Composer Lillian Henley tunes into women’s rights to score a film compilation documenting women’s fight for suffrage
Make More Noise! Suffragettes in Silent Film is a new archival compilation from the BFI featuring footage of women from the earliest days of film. It combines suffrage marches with comedies, and scenes of oppression with moments of empowerment.
Lillian Henley composed the music to accompany the silent footage. Here, she reflects on her experience of scoring the collection, as sexism in the film industry – and in everyday life – comes under increasing public scrutiny.
I had lots of ideas about what Make More Noise! might be. When I first saw the films, I found them incredibly rich. There’s a lot of playfulness and poking fun, but also the complete opposite: the horrific scene of the 1913 Derby, in which Emily Davison runs in front of the King’s horse.
At first, I thought I’d make the score very experimental, digital and perhaps a bit punky. But the majority of the films are so ‘loud’ visually that they just needed something simple. And, of course, piano and silent film go hand in hand.
Trafalgar Square Riot (1913)
The Suffragette Derby (1913) was a really hard film to work on. The first score I wrote for it was softer, more gentle and spacious, because I already knew the terrible nature of what happens in it. But eventually we thought we should follow what the cameras are actually doing: they don’t really notice the moment when Davison is crushed – they are just concerned with the race.
My research for the project took in Ethel Smyth, who wrote the suffrage anthem ‘March of the Women’ in 1910, but the main port of call was Emmeline Pankhurst’s autobiography My Own Story (1914). As she was at the forefront of the women’s movement (though not the only person), and because her voice is so strong and passionate, in the end I thought maybe I’d approached the films with a bit too much of her. I had to pull back and think ‘What’s actually happening in each one?’
You have to fill silent films with exciting melodies, but also avoid pastiche. I wanted to provide music that would honour the films and not just be generic accompaniment. The opening film, Scenes from Suffragette Demonstration at Newcastle (1909), and the end film, Tilly and the Fire Engines (1911), share a theme, to unite the collection.
Tilly and the Fire Engines (1911)
The Tilly sisters are really fun and rebellious. On the recording I felt I was playing faster each time because I was just getting carried away with feeling part of their gang – where nothing matters and you can stick your fingers up to the structures of society that you don’t agree with.
They were aspirational, and their message was about trying not to conform to society. They have such fun and charisma and are so uplifting. I wanted to claim that element with the music as much as possible.
I found some of the comedies unentertaining, but really important for viewers to see today. For instance, in Women’s Rights (1899) two gossiping women played by men are nailed by their skirts to a fence. It was a weird one to score. I thought it obviously had to be quite upbeat but I couldn’t help but use the lower end of the piano, to try and play out the rhythm of the film without saying ‘I agree with this.’
Coming from theatre (I am part of the theatre company 1927), as I watch more silent films I find it exciting to see what women were doing then. It’s been said that there were more women writers in the industry than they are now, but I don’t know whether you could say it was better then, because of the social reality.
I do remember seeing an incredible silent film called The Twelve Pound Look (1920) adapted from a JM Barrie story. A woman decides she’s unhappy with her husband, so becomes a typist. She doesn’t need a man to survive. It was quite forward thinking for its time, and other films were bold then, but they still presented this gaze from the male perspective, and the social reality of it all seeps in. We’re still trying to create a world where it’s not just about a woman having to play a certain role.
If there were more women working in film then, why has it gone back the other way? That’s a really worrying question. Geena Davis and Salma Hayek are speaking a lot about women in film now, and how the industry is renowned for being sexist. People trying to be more vocal is obviously a great thing.
Working on Make More Noise! has certainly made me think much more about my role as a woman. It would be great if it becomes part of the debate towards changes in gender equality. I love the title – it feels like an invitation to respond.
Make More Noise! Suffragettes in Silent Film is released by the BFI. Lillian Henley is a composer and performer. She an Associate Artist and regular composer for the award-winning theatre company, 1927. Find her on Twitter.