In the middle of the First World War, one Yorkshire businessman found himself embroiled in a legal case about a new film. And even though the film was silent, it kept the people of the North talking for months.
The man in question was Walter Stott, who didn’t let the fact that he was based in Manchester prevent him from making close – and questionable – connections across the Pennines.
The film, meanwhile, was Five Nights.
It was based on a novel by Victoria Cross, a popular and prolific author of the time, who was said to have chosen her pen name to annoy the old Queen.
And the book was chock-full of shenanigans.
It told the story of a rich young artist, and showed him wooing a Chinese woman in Alaska, falling for his own cousin, getting the cousin to disrobe in front of him, and shooting a Chinese man dead. Shockingly, it also implied that he was the father of an illegitimate child.
The Chinese woman was played by a young actress named Sybil de Bray, who wasn’t Chinese at all. Although this was only her second film, she had already enjoyed considerable success on the West End stage. The Tatler had called her“a bewitching little actress”, whose “daintiness and personal charm ensure for her a big reception”.
“Offensive and objectionable” response leads to legal action
Sybil’s performance would be seen in Preston before it was seen anywhere else. That was on 30 August 1915, when Five Nights was shown at the old King’s Palace theatre. And in the audience that stiflingly hot Monday afternoon was the town’s new chief constable, James Watson.
Watson was appalled by what he saw. The film was “offensive and objectionable”, he said. Those words soon came to the attention of Walter Stott.
Together with his business partner Fred White, he had been distributing Five Nights across Lancashire and Yorkshire. Walter and Fred had paid a pretty penny for that privilege, and now, they claimed that the chief constable had defamed them. Within days, they had issued a writ against him, claiming damages of £5,000 – a sum worth 60 times as much today.
A compromising event in Huddersfield
As well as being a distributor of films, Walter Stott was also a proprietor of picture houses. The Olympia in Huddersfield was one of his, and it was in the office there that he became involved in an incident with an usherette named Dora.
A short time before the Five Nights case, during an afternoon that was just as warm, Walter told Dora that he was going to Blackpool, and he asked her if she would like to go with him. “You’re a nice girl”, he said, and she responded by sitting on his knee and putting his arm around her neck.
The truth of what happened next was known only to the two of them – and to the two projectionists who were watching the incident through a little window in their booth. The projectionists proved to be crucial witnesses for the defence, but as he walked out of court after a truly humiliating hearing, Walter was surrounded by reporters.
“You are not proud of what you did on this occasion?” one of the reporters asked.
“No”, Walter replied. “I am very much ashamed of it.”
Given what the chief constable had said, Five Nights couldn’t be shown in Preston again.
Film meets with a mixed response
It was, however, shown in Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and York without anyone there batting so much as an eyelid.
And in Hull, the local newspaper wasn’t impressed by the Preston ban. “Someone has been carried away by his zeal”, the newspaper wrote. “Some new broom has swept too clean.”
Five Nights would be shown at the Théatre de Luxe in that city, and at the National cinema, which had an oculus to go with its splendid orchestra. It could also be seen at the Central Picture Theatre – which called itself the ‘Rendezvous of the Elite’ – and at the Picture Playhouse, where there would be four showings a day.
“Judging by the enormous advance bookings”, the same newspaper warned, “the house will be filled to its utmost capacity at each performance, and it is advisable that seats should be booked early”.
But this enthusiasm wasn’t replicated in Bradford, Birkenhead or Brighton, where the film was banned outright.
The case against Chief Constable Watson
The case against Chief Constable Watson came to court in February 1916, at the end of a wet, weary winter. It was heard in Manchester, in the grand old Assize court in Strangeways, right next to the prison.
In his defence, Watson claimed that his words had been fair comment – nothing less, and certainly nothing more. And for its part, the jury agreed. On the afternoon of the second day of the trial, after deliberations lasting barely an hour, the foreman announced that Walter and Fred’s claim had been dismissed.
Huddersfield Olympia picture house
One of the final scenes of the Five Nights affair was played out in Huddersfield again, only a few days after the Manchester trial had come to an end. And it was the Olympia picture house that was again the centre of everyone’s attention.
That had been one of the very first places to show Five Nights, even though local dignitaries had made their disapproval clear. Now, addressing the magistrates in a new case, the town’s own chief constable said the film was “immoral all the way through”. Then, going even further – and with the shenanigans between Walter and Dora doubtless also on his mind – he claimed that the Olympia wasn’t being properly run.
The magistrates in Huddersfield took even less time to deliberate than the jurors in Manchester had. It was quite true that the Olympia wasn’t being properly run, they announced, after retiring for only 15 minutes, and as a result, Walter Stott would have his licence taken away.
The place closed its doors straight away, and when it re-opened, on Christmas Day, it had both a different name and – many people were relieved to see – a brand new proprietor.