William Kennedy Laurie Dickson left the employ of Thomas Edison in 1895, having established the 35mm film standards that persist to this day. He was already involved in a partnership that became the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company for which be became a travelling cameraman, in due course coming to England in May 1897. It was known that he had filmed in Worthing on the Sussex coast. So having recently published a book about film-making in the more important film centre of Brighton & Hove, I thought it might be worth checking out more about Dickson’s time in Worthing. The results were meagre. It seems he spent only a couple of days in the town, filming the swimming club, among other things.
However, the search threw up one snippet worth noting, although at the moment for nothing more than mere curiosity. In trying to find out why he was not present in the 1911 British census (conducted on 2 April), it turns out he sailed from Liverpool to New York on the White Star liner Baltic on 25 March 1911. My eye was caught by the name two lines above his in the passenger list: Mr Eugene Lauste. He had also worked for Edison, between 1886 and 1892 and with Dickson had developed the Latham loop, about which patent battles were to be fought, used in the wide-film system known as the Eidoloscope. Not long before that transatlantic crossing Lauste had achieved a practical sound-on-film recording, something he had been working on for several years.
Maybe their journeying together to America had no greater significance than two old colleagues travelling together. Maybe…
Blogging seems to come easily to some. Not here by the looks of it. Nearly three years since the last post. Then there’s a message to say someone is following this blog. Wow! Fame at last.
Amazing that the publication of Cinema-by-Sea: Film and Cinema in Brighton & Hove since 1896 has gone unremarked in this space. It was published late November 2012 and has been selling steadily ever since. Actually, it’s been selling well, considering it’s currently available only in bookshops in the Brighton area and online from Amazon. You can read all about it at brightonfilm.com/cinema-by-sea.htm and even order it from that page. It aims to be the most comprehensive account of all the films made in Brighton and Hove, plus histories of all the cinemas, the stories of the invention of colour cinematography in Southwick and the sad case of the lost studios of Whitehawk, and over 200 biographies of people associated with film who were born, lived worked or died in Brighton.
The new website is now online and the main section of the programme is uploaded. Only the short film aspects are still to be finalised, partly because more requests to include films have been arriving almost daily.
Twelve feature films covering 60 years (albeit with a 40-year gap in the middle) are at the core of the festival. These include the world premiere of Heathen, which, although it has had a DVD release, has yet to be seen on the big screen. This is one of four recent feature-length independent productions, each of a noticeably higher quality than some of the older B-feature films.
This aspect of the resurgence of British film-making is largely ignored. With so many movie channels, not to mention digital channels that also show movies, it is astonishing—nay appalling—that such films never get even a television screening. They are much more a part of our national culture than the silly American high-school movies that are regularly screened, even though their quality leaves as much to be desired as their relevance. The fee for one such airing would probably cover the budget. It must be hoped that the development of an alternative content market in cinemas with digital projection facilities will also change the way British production is encouraged and stimulated.
The latest project is a spin-off from the nearly-finished book, nay encyclopaedia, about film and cinema in Brighton & Hove since 1896. Planning actually began last autumn but has been picking up speed over the past couple of weeks. The best way to sum it up is to post the first press release, which has still to go out to the press, so you get to read it here first.
MADE IN BRIGHTON FILM FESTIVAL
A celebration of more than a century of local film-making
Brighton & Hove’s long association with film will be celebrated during this year’s Brighton Festival Fringe. Brighton was one of the first places in the world where films were made, starting in 1896, little more than a few weeks after the wonders of moving pictures were first witnessed by astonished audiences.
There have been numerous film festivals in the city before but none devoted to the many films made in Brighton & Hove. The Made in Brighton Film Festival, part of the Fringe at this year’s Brighton Festival will assemble around 50 films ranging from the very earliest silents (Scene on the West Pier from 1897), through archive documentaries to recent low-budget independent features and short films. The festival, to be held at the Old Courtroom in Church Street, Brighton (opposite The Dome), runs from 1-21 May.
