes, west London, at last January's Harrods sale.

They won't tell you how much they paid for it, in fact they say it was part of the deal with Harrods that they not mention a word about the price or the terms. They had a week in January in which to complete the deal that gave them the Harrodian Club, a clubhouse and sports ground, swimming pool, croquet and bowling lawn, which until 1988 was the recreational centre for the shop's employees. They had been negotiating for three years. One offer, they were told, put the property at less than the value of the granite floor of the store's perfume department.

In September the Harrodian Club will open its door to 70 boys and girls aged from seven to nine years who will become the first alumni of the Harrodian School. They may enter as Harrodians, but whether they graduate as Harrodians is in some doubt. Harrods has taken legal proceedings to prevent the school using the name, which it says belongs to the shop; Harrodians is a term for its employees only, claims the shop.

The Houstoun-Boswalls dispute this, saying there was nothing in the deed of sale to deny them the title. Furthermore, they say they are naming their school after a landmark. After all, says Lady Houstoun-Boswall, the educationalist in the family, if a school were set up at the Eiffel Tower you would call it the Eiffel Tower School and no one would sue. The Harrodian Club stands recognised as such on local maps and is known as such by London taxi drivers when they take the 'knowledge'. 'In England, as everyone knows, schools are called by place names. The Harrodian Club is a recognised landmark,' she says.

I fear the Houstoun-Boswalls are in for something of a fight, since Harrods is ruthless about its name and, a spokesman told me, will go to the furthest end of the world to protect it. The shop won an injunction against a hotel in Palmerston North, New Zealand, which tried to take the name. And in Spain it sued a bar and restaurant and won.

As part of its offensive Harrods has asked the Houstoun-Boswalls to return everything at the club bearing the name Harrods. This includes dinner settings for up to 500 people, cutlery, glass, tureens, teapots, coffee pots, saucepans, serving spoons and even sewer manhole covers. But hold on, this is what the Houstoun-Boswalls bought in the sale, as a job lot with the property. 'The al-Fayeds (the owners of Harrods) can have it back if in exchange they will set up a scholarship fund for those in need,' Lady Houstoun-Boswall said.

The brothers Fayed are said to like children, but Captain Moonlight is unsure whether they will take the bait.

Meantime, while the matter is still being fought over, young Harrodians will no doubt eat in the 'Food Hall' rather than the dining room, and celebrate 'Sale Day' as Founder's Day.

Some strange noises off at the ICA

ODD goings-on at the Institute of Contemporary Art, where Red Noise, an anarchic romp through China's cultural underground, ended a four-day run last night as part of the London International Festival of Theatre. The author of the show, Geremie Barme, 39, is one of Australia's leading sinologists, and a world expert on modern Chinese writing.

His madhouse interpretation of post-Tiananmen China, where youths are pulled in by the police for wearing T-shirts with the slogan 'I'm fed up leave me alone' seems to have upset the ICA theatre department. After opening night on Wednesday they summoned Dr Barme to carry out a rigorous self-criticism.

As a non-Chinese his views were clearly suspect. They demanded greater participation from his Chinese stage partner, He Yong, 24, a Chinese rock musician.

There is one drawback. He Yong can't speak English and judging by the difficulties he had leaving Peking last week he would probably end up in prison on his return if he said what he thought on stage in London.

There is a lesson in all this for Douglas Hurd and Chris Patten, who met in London last Thursday to decide whether to stay firm over their talks on democracy for Hong Kong. After it was announced on Friday that Mr Hurd would go to Peking from the G7 summit in Tokyo this week, it looks as if bending is once more in fashion.

They may like to ponder the case of He Yong, who was told he could not leave China, apparently on the sole grounds that the Ministry of Culture was worried that he might not present a true picture of China. It took a fax bombardment from Dr Barme, the Foreign Office and the ICA to get He Yong on his plane.

He arrived just in time for Wednesday's performance to find a representative from the Chinese embassy in the audience taking notes - and that the ICA had its own ministry of culture.

Say what you

like about . . .

. . . News at Ten but:

it has long resisted trading its bongs for bungs

you can set your watch by it

it's only once a night

it doesn't, at the moment, clash with EastEnders

it's on at the right time for Mr Major

and finally, it made a star out of the skateboarding duck

(Photograph omitted)