In July 2000, over 800 well-preserved reels of camera negatives dating from the first years of the twentieth century were donated to the British Film Institute, marking a pivotal moment in the study of early British cinema. The films are the work of Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon, a photographic manufacturer and a furniture dealer respectively, who formed one of the earliest film production outfits in Britain. Based in Blackburn, Mitchell & Kenyon produced a range of films – fiction, documentary footage, historical re-enactments – across northern England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland from 1900 to 1913, often as commissions for Britain’s first professional film exhibitors. This major acquisition (which increased the National Film & Television Archive’s holdings from the period by 20%) provides an unprecedented opportunity to reconsider film production of the period. Some of the issues are discussed in this new collection of essays by film scholars, archivists and historians.
The book is structured in three sections: the first provides background information on early film production and technology, and describes the collection’s acquisition and restoration; the second considers the social and cultural contexts of the films’ production; and the third examines ways in which the films might cause us to rethink our impressions of life in Britain during the early 1900s.
Among the pieces in the first section, Patrick Russell provides a fascinating look at the process of restoring and archiving the film reels. Alongside interesting asides on having to reengineer equipment to reprint the ancient film stock, Russell shows how consideration of complex issues such as the potential users of the collection, intellectual ownership, and above all the way in which contemporary viewers would have experienced the films affect the choices made in preserving and re-exhibiting the films. Demolishing the simplistic idea that archivists merely house items in boxes in darkened rooms, Russell’s essay is an excellent primer on what archiving is, and what it is for.
As part of the context section, Tom Gunning provides an illuminating comparison of the class-consciousness of the Mitchell & Kenyon films and those of the brothers Lumière. Mitchell & Kenyon’s films of workers leaving their factories were made to attract those very workers to local film shows with the possibility of spotting themselves on the screen. During filming, the crowds are visibly directed by either the filmmakers or the commissioning exhibitor and encouraged to interact with the camera. This stands in marked contrast to the Lumière factory films which were filmed fairly surreptitiously and screened mainly to photographic enthusiasts ‘in order to demonstrate the success of the latest Lumière photographic experiment, for which the workers were guinea pigs, rather than the intended audience.’ This observation brings into question the entire understanding of the birth of commercial cinema in Britain in relation to other countries. The sheer number of these films in the Mitchell & Kenyon collection – a total of ninety-nine – allows us to see the deeper trends in the production of this type of film, showing the deliberate shot construction involved, and elevating it to a properly understood genre of early filmmaking.
Reading the films from a modern perspective reveals many intriguing parallels with the present. Many of the most interesting observations concern the already well-developed use of films as an opportunity for advertising. In a piece about films Mitchell & Kenyon made of football matches, David Russell observes that the use of pitch-side advertising hoardings was already well-established, indicating that advertisers had been tipped off to the presence of film cameras. In his entertaining chapter, Russell also notes several amusing examples of on-field footballing etiquette, such as goalkeepers’ reluctance to catch the ball for fear of being (legally) barged into the goal, and the polite and uncomplaining way players responded to being violently fouled. The Welsh film historian Dave Berry spots perhaps the first football injury to be captured on film when an Irish striker collides with a goalpost in the film Wales v. Ireland at Wrexham (1906). Pieces of trivia such as these enliven what could otherwise be a fairly dry discussion.
Another striking parallel with today is in the faked footage Mitchell & Kenyon produced of the Boer War and Boxer Rebellion. Rather than celebrating the courage of the Brits, the Boer War films more often portray the ruthless conduct of the enemy in titles such as Poisoning The Well and Shelling The Red Cross Camp. Given our modern awareness of war crimes, these titles have a remarkable familiarity about them. Similarly, though they reveal much technological and social detail, such as proving that women did ride on the top deck of buses, the two articles about transport in the Mitchell & Kenyon films tend to focus more on the way northern urban environments have changed over the 100 years since the films were made, perhaps surprisingly concluding that change has in fact been minimal.
The best of these, a philosophical contemplation by filmmaker Patrick Keiller of representations of space in the films, neatly sums up the films’ tendency to reveal such rich and unexpected detail: ‘The images of early film are…less likely to direct the viewer’s attention to a single subject in the frame: one’s eye can more easily wander in their spaces and because of this, they invite (or even require) repeated viewing.’ Of course this highlights the main drawback of the book: its inability to present the moving images to the reader in conjunction with the text; and one criticism that can be made is that the stills included are placed into the text rather randomly and sometimes inappropriately. The book will be best enjoyed alongside the BBC documentary series about the films to be broadcast early next year, but has much to recommend it in itself.