Breaking the Sound Barrier: Women Sounding Out in British and Irish Film & Television
(Organised by the Women’s Film & Television History Network UK/Ireland, held at the BFI Southbank and supported by MeCCSA Women’s Media Studies Network)
Breaking the Sound Barrier, a WFTHN event held at the BFI in June 2016, followed the tradition of unearthing women’s contribution to cinema by bringing together film scholars, researchers, and practitioners whose passionate engagement with film culture brought to life this key aspect of women’s film history. It continued to question how parts of film historiography do not necessarily become part of the film canon. The event was organised in celebration of the network’s 10-year anniversary and was dedicated to highlighting film research into women’s work in sound media and the work they have produced. The whole day emphasised how sound constitutes a rich, if sometimes overlooked, area of study. The event could be described as a constellation of personal and professional perspectives: including illustrated presentations, a lively round table discussion with the audience, and concluding with special film screenings from the silent and sound periods of British film and television.
The presentations opened with a historical overview of the transition from silent to sound film by Senior Lecturer in Film Studies, Laraine Porter, who offered a very concise perspective on the transition to sound in the industry, a moment in which control passed to male technicians.[i]
Film historian Melanie Bell[ii] continued this historical perspective, sharing her work in progress on women filmmakers and women sound operatives. Notable amongst these careers was that of industry-acclaimed Foley artist Beryl Mortimer – ‘Beryl the Boots.’[iii]
Emma Sandon offered an enlightening presentation on the work of idiosyncratic and independent woman music composer, Elisabeth Lutyens, demonstrating the diversity of her work including for The Boy Kumasenu (1952), set in Ghana[iv] and The Skull (1965) whose popular soundscape earned her the name of ‘Horror Queen’.
David Butler of Manchester University, where the Delia Derbyshire Archive is based[v], offered insightful notes into this radical sound designer and composer of the 1960s, who pioneered developments at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and was the creator of the iconic Doctor Who theme. A special touch was the screening of For Delia (2016), a visual response to her work by artist Mary Stark, accompanied by a collage of Derbyshire’s own music and sound effects produced between 1966-1968.[vi]
The afternoon saw a shift to more personal accounts of women engaging practically with sound from the 1970s to more recent contexts. Terry Wragg described ‘how we learnt to do sound for ourselves’ as a founder member of Leeds Animation Workshop. Both early and late works resonated with the audience, from Pretend You’ll Survive (1981) and the most recent work They Call Us Maids (2015) which narrates the real-life stories of migrant women from economically disadvantaged backgrounds who become maids in the host countries.
Sound editor Adèle Fletcher elaborated on her own more contemporary experience in the film industry, noting a gender divide whereby sound effects work tends to attract male technicians whereas dialogue attracts female sound editors. Judi Lee-Headman, who has been working as a production sound mixer for three decades, explained how it was the technology itself which attracted her and gave a fascinating insight into current challenges involved in working live and on-set.
There followed a round table discussion with experts, chaired by Bryony Dixon of the National Film and Television Archives (NFTVA), in which the audience engaged in a lively Q&A session focusing particularly on questions relating to the prioritization of the visual over sound in study and considered whether the interplay between sound and image could be a means of exploring gendered subjectivity further. The event concluded with the screening of four films by women directors – Beatrice Gilman, Jill Craigie, Joanna Davis, and Sally Potter – introduced by Angela Martin.
The network was especially pleased to host the premiere of Catherine Grant’s film essay: The Secret Thoughts of Laura Jesson (As Voiced by Celia Johnson) a haunting critical imagining of Brief Encounter’s innermost voice.
The event was staged with the support of the MeCCSA Women’s Media Studies Network, AMPS, and the University of Sunderland. We owe our special thanks to the BFI and to the organisers: Lee-Jane Benion-Nixon, Elaine Burrows, Christine Gledhill, Deborah Jermyn, Janet McCabe, Angela Martin, and Emma Sandon.
Fjoralba Miraka is a PhD candidate at Roehampton University of London in the Department of Media, Culture and Language. Her Research focuses on the Hollywood Renaissance period of the late 1960s-mid 1970s. She holds and MA degree in American Literature and Culture and a BA in English Language and Philology, both from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Since 2014 she has been presenting at international conferences, in 2016 she offered two guest lectures at the University of Connecticut in London (UCONN), and she is interested in supporting feminist projects such as the FiLia exhibition in December 2016.
[i] Laraine Porter is currently working on the AHRC -funded project: ‘British Silent Cinema and the Transition to Sound.’
[ii] See: Melanie Bell and Vicky Ball’s AHRC-funded research project on women in British Film and TV from 1933 to 1989.
[iv] See Emma Sandon’s journal article: ‘Cinema and Highlife in the Gold Coast: The Boy Kumasenu (1952)’ in Journal of African Studies, 2013, 39 (3)
[v] See the celebration Delia Derbyshire Day, held at HOME in Manchester.