The opening credits fade to black. A hand, shot in black and white, crackles into view.
It posts an envelope through a letterbox, below a plaque which reads ‘Town and Country Planning Offices’.
The action cuts to a skeleton of scaffolding and wooden beams, with builders dressed in jackets and braces laying bricks, mixing concrete and nailing wood together.
The fruit of their labour is revealed, and the camera pans to a sign above the now-complete building. It reads ‘City of Portsmouth Education Committee Community Centre’, which could be found on Twyford Avenue.
Later, a train thunders across the screen, pistons pumping and wheels spinning. It pulls into Portsmouth and Southsea station and from its funnel rises wisps of steam which blend into the face of a young girl, who opens the door of her carriage and walks down the platform dressed in a trench coat.
She is on her way to the community centre to realise her dream of becoming a concert pianist – a dream also shared by the actress playing her.
We have to find the film, otherwise all the work from the people involved is lost forever. It is a valuable historical record of PortsmouthPaul Bennett
Marjorie Scrase was sixteen when she was approached by Laurie Upton to star in his film Beginning at the Centre, which was screened around the country in 1948 and gave Marjorie a taste of stardom.
Years passed and Marjorie got married and raised her children on Hayling Island, where she still lives. Her last contact with the film was an outtakes reel, gifted to her by Upton in the eighties.
Two years ago her son Paul Bennett embarked on a quest to find the original, which has put him in contact with film laboratories, academics, lip readers and a German television broadcaster.
On the way Paul has discovered news cuttings about the film, dating from 1947 and 1954, which led him to his biggest find yet – the almost-complete filmreel without sound, which was found in the Wessex Film and Sound Archive.
The 46-year-old, who now lives in Singapore, is calling for people to help him in his search before it is too late.
He says: You can’t buy this film on Amazon, you can’t find it on the Internet – it doesn’t exist. It is in a canister somewhere, and it has got to be saved. This acetate film is potentially flammable, it could deteriorate or combust.
‘We have to find the film, otherwise all the work from the people involved is lost forever. It is a valuable historical record of Portsmouth.’
Paul also has a personal investment in the film as a family heirloom.
‘Mum is 85 now – this is her starring role.’
Marjorie remembers her opening scene being far less effortless than the final result. She says: ‘You had to have all the patience because Laurie was so slow – he had to be thorough and get it just right. That scene where I was getting off the train we did so many takes.’
‘Laurie was renowned for being a perfectionist. He didn’t mind how much time he spent. In fact, we wondered when is he at home, because he was either at the community centre doing this film, or he was at work. He really was devoted to this business of filming.’
Beginning at the Centre was the first film made by former newsreel cameraman Laurie, then 32, and his Cameo Film production unit, and documented the activities available at the newly-opened Twyford Community Centre – one of the first in the country.
These included weekly dances, chess, darts and bodybuilding – all of which can be seen in the film.
The cast were made up of members of the community centre, including Robert McNair, a Chief Petty Officer stationed at Lee-on-the-Solent, Joyce Cordell and Marjorie herself. She said she was 19 so she could join the centre – which was for those aged 18 and older – and get a film role.
Alfred Stanbrook, then 21, was also in the cast. He plays Marjorie’s musical mentor in the film and dubbed the music that Marjorie plays during the concert at the film’s climax.
He also composed a piano concerto, entitled ‘Smitten City’, for the film’s soundtrack, named after the book written by the Portsmouth Evening News in 1945 about the blitz.
Unfortunately, Alfred’s musical contribution to the film has been lost. It was recorded separately at the now-dissolved Southern Counties Recording Company, along with the rest of the soundtrack.
Paul says: ‘We want the film with all its sound because that means so much. We want to hear the piano concerto being played, we want to hear the piano when Mum is playing.’
Because of her son’s investigations, Marjorie has been able to watch the film for the first time in decades. Paul starts playing a copy on Marjorie’s television, and the memories come back.
‘I’m amazed actually because now I’m rather shy, yet that was me,’ she says.
‘I know in those days lots of girls went for beauty contests and I didn’t bother with that but I did enjoy being onstage, I loved the amateur dramatics.’
The train thunders past, and suddenly Marjorie sees her younger self reflected in the television screen.
She cringes at the trench coat she wore, and notes the hairstyles of the young girls – ‘they have all got their hair long like the film stars,’ she says.
During the concert scene, in which she is dressed to the nines, she recalls she wore an old bridesmaids dress. The camera picks up Marjorie’s fingers, which skip dextrously across the keys, but the only people who can hear the music they make are the rows of heads at the bottom of the screen.
The applause is muted – but one day Marjorie and Paul will be able to hear why her starring role was so well received.
Two years ago, Paul decided to search for the original film, and contacted many historians, academics and film archives in England and Germany.
He says: ‘One of the first people I contacted was Sandra Smith at the Kings Theatre, since Laurie Upton worked there. Their archivist Tony Young then found a Portsmouth Evening News article from 1947 describing the film. With this article I was then able to track down many of the relatives of the cast and crew, who I keep updated with the search.’
One such relative is the daughter of Cyril Winsor, who was the warden of the community centre and appeared in the film. Marjorie says: ‘She remembers spending a lot of her time there. If her mother was shopping or anything she used to dump her and her sister there because she knew they would be looked after and would enjoy themselves.’
Shortly after finding the newspaper article, the Wessex Film and Sound Archive informed Paul that a copy of the film had been recovered from Laurie Upton’s house when he died in 2010 but it was missing sound.
‘I was elated, over the moon,’ he says. ‘I was desperate to see the film, and I was back in Singapore and we had it shipped over. Every day I was waiting for it to arrive, and when I watched it my jaw just dropped.’
To overcome this next challenge, Paul asked for the help of some professional lip-readers, in particular Gloria McGregor, owner of lipreadingpractice.co.uk.
‘I got the idea because films from the First World War are deciphered using lip readers,’ he says.
From a letter written by Laurie Upton to Marjorie, enclosed with the outtakes reel, Paul realised the Wessex copy is also missing bomb damage scenes of Portsmouth.
According to Laurie, these scenes were used in a 1969 West German TV documentary due to their historical importance.
Through research, Paul worked out that the scenes were used in ‘Englands Kriegshafen. Portsmouth in Krieg und Frieden’, directed by Paul Anderson and Christian Herrendoerfer, which was shown by German broadcasters ARD at 9pm on September 25, 1969.
Paul says: ‘I contacted ARD in case they had kept a copy of Laurie’s film but they couldn’t find it. Laurie said that the German TV company even privately screened the Portsmouth film at the ODEON, probably around 1970.’
If you have any information about Beginning at the Centre, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Video supplied courtesy of the Wessex Film and Sound Archive. For more information about their work visit www3.hants.gov.uk/wfsa.htm