A Friese-Greene Christmas Carol

If, for personal or political reasons, the imminent festivities are not exactly setting your heart aglow with joy, might I suggest that there is some perspective to be gained by considering the circumstances of the Friese-Greene family at Christmas, 1915.

Twenty-five years earlier, in 1890, William Friese-Greene had been riding high. He was the well-known owner of a highly successful chain of photographic studios, with an upmarket clientele, spending his profits on inventing. That year, he was the first person to present to the world what could be called a “Moving Picture” camera: a compact device that shot a rapid series of images on a roll of celluloid.

DSC01729edit FG and Edith

William and Edith, around 1897

The next year, he spectacularly crashed and burned. Multiple bankruptcies robbed him of his businesses, his home, his lifestyle and his reputation. He even lost control of his camera patent. But William was no quitter. Over the next five years, he built himself up again and, despite the death of his wife Helena, who had helped him through those difficult times, he relaunched himself with new inventions that brought him income and respectability. He remarried and, with his new wife, Edith, had six children in the following years – all boys.

But, as Edith would discover to her cost, life with William Friese-Greene was always a rollercoaster. Abundance, lack. Fame, shame. Optimism, disappointment. They were your bread and butter.

William had spent a great deal of the freshly-minted 20th century working on various methods of creating moving pictures in colour. In 1911 this had brought him crashing into conflict with one of the movie heavyweights of the era, Charles Urban, who believed he owned that territory, having invested a great deal in developing his successful Kinemacolor system. But Urban’s desire to squash this relatively insignificant rival proved to be a massive tactical error.

Friese-Greene Biocolour test c 1911- Kodak Collection at National Science and Media Museum Bradford

From Friese-Greene colour test film c.1911

Sympathisers got behind Friese-Greene and the conflict escalated to the High Court, then the House of Lords, both of whom agreed that the Kinemacolor patent was meaningless as it didn’t do what it claimed. Without patent protection, the bottom fell out of Urban’s business, whose value was founded on operating a monopoly. But it was the definition of a Pyrrhic victory for Friese-Greene. It was now 1915 and Britain was in the throes of the Great War. Nobody really cared about colour moving pictures, especially since these systems cost more than the monochrome alternative.

William and Edith’s eldest son, Claude – who would go on to become a renowned cinematographer – had been actively working in the film business from about 12 years old and, after leaving school at fourteen, that became his full-time occupation. In 1915, aged sixteen, Claude was also inventing in the field of colour motion pictures and already had his own business, The Aurora Film Company, which had made a film using a Friese-Greene colour process, The Earl of Camelot, that screened in Brighton, where the family had lived since 1904.

It was wartime. Claude had been in the Imperial Cadet Corps alongside his two immediately junior brothers, Kenneth and Graham, but now Lord Kitchener’s finger was pointing straight at him. He enlisted, joining the 14th London regiment. His first recorded tour of duty began on 7th February 1916 and he would go on to become part of the Cinematograph section of the Royal Flying Corps.

DSC01717edit - Edith and her five boys

Edith and her five boys

Claude’s decision inspired his younger brothers and, out of jealousy or desire for adventure or a wish to relieve the financial pressure on their parents, both Kenneth and Graham headed down to the recruiting office. Despite being significantly underage, they were allowed to sign up. This must have been devastating, heartbreaking and profoundly worrying to William and Edith.

Whether these three boys were able to be in Brighton with their parents that Christmas is not clear. But their younger siblings, Maurice and Vincent, certainly were – little Raymond having died ten years earlier, aged four, from being kicked in the head by a horse. A Christmas of Dickensian hardship was looming.

The first the world heard of their situation was a letter from Will Day, published in the film industry weekly, The Bioscope.

I have written about Will Day before. He was a well-known and easily-recognisable figure in the British film industry. His daily business was his shop, Kinutilities, in Lisle St, just behind Leicester Square in the heart of filmland, where he sold all sorts of cinema equipment and created some of his own. He was gregarious and very active within trade organisations, always dressing distinctively. But his passion was creating what is still, to date,the most extensive collection relating to the development of the moving image that any individual has ever compiled. Alongside this, he was writing a history of the subject, personally knowing many of the key figures, although he would never see it published. So, he was the kind of person who was listened to.

Will Day letter appealing for help for FG and family - The Bioscope - Thursday 23 December 1915 p71 edit

This is what Will Day wrote, on the 17th December: “I have had a visit and a letter from Mr Friese Greene, who, I am sorry to say, is in very low water indeed, and has a bailiff in possession of his home for the sum of £50 due for rent. [Multiply figures by 100 to get rough 2019 equivalents.]

Photo of Will Day from The Bioscope Thursday 30 December 1915 edit

Will Day, 1915 a.k.a. Santa Claus

I was thinking that, at this period of the year, we in the Trade, who have so much to thank Mr. Friese Greene for, could hold out the hand of help, and in his present distressful position, forget anything that may have happened in the past, and for the sake of his wife and children help him along the road.”

 

He offered to collect monies on behalf of the family, setting the ball rolling by saying he would put up the handsome sum of five guineas – £5 5s. It worked. Within no time at all he had persuaded various film companies to do likewise – some matching him, others giving less. Even The Bioscope threw in two guineas. And that wasn’t all the paper did.

Six years earlier, the Editor of The Bioscope had had a great deal of fun mercilessly ridiculing William Friese-Greene for asserting that, since Edison was then officially legally recognised in the USA as the inventor of moving pictures, with a right to tax all who made or showed a film, then surely he was due something, having pre-dated Edison by years. To say the paper changed its tune would be an understatement comparable to commenting that John Wayne isn’t making quite as many movies as he used to.

Portrait of FG that Will Day kept on his desk in golden frame - from CF edit

A portrait of William Friese-Greene in a gilt frame, which Will Day would later keep on his desk, after the inventor’s death

The week after Will Day’s letter, the cover editorial was boldly titled “THE FOUNDER OF COMMERCIAL CINEMATOGRAPHY”, referring to William Friese-Greene and supporting Will Day’s proposal that a “penny fund” should be instituted by all cinemas, from their customers, to ensure Friese-Greene financial security for the remainder of his life. It also pointed the reader to the eight-page feature inside, written by Day, laying out Friese-Greene’s place in the development of cinema, with images of his workshop, his 1889 patent and more.

William Friese-Greene couldn’t believe what he was seeing and wrote appreciatively to the editor, “You cannot imagine my feelings during the time I was reading your able leader, and Mr. Will Day’s article. Well, no words can express my thanks and gratitude. All the years of my connection with kinematography seem to focus in one day.”

A bank account was opened for the immediate financial appeal, with a committee and treasurer to oversee it. The money kept coming for two months, eventually amounting to the sum of £131. The donor list reads like a real Who’s Who of the major figures and companies of the British film industry at that time. Even R. W. Paul, a pivotal early figure, who had now left the business, put in two guineas. (He is currently the subject of an exhibition at the National Science and Media Museum and a new book.)

Perhaps most touching, is to find the name of Charles Urban, matching Day’s five guineas, his devastating legal defeat of just months before temporarily forgiven, although never forgotten. The accounts also reveal a reassuring first act with the fund, with two items of £5 for “Christmas Expenses” on the 21st and 22nd of December, before that letter had even been published. So, it’s fair to say that Will Day pretty much single-handedly rescued the Friese-Greene family’s Christmas with his speedy intervention.

The final report stated that the committee would be disbursing the rest of the money to Mrs. Greene at the rate of 30s (£1.50) per week. Perhaps it is significant that the money was not put into the hands of her husband. Edith wrote to Will Day to thank him for all he had done, “Dear Mr. Day, l have seen in this week’s BIOSCOPE the kindness and generosity shown to both my husband and myself. Will you, for your personal efforts, and all the committee, please accept our sincerest thanks, and also will you, through the Press, please thank all the subscribers, on our behalf, who so kindly came forward and assisted so generously at such a trying time. We both very deeply and sincerely appreciate all your great kindness.”

This letter came from a London address, not a Brighton one. That family home had now gone. Despite her doubtless sincere thanks, this may have been the turning point for Edith. For her family and herself to become such public recipients of charity and pity, was perhaps a humiliation too far. A year later, she would leave William, taking Maurice and Vincent with her. Happily, the three other boys would make it back from the war alive and go on to successful careers. Despite earnest efforts, the “penny fund” from cinema owners never materialised, their deep sympathies not extending quite as far as the bottom line.

But all that still lay in the future. In the Christmas of 1915, there can be little doubt that the good heart and exceptional kindness of Will Day brightly illuminated what would otherwise have been the very darkest of times for the whole Friese-Greene family.

Peter Domankiewicz

DSC01720edit Claude Graham Kenneth

Claude, Graham and Kenneth celebrating, post-war

 

 

William Friese-Greene & The Art of Collaboration

Last Friday I got back to doing something I used to do 20 years ago: talking about William Friese-Greene in public. The occasion was the British Silent Film Symposium 2018 and the place was King’s College London. Almost as terrifying as finding myself in front of a roomful of early film history experts was using PowerPoint for the first time. Then I discovered my carefully prepared notes wouldn’t be visible on screen after all and had to wing it. But in the end, it all seemed to come out pretty well, so I put together this video of my talk and the visual presentation for any who might be interested.

The response made the sleepless nights and sessions re-animating experimental sequences worthwhile; it was clear there was a lot of interest in this long-ignored story. I got to know some great new people and the possibility of writing a proper article for an academic journal was raised. Even more surprising is the way Friese-Greene somehow dominated the day.

