It’s been quite a year. No, I’m not referring to spike proteins and booster jabs and all that stuff. I am, of course, talking about the commemoration of the centenary of the death of William Friese-Greene.
On the centenary of his birth, in 1955, two opposing things happened. One group of people wished to hold him up as a Great British Hero, THE inventor of moving pictures – an epithet that no individual is entitled to. Another group were frustrated and annoyed by what they felt was embarrassing jingoism and mythologising, and sought to paint Friese-Greene as a figure of no importance, a scientific incompetent who stole other people’s ideas and claimed them for his own. Both groups cherry-picked whatever supported their beliefs and neither approach was helpful for developing a rounded picture of the man and his achievements.
Since then, the former view has tended to prevail in the public imagination, whilst the latter view has led academics to simply cease researching and consider the case closed. So, it seemed to me that since Friese-Greene was, in a sense, buried on the centenary of his birth, and now the length of his whole life had passed, perhaps the centenary of his death was a good moment for a more measured reassessment.
My interest in Friese-Greene stemmed from my twenty-plus years living in his home city of Bristol, so I raised the idea with various relevant organisations there, hoping to enthuse them. I couldn’t have wished for a better response. Several expressed interest, most notably Bristol Ideas, who put together a plan to use Friese-Greene as a starting point to look at film-making and film-going in the city since the first moving picture screening, 125 years previously, and they sought support from the Lottery Heritage Fund and the British Film Institute. I was overjoyed.
You know what happened next: normal life shut down, plans were thrown into disarray and funding applications were indefinitely postponed. But somehow, gradually, it all came together. As the May 5th date of his death approached, I suggested doing something to mark it. To my surprise, not only did Bristol Ideas do a one-hour interview, but this led to interest from The Observer, who then devoted a full page in the News Section about Friese-Greene and my research. Meanwhile, independent of all this, The Cinema Museum planned an entire evening’s event to reconsider Friese-Greene, which went out live on the Kennington Bioscope YouTube channel, with attendees from around the world.
From that point on the ball kept rolling right through the year. It was wonderful that over in Harwich people got excited about the significant period William Friese-Greene lived in Dovercourt, with local historians unearthing new information and an exhibition being staged about him – the only one in the country, in fact. I gave many talks, via the wonders of the internet, but it was particularly gratifying that by the year’s end, others were also doing so: including Toni Booth, the Curator of Film at the National Science and Media Museum, and Sir Christopher Frayling, speaking at the University of Lancaster, where he is a professor.
I must apologise for the relative lack of activity on this blog, but this is in part due to my activities for Bristol Ideas, which included writing an ongoing series of articles, more of which are coming in 2022, and contributing to a book they published (see links at bottom of page). Not only that, but 2021 proved to be the moment when, after three years of trying, I got funded to undertake a PhD about William Friese-Greene, which I have now begun at De Montfort University.
With so much going on, I thought I would compile the activities of this year, with links where available, both for your reference and for me to be reminded of in the future. It has been so much more than I dreamt of, when I first raised the idea. My heartfelt thanks to the many people around the country who worked to make it all happen.
FRIESE-GREENE EVENTS IN 2021
In February, Sight and Sound published my article reconsidering the origins of cinema, including Friese-Greene. This was followed by a blogpost which challenged the mythology around the Lumière brothers, and another providing a mini-chronology of the start of the film industry.
May 5th was the day William Friese-Greene died in extraordinary circumstances which sealed his reputation for better and worse. It was marked with a feature article in the Observer, which did a decent job of telling the story, then a sub-editor added a stupid headline, which contradicted what I had said. Oh well…
On the day of the centenary, The Cinema Museum and Kennington Bioscope staged a great online event in which I spoke alongside early film experts Nick Hiley, Ian Christie and Stephen Herbert. I also published my own thoughts on the significance of this anniversary.
Meanwhile, in his home city of Bristol, Andrew Kelly of Bristol Ideas interviewed me in detail about the man and his life. Despite Covid, some people gathered where a plaque to Friese-Greene was put up on the 1955 centenary of his birth. There’s a video of the event, including John Winstone speaking, whose father Reece had organised that plaque and other events. The subject was covered in The Bristol Magazine and, somewhat belatedly, BBC Points West put out an item about Friese-Greene on May 26th (not available).
In the world of academia, a group of early film historians gathered online for the Remapping Early British Cinema Symposium. I was invited to contribute and chose to talk about “The Dangers of Dogma: Untangling William Friese-Greene”, looking at how past attitudes had muddled our understanding of the man.
Late July and early August brought the wonderful Cinema Rediscovered festival, which survived Covid chaos to feature a series of Friese-Greene related events entitled Opening Up The Magic Box. This included some cinema walks (for details see book link at bottom), a screening with live music of The Open Road, Claude Friese-Greene’s early colour films of Britain, and there was a lively online discussion between cultural historian Christopher Frayling, Bryony Dixon – the BFI Curator of Silent Film, and myself.
Having been asked to promote these events on social media, I decided to make what can only be described as a very silly series of videos, which included a BBC-style mock trailer, a summary of the Friese-Greene controversy in 90 seconds, and a one-man restaging of the most famous scene from the Friese-Greene biopic, the Magic Box.
BBC Radio Bristol took an interest and I found myself being interviewed by Ali Vowles, who I worked with there in years gone by. A page also appeared on the BBC’s website, but was initially such a misleading mess that I complained, after which it improved somewhat.
The Harwich Festival was in September, and I was invited to give a talk by Laura Ager, the Education Officer of the project to restore the Electric Palace, one of the oldest surviving cinemas in the UK. They also mounted a great little exhibition about William Friese-Greene and his boom years, living in Dovercourt. In September I was also very pleased to be asked to give a talk for Highgate Cemetery, where William Friese-Greene is buried alongside many family members, with a monument that makes heroic claims for him. It was good to have a chance to tell the story of how all that came about.
As autumn arrived, I put out a two-part piece entitled “Friese-Greene: Protofeminist?” looking at his unconventional views regarding women (for the period) and how that manifested in his life. At the Festival of the Future City, I took part in an event about how to develop the film industry outside London, using Friese-Greene as a way in to talking about my own film-making experiences, trying to escape London-centrism, and reflecting on how things have changed.
Toni Booth, Associate Curator of Film at the National Science and Media Museum, wrote about some of the unusual Friese-Greene items in their collection, following this up with a talk on the man as part of their annual Widescreen Festival. Christopher Frayling was also a speaker at the event and would go on to lecture on William Friese-Greene at Lancaster University, where he is a professor.
For me, one of the great achievements of the year, and a wonderful project, was the publication by Bristol Ideas of the book Opening Up The Magic Box – Friese-Greene and Reflections on Film, edited by Melanie Kelly. I was asked to write the opening essay, which shares the title of this blog, William Friese-Greene and Me, in which I reflect on my long-term obsession with the man and what I’ve learnt from it. Christopher Frayling follows with an examination of The Magic Box, including his childhood memories of the 1951 Festival of Britain, for which the film was made. The dozens of other contributors include such well-known film writers as Mark Cousins and Pamela Hutchinson, along with David Sproxton, founder of Aardman Animations.
The book was supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and has been made available as a downloadable PDF, which includes details of the Bristol Cinema Walk. My own essay can also be read online on the Bristol ideas website or, if you would prefer it as a podcast, can be listened to on Soundcloud. Many other essays from the book can be found in these places too.
So, what’s next…?
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