Super 8 – a bit of family history

The Elmo Super 8 camera is a thing of beauty. Cased in black with chrome accents, it carries its weight elegantly and the pistol grip nestles comfortably in the hand. It also smells wonderfully of old camera equipment.

I unearthed this camera in my father’s loft one bank holiday. Looking for something else, I found a locked camera case and, being me, forced it open. After replacing the 17 year old batteries, everything appeared to be in perfect working order. My father is a dog in the manger type and is highly unlikely to simply give anything away, even when it is something that clearly has remained untouched and forgotten about for at least 2 decades. So I did not bother to ask if I could have the camera, I simply took it.

I also delved around and found dozens of old Super and Standard 8 film reels, some still sealed in the packaging from the developer’s – they had never been viewed. Some of these had been made by my maternal grandfather, and others by my parents. Whilst some had sound, and I also dug up a sound projector, the bulb had gone and so although I could hear ghostly voices coming from the reel, there was no vision. Modern S8 films never have sound – this was produced by gluing a strip of audio tape to the film but apparently the glue used did not meet modern environmental regulations.

Super 8 has the ability to add instant nostalgia and once you know what you’re looking at, it’s still everywhere. Documentaries and music videos use a surprising amount of it, and even brand new S8 film, shot barely weeks ago, gives everything the patina of age and the disturbing feeling that everyone in the film is long dead.

Of course, when watching something that is nearly 40 years old, that’s usually true. My parents’ wedding, filmed by my grandfather in Standard 8, is a case in point. Although my mother and father are the focus, occasionally there are glimpses of my grandmother. I was curious about this and delved further into the reels of film.

There are probably kilometres of film (each S8 reel lasts for about 3-4 minutes) shot by my grandfather of his primulas, the yearly carnival in the Cumbrian town of Cleator Moor where he lived, tractors ploughing fields, dogs playing in ponds, nestlings in hedgerows and children I do not recognise in Wellingtons. There are no notes or any sort of index indicating when the films were shot, where, or who the children are. They are of course silent on the subject themselves.

There are also short but incredibly strange experimental movies, including a stop-motion animation sequence called DALEKS, where it becomes clear that my grandfather had read about Daleks but had never actually seen one, and Circus.

Circus is the strangest and most disturbing film in the collection. It is nearly 10 minutes long and features a hastily painted circus ring set, and various caterpillars walking tightropes and swinging unwillingly from makeshift trapezes. An agonisingly long section shows one caterpillar trapped in a jar with a spider, perhaps in a lion-taming attempt. Ultimately the caterpillar skewers itself on one of the spider’s legs.

In some of the films, my mother and grandmother are present, but they drift in and out of the frame, as if they have just got in the way whilst my grandfather was setting up another tedious shot of his prize primulas. In total there is probably less than a minute’s worth of film of my grandmother, who died in late 2008 at the age of 93.

I asked my father about all this. The camera, worth £200 new in the early 1970s and still selling for over a hundred pounds on Ebay (when you can easily pick up a second hand S8 for less than £20), was my grandfather’s and the source of much friction. He suffered from a stroke in the 1960s and had to pack in managing the cinema, so my grandmother supported the family by taking a menial job in a zip factory. They did not have a great deal of money, and this camera cost the equivalent of over £1,000 in today’s money. Each reel of film cost the same now as it did then: £10. A film like Circus, consisting of four or five reels spliced togther, would have set him back over £50 in film and developing costs. Even today this is not inconsiderable, and he spent a lot on film. What is perhaps most poignant is that, like a lot of men, my grandfather liked to have the kit and to mess about with it, but lacked the patience to learn the techniques properly. The films are slapdash. My parents’ wedding film has a long section during the reception where barely anything can be seen because of the poor light. The Elmo has a good light meter allowing the operator to establish, before exposing one frame, whether the light is sufficient, but he obviously had not bothered to check this.

My grandmother was understandably irritated at her husband’s expensive hobby, but having been brought up to grin and bear it, and never to complain, simply put up with it. She also, it turned out, put up with her husband’s other hobby. He had a second family in another town. Whether the woman involved was actually his mistress or just a close friend, and whether the children he had filmed endlessly with his camera were actually his or not will never be known. However, my grandmother knew perfectly well that her husband would take them out on day trips to Blackpool and the like, and would disappear overnight from time to time.

This accounts for her refusal to appear, except ephemerally, in any of the films. My mother, too, appears occasionally but only to help him use up the last few feet of film before getting it developed.

When my grandfather (a man I barely remember myself) died in the early 1980s, my grandmother gave the camera to my father for safekeeping along with all the films. She said she never wanted to see any of the films or the camera again as they were associated with too many bitter memories: of being ignored while her husband industriously filmed garden plants rather than his only daughter; of being left to slog out long hours in a factory while he tormented caterpillars for his art; and being passed over in favour of another woman.

My father used the camera occasionally: most frequently to film his offspring cavorting naked in the back garden in the kind of films you get arrested for nowadays.

Mr Trellis has now adopted the camera for his own. We have a slowly increasing pile of reels featuring me, our cats, friends and family.

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