First of all, Prof. Ian Christie spoke about the story of Friese-Greene showing his first moving pictures to a policeman – as memorably depicted in The Magic Box and how this anecdote originally belonged to Robert Paul, “The Father of British Film”. Then I did my bit. In the afternoon, Geoff Brown (a regular contributor to Sight & Sound) brought Friese-Greene into his discussion of what role British inventors played in the coming of sound to the movies. And as if that wasn’t enough, at least three films were referenced that were shot by his son Claude, who became a well-respected cinematographer. Tony Fletcher, of the Cinema Museum, volunteered a VHS of an old TV programme about Friese-Greene, and that doyen of film writers, David Robinson, offered some research materials on Friese-Greene’s early mentor, John Rudge, and his support for me getting William Friese-Greene back on the historical agenda

It was categorically the most Friese-Greened up any event has been in many a long decade. I’ve already got a plan for next year’s…

That Eureka Moment – 5

“When are you going to get to the point?” is an entirely justifiable cry to escape from you, my dear, (im)patient reader. Well, I have been working on something rather special, just for you. So I hope it will seem worth the wait.

To quickly recap the story so far and what we know:

  • Between early 1889 and early 1891 William Friese-Green was involved in the creation of three distinct moving picture cameras.
  • After the end of 1890 he was completely broke and had to stop inventing.
  • Although he had to sell (almost) everything he owned in 1891, he kept hold of the cameras.

We know about the first camera because of the patent, plus photographs and drawings of it. We know about the second, stereoscopic one because of both the patent and because that camera is still in existence. For the third one, we don’t have a patent, a drawing, a photo or even a clear description, BUT over in the French film archives we have some of the film it took. And that could tell us quite a bit…

King Road in Cinematheque - 2 frames BFor instance, that it was around 60-65mm wide. That’s the large format still occasionally used by film-makers like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino. But remember that, at the time, celluloid wasn’t freely available in any widths smaller than that. The 35mm standard was still years away and was chosen partially because those Edison Kinetoscope images were only to be viewed in a peep-hole machine, so picture resolution didn’t have to be that high. With the poor resolution of film emulsions at that point in time, it was wise to use a larger format if you wanted to project the images.

We also know that the film negative had been hand-perforated before being shot. There were nine round holes of 2mm diameter punched on both sides of each frame. It must have been a painstaking business to do in a darkroom – and pretty hit-and-miss too. But a bankrupt inventor couldn’t get a perforating machine built. The Lumiere Brothers would also favour round perforations over the square ones of the Edison/Eastman format.

And we see he chose to move away from the square picture format of his earlier cameras, which had probably been influenced by the shape of lantern slides, and instead settled on a rectangular ratio. When I measured this, I discovered it was almost precisely the one that would later be adopted as the film industry standard for many long years – the 1.33:1 ratio, which would later be known as Academy Ratio.

 

“So, wouldn’t it be great if we could watch that film?” I hear you say.

Yep, it sure would. I mean, you can just hop on YouTube and see the earliest experiments from all the other pioneers like Donisthorpe & Crofts, Le Prince, Demeny, the Skladanowsky Brothers or Edison & Dickson. So where’s that Friese-Greene film? Well, still tucked away in the French archive of the CNC (Centre National de la Cinématographie) in Bois d’Arcy outside Paris. As I mentioned last time, they did preserve it and also made a copy on 35mm that could be projected. It had its world premiere in a collection of restored very early films from the Will Day Collection (see Part 2) at the Pordenone Festival of Silent Film on 16th October 1997.

Will Day Film Screeening #1

I got my chance to see it (and some other Friese-Greene experiments) seven months later at the Duke of York’s in Brighton as part of a Colloquium on “Will Day and Early British Cinema” which I had been invited to participate in, having inadvertently become the world “expert” on Friese-Greene (a status that I have now expanded and built upon to no discernible financial advantage). It was a really glorious thing to see those early images up there on the cinema screen, where Friese-Greene imagined them but probably never saw them.

Will Day Film Screeening #2

And then it went on a tour all over the world and everybody was finally able to see it.

Just kidding. It went back to the CNC and was put back in storage for a very, very, VERY long time with no video copy made available. Just now I came across a blog from a film programmer who says it was screened once more at an event in Helsinki in 2009. As far as I can tell those are all the outings it’s had in 21 long years.

The people I knew at the CNC are long gone. I have tried to make contact via the Cinématheque Française, but have got no response. So I began to think about those photos I took of the negatives back in 1996. They were done in a rush in totally non-ideal conditions – hand-held over a lightbox – but I wondered if there was enough information there to get something out of them. So I had my negatives (of the negatives) scanned at high resolution and asked a professional photographer to help put them into something like the right relative size and proportions, as they originally were. And then I made them move…

You see? I said I had something special for you.

