The history

1: Off to a good start

Sensation of the century
It is almost impossible to imagine, in our world of round-the-clock multi-channel television, the impact that the first flickering shadows of films had on the public of late Victorian England. In a teeming age of discovery and invention, the advertisements that proclaimed ‘living pictures’ to be the sensation of the age were not exaggerating.
      Various attempts were made from the early 1870s onwards to capture photographic images of movement, principally by Etienne-Jules Marey and Léon Bouly in France and by two Englishmen, Eadweard Muybridge and Wordsworth Donnisthorpe, the former working in the United States. However, the first successful attempt at creating what we would now recognise as a ‘film’ is generally agreed to be a fragment recorded in October 1888 by a Frenchman, Louis Le Prince, in the garden of his father-in-law’s home in Leeds [right]. Another Englishman, William Friese Greene, working in London (but with past and future links to Brighton), took out a patent in 1889 for an ‘improved apparatus for taking photographs in rapid series’.
      William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson, a Scot working at the Edison laboratories in New Jersey, established in 1892 the principle of 35mm film with perforations in either side of the series of images, fed vertically through a camera—essentially the standard that has persisted ever since. This became the Kinetoscope, which Dickson called ‘the crown and flower of nineteenth century magic’. This peep-show device, of the kind later known, somewhat disparagingly, as a ‘what-the-butler-saw’ machine, proved very popular.
      The first Kinetoscope parlour opened for business in New York on 14 April 1894 and the first outside the US in Oxford Street, London on 17 October. A machine was installed at the Brighton Aquarium in 1895. The trouble with the Kinetoscope was that only one person at a time could see the pictures.

The first film shows
The real breakthrough was projection onto a screen. The first projected images were seen during 1895, beginning in Paris with Auguste and Louis Lumière’s Cinématographe on 22 March. The early demonstrations were precisely that: showing trade and professional bodies that the technology worked. At the very end of the year the Lumière brothers gave the first public exhibition of films on 28 December 1895 in the Salon Indien at the Grand Café, 14 boulevard des Capucines, Paris. An audience of 33 people, including the magician and future film-maker Georges Méliès, paid one franc each for admission.
      In January 1896 the first private demonstrations were held in London, and on 21 February the first UK commercial film screenings of the Lumière Cinématographe began at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London. The admission charge was one shilling (5p). Among those who saw the films during their three-week run was an optical lanternist and showman from Hove, George Albert Smith. On 9 March the Cinématographe shows moved to the Empire Theatre of Varieties in Leicester Square.
      Meanwhile, Robert W Paul [right], an English electrical engineer had been involved in moving pictures since making a copy in 1894 of Edison’s Kinetoscope, which had not been patented in the UK. Paul developed the technology to include projection on a screen and started to make his own films in February 1895, working with a photographer, Birt Acres, who consequently made the first film shot in Britain (other than a test strip), outside his home in Barnet, north London.
      Paul’s films were shown to the public for the first time at the Finsbury Technical College in 21 February 1896, on the day the Cinématographe opened in Regent Street. On 19 March he began screenings using his Theatrograph projector at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly and two days later at the Olympia exhibition halls. That led to a two-week engagement at the Alhambra music hall in Leicester Square, which eventually extended to four years.

Films arrive in Brighton
Until now all film shows in England had been in London. On the same day that R W Paul’s shows began at the Alhambra, 25 March 1896, the first show outside the capital was held at the Pandora Gallery, at 132 King’s Road, Brighton, opposite the West Pier.
      By the beginning of July the Pandora Gallery had become the Victoria Hall. On 6 July 1896 R W Paul’s ‘Celebrated Animatographe’ began a run of shows there that was so popular with residents and visitors that it continued well into the autumn. Remarkably, a photograph survives, taken from the West Pier at that time, which shows the sign advertising the Animatographe.
      Other film shows in Brighton, using variously named projectors, were to follow during the remainder of 1896. The Cinographoscope at the Imperial Hotel in Queen’s Road at the end of September. Chard’s Vitagraph at the Empire Theatre of Varieties (later the Court Cinema) in New Road from mid-October. The Hove Camera Club‘s annual exhibition at Hove Town Hall in November had some animated photographs organised by James Williamson, a pharmacist with a shop in Church Road, Hove, where he developed and printed photographs for his customers. And finally, at Christmas R W Paul’s Theatrograph (another name for the Animatographe) featured in the Christmas pantomime at the Theatre Royal.
      The programme included local scenes shot by Esmé Collings, who was also involved in putting on the shows.

