The 5th May 2021, marked exactly 100 years since William Friese-Greene died. Since then, he’s pretty much spent a third of the time raised up on a pedestal and the rest of it crushed under one. I’m hoping that what’s been happening to commemorate this centenary will point the way to a fresh perspective (details at end of post).
I blame the way he died. In 1921, at 65 years old, impoverished and living in one room, by rights he should have passed away forgotten and alone, perhaps remembered by a handful of folks. Instead, he decided to attend a fiery meeting of film distributors, where – since he couldn’t be heard from where he was sitting – he was invited up to the front to speak, where he “put in an eloquent plea for co-operation and co-ordination. He begged the renters not to insist on the withdrawal of the resolutions, but to endeavour to work in unity the one with the other”. So said the minutes reprinted in The Bioscope, a film trade paper. Another, The Kinematograph Weekly, described what happened next, “It was immediately after this speech that Mr Friese-Greene collapsed, and after he had been assisted from the hall it was announced that he had passed away.”
It was said that all the money they found on him was ten shillings and sixpence in an old purse (that’s 53p to you). As I recount in an interview for Bristol Ideas, I assumed this was just a sentimental myth, until one day I unexpectedly found myself holding that purse and those coins in my hand.
And so it was, that a burgeoning film industry that would have happily had Friese-Greene peg it in some obscure corner of London and carry on without batting an eyelid, instead went into a convulsion of grief and idolisation – with Will Day, a well-liked industry figure and collector of film history, as the High Priest of this new-born cult.
As Robert Donat put it, who played Friese-Greene on screen, the man was “acknowledged as only the Film Business seems able to acknowledge anything big – loudly, vehemently and vulgarly.” It was an impressive funeral, with the streets of London lined with the curious and a two-minute silence in the nation’s cinemas (although many audience members were likely baffled by why the screen had gone dark). Most eye-catching in the procession was what was atop the hearse: a structure representing a film projector, covered in flowers, pointing at a screen of white everlastings, where the words THE END were picked out in purple blooms.
It was this image that burnt itself into the memory of a Northern Irish girl, Muriel M’Coach, who saw it on Regent St., whilst over from Belfast with her mother on a shopping trip. During the Second World War, now married and working as a journalist for women’s magazines, she began researching the story behind it, tracking down living relatives and people who had worked with him, gathering personal letters and photographs.
In 1948 she published FRIESE-GREENE – Close-Up of an Inventor under the pen name ‘Ray Allister’. The book was strong on depicting his character and personal life, but weak on technical detail and historical accuracy, and included imaginary conversations. It was moderately well received, not a hit. But when an idea was being sought to be the film industry’s contribution to the upcoming Festival of Britain – that post-war, morale-boosting celebration of British talent – someone saw this as the ideal story.
The popular novelist and screenwriter, Eric Ambler, was employed to come up with a script, that shifted back and forth in time. Sixty well-known actors were persuaded to work for a standard rate, filling in a host of cameos – most notably Laurence Olivier as a policeman who shows up at a key moment – and Robert Donat was well cast as William Friese-Greene himself. Titled by Ambler ‘The Shining Light’, the producers unwisely jumped to ‘A Man Called Willie Green’ before derision led to the much-improved moniker of ‘The Magic Box’. Despite having quality written all over it and some decent reviews, the film too was not a hit. The thing is that, like Friese-Greene’s life, it was quite long, rather unpredictable, and ultimately very sad.
A monument on Friese-Greene’s grave in Highgate Cemetery calls him “THE INVENTOR OF KINEMATOGRAPHY” and his supporters even went so far as to carve in stone the number of his first moving picture patent – which they got wrong. The makers of the film, however, went out of their way to avoid doing any such thing, even going so far as to put dedications in the film’s titles which praised other inventors more highly – namely Edison, Marey, Le Prince and Lumière. But this wasn’t good enough for some, who viewed the film as part of an offensive, jingoistic attempt to elevate Friese-Greene to the status of a British hero – which was a fair description of what Will Day had previously done.
