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In 1994 some 800 reels of film were discovered in three metal drums in the basement of a shop in Blackburn. The footage, which was painstakingly restored by the British Film Institute, was the work of filmmakers, Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyan. In the early years of the 20th century, Mitchell and Kenyon travelled across Britain (particularly the North West of England and Yorkshire), filming ordinary British people at work and at play. In the pre-cinema age, these films were later shown at town halls or in fairground tents where people flocked, lured by the opportunity to "See yourselves as others see you."
This DVD of the BBC Series made in conjunction with the British Film Institute features three episodes, each an hour long. Each episode combines archive footage with interviews of those whose ancestors appear in the films.
It is important to remember that these films were not originally intended to be social documentaries. Mitchell and Kenyon were businessmen through and through, ready to cash in on people's curiosity about moving images and the novelty of seeing themselves on film. The more people they could film, the more people would pay to see those films. So they began to film people leaving the factories at the end of their shifts. Being based in Lancashire, Mitchell and Kenyon had a huge industrial workforce at their disposal.
You might wonder why anyone nowadays would be interested in watching hundreds of people passing in front of a camera. If they were your relatives, the interest might be understandable, but why would anyone want to look at a sea of anonymous faces? For my part, I have always loved old film footage, but what makes this particularly stunning to view is that it is incredibly clear, not at all jerky like you might expect from something so old. The film restorers have certainly done a commendable job. For me there is something quite eerie about watching footage of people from over 100 years ago. It can be hard to take on board that they are real people as opposed to actors. It really does feel as if you are watching a parade of ghosts. Even the youngest people are long dead.
I like to watch the reactions of the people as they pass by. Some wave their hats and smile, caught up with the excitement of being filmed but others look wary, unsure what to make of this new technology. We even see what might possibly be the first V sign recorded on film when an iron worker from Rotherham doesn't take too kindly to being filmed!
It is very moving to see the footage of children. When you watch carefree little boys in 1901 you wonder how many of them went on to perish in the trenches of the Great War. There is so much ahead of them that they could never have imagined. It feels as if you are witnessing the last days of innocence, the start of a century that would bring with it many positive developments yet some horrifying ones too.
Episode 1 begins with an introduction to the work of Mitchell and Kenyon and explains how they went into business. There is then an account of how the reels of film were discovered and restored. I can imagine that this might appeal to those who have an interest in film technology, but I was more anxious just to get on with seeing the footage.
In addition to factory gate shots, the films of Mitchell and Kenyon include busy street scenes, characterised by shots taken from a moving tram, and scenes of people at the seaside, promenading in parks and attending sporting events. It's striking how different they look. I'm not just talking about the obvious things such as differences in clothes - everyone wearing a hat, for example - but people seem to move differently, smile differently and exhibit gestures that we rarely see now. For example, the males stand in a way that seems to be characteristic of the era, with both thumbs inside the pockets of their waistcoats. There are some lovely bits of detail to spot, such as a bow-legged man (obviously a victim of rickets) passing by, advertisements on the front of the trams, and child workers at a Lancashire mill.
As I watched interviews with descendants of the people filmed, it made me realise that I have only ever seen one photograph of my great grandfather, so I can totally appreciate the emotional responses shown by many of the people interviewed, seeing moving footage of their ancestors for the first time. One man watches his great grandfather playing rugby in a clip from 1901. As he views this with his own young son, there is a real sense of family history stretching back through time. It's also quite amusing to see that the rugby players are wearing belts over their shorts, which does look rather strange!
Episode 2 focusses on the popularity of sporting events in Edwardian life and shows how legislation to introduce a shorter working week meant an increase in leisure time. Here we see some clips of early football matches, including the first ever footage of Manchester United. There is also a clip of a 6 foot 2 and 24 stone goalkeeper, who certainly looks a force to be reckoned with. It's interesting (and quite refreshing) to see what football was like in the days before it became full of image-conscious, glamour boys. The crowd shots are as much a part of Mitchell and Kenyon's sport films as the action itself. At football matches we see a mass of male faces in identical cloth caps, puffing out tobacco smoke, "all brothers together for an hour and a half" as J B Priestley was to describe them.
In addition to football and cricket, we see some more unusual leisure activities, including the Easter tradition of egg rolling in Preston. It's quite funny when you see Mitchell and Kenyon trying to get the people they are filming to react to props or walk in a particular direction. Often people ignore the requests and just gawp at the camera. Others, when filmed, stay perfectly still as if they are having their photographs taken. This brings home just how strange the concept of moving pictures must have seemed.
Because of the staged aspect to the Mitchell and Kenyon films, I do wonder how accurate their portrayal of working people really is. For example, would factory workers or miners who had just done a knackering 12 hour shift come out smiling so cheerily if the cameras weren't there?
I enjoyed the scenes of people at the seaside. Although these are silent films, they really communicate the undoubted joy people must have felt at getting away for one week's holiday a year (albeit unpaid). There are some great shots of Blackpool, which was booming in 1901 with over 2 million visitors each year. We see people strolling along the promenade, listening to concerts and there's even a bizarre clip of a man who appears to be selling fox furs on the beach. Footage of local carnivals certainly provides a glimpse into what passed as entertainment back then - people blacking up in the minstrel tradition, etc.
Episode 3 turns its attention to crime and features the world's first crime reconstruction film which depicted the arrest of embezzler, Thomas Goudie in 1901. This must have seemed very ground breaking at the time as it used the actual locations where the crime took place and was shown just three days after the suspect's arrest.
In addition, this episode uses archive footage to explore such areas as emigration, with scenes of passengers boarding ships destined for America. The footage would be shown later to those relatives they left behind - Mitchell and Kenyon not missing a trick, as usual!
This final episode also explains how Mitchell and Kenyon's 'actuality' films eventually declined in popularity as the novelty of moving pictures began to wear off, and we learn how their partnership eventually came to an end.
What I liked about this DVD:
It moved me. It really made me feel as if I was connecting with the past in a meaningful way, actually learning about history with the humanity left in. I warmed to the people I saw in the films. I wanted to know who they were, wondered what had become of them over the years. Particular faces haunted me.
I feel that anyone with an interest in early 20th century social history will find Mitchell and Kenyon's footage intriguing. Those people who are referred to collectively as 'the working class' in history books suddenly seem like real human beings when you see them in clear, moving images.
People with an interest in early film making will also appreciate this DVD. It offers a chance to see some of Mitchell and Kenyon's other work, including slapstick comedies in the Keystone Kops style and films enacting scenes from the Boer War in the Lancashire countryside, which are rather quaint.
I quite liked Dan Cruickshank's narrative style and I found his enthusiasm infectious.
What I didn't like about this DVD:
Mitchell and Kenyon were portrayed by actors in rather silly, slapstick interludes in the style of a silent movie. I found this tedious as it interrupted the flow and got in the way of the really interesting stuff, i.e. the archive footage.
I also felt that there was a bit too much repetition in the episodes. Each episode spent too long recapping on who Mitchell and Kenyon were and the story of the discovery of the film reels. I got impatient with this as I was keen to move onto new topics.
Although I enjoyed some of the interviews with descendants of the people in the films, some went on a bit too long.
I also was disappointed by the lack of subtitles on this DVD as I am a little hard of hearing and I am sure I must have missed some detail in the narrative.