Now, you must remember that each of the original Friese-Greene negatives only made up one ninth of the size of my 35mm frame. And the original Friese-Greene negative was about three times the size of a 35mm stills frame. Technically speaking, that means the original had over 25 times the resolution of what you see here (plus not all of my shots were dead-on in focus). Even allowing for the fact that film emulsion back then was a lot coarser, they would still have looked 10 times better than this.

The proof of this is an enlargement of part of one frame, which I must have somehow acquired from the CNC some 20 years ago:

Kings Rd frame enlargement rotate

The name of the newspaper the boy is selling is clearly legible. I can’t help wondering if, with modern scanning techniques, we might be able to see something of the headline, which would help a lot with dating.

Speaking of dating, I did promise to date this film in Part 3 so here goes:

It was shot around the middle of 1891. I can’t be more specific than that (until we can read that newspaper). Why that date? Well…

The view you’re looking at is from close to the front of 39 King’s Road, Chelsea, which Helena Friese-Greene had used her own resources to rent, providing a home for her daughter and sisters, a photographic studio to make money and a basement workshop to keep her husband from going crazy with boredom. We know that at the start of 1891 they had already abandoned their rather lovely Maida Vale home and were holed up in temporary digs in Paddington. They appear to have moved to this address later in the year. It makes sense he would have shot the film when he lived there, not before.

That said, as we’ve already seen, William Friese-Greene now had absolutely no way to build any new cameras or other inventions. So whatever this was shot with had already been built in 1890. He may of course have adapted it in some way, and this was a test of the new arrangement. He would not be discharged from his bankruptcy until 1894 and, until then, all he could use was his ingenuity. Since he had been on a roll with a non-stop series of moving picture camera experiments over the previous two years, it makes sense this was part of that – before his mind moved on to other inventions.

And the time of year? Well, this is Britain. People don’t normally go about dressed like that in autumn or winter.

But it occurs to me that by some terrible oversight, I STILL have failed to explain why this constitutes a Eureka Moment for William Friese-Greene. However, I fear I would once again be trying your patience to go an any longer right now…

 

That Eureka Moment – 4

To some it would have been the most boring place in the world, but to me it was Aladdin’s Cave. It was March 1996 and I was in the deepest, dimly-lit reaches of the astonishingly extensive archives of the Cinémathèque Française.

My guide down these subterranean corridors of cinematic archaeology was the relatively recently-appointed new director of the archive, Laurent Mannoni, whose knowledge of the technology of moving images stretched from way back into pre-cinema times, right up to the present day. Unlike his predecessors, he was keen to explore the Will Day Collection (see previous post); to better understand it and let the public see its treasures. To this end, he had been inviting various experts over to Paris, who had specialist knowledge, to help with the process.

laurent-mannoni-devoile-metropolis-L-Kgjhc_

The wonderful Laurent Mannoni in his Happy Place

I should stress that this description had not been applied to me. Not yet, anyway. I had essentially hijacked the visit of someone far more well-informed than myself. My companion was Stephen Herbert, who at that moment was the Technical Manager of the British Film Institute’s Museum of the Moving Image on London’s South Bank, as well as being part of its curatorial team. He had been helping me feel my way through the historical minefield of the creation of cinema and had already inculcated into me two guiding principles:

  1. Always return to absolutely the earliest, original sources you can possibly find for whatever you’re investigating. Don’t rely on other people recycling or paraphrasing sources as they may be lazy and/or biased in their research.
  2. If at all possible, get your sweaty little hands on whatever technology you’re interested in, to find out how it really worked in practice. Don’t just rely on patents, drawings and memories. If that’s not possible, rebuild it yourself.

I can honestly say that this philosophy has guided all my research ever since, although I bow to Stephen in the application of B) as he understands this stuff so much better, having raised tinkering with mechanisms to quasi-mystical levels.

So when I heard he was off to Paris to have a close look at the Will Day Collection I was quick to suggest I might come along and shed a little bit of light on anything to do with William Friese-Greene and his early mentor and collaborator, John Rudge. Happily both he and Laurent agreed to this. And equally happily, it turned out I was able to make myself useful.

So I found myself in this place:Cinemtheque store #1

Ranks upon ranks of shelves, stacked to the ceiling with every conceivable device for capturing moving images or displaying them; from optical toys to massive Technicolor cameras. It was bewildering and thrilling for someone such as myself, in love with cinema both as a viewer and as a filmmaker.

Cinemtheque store #2We looked at quite a variety of items that I had previously only read about in books; amazing creations that made pictures move, well before cinema. Then, somewhere in the midst of all of this, Laurent produced some artefacts I had barely dared hope were still in existence, given that half a century had passed since they last saw the light of day: some of Friese-Greene’s first films, shot on celluloid.

