For a little bit of left-wing London history, why not take a stroll down the Gray’s Inn Road. All along this busy Islington thoroughfare, which connects Kings Cross St Pancreas station to Holborn High Street, are traces of London’s political past.
Stop for a pint at local pub The Water Rats and maybe you’ll see the ghost of Vladimir Lenin having a quiet sup with his comrades. The Bolshevik leader was known to frequent this establishment – then called the Pindar of Wakefield – when he visited London in the early 1900s.
Were Lenin to guzzle a few too many ales, start shooting his mouth off and get beaten up by an army of disgruntled toffs, he could at least relax in the knowledge that there was a hospital very nearby. The Royal Free moved to Gray’s Inn Road in the mid-19th century. In 1877, it became the first hospital to admit women students for clinical training, and the only one to consistently do so until 1947, thus investing it with its own political and historical importance.
Continue up the road and look left onto Swinton Street. Here was the headquarters of the Sunday Worker, a communist weekly begun in 1925, and edited by radical politician William (Bill) Paul. A few years later the Sunday Worker would give way for its more famous daily incarnation. And at number 37 Gray’s Inn Road is the old residence of Central Books, the prime store for communist party publications throughout the 1960s and 70s.
Beer, books and bolshevism – if you’re not feeling a little Wobblie by the end of this walk, then bugger off back to your duck pond, mine fuehrer. There’s no hope.
For everyone else, you might be thinking, great, and, if I just had an ideologically sound movie to cap off the day … all would be well. Alas, if only KINO was still around.
KINO, the film arm of the International Union of the Revolutionary Theatre (which had its offices in Moscow), began operations in late 1933. After a short stint at Ormond Yard, the organisation made 84 Gray’s Inn Road its main headquarters. Committed to the distribution of Soviet and other left-wing filmmaking, KINO spent much of its early life fighting local councils for the right to show its product.
It was always going to be a tough job. This was the 1930s: Great Britain, like much of the developed world, was in the throes of economic depression, unemployment was rife, and fears that Russia’s communist experiment would capture the hearts and minds of British workers created a paranoid political climate. The slightest whiff of communism had politicians up in arms.
When KINO tried to exhibit Russian director Sergei Eisenstein’s agit-prop classic Battleship Potemkin, for example, it met with enormous resistance from the London County Council. Bert Hogenkamp’s study of left-wing film of the 1930s, Deadly Parallels, covers these legal skirmishes. Potemkin had been banned in 1928 by the British Board of Film Censors and thus could not be shown in any licensed theatre. But if it was transferred from the standard 35mm film format to the smaller 16mm then such laws could be bypassed.
This all stemmed from the bizarre way in which film censorship and fire precautions had become intertwined in the early 20th century. 35mm film was made of Nitrate and was thus highly flammable. For this reason, anyone wishing to project films had to first have their premises checked by health and safety inspectors. If you failed the test, you could not show films. All 35mm films were sent to the British Board of Film Censors, and most local councils adopted laws which prohibited licensed premises from showing banned pictures.
However, 16mm films were inflammable, and theoretically free from any such legislation. Anywhere could screen 16mm, and it did not have to have passed the censor’s pen. KINO made use of this loophole and attempted to show a 16mm Potemkin at Mornington Crescent’s Itrose Hall. On this occasion, the council threatened the hall’s owner with legal action, claiming that he needed a music and dancing license to show the film. The screening was stopped.
Again an effort was made to show the film in Hampstead. This time the LCC sent down a fire brigade representative in the hope that testing the film stock would see it go up in flames. It did not, and Potemkin was screened four times ‘to crowded audiences.’ And such battles between KINO and the LCC continued throughout the 1930s. The latter would send stern, but completely unfounded, letters warning cinema owners that they faced prosecution if they screened a banned film. It was then a case of whether or not the owner was sufficiently intimidated to buy the council’s bluff, or trusted KINO’s constant reminders that the LCC could do absolutely nothing.
While all this was going on, it may come as little surprise to hear that other elements of the British elite were taking an interest in KINO. In October 1933, head of MI5 Major-General Sir Vernon Kell sent a lengthy communication to J. Brooke Wilkinson, director of the British Board of Film Censors. Kell, who was known amongst his MI5 colleagues by the deliciously secretive nickname ‘K’, warned of a left-wing film group beginning operations in Great Britain: KINO. Noting that the group had already shown imported Soviet films ‘to workers in the East End of London’ K concluded his letter with reference to communist cartoons and documentaries currently in production.
K and Brooke Wilkinson would correspond throughout the 1930s on the matter of KINO. In fact, according to files held at the National Archives in Kew, the MI5 boss seems to have marshalled an impressive network of informers and correspondents in his search for intelligence on this organisation’s activities.
The records make for fascinating reading. We have detailed descriptions made by undercover policemen of film screenings taking place in various halls and meeting rooms. Take this example of a KINO screening at Islington Town Hall. From 1936 onward the organisation turned its focus on the Spanish civil war, and support for the Republicans. Numerous benefit nights were prepared where topical films interspersed speeches and other performances. One such night occurred in Islington on December 13, 1937. Present at the screening were several political activists including one Leah Manning.
Manning is well-known in particular for her work in rescuing thousands of children from Northern Spain during the war. She was also a former Labour MP for Islington. After the crowd had watched a propaganda film called ‘Basque Children’, which dealt with young refugees moving to England, Ms Manning addressed the crowd. According to the policeman, Manning spoke of British people having ‘given money, help and sympathy to the Spanish workers, but she was bitterly critical of the National government, which she described as a “bunch of bunglers.”’ Manning was furious at the UK’s government’s refusal to send troops to Spain, especially in the wake of Germany and Italy assisting the fascists. ‘Mrs Manning moved her audience to cheers and cries of “shame” alternately as she described how Spanish men, women and even children are united in their efforts to fight fascism, but at odd moments asked her “Why don’t the English people help us, we are fighting for them as well as ourselves”?’ After watching another propaganda film ‘Defence of Madrid’, this successful evening dispersed.
Alongside undercover police reports, we have letters from concerned citizens about the ‘communist menace’ that KINO seemed to them to be promoting. A letter from one film studio employee, which was forwarded to the security services noted that ‘About three weeks ago I wrote to the Secretary of the Prime Minister giving him information regarding some unadulterated Soviet propaganda films which are being circulated privately’. The author continued: ‘the films they showed were of such a dangerous kind, and the class of men showing them matched the films…I sensed they were up to mischief.’ She offered to play along with KINO and extract more information, an offer politely declined by the police.
So it was that, throughout the 1930s, KINO sought to get their films out, and the secret service looked on. The organisation terminated their activities in 1939. But perhaps with the current political and economic climate as it is, someone will revive its project. Now, more than ever, seems the ideal time for a KINO comeback.