Silent festival has a lot to shout about

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My six-year-old summed it up as the lights came on in Bo’ness’s lovely Hippodrome cinema. “It wasn’t silent at all!” he yelled. “There was a piano!”

That’s the key thing about the venue’s now annual festival of silent cinema – there’s absolutely nothing quiet about it, with a string of fantastic musicians to accompany the gems on screen.

And there is no doubt that the whole experience is enhanced by being held in the historic venue. With its red carpet entrance and God Save the King banners, it seems to rise to the occasion and come into its own for these special screenings.

The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema is undoubtedly a gem for anyone interested in film – silent or otherwise.

With an introduction to each show from experts – including the director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival – and extensive programme notes, the screenings are always educational as well as entertaining.

The opening gala, ‘Lucky Star’, made in 1927, just before the ‘talkies’ arrived, was selected as the pinnacle of what was achieved in silent film and laid a template for Hollywood romances made to this day. They may not have used the phrase ‘feel-good’ film in those days, but there’s no doubt that’s what it was, with hugely charismatic performances from the stars, Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, and fabulous ensemble playing.

Each of the films shown is teamed with a short from the Scottish Screen Archive, wonderful glimpses not just of cinematic history, but of captured life here in Scotland across the decades.

It’s not just a cosy nostalgia trip, however.

For me, the piano accompaniment of Neil Brand was a real highlight, not just for ‘Lucky Star’, but also Buster and Friends – three hilarious, rarely seen comedy gems – which was a real family occasion for many, including me.

And this symbiosis between film and music has led to several innovative scores being written especially for the festival.

The new music for the Japanese noir ‘Dragnet Girl’, performed live by Jane Gardner, Hazel Morrison and Roddy Long, premiered at the festival and will now tour to a further seven venues.

On Sunday morning, several young members of Falkirk Schools Traditional Music Group accompanied short films from the Scottish Screen Archive, performing new scores that have been written by young composers who are still at high school.

Working with a professional composer then seeing their work performed was an amazing opportunity for them – and the young musicians who performed.

This partnership was just one of the many ways in which the festival is reaching out the community – there were also workshops showing people how to make a zoetrope, heritage walks and screenings of vintage Bo’ness Fair footage.

It all opens the cinema to the audience and creates a welcoming, vibrant atmosphere for these precious films.

With the films playing to packed houses – including several sell-outs – throughout the five days there’s no doubting the success of this festival and we can all look forward to number five next year.

Alison Strauss, the festival director, producer Shona Thomson and the rest of the team fully deserve the five-star reviews they have achieved.

I think they’ve all proved that silent film is something to shout about.