Any fan of early cinema will be familiar with Hove’s pioneering history of early film-making and film makers. They may have even heard of George Albert Smith, the showman and early film maker who bought the town’s St Ann’s Well Gardens and turned its pump house into a film studio where he made films that introduced such innovative techniques as close-ups and wipes to signify scene changes. Not so many people have heard of his wife, however, or know of the significant contribution she made to early film and Smith’s success.
Ramsgate born Laura Bayley (1862 – 1938) was already a successful actress before she met Smith. Alongside her three sisters, with whom she often performed in Brighton, she specialised in light entertainment, particularly revues, burlesques and pantomimes. Programmes for the Aquarium Theatre near Brighton’s Palace Pier show her filling leading roles in many shows. The programme for ‘Little Bo Peep’, the ‘grand Christmas pantomime’ of 1893, for example, has her at the top of the bill as ‘Boy Blue’. In 1894 her Robin Hood in ‘Babes in the Wood’ was described by the Brighton Herald as ‘distinctly comely and cheery’.
It’s not clear how Laura met Smith, although, as he often trod the boards as a stage hypnotist and illusionist, they must have moved in the same circles. The couple married in 1888 and lived in Hove just before Smith took over the lease for St Ann’s Well Gardens, which he ran as a pleasure garden as well as using for his experiments in early film. Laura took on the lead role in a great many of Smith’s first short productions, such as ‘Hanging Out the Clothes’ (1897), ‘Santa Claus’ (1898), ‘Cinderella’ (1898) and ‘Let Me Dream Again’ (1900). Although today, Smith carries the acclaim for these pioneering films, as today’s viewers would agree, it’s doubtful that they would have made such an impact without Laura’s formidable talent and her knack, honed from her long stage career, of knowing exactly what an audience wants.
In ‘The Kiss in the Tunnel’ (1899), a one minute, three seconds long short of a couple on a train grabbing a kiss as it goes through a tunnel, it’s Laura’s slightly exaggerated body language and sense of mischief that has the viewer hooked.
In ‘Mary Jane’s Mishap’ (1903), a gripping and darkly comic four minute tale of a maid who (spoiler alert) lights the stove with paraffin to disastrous consequences, Laura’s unselfconscious performance, boot polish smeared on her face and hair messed up, delves into slapstick and manages single-handedly to rein the story in before it becomes out and out tragedy. Her charisma, energy, and comic timing are the stuff of the best stand-up comedy routine.
Would it be far fetched to say that Hove’s Laura Bayley could be described as Britain’s first female screen comedian?
Not only did Laura help to cement her husband’s name in the history of early cinema by making them cackle into life as his films’ leading actress but it’s acknowledged today that she’s more than likely a major player herself. Who better to advise Smith on visual comedy and audience expectation? Today, she’s also thought to have helped Smith on technical issues too, taking an uncredited directing role on many of his works and supervising some of his comic shorts. She’s also known to have taken a leading role in making short films on the ‘Biokam’, an early home camera and projector, which she sold. Today many people still debate whether women can truly be funny. As early as the turn of the twentieth century Laura Bayley was giving early proof that they certainly can, while flying the flag for women’s activity in film both in front of and behind the camera.
Written by Louise Peskett