In the middle of the First World War, there was a film that got everyone in the North East talking. Which is ironic, because it was a silent film.
Five Nights was based upon 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 it was chock-full of shenanigans.
It told the story of a rich young artist with too much time on his hands – who woos a Chinese woman in Alaska, falls in love with his own cousin, gets the cousin to disrobe in front of him, and shoots a Chinese man dead.
And the film implies that the artist is the father of an illegitimate child.
The mother of the child – the artist’s cousin – was played by Eve Balfour.
She had been born in New Zealand and educated in a convent. She had made a successful career in the West End and then on screen.
And she didn’t take kindly to the suggestion that she had taken part in something improper. She said:
“If the film had been like the book, I should not have been surprised, but it is much milder.”
An “offensive and objectionable” film
Eve Balfour’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.
In the audience that stiflingly hot Monday afternoon was the town’s new chief constable, James Watson, and he was appalled by what he saw. The film was “offensive and objectionable,” he said.
Those words soon came to the attention of Walter Stott and Fred White.
They were the men who had been distributing Five Nights across the north of England.
They 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 sixty times as much today.
Chief Constable Watson’s words had a chilling effect.
Five Nights would only ever have that one showing in Preston.
It would soon be banned in Leeds, Bradford, Huddersfield and Halifax. And it would also be banned in Accrington and Southport, Nottingham and Coventry, Brighton, Bath and Weston-super-Mare.
In Stockton, meanwhile, the film was banned just before it was to be shown at the Globe Theatre, after magistrates in the town had been given their own a private showing and had declared it “not a suitable picture for public exhibition”.
And when photographs of Eve Balfour were published in a national newspaper, it was over a caption that made sure to say she was, “Banned at Preston”.
But opinion on the subject of Five Nights was far from unanimous.
A difference of opinion
The film was shown in Manchester and Liverpool without anyone there batting an eyelid.
It was shown in Sheffield, too, and in Hull and York.
And it could be seen in Newcastle, even though the Chief Constable had tramped the streets of that city, demanding to be told where it was going to be shown.
Five Nights could also be seen in South Shields, at the Crown Electric Theatre near the Tyne Dock.
It could be seen at the Theatre Royal in Blyth, and in Hartlepool, at the Palace Theatre, where it was described as “the world’s greatest pictorial masterpiece”.
And many people saw it in Darlington, at ‘Fenton’s Pictures’ in the old Alhambra Palace.
This place stood on Northgate, at the corner of Gladstone Street, opposite the old technical school. And wounded soldiers were admitted free there on Wednesday afternoons.
The fact the film could be seen there was no surprise – the place was well used to controversy by now.
Darlington in disarray
The Alhambra Palace (which would later become the Gaumont) had been opened in 1909 by George Fenton, who had once managed Buffalo Bill on his tours of Europe.
It was a plush place, once considered the most luxurious in town. The auditorium was done out in different shades of green. The lighting was concealed. And the heating and the ventilation were right up to date.
But then Sapho arrived, and everything was thrown into disarray.
This was a film about a notorious woman – one who, a critic said, had “drunk deep of the dregs of life in the underworld of vice”.
Before long, the manager of the Alhambra, William Lancaster, was had up in Darlington police court, accused of exhibiting an objectionable film.
And although he denied doing anything wrong, he had been seen walking up and down outside before the lights went down, shouting, “Hurry up! Hurry up! This will be the last time Sapho is shown.”
There were more magistrates than usual on the bench that heard the case, and they were able to watch the film for themselves, at a showing held for them alone.
And fortunately for Mr Lancaster, they agreed that Sapho was not objectionable. The case against him was promptly dismissed.
Doing the rounds again
The case against Chief Constable Watson, meanwhile, came to court in February 1916, at the end of a wet and weary winter.
It was heard in Manchester, in the grand old Assize court next to Strangeways prison.
In his defence, Mr Watson had 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 was dismissed.
Within days, Five Nights was doing the rounds again, right across the north of England.
But people had moved on while the film had been away, and the halls in which it was shown this time were less salubrious than they had been before.
That was certainly the case in South Shields.
Five Nights was shown there a few weeks later, in the spring of 1916 – not at the Crown Electric Theatre this time, but at the Chichester Picture House on Westoe Road.
This was a popular place, which people called the ‘Chi’.
But it was also an austere place, with a band but no carpet, and just bare forms where the seats should have been.
David Hewitt is a lawyer and a writer.
David’s new book about the Five Nights affair – Gold, Violet, Black, Crimson, White – can be found here
David can be found on Twitter @historycalled