Local film-making begins
A number of places can claim to have witnessed pioneering efforts in the making of films: West Orange NJ, New York, Lyon, Paris, Blackburn, Berlin, Walton-on-Thames and Holmfirth (of Last of the Summer Wine fame) among them. But few can claim an equal role to Brighton and Hove in advancing mere film towards its status as ‘cinema’. Yet this achievement was barely recognised at the time, nor for many years after.
      It was not until 1945 that the city was put on the media history map in an essay by the French film historian Georges Sadoul, who coined the phrase ‘l’école de Brighton’ (the Brighton school) to describe the work of Esmé Collings, George Albert Smith, James Williamson and Alfred Darling.
      In adopting that name Sadoul may have unknowingly trampled on the sensitivities of the good people of Hove—which is, after all, where most of the work was done—but this proved to be a transformative publication. The study and writing of film history and theory was only just getting into its stride in the mid-1940s, especially in France. Even the doyen of British film historians, Roger Manvell, had yet to catch up with the early events on his own doorstep. In 1968 an exhibition organised by the British Film Institute about the Hove film pioneers was held during the Brighton Festival.
      But the watershed came in 1978 when the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) held its 34th congress in Brighton, which began the re-assessment of early cinema that established the basis for its future study that has continued ever since, even unto the present website and beyond.
      A collection of 548 films from the earliest days of the cinema around the world were screened before the conference at the Brighton Film Theatre in North Street. A pamphlet about local film history was compiled for the event.       For all that, the work of the pioneers had been documented close to the time and then forgotten, the accounts sitting in archives to be rediscovered decades later.

In an unpublished memoir, James Williamson wrote about local activity in 1896:
Brighton is often mentioned as the home of film production and there certainly were three different producers in this town about the time under review: Esmé Collings, G A Smith and the writer. Brighton also provided an attractive background and was often visited by producers from London and elsewhere, especially in later years. The three above mentioned will probably all admit that this coincidence and their early start were materially assisted by Mr Alfred Darling, a clever engineer who made a study of the requirements of film producers. The writer at this time was floundering about with homemade apparatus and did succeed in making some pictures, but the real start was only made when the late W Wrench of Gray's Inn Road introduced him to Darling. The Williamson Series of Short Comedies were not commenced until the year following the one under review.

In the frame
The only precedents that early film-makers had to work with were photography and the theatre. Film may have combined the two but it add much to the mix. It freed photography from being still and it could take the audience right up onto the stage or, indeed, out into the real world. Although viewers remained in a fixed position in the stalls and what they saw was contained within a frame every bit as rigid as a theatre’s proscenium, film could take them closer to the action and, as Williamson was among the first to realise, change the vantage point at will.
      However, there was a third influence: the comic strip. The Boy’s Own Paper had been around since 1879, joined in 1890 by two of the most famous of all, Comic Cuts and Illustrated Chips. The concept of dividing a story into static moments, leading to a punchline gag, was essentially what film offered. (In a reversal of roles, it is common practice today to plan films in the form of a storyboard, which is exactly the comic principle.) The limited time of a single roll of film—60 feet ran for one minute—would also have concentrated the mind and the ideas about what could be put on the screen.
      It is therefore no accident that among the earliest films made in Brighton are two showing an actor dressed up as Ally Sloper—a popular cartoon character that first appeared in 1867 and had had his own comic publication, Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday, since 1884. In 1898 Smith shot a simple film but Williamson probably added greater production values and even had a second go later in the autumn with a cricketing spoof.
      In fact, it was James Williamson whose work most closely resembled the comic strip approach. In a film like Stop Thief! (1901) he is effectively producing an animated three-frame comic strip. He is also significantly moving away from filming square on to the action, recognising the importance of introducing dynamic perspective into the action.

Finding the grammar
The whole lexicon of grammar in film production—the way to tell a story in moving images—had to come from somewhere and much of it came from the fertile minds at work in Hove. Within the first half dozen years, shooting and editing techniques pioneered in Hove included superimposition, vignetting, split screen, various forms of transition between shots—fades, defocusing/refocusing, wipes—reverse angles and jump cuts. This is not to say that such elements of film grammar were not used by other films-makers, although there is little or no evidence that they were notably employed elsewhere at an earlier date.
      It is curious that the length of films remained obstinately around the one-minute mark for so long, especially when splicing lengths of negative together became possible. Films running for more than just one minute, especially after James Williamson’s Attack on a Chinese Mission—Blue Jackets to the Rescue (1900) and Fire! (1901), must have shown their benefits in improved entertainment value and audience appeal. In 1908 Williamson released a film version of Ovingdean author Harrison Ainsworth’s Tower of London that ran for nearly 20 minutes, when the typical length was rarely over 10 minutes.
      Yet in 1913 a Cinematograph Exhibitors’ Association resolution deplored ‘the present tendency to produce excessively long films to the detriment of the short length films upon which the prosperity of this business was built up and depends, it being obvious that the present number of inferior short films is the outcome of this policy and must ultimately prove to the detriment of all parties concerned’. Inferiority may be the problem rather than length but British cinema exhibitors have had a longstanding tradition of being conservative—backward-looking, overly defensive and safe.
      Nonetheless, the typical length of Kinemacolor dramas that started to be churned out from the Cambridge Grove studio off Wilbury Villas in Hove after 1910 was 16-20 minutes. In 1911 the Kinemacolor film of George V’s Delhi Durbar was over two hours long—an unprecedented running time.
      The films that came out of Shoreham between 1919 and 1922 were around the 80-minutes mark, which by then had become the industry’s standard and has not increased by much ever since.

Go to Part 2: The troubles begin
Go to Part 3: Sound and decline
Go to the TERRA MEDIA world media history website
©David Fisher 2010-2022