It was quite something, after two years of being buffeted by conflicting waves of conjecture and assertion about the works of William Friese-Greene and all the debate about what he achieved or failed to, to finally be confronted by the incontrovertible physical manifestations of his efforts.

By rights, these films shouldn’t have even been there. In any normal circumstances they would have long ago gone to the archives of the Centre National du Cinéma (CNC) in Bois d’Arcy to be lovingly restored and preserved. But nothing to do with Friese-Greene is very normal.

Such was the rather stealthy way that the Will Day Collection had originally been acquired, combined with the indifference to its Friese-Greene treasures by the then director, topped off with the outright hostility of some British historians in the ensuing years to giving any credence to claims of Friese-Greene’s importance in the invention of moving pictures, that absolutely nothing had been done with them since the day they had arrived in Paris in 1959.

Long before then, Will Day had decided to conserve these films and make them available for display in exhibitions by keeping them between large sheets of glass in long strips. What I saw on that day in 1996 was presumably how they had remained for around seventy years. It seemed he had used some sort of gum to hold them in place, or preserve them, which had left brown, sticky residues. In addition to which, the years themselves had taken their toll on some of the earliest celluloid roll film to be fabricated, which was cracked and contracting.

In fairness to Will Day, what he did may have actually kept them in a better state than if they had been left to moulder in a rusting film can all that time. Nonetheless, exciting as the moment was for me, I felt a profound emotional pang that no inanimate object had ever elicited from me. It was akin to coming upon a species of animal, thought to be extinct, only to discover it had been struck by a car and could barely limp to the side of the road.

For Laurent Mannoni, I imagine that his situation with the Will Day Collection was like he had been bequeathed a neglected zoo by some eccentric uncle and was now trying to figure out which creatures most urgently needed his attention. I made clear that I felt these films should be one of those priorities. He promised to get them to the film archive for preservation straight away and, indeed, Michelle Aubert of the CNC made sure they got the necessary loving care to nurse them back to the fullest health possible. In fact, they made considerably more effort to conserve them than the British Film Institute was doing with its own Friese-Greene materials at that point in time.

But, apart from conservation issues, what did these films show? We placed the first glass sandwich on a lightbox. It was a sequence from the camera whose construction was completed in September of 1889, made along the lines of the British patent submitted in June that year (and granted in 1890) by William Friese-Greene and Mortimer Evans, originally entitled “Taking photographs Automatically in a Rapid Series with a Single Camera and Lens”. The pictures appeared to show people walking beside the River Thames, which didn’t correspond to any specific description of a sequence which Friese-Greene himself or others had mentioned in writing, but was presumably an early test. The size of the images was just as I had seen described by Theodore Brown, another ingenious cinema inventor who knew Friese-Greene and interviewed him for the Kinematograph & Lantern Weekly, which Brown edited, in 1909 That is to say: they were 2½ inches square (approx 65mm).

Riverside sequence - 2 frames

From the first sequence, as I saw it in March 1996

One half of the sequence was mounted upside down in relation to the other and I could only look at a few frames at a time, making it hard to get a sense of it. The edges of the strips clearly showed the marks of the pin-wheels that the patent had proposed to help steady the movement of the film. I examined it thoroughly, but it was in a fractured state and I wanted to have a chance to view it properly once it had been restored. More to the point, I had that feeling you have as a child at Christmas, when you know the last present left is the most exciting one.

I was impatient to move on to the other sequence. I had only ever seen fragments of it reproduced in various unexpected places, with no clear attribution or explanation. I’d had no idea if it still existed at all or, if so, as more than some clippings of a couple of frames. But here was a sequence of over fifty frames – that would therefore run for quite a few seconds. Certainly enough to get an impression of how fast and how well the camera that shot them functioned.

The pictures were fairly evenly spaced and clear, and there were round, punched sprocket holes up the sides of the film, which didn’t respond to any camera that I, or Stephen, or Laurent had ever seen (and Stephen and Laurent between them knew a terrifyingly large number of film cameras). But these perforations did correspond to Friese-Greene’s own account of a camera he designed after the one he made with Mortimer Evans.

King Road in Cinematheque - 2 frames B

Part of the second sequence, photographed on the lightbox

Even as a deteriorated negative, viewed in less than ideal conditions, one could see this was a film of a city street in Britain, probably London. I’m pretty sure my heart started beating harder and I held my breath.

Something about that film, which had survived total neglect and indifference, lost amidst thousands of other artefacts for decades, was special. Very special, I felt.

Something about that film smelled of a Eureka Moment.

