BRADFORD'S rich film heritage dates back to the 1890s, when early silent movies were first screened in the city.

When the First World War started, film took on extra significance in Bradford - in surprising ways.

Films were made in Bradford before they started in Hollywood, and by 1914 Bradford people had witnessed significant cinematic developments, including the invention of the Cieroscope, an early projector which screened pictures to 10,000 people in 1896.

The following year crowds flocked to a city centre screening of a film of a parade commemorating Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. It was shot earlier that day in London by Richard James Appleton, the 'First Knight of the Camera', who processed the film on the train to Bradford.

Soon afterwards came the Captain Kettle adventure movies, made in a converted ice rink on Manchester Road, later home to Pyramid Film Studios which churned out feature films and newsreels.

By 1914 there were 90 picture houses in Bradford. Some of the old buildings remain, but their packed audiences are long gone.

Cinema played an important role in the First World War; with roll calls of the dead screened at picture houses along with news of the conflict and lighter, morale-boosting round-ups of local events. But in the early months there was no war footage available - so a little artistic licence was called for. Battles re-enacted in a Bradford quarry by trainee soldiers were screened in the city to keep local people informed.

"There was no news reel from the Front until February, 1915, so they shot scenes at Gaisby Lane in Wrose, using men waiting for call-up. They were trained and had some, if not all, their uniforms," said Saltaire writer Nigel Schofield, who uses Bradford's cinematic heritage as a backdrop for his new play, 1914, which has its premiere at Bradford Cathedral tonight.

Performed by Bradford-based Follow the Fleece Company, it looks at life in Bradford over the period of a year. "I wanted to commemorate the First World War, but not actually write about the war," said Nigel. "There are lots of dramas about soldiers and the trenches, as an alternative I looked at what was happening in Bradford in 1914 - how life was, how it started to change, and why people were prepared to go to war."

The play focuses on daily life, with the stage split into two sections - one a kitchen where women swap gossip and the other a pub where men discuss local and world events. Military armbands and nurses' hats have been made by the Bacca Crafts Group.

"A lot of things were going on in 1914, and Bradford was at the forefront," said Nigel. "The Suffragette movement was a big talking point; the previous year Bradford Suffragettes had blown up Heaton Golf Course!"

He added: "There is comedy in the play because there was comedy back then, in among what became a very dark time. You only have to look at the lyrics of some of soldiers' songs to see how black humour helped them cope with life on the Front, and the same went for people back home."

Nigel and musical director Helen Hockenhull, who collaborated on previous Follow the Fleece productions, have written original music, and the score also includes music hall songs of the time. Tonight's performance will be preceded by a selection of 'songs that won the war', and in the interval singer Roger Davies will perform songs written for the Poppy Appeal.

One music hall act who appeared at the Alhambra, which opened in 1914, was Vesta Tilley, who appears in Nigel's play. With rousing wartime songs such as I've Got a Bit of a Blighty One, about a wounded soldier returning to England, Vesta landed the nickname "Britain's best recruiting sergeant".

One of the new songs is Let's Go to the Picture Hall, reflecting the popularity of picture houses on the eve of the war. "They were all over the place in Bradford," said Nigel. "Bridge Street had two picture houses, one was owned by Pathe and only showed news reels. Picture houses brought the war news to Bradford. One in Manningham, which became the Theatre Royal, had its own telegraph office.

"The play includes excerpts from the speech Winston Churchill made at St George's Hall in 1914, in which he commended the city's film industry."

Writing the narration, in a 1914 news style, was a challenge for Nigel, a former producer and head of music at Bradford's Pennine Radio. "The play is hung together by a newsreader's words through news reel shown in a picture house. Newsreaders at the time had a distinctive style, very different to radio scripts I was used to writing," he said.

Nigel spent a year researching the play, delving into local records, press reports, oral history and letters. A selection of war poetry books have a presence on stage, "like a Greek chorus".

"I've included readings from soldiers' letters; men and women open letters from their boys and read them out. Some are a bit jokey, others are more poignant," said Nigel. "The sub title of the play is 'Over by Christmas' because that's what people thought would happen. It's what the soldiers were told, initially. It's easy to see the war from our perspective but in 1914 people had no idea of the scale of conflict to come"

Performed by a cast of 20, the play looks at how volunteers were recruited for the war, buoyed by community spirit. The Bradford Pals weren't recruited until 1915 but, says Nigel, the city's tight, mill-based communities were already being targeted for volunteers. "The Low Moor munitions factory also played a part in unifying people," added Nigel. "There wasn't a street in Bradford that didn't lose a man to the war.

"When German battleships in the North Sea bombarded Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool late in 1914, causing civilian deaths, it caused outrage and changed the course of how local people felt."

The play reveals hidden gems about Bradford in 1914. "People may be surprised to know that Bradford had its own German ambassador," said Nigel. "Early German recruits included 300 men from Little Germany, waved off at Forster Square station."

In 1914 Bradford Council bought the city's Infirmary, which was at Forster Square. "When the war came it was a main receiving hospital for wounded soldiers, who were brought by train to Forster Square station and moved under darkness to the BRI. They could be here within three days. The horror of the war was on people's doorsteps and they didn't even know," said Nigel.

"The first nurses recruited for the war were from Bradford. Used to dealing with the wounded, they were less likely to be squeamish."

Nigel plans to follow up 1914 with a re-working of his play Pals, about the Bradford Pals, in 2016, and an Armistice-themed production in 2018.

"There has been a lot said about the Great War this year, and schoolchildren are learning about it, but 1914 tells the story of the year the war broke out, through the eyes and ears of the people of Bradford," said Nigel. "It is a play not about the World War, but rather about a world the war was about to change forever."

* 1914, Over by Christmas is on at Bradford Cathedral tonight at 7.30pm. For tickets call (01274) 777720. It is also on at Bingley Parish Church on Saturday and Menston Parish Church on Saturday, October 11.

* Tonight's performance ties in with First World War commemoration events organised by Artspace at Bradford Cathedral, spanning a four-year period until 2018. On Friday, November 7 the Cathedral Consort performs music from across the centuries, with themes of war and peace, and war poetry recitals, accompanied by Bradford City of Film director David Wilson on saxophone.


Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Woodland Trust