This transcribed interview, edited for space, is with 94–year-old Ella Mallett, ex-silent movie musician and was carried out as part of the BECTU History Project on 15th June 1988. She talks mainly of working with top musical director Louis Levy at the New Gallery Kinema in Regent Street.

EM: Well I went to the New Gallery, was interviewed by Terry Siskin[?] and Louis Levy in the May of 1914, just before the first Great War. Of course I carried on with the musical life until sound came in.

RF (Roy Fowler): Right.

EM: Well music then was something difficult to describe. I was describing it to Ted Parker at Cornwall and he was down talking all the business and as old as I. He spoke about a certain film, it was the first film that Lon Chaney did – The Hunchback. And I said, “We had no score for the last scenes where he’s climbing, that poor, deformed creature.” I said, “We simply struck chords with the violins muted. And as he climbed each step, we struck another chord. And the timp. quietly rolling. And as he got higher we moved the mutes. When he grabbed the bell we stopped dead.” And I said, “It had a most dramatic effect.”

RF: And that was all extemporaneous was it? Not scored?

EM: That’s Louis Levy you see. He was absolutely a wonderful person.

RF: How did you get the job there?

EM: Well I had an audition, I got a smack on the back and I was told to come and meet the crew.

RF: And was that part of an orchestra or were you solo? How many people in the orchestra?

EM: Oh, if I remember and count them rightly I think there were nine.

RF: Yes.

EM: Without the organ. Somehow we were all in harmony. We lived the picture, although it was just a glance. We’d run through, but I mean to say you took your cue from him in every way, although you had [knew?] the score.

RF: And would he conduct every performance?

EM: Yes.

RF: How many a day?

EM: Three. Four and a half hours a day.

RF: What would you have been paid in 1914 for a week’s work?

EM: I forget. It wasn’t a fortune.

RF: No. But musicians have been reasonably paid I hope, haven’t they would you say?

EM: Well I was perfectly satisfied.

RF: You were happy, that’s good.

EM: Yes, more than happy.

RF: Right. Would you think perhaps it was a pound a day? More? Less?

EM: I suppose it would be more.

RF: What would there be? A matinee and an early evening performance and then late evening?

EM: Yes, then a break, which of course came from the trio in the tea room. And then of course the two evening shows you see, with a break between. But the feature film was not as long as they are today but the news of course - there was no radio. The public relied on it. Scraps of reel. And anyway, the news and the travel picture, was more than valued. You see they go out now. But many of the people, they hadn’t been out of their villages. Then they suddenly found that they were living in a big world. And when there was an opportunity - not often - there was a little effects. We could use the tubular bells, you see, if there was a church in the distance, then you could simply - it made it alive!

RF: Yes? Right. Were you called upon ever to extemporise, or was it always scored?

EM: Oh at times, yes.

RF: And how would you approach that?

EM: Well, you’d memorise all…

RF: You’d memorise the picture?

EM: Yes!

RF: And what – you’d play with one eye on the picture?

EM: Yes.

RF: What sort of house was the New Gallery? Was it a classy house? What sort of pictures did they play?

EM: We showed The Battle of the Somme.

RF: Yes, well that’s a famous one.

EM: That played for some time. Of course, I’d never seen such a thing as that. Some of the shots, of course, were taken at the Front. And we had the opportunity in that one in the scene where all those wagons with the wounded men - was able to play Beethoven’s Pathetique.

RF: Yes. Right.

EM: That made them weep.

RF: And did you have the songs from the trenches too in the score, do you think?

EM: No, too heavily dramatic for that.

RF: Ah, right.

EM: No. But of course we had Mary Pickford.

RF: What was she in?

EM: She played in The Poor Little Rich Girl.

RF: So that must have been a very smart little ensemble playing away. Did you make a nice sound?

EM: …very satisfactory.

RF: Did the musicians ever get together for themselves in those days? Did they ever…?

EM: With the first Great War we went through you see…

RF: It wasn’t a happy time for anyone was it?

EM: It was a very exacting time. And - but still - not much happened, except we went on the roof to see what was happening. Which you wouldn’t in the last war! [laughs]

RF: The advent of sound – the end of the silents and the beginning of the talkies – your memories of how it happened. It came as a great blow obviously?

EM: [laughs] I was told that the red light’s gone up. So they asked me and two strings, a cellist and - would I do a little season on the coast, which we did and enjoyed it. Well that was the finale, I thought.

RF: There wasn’t even a transitional period where some houses still had music?

EM: No, O-U-T everybody – hundreds.

RF: You were undoubtedly a member of the Musicians’ Union – do you have any…?

EM: No I was not!

RF: Were you not? Now that’s very interesting. I thought everyone had to be.

EM: No, Jerry Siskin[?] asked me, and I said, “Is it compulsory?” And he said, “Well, of course they’re all continentals, you see.” I said, “Well I don’t want to be governed by someone sitting miles off, who doesn’t know a crochet from a quaver!” I said, “I take my orders from yourself, or Mr Reece[?].” So he said, “You be freelance, and if they catch up with you, well… !” They didn’t! [laughs]

RF: I’m absolutely astonished. I would have thought they would insist upon jurisdiction over the London cinemas. That’s a revelation that is.

EM: I got away with it.

SD: Did you have any other ladies in the orchestras you played in?

EM: Yes, a lady named [indecipherable]. She played the harp and she doubled with the viola. But there was one film where that was really spectacular – Neptune’s Daughter. With Annette Kellerman. Well of course as she came so gracefully, no orchestra, only the harp. And the graceful movements were the beauty of the harp. Very effective that was.


EM: And then when I went to 165 Oxford Street, he was a Polish leader. Oh he was a magnificent player. I got on with [Leo Lliff?] we got on very well together. A small orchestra, but still, it was real and real enjoyment. And quite a common word was, “Ah…that film’s going to play into our hands!” . Some did and some didn’t you know, and not easy!

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