 

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That Eureka Moment – 3

There are some photographs of Friese-Greene’s early film experiments that seem to have been wilfully ignored by historians writing about the beginnings of cinema. My guess is that this is because explaining and dating them is problematic – and because to attempt to do so might disrupt the status quo of academic opinion around Friese-Greene; which is that he failed and lied and can be safely ignored.

So I’m going to attempt to both explain and date them, because they may represent Friese-Greene’s Eureka Moment. The place where his plans finally came together.

These photos are of artefacts in the Will Day Collection, which has resided in the Cinématheque Française since the late 1950s, when British museums let it be sold abroad, regarding it – as the curator of the Kodak museum put it – as “a load of junk with a few nuggets”. Now, however, it is recognised as a vital source of information about the beginnings and development of motion pictures.

Will Day caricature with his collection

Genuine contemporary photograph of Will Day surrounded by his collection

Will Day was visionary in his understanding that this was history that needed to be recorded through gathering documents, films and equipment, whilst talking to surviving participants. He did this enthusiastically and was a relentless champion of the importance of Friese-Greene’s work, but he was, to say the least, an erratic and unreliable historian – which did neither Friese-Greene, nor himself, any favours in the long run.

In August 1922, a year after Friese-Greene’s death, he first showed a collection of 500 artefacts in the South Kensington Museum (now the Science Museum). From the picture at the top of this article, you can see it was pretty impressive. There was a whole display case dedicated to Friese-Greene’s work. Many of these items remained there on indefinite loan for decades. Ten years on, in late 1932, he made a selection of 64 items for the Royal Photographic Society’s annual exhibition. Looking through the list of what was shown, it’s worth stopping to scrutinise items 45 & 47 [#46 being what Day said was Friese-Greene’s first ever celluloid film – but that’s for another blog post].

#45 from Will Day RPS exhibition 1932#47 from Will Day RPS exhibition 1932

And here is Will Day holding up #45, that roll of paper negative film, with an indecipherable image on it, followed by a couple of clippings featuring the strip of celluloid film #47 (reversed to be positive), from sources as disparate as the British Chemist & Druggist from 1955 and the American Moving Picture World from 1927.

Will Day holds up paper film - from book edit

So, according to Will Day in 1932, the strip of paper film is from 1885, although he appears to have changed that to 1888 on this photo.

And Day says these other frames were filmed in Kings Rd, Chelsea in June 1900, but then later said it was in November 1889, whilst the Moving Picture World (on the right) says they are from Brighton in 1889. The Chemist & Druggist doesn’t venture a date but does say it’s in the Kings Road.

So that’s crystal clear. Isn’t it?

If Will Day knew Friese-Greene as well as he claimed, then they must surely have had conversations about all this, but the impression one gets is that Day made no notes at the time and later made up a chronology from poorly-researched guesswork and half-memories.  He then appears to have amplified some of his errors over time, occasionally correcting others. So that means that we’d be best off ignoring almost everything he said about dates and checking for ourselves.

In the earlier parts of this post, we established that Friese-Greene had spectacularly crashed and burned at the start of 1891 and was hung out to dry financially over the course of that year. Not only were his household belongings sold, but he had claims from debtors flying at him. He wasn’t allowed to borrow money and you can be sure that all those clever scientific instrument makers who built his inventions would not be offering him a line of credit – or even an invitation to come round for a cup of tea, when he’d defaulted on paying his bills.

So he couldn’t possibly have had a moving picture camera constructed – be it a new design or a copy of an earlier model. But, as we have seen, he had held onto the ones that were already built and in his hands (if not paid for in full). We know for sure about the two that he showed off at the Royal Institution and he had the others tucked away, safe from the bailiff’s grasping hands.

But what were these cameras like and how many were there in the first place?

Friese-Greene’s own account of which cameras he had made and in what order, is not terribly clear – on one occasion he says there were four different ones, but five made in all. We know that he had a model of the working parts of a moving picture camera built in 1889 and later that year, the completed camera was ready. We know that with Frederick Varley he developed a stereoscopic (3D) camera in 1890. We know that a second stereoscopic camera that was meant to double as a projector appeared later that same year. And in late 1890 and early 1891 there are several mentions of yet another camera. This camera does not appear to be stereoscopic, but at photographic societies he and Varley show bands of film taken with it with 400 exposures on, which they say are typically recorded at 5 frames per second. It seems likely that it was this last camera which was shown at the Royal Institution on Feb 6 1891, alongside a stereoscopic one, the day before Friese-Greene had his household goods auctioned off.

[There are also a records of Friese-Greene taking out a provisional patent for “Cameras” in June 1890 – during the Chester Photographic Convention – and in January he had applied for a patent for “Obtaining photographic representations” – but the full patents were never submitted.]

So, there we have five cameras constructed, but the first two or the stereoscopic two could be regarded as of the same type, which just might fit Friese-Greene’s account.

