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Journal of Media Practice (2007) - The Struggle for the Silents: The British Screenwriter from 1910 to 1930




For about 15 years, from c.1918, British screenwriters wrote scripts in a style which allowed them - indeed encouraged them - to express their screen idea in a comprehensive fashion, including specifying shots and instructing actors. Early examples of a writers draft and a shooting script suggest British practice used both at appropriate stages in production, but that the writer's role in silent films encouraged the development of the writer's draft style into a comprehensive document from which the director took instruction. This is different from current conventions. The assumption that the writer 'picturised' the film on the page, as well as structuring it dramatically, persisted until the 1930s, with what appears to be a low-level struggle for control of both the visual style of the film and (eventually) the main credit for that being won by the director. The script for The Bachelors Club (1921) was written by Eliot Stannard, who wrote for Hitchcock later in the 1920s. Although primary sources for British silent screenplays are very scarce, both a writer's draft and a shooting script exists for this film; and comparison of the two accords with the view that the writer presented a complete visual concept of the film from the initial script. The industrial practices of the time had not yet rationalised the growing dominance of the director into something more than the person who 'realised' what the writer had 'picturised', but this raises questions about how far we should study British silent films through the lens of the auteur theory. The conclusions reached here are tentative. While they are not just speculation, neither is there sufficient primary evidence yet to provide more than a very patchy picture about early screenwriting practice in Britain.