Among the films lined up for the festival are several feature films from the 1950s and 1960s. Lady Godiva Rides Again (1951) is a comedy by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliatt about rigged beauty contests that stands comparison with the Ealing comedies of the period and includes scenes in the Regent ballroom, in Saltdean and up Albion Hill. Much British film-making was arguably not at its finest then but the selections are very much of their time. The Gelignite Gang (1954) is a crime story with scenes in Kemp Town and Hove. Interior scenes were shot at Brighton Film Studios in St Nicholas Road, as they were for The Battle of the V1 (1958), in which Shoreham beach, gasworks and airport are turned into the Nazi rocket site at Peenemunde; the resistance headquarters are in the Rothbury cinema in Portslade.
‘Part of the fun of watching these films is spotting the locations,’ says media historian David Fisher, the festival’s organiser. ‘A few of the places have disappeared but many are unchanged—some even more than a hundred years later.’ Locations from Shoreham to Rottingdean, from the West Pier to the downs will be seen on screen.
From the 1960s comes the underrated Smokescreen (1964), with a stunning opening sequence that leads into an intriguing story of insurance fraud. Be My Guest (1965) is a product of the swinging sixties, with David Hemmings and Steve Marriott (later of the Small Faces) playing the leads in a musical that features performances by the Nashville Teens, Jerry Lee Lewis and, yes, Slash Wildly and the Cutthroats. Another side of the swinging sixties is on show in the films of Brighton-born Pete Walker, such as Strip Poker (aka The Big Switch, 1969)—‘not sixties Georgy Girl,’ as he himself put it, ‘this was sixties naff.’ Nonetheless, the climax on a snowy West Pier is a classic B-feature moment.
If Brighton & Hove were used in those earlier times by visiting productions, in the new century the city has developed a thriving, if half-hidden film culture of its own. The festival will be screening four feature-length works by local film-makers, typically made for less money than the cost of the coffees on ‘major motion pictures’, although cheapness rarely shows now in the way it did 50 years ago.
Ross Shepherd’s Heathen (2009) is a stylish psychological mystery that uses local settings to great effect. In Ambleton Delight (2009) a town is divided over plans to build a motorway across the nearby downs. It won director Daniel Parkes the award for Best Feature Film at the British Independent Film Festival 2010. Mark Jay’s Dolphins (2007) is an action romance set among the boy racers and the local indie music scene. Richard III (2005) is indeed Shakespeare’s play but is excitingly transposed by director Maximilian Day from the Plantagenet court to the gang world of Brighton’s Whitehawk estate.
As well as these feature films the festival will include a wide variety of short films from the very earliest times to archive documentaries and recent independent short fiction films. The festival will also include talks and discussions about aspects of making films, featuring directors and actors, as well as experts in funding and distribution.
Watch for regular reports about the development of the festival.
It came as a surprise to discover an advertisement for a little known film format being shown in Brighton in 1896. Cinographoscope was the cumbersome name of a film system developed, like the Cinématographe, by two French brothers, Alexandre and Jules Pipon, manufacturers of photographic apparatus at 15 boulevard Saint-Denis in Paris. It was patented earlier in the year (2 March 1896) and had replaced the Lumière Cinématographe at the Olympia music hall in Paris from 23 July. How it differed from the Cinématographe or any other film technology of the time is not clear. However, it came to the Imperial Hotel in Brighton in late September 1896. R W Paul’s ‘celebrated Animatographe’ was just coming to the end of a successful three-month stint at the Victoria Hall on the seafront in Brighton. The Imperial Hotel was a small establishment just down the road from the station.
Although little seems to be known about the Cinographoscope, at least it is an identifiable film system. When the first film show began in Brighton at the Pandora Gallery on 25 March 1896, it was described as ‘the Cinématograph’ (with an accent but no final e). This was soon changed, in the advert for 4 April, to ‘the Cinématographe or Vitascope’. The former suggests Lumière but the latter is a puzzle. The projector known as the Vitascope, designed by Thomas Armat and produced by Edison, was not even shown to the press in the USA until that same date. No one seems to know who ran the shows at the Pandora Gallery, which may have been created and so named especially for the event. By the time R W Paul ran his Animatographe shows there three months later it was called the Victoria Hall. How ‘Vitascope’ came to be associated with it equally remains a mystery.
The idea was that the spectators would stand on a platform that rocked gently to simulate movement as hidden fans blew the air to simulate forward motion. All around them lighting effects, slides and moving pictures would present ‘the sensation of voyaging on a machine through time’. The English showman Robert W Paul, best known now as one of the first film pioneers, described this project in the patent application (no 19984) he made on 24 October 1895 entitled ‘A novel form of exhibition or entertainment, means for presenting the same’. Paul had met H G Wells, whose story The Time Machine had achieved recent resounding success.