A 24-year-old, Brian Coe, who had recently started working for Kodak’s research department, decided to go on the offensive in tandem with his boss, Rolf Schultze. Coe and Schultze intervened wherever commemorations were planned to say that it was wrong that Friese-Greene should be celebrated. True, some of these plans were muddled and historically inaccurate, but it is a strange thing for a company like Kodak to become engaged in. They claimed to have tested out Friese-Greene’s patent and proved that it didn’t work. They told this to the British Film Institute, who then backed efforts to shut down celebrations. However, I have traced the nature of their ‘proof’ and found their claim to be false.
Then came the bombshell. In the week of what would have been the 1955 centenary of Friese-Greene’s birth, Coe published “The Truth About Friese-Greene” in the British Journal of Photography. It said, in essence, that Friese-Greene was a scientific incompetent who relied on other people’s ideas, sometimes stealing these and claiming them as his own, and therefore could not be considered to have made any contribution whatsoever to the development of motion pictures.
Over time, Coe expanded on these claims and re-iterated them across multiple publications. The last time he did so, he was 61 years old and had not changed his ideas one jot from his younger days. If anything, they had become more hardened and negative. Brian Coe did a lot of great work to popularise the history of photography and the moving image – becoming the Curator of the Kodak Museum, then of the Royal Photographic Society and later a key part of the team at the sorely-missed Museum of the Moving Image. As a consequence of his prominence, and being well-liked, his opinions about Friese-Greene went unchallenged, even after his death in 2007.
Nonetheless, I have spent far more time than Brian Coe ever did investigating the work of William Friese-Greene, without an axe to grind to portray Friese-Greene as a hero or villain. I have found Coe’s research to be riddled from top to bottom with errors, misleading statements and confirmation bias (i.e., you only look for the things that appear to confirm the opinion you already have). Although this kind of work was once acceptable, it appals me that modern researchers are still referencing it.
With the entire length of William Friese-Greene’s life having passed, during which film historians have generally treated Brian Coe’s version as fact, I felt that the centenary of his death is an appropriate time for a reassessment. So, having been this critical of both sides, what am I doing to try and get a more balanced view?
Well, starting in September, I have secured funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to undertake a PhD about the work of William Friese-Greene. As part of that, I hope to shoot films with accurate replicas of the early Friese-Greene cameras to get a clearer idea of the issues involved and what was – or was not – achievable. My supervisor at De Montfort University will be the wonderful Laraine Porter, who co-curates the British Silent Film Festival, ably abetted by early film specialist Jon Burrows at Warwick University as my secondary supervisor, with the phenomenally knowledgeable Stephen Herbert, who worked closely with Brian Coe, to oversee the technological aspects (and no doubt ask me lot of very difficult questions).
On Sunday I was frankly stunned to discover that an interview I had done with a journalist about the Friese-Greene centenary, organised by Bristol Ideas, had become a full page in the news section of The Observer. I need to be clear that I did not, never have and never would use the headline’s expression “true father of cinema” to describe Friese-Greene, as that is an absurd epithet to apply to any moving picture pioneer. However, I don’t get to decide headlines and neither do journalists in general – the writer, Vanessa Thorpe, was pretty scrupulous in not putting words in my mouth. But the rest of it is mostly correct and I’m incredibly pleased she took such an interest and lobbied to have the story included.
Then, as I mentioned, if you’re interested to know more about Friese-Greene’s life, The Magic Box and the work of his cinematographer son Claude, there is an interview about him I recorded for Bristol Ideas. And on the night of 5th May I took part in a live online event organised by the silent-film-loving Kennington Bioscope for the Cinema Museum, hosted by Nick Hiley, where I am spoke alongside the afore-mentioned Stephen Herbert and Prof. Ian Christie. Both are free to access.
So, if you want to find out more about William Friese-Greene – or even have a good argument about him – you couldn’t pick a better week.
Got a question or something to tell me? Go ahead: