Wednesday, October 3, 1979
|7:30 p.m.||The Brighton School (1895-1907) & Pioneers of British Film|
Presented in Association with the National Film Archives, England, Courtesy of the British Film Institute
Tonight’s program is roughly 2-1/2 hours of films averaging one minute in length, made in Britain between the years 1895 and 1907. All the prints are 35mm, made off of original material deposited in the National Film Archives, England, and we are very grateful to the British Film Institute, National Film Archives and FIAF (Federation of International Film Archives) for permission to show these extremely rare films in their original versions. It is unlikely that any of these films have been seen in the U.S. since the first decade of this century. We know, for instance, that the American Biograph Company copied a Brighton School film by G.A. Smith, changing the name from Grandma’s Reading Glasses to Grandpa’s Reading Glasses. Smith’s film dates from 1900; the Biograph film was made two years later. Between 1903 and 1905, Biograph imported many British films, as well.
We wish to thank Stephen Dwoskin for the selection of and research on these films, and John Barnes, author of the forthcoming book, “The Beginnings of the Cinema in England” (Vol.2), for his documentation on the Brighton School, which was presented in a paper at the 34th Annual Congress of FIAF in 1978.
The Brighton School
Out of the great number of films made in Britain between the years 1895 and 1907, the most prolific and influential were the group of filmmakers known as “The Brighton School.” Though it is noted there were four major filmmakers working in this seaside resort area of Britain, only George Albert Smith and James Williamson seemed to have made significant and influential developments in the new medium. (The other two, of whose work these is little record, were Alfred Darling and Esme Collings.) Both Smith and Williamson were still photographers as well as manufacturers of photographic equipment. Their shift to “moving stills” was a natural one, but apart from merely making films, they developed, designed, built and eventually sold machines for the practice and perfection of cinematography.
What now appears, in retrospect, to be the more interesting aspect of the “Brighton School” was their capacity to make a wide range of films without, at least in the beginning, any outside influence. G.A. Smith, for example, bought a huge house with a “fair amount of land” in the village of Hove, a suburb of Brighton, where he built a film studio. Williamson, whose business was already based in Hove, also built a studio, and both of them became so involved in the perfection of the motion picture that they designed and built their studios so as to accommodate the meager light source in England, and Smith went as far as to say that film should be made only in the Spring and Summer months.
In the beginning, they used their own families and a few friends as “actors,” though later they did employ local professionals. For the most part their films could be classified as dramas, comedies and “actualities” (real events and actions). With the completion of their studios, they were able to develop further the dramas and comedies, painting and structuring quite detailed sets and backdrops which were combined with “real” objects. Here began the film melodrama. They also began to “edit” and color tint their films, as well as to explore “trick” photography to enhance their narratives. Seldom did they make films longer than 75 feet (about a minute) until after 1900 when they were able to extend them to 2-4 minutes. Nevertheless, into this short time they were able to compress a wide variety of strikingly expressive dramas, comedies and actualities, making use of multiple scenes and shots. Though Smith and Williamson had their own distinct “styles,” they did exchange material, notes, equipment and even their films, all of which conributed to the elaboration of their work.
As for the exhibition of their early films, much of this occurred within private showings, and later through the existence of private clubs, most of which were “photographic societies” of which they were members. The “photographic societies” evolved into “cinematographic societies” (which still exist in Britain, and have a strong influence today on independent filmmaking). The filmmakers also sold their films, as well as the equipment which they manufactured, to private individuals, film societies and eventually to the London-based trading companies. (The Warwick Trading Company was the one most involved with the distribution of the works of the “Brighton filmmakers.”) Still, in the end, both Smith and Williamson, with their scientific bent, made more from their machines and inventions (particularly in the case of Williamson), and in the later years (1906/7) their actual filmmaking increasingly gave way to their scientific pursuits.
Pioneers of British Film
The second part of tonight’s program is a survey of early British cinema, including works by the “Brighton School” as well as by London and Sheffield filmmakers: Robert Paul, Cecil Hepworth and Walter Hagger. Compiled by the National Film Archives in England, through the British Film Institute, this selection (all 35mm and color tinted!) covers the years 1896-1907, and expresses a wide range of film explorations in both subject matter and approach. Apart from the sheer delight in being able to see these rare early films, one can experience and rediscover the freshness of and exploration in these pioneering works.
Probably one of the more interesting aspects of the early British films was their primary concern with the clarity and visual possibilities of cinematography itself. In the effort to improve equipment and technology of cinema, a wide range of film material was explored; sometimes stories and themes were repeated in the constant effort to refine technique. Most popular with the British public were the “actualities” (what we now of course call documentaries, and always a significant aspect of British cinema), but we also find one of the first serials, The Life of Charles Peace by Walter Hagger, dated 1905. There are further developments with animation and “trick” films in Robert Paul’s The Motorist (1905) and the forerunner to the Lassie film dramas in Cecil Hepworth’s Rescued by Rover (1905).
Regardless of style or subject, the films cannot help but be unique in another way - they were/are British! The social, political and class concerns come across continually, adding a greater dimension to these already interesting films. And this in spite of the interchange of films between countries: For example, G.A. Smith of Brighton is supposed to have collaborated with Georges Melies of France in 1902 on a newsreel of The Coronation of King Edward VII. The Coronation took place in London where it was presumably shot, but the film was completed in Paris under British supervision! Between 1896 and 1907, British filmmaking was certainly as vital as French and American filmmaking.