Some commentators have seen in this a parallel with Hale’s Tours, the short-lived sensation of a decade later in which audiences sat in railway carriages for journeys through the Rocky Mountains, past the pyramids, up Norwegian fjords. I wrote this poem several years ago:
A Kansas fire chief, George C Hale,
Created tourist trips by rail.
His big idea (no, please don’t laugh):
To use the cinematograph.
The train stood still, the world rolled by.
The carriage rocked, deceived the eye.
His cameras strapped in front of trains
Shot scenic mountains, rivers, plains.
His shows toured cities far and wide
As audiences sat there goggle-eyed.
He made a fortune. His success,
Though quite short-lived, brought happiness.
Let’s travel back to see Hale’s Tours.
I take you through the carriage doors,
I seat you on a red plush chair—
You see it, but it isn’t there.
You look through windows left and right,
You see the world in black and white.
With wanderlust to stir your blood,
See townscapes, mountains and the flood,
Norwegian fjords, the Holy Land,
The golden road to Samarkand.
No need to move—my words, you’ll find,
Create the journey in your mind.
No tickets, waiting or delay,
No checked-in bags to go astray,
No wings or wheels or horses’ hooves.
He travels far who never moves.
In fact, R W Paul’s conception went further than that. He envisaged the protoype fairground ride that began to appear 60 years later at Disneyland and subsequent theme parks, what today would be classed as virtual reality. One of the most popular genres of early film was the ‘phantom ride’, shot with a camera strapped on the front of a moving vehicle, usually a train. Early film-makers can be divided between those who saw the medium as a way of recording actuality and those who recognised it as an illusion that could be exploited. Paul belongs to the latter group, although in his relatively brief career—in common with a number of his contemporaries he had given up the cinema by 1910—he made films of both types. Another was George Albert Smith, who tranformed the phantom ride by interpolating a scene of a couple in a ‘darkened’ carriage as it travels through the tunnel in his 1898 film A Kiss in the Tunnel.
One more thought: if ‘phantom ride’ films were shot with a camera strapped to the front of a train, where was the cameraman who had to crank the handle to shoot the film?
Anyone who has been through certain London Underground stations in the past year or so will have been struck by the video advertising sites that have replaced hoardings and posters alongside the escalators. How very modern, you think. Well, actually the idea celebrates its centenary this year.
On 29 September 1909, one Robert Fox, engineer, of 15 Werter Road, Putney applied for a patent on a ‘means of producing cinematograph effects, more especially for advertising purposes, by means of the motion of a railway carriage or like rapidly moving vehicle. The invention is especially intended for use in “tube” railways and employs walls of the tube as the means of display.’ This is his description of the technique:
On the walls of the tunnel, or mounted on suitable supports by the side of the line if in the open, I place, as in apparatus already proposed for this purpose, a long succession of photographic enlargements or pictures taken from a cinematograph film or otherwise produced in such a manner that. if viewed in rapid succession they give the effect of a moving picture, such pictures being separated by wide blank spaces, preferably black or darkened, as viewed by the observer, and placed on a level with the windows so that they are readily seen by passengers. They are illuminated by light thrown upon or through them from the carriage or from fixed lamps. The separating or stopping off portions are, according to my invention, wedge shaped or triangular in. plan with the front face at right angles to the picture and a blank sloping face in the direction meeting the train. The front face may be provided with the lamps.
These pictures are placed along the line in parts where the train maintains a fairly constant speed and the width of the pictures is calculated upon the speed the train is expected to reach. The eyes of the passengers are caused by the brilliantly illuminated pictures to rest momentarily on each picture as it arrives and pass rapidly over the blank space to the next slightly differing one, so that the effect produced corresponds to that of an ordinary cinematograph, although the person viewing moves while the pictures retain their position, in contrast to the ordinary arrangement.
Mr Fox, who by then, perhaps bored by travelling through dark tube tunnels, had moved to Westcliff-on-Sea, was rewarded with a patent on 11 August 1910. Not quite flat-screen video panels but a bold effort that had to wait almost a century to be realised.