But what was it like, this last camera? How was it different from the other ones? There’s no description I’ve come across so far that can help answer that, so I’d prefer to look back at those inscrutable images above of people on a street and work backwards from there, asking: what sort of camera might have taken them?

Allowing for shrinkage with age, the film is probably of the celluloid rolls that were manufactured by Eastman in 1890-91 to fit their popular “Kodak No. 1” camera – 2⅝ in wide (67mm) –  so that would have been easily available at that time. But it definitely wouldn’t have come with holes along the edge.  Friese-Greene did say that he had the scientific instrument makers A. Légé & Co, who built some (possibly all) of his cameras, make him a couple of custom hole punches to perforate both sides of the film simultaneously. Close examination of the film shows that groups of holes are well aligned, then there is an irregular space, then a regular group – suggesting that the film had to be punched laboriously by hand, leading to intermittent errors.

Oh yes, I said “close examination”, which would suggest someone had been close to the original film to check this. I should clarify, that person was me, about 20 years ago. How that happened needs some explaining…

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That Friese-Greene feeling

Hi. Before we get too deep into all this, how about a beer first? In fact, how about a FRIESE-GREENE ALE? I mean, anyone who has had a beer named after them must be important in some way, right? So what exactly is it that William Friese-Greene did that earned him this quaffable tribute and why was this beer launched as part of a festival of silent film in Bristol?

Perhaps the “South-West Silents” website has some light to shed. Well, they say:

“Born in Bristol on 7th September 1855, William Edward Green (the Friese-Greene was added later) is classed by many as one of the founding fathers of British Cinema and a key figure in the early development of cinematography as a whole. In some circles he is celebrated, while in others he is damned for filing patents on devices he allegedly didn’t invent.”

FG Beer #3Basically, at one time he was patriotically championed as THE inventor of motion pictures, a British-sized Edison, whilst for the last sixty years he has tended to be viewed as a scientifically incompetent con-artist who is about as responsible for the birth of cinema as your Gran is for the birth of hip-hop.

The person most responsible for the myth-making is Will Day, a friend of William Friese-Greene during his later life, self-appointed torch-bearer after his death in 1921, and the first significant archivist of the early days of what we have come to call “cinema”. Then, in the other corner of the ring, is Brian Coe, who chose the centenary of Friese-Greene’s birth to lead the charge against the myth created by a poorly-researched biography and the movie made from it – “The Magic Box”. Brian Coe became a leading historian of photography, Curator of the Kodak Museum and a key figure in MOMI – the late-lamented Museum of the Moving Image – so people paid a lot of attention to him and continue to do so.

And then there was me.

I was just minding my own business really, living in Bristol in the early 90’s and pursuing my dream of becoming a film director, whilst engaged in assorted creative pursuits. But from time to time, I would pause in front of this discreet plaque outside a door on The Triangle in Clifton and wonder what it was all about. It sounded significant.On_this_site_W._Friese-Greene_the_inventor_of_the_moving_picture_camera_served_his_apprenticeship_as_a_photographer_from_1869-1875_small

Then I saw there was another plaque, by the Council House.  But nobody seemed to know much about this guy, despite his  having a third plaque in a cinema and another in Bath.

For some enlightenment, my first port of call was riffling through Reece Winstone’s locally published series “Bristol As It Was” – full of photos from various eras, with explanatory captions, including quite a few references to Mr F-G. So then I got hold of a copy of the only book about him – “Close-Up of an Inventor” by Ray Allister – and I was simultaneously fascinated by the person it described and doubtful of the accuracy of what this volume contained. Discovering that “Ray Allister” was actually a woman called Muriel Forth whose only other contribution to literature was a book entitled “Manners For Moderns” reinforced those doubts.

Nonetheless, this man had applied for over a hundred patents for all sorts of things – including airships, printing photos in magazines, X-rays, an advertising projection hat and a successful early form of photo-typesetting – and spent a lot of his life pursuing the dream of films in colour. He had gone from humble beginnings in the West Country to success and prominence in London, to bankruptcy and ignominy. An eternal optimist, he then went boom and bust twice more before dying in the middle of giving a speech at a meeting of film distributors. No wonder they made a movie about him – and no wonder it was a sad one. I was hooked.

A great deal of what we know about the earliest days of moving pictures comes from accounts given by the protagonists – or those who knew them – decades after the events, making it hard to be sure of the exact truth. I can empathise with them because, reaching back over twenty years in my own memory, I can’t honestly say when my obsession with Friese-Greene began, but there is no question that somewhere in there it gripped me hard.

I made the acquaintance of Andrew Kelly, who had recently set up the Bristol Cultural Development Partnership. He was a film buff and published writer who had a special interest in the silent era. The Centenary of Cinema was looming in 1995 and he was looking at ways to use it to put Bristol on the map, culturally. It seemed to me that I’d rediscovered just the kind of figure who would be of use to him, but Andrew was sceptical. He explained to me that in film historical terms, to carry on with this investigation would be to kick a hornet’s nest, which had been left undisturbed for years. He pointed me towards Brian Coe’s writings. I read them and felt as sceptical about their condemnatory conclusions as I had about the biography. It seemed clear to me that the truth either lay in between or in an entirely different direction.

Andrew’s warning had merely emboldened me. I mean, in all great detective films there’s that bit where someone warns them not to investigate any further, but they do anyway, because they have to know, right? So now I was Sam Spade  in “The Maltese Falcon” crossed with Jake Gittes in “Chinatown” crossed with… a bit of a nerd.

Andrew Kelly, God bless him, quietly encouraged my madness by putting a bit of Bristol money my way to enable me to travel around to seek out Friese-Greene’s surviving family, search in the Science & Media Museum archives in Bradford and ultimately see some long-hidden materials in Paris. Accompanying me, sometimes literally, sometimes in spirit, was Stephen Herbert – another key figure in MOMI – whose very hands-on, get-back-to-the-original-sources attitude I found inspiring and related well to. So I hunted down those sources everywhere I could and tried to understand the technology, with his help.

I never did get anything ready for the Centenary of Cinema in Bristol, I was still too deep in research. My only official contribution to that commemoration was getting name-checked a couple of times in a book published by the Cinémathèque Française, as I had inadvertently by then become a bit of an expert on some rather obscure corners of cinema history and had helped out their archive a little.

Rather to my own surprise, some of the real experts in the field of early film history started to take my researches seriously and were willing to give a fair hearing to my ideas of what the true story of William Friese-Greene might be. One manifestation of this was being invited to give a lecture at a university about one aspect of my research, in front of a rather intimidating audience of people who seriously knew their stuff. This was a watershed moment – not so much because of the lecture but because a few months later it was pointed out to me that an established film historian appeared to have plagiarised what I’d said. As initiations into academia go, it was akin to being molested by your pervy uncle whilst your parents are out – and about as pleasant – but I figured it counted as an acknowledgement that I’d done some good work.

Stephen Herbert encouraged me to start to write it all down by commissioning me to write a small book about an even more obscure inventor, John Arthur Roebuck Rudge, an early collaborator with Friese-Greene who set him on the path to trying to capture life and motion. Although we got to a second draft of the book, my insistence on further research and his running out of money to publish more books about interesting but obscure people meant it never happened. But he and Luke McKernan from the BFI did get me to contribute to their excellent Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema, which I’m happy to say is widely referenced on the Internet as they wisely turned it into a website.

I was also contacted by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – the standard reference work for writers – to create a new entry on William Friese-Greene for the completely fresh edition planned for 2004. It was an immense privilege and a great compliment.

Will Day

Will Day (“Mr. Accuracy”)

They sent me the previous entry to read for reference. Written in 1927, it contained loads of errors and exaggerations. I looked at the initials at the bottom and immediately knew who it was: “W.E.L.D.” – Mr. Will Day himself. It was the strangest feeling of connecting back though time.

In the end, I wrote my own film about William Friese-Greene in 2004 as part of a film development programme supported by Sony Columbia. Set in 1910 New York, the script contained nothing that was in “The Magic Box”, depicting a very different part of his story. Although I went to New York that year to research further and uncovered more fascinating information, the obsession abated as it became clear I couldn’t take that film project any further at the moment.

And it stayed in abeyance until the 14th November 2016. Leaving a fascinating talk by Kevin Brownlow at the BFI about the restoration of the magnificent French silent classic “Napoleon” (now finally on DVD and Blu-Ray) I got reminiscing about my own visits to the French film archives . The next day, for the first time in many years, I casually opened up one file on my computer from my time digging for information in New York…

I swear it was like a scene from some eighties sci-fi movie where a teenager opens up the closet to get his Bon Jovi t-shirt out and instead finds himself sucked into a spatio-temporal vortex which spits him out on the other side of the universe. For a month solid, I did little from rising in the morning to passing out in the early hours other than immerse myself deeper and deeper back into Friese-Greene, revelling in new discoveries and frustrated by the misleading ideas that are still common currency.

Over a decade ago, the great collector and historian of early British cinema, John Barnes, exhorted me to write a book about what I’d found out, even though he didn’t agree with all of my conclusions. But I always knew it would be a lot of work for virtually no financial reward – if I could even get it published, that is. But now John is gone, I feel bad about never doing it. So this blog is a first step to starting to put some of this down, in the hope that if enough people seem to be interested I may get both the motivation and the opportunity to see it through, eventually.

And to be clear: for me, this isn’t about who was first in this or that – I just think that William Friese-Greene is someone worth getting to know. In fact, I’ll drink to that. Cheers!

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