In 1996, to mark the centenary of the cinema the British Film Institute backed a scheme called Cinema 100 to place 300 commemorative plaques on a number of locations associated with the beginnings of the cinema in Britain. Revisiting the ones along the Sussex coast recently revealed what a sad state some are in.
The worst case is probably the plaque which marks the location of the first UK film show outside London, at what was then the Pandora Gallery, on 25 March 1896. It was also, after the name changed to Victoria Hall, where R W Paul ran a season of film shows starting on 6 July 1896. However, the plaque is virtually illegible.
But at least it is still there and it may catch the eye of visitors who sit outside the restaurant in the sun (or wind) as they gaze across the road at the West Pier, which is in an even sorrier state. Another of the Cinema 100 plaques, to mark the site of the Maguire & Baucus Kinetoscope parlour at 70 Oxford Street, London
—but actually placed on no 76
—has disappeared altogether. As also has a plaque that was placed by the Cinema Theatre Association to commemorate the Regent Cinema in Brighton. It was unveiled by Susannah York as recently as 24 May 2001 at what is now Boots store opposite the Clock Tower. So far enquiries have failed to ascertain what happened.
Another of the surviving Cinema 100 plaques is on the building that was 144 Church Street, Hove (since re-numbered as 156). Is it appropriate that today the shop where James Williamson had his pharmacy and photographic processing business is now called The Eyecare Centre?
The plaque, however, somewhat misleadingly, calls it the ‘Site of the First Studio and Laboratory created by James Williamson’ and gives the dates 1896-1898. As far as film goes, the dates are the right ones. Williamson actually moved into the shop in 1886 but did not start processing films until 1896 and he did move on (to 55 Western Road, Hove) in September 1898. However, this is the actual building, not merely its site, and it is stretching a point to refer to a ‘laboratory’
—he processed film along with the rest of his photographic processing
—and even more to call it a ‘studio’. Most of his films at this time were actualities and even the comic and dramatic films were shot out of doors.
This misleadingness is as nothing compared with another plaque, to which bombshell we shall return anon.
I’ve just been reading the 1907 patent for the device that became known as the Spirograph. It was a disc, packaged rather like a 78rpm audio record, that carried a spiral of microscopic images. It was invented by a British media journalist, a precursor of mine. Theodore Brown edited the Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly; I edit Screen Digest. I’ve never invented anything as far as I can recall.
Mr Brown was quite a prolific inventor, mainly of mechanical toys, puzzles, games, kaleidoscopes and advertising devices that used changing images or patterns to attract attention. Some of his patents were held jointly with his wife, Bessie Kate Brown. Indeed, for the ‘spirograph’ her name precedes his and she gives her occupation as ‘lady’. However, unlike some pictures promoting home cinema at that time, she was not shown turning the handle to show just how easy it was to use.
The images were reduced through a microscope lens system from 35mm film to form a series of tiny images in a spiral around the disc. That makes it a proto-video disc. The advantage of a disc, of course, it that it can be copied easily
—without having to spool through film or tape.
I first saw this device, or something like it, in 1980 in the Smithsonian in Washington DC but never managed to trace much information about it. Now, courtesy of the excellent European Patent Office site, I can read exactly what Brown had in mind. Which turns out to be even more like a video disc than I realised. As well as (or more accurately, instead of) forming a spiral on the disc, the images can be in the form of concentric rings, with the mechanism moving over by one ring at the end of each revolution. However, as Brown points out, if the disc does not advance, the images can go on repeating themselves. In principle this is exactly the same as the concept used in the Philips VLP/MCA Discovision of the mid 1970s. Discs could be mastered with either constant linear velocity, in which the laser follows the spiral track at a constant rate (the rate of rotation reducing as the laser moves towards the outer edge of the disc), or constant angular velocity, in which the disc rotates at a constant speed and each revolution carries one frame of picture. So if the disc is held on a given revolution, the image on the screen is frozen.
What goes around, comes around.
- More than coincidence?
- Booked up: Cinema-by-Sea
- Made in Brighton Film Festival 2
- Made in Brighton Film Festival
- Ally Pally with Freeview
- On demand
- Nothing new 3: Victorian Disneyland
- Greasy polls
- Films about cinemas
- Nothing new 2: Moving ads in railway tunnels (1909)
- Missing and faded memorials