Brought to my attention by Hell’s Donut House (grammercy, sirrah), via The Daily Mail via the AMIA email list courtesy of Leo Enticknap, curator of the Northern Region Film & Television Archive at the University of Teesside in Middlesbrough, England — whose brief comment at end is worth noting. Additional info follows below.
UK’s earliest film found in attic after 111 years
The Daily Mail (London, England), June 19, 2006
It features just three characters, lasts barely 50 seconds and has a plot that would leave modern audiences distinctly underwhelmed.
But to the experts, this grainy image from a film found in an attic in the West Midlands is of huge historical importance.
Not only is it the first movie ever made in Britain, but the world’s first crime movie to boot. Called Arrest of a Pickpocket, it was produced in April 1895 by pioneering film-maker Birt Acres, who was born in America to British parents.
It is the crown jewel in a priceless collection of early celluloid that has been found, wrapped in a Marks & Spencer bag, in a pensioner’s attic where it had been gathering dust for more than 60 years.
The extraordinary find could have gone up in flames at any time over the last century because the chemicals in the film are highly unstable.
And experts say the film would have degenerated beyond repair had it gone undiscovered for another three months. [See Leo Enticknap's comment, below.]
As it was, the hoard — which also includes six short films by the inventor and film pioneer Thomas Edison — was found only after a chance conversation between pensioner Frank Williams and his niece.
Mr Williams, 79, who lives in Redditch, Worcestershire, said: “I pretty much forgot about them. I certainly had no idea that they could have gone up in smoke and my house with it.
“I can only think that someone up above wanted the films to be found one day. Thank God they were discovered in time. It’s hard to believe that I’ve had the start of the British film industry sitting in my attic all this time.”
The film shows a pickpocket being chased by a policeman, before being wrestled to the ground with the help of a passing sailor, and arrested.
According to the archives, it was the first fictional film Birt Acres had ever made. It predates what had been the previous earliest British film in existence — Acres’s footage of the 1895 Derby [the famous British horse race] — by about two months.
Originally owned by Mr Williams’s grandfather, George, who travelled with the circus showing it as part of his magic lantern and peep show, the film ended up in the loft of the family’s engineering business in Worcestershire.
When he died in 1946, it was passed down from father to son and then onto his grandson. Mr Williams said: “I’d always wanted to find out something about the films but didn’t know who to ask.
“I tried taking them to a film museum in Brighton but it was closed so I came home, stuffed them in the back of my wardrobe and forgot about them.”
It was only when his niece, a keen genealogist, heard about them and contacted Sheffield University’s Fairground Archive, that the cache of 14 films came to light.
Dr Vanessa Toulmin, the archive’s director, said: “I spend my life looking at old films so I had no reason to suspect that this was anything amazing.
“But it is astounding. It is only about 100ft of film, and it was tagged onto the end of another film. But we have had it verified by four experts. It is not only the earliest British film ever found, but the first crime film made anywhere in the world.
“Another three months and it would not have survived because the nitrate was already rotting inside the tins.”
Deac Rossell, a film historian, said: “What is extraordinary is that there are newspapers of the day that have been used as a backdrop on the set.
“They clearly show that it was the third week in April. To give historians that kind of time check is a dream come true.”
After months of painstaking work, the film has been restored frame by frame. It is due to get its – second – world premiere at a festival for silent films in Venice in October.
[Dr.] Vanessa [Toulmin, mentioned above,] asked me to examine these elements when they were first given to her (there are no bench examination facilities at the National Fairground Archive), and I have to say that the three month claim sounds like a bit of an exaggeration to me. There were something like 11 elements in total, one of which had significantly shrunk and and was very brittle: but the others struck me as being in astonishingly good condition, given their age and the conditions in which they’d been stored. The restoration work was done by Prestech.
Curator, Northern Region Film & Television Archive
School of Arts and Media
University of Teesside
Tel. +44 (0)1642 384049
Fax +44 (0)8719 002602
Following is a scenario description of the film from John Barnes, The Beginnings of the Cinema in England 1894-1901, Vol. 1: 1894-1896. It is not at all clear from this source where the quotation included below originated from a contemporary Paul-Acres catalog (see below) or a later secondary source.
Arrest of a Pickpocket / Capture of a Pickpocket / Street Scene (April 1895)
The first dramatic photoplay made in England. ‘The Arrest of a pickpocket, in which the man is pursued by a constable, runs right across the picture, they struggle together and the policeman’s helmet is knocked off, then the pickpocket, by slipping out of his jacket, manages to escape, but runs full tilt into the arms of a sailor, with whose assistance he is finally secured, handcuffed, and marched off to justice.’
There are one or two other points in the Daily Mail’s article worth addressing. Not least, the film is definitely not “the first movie ever made in Britain.” Setting aside (albeit arguably) earlier experiments, the first saleable film (by the makers’ own account) was Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Race, shot on March 30, 1895 — prior to Arrest of a Pickpocket, if only perhaps by a matter of days.
It also very much bears mentioning that Birt Acres, important a figure as he is, was not working alone in those days, and giving him sole credit for this film is not quite true to the historical record. His partner at the time of these very first British motion pictures was Robert W. Paul, himself one of the truly landmark originators of cinema. The two men, in very short order, got into a rather bitter Victorian pissing match that today is difficult to adjudicate fairly, but suffice to say that working together the two succeeded in reverse-engineering an Edison Kinetoscope and, with some enhancements of their own devising, building motion cameras capable of shooting films compatible with the Edison machine. (Edison, uncharacteristically, failed to obtain patent protection in Britain and much of Europe prior to distributing his Kinetoscopes, though his licensing contracts left those who dealt in bootleg and unofficial Edison prints open to dire consequences.)
It is true that most, if not all, of the Paul-Acres films were actually shot (or “turned”) by Acres, and it is undeniable that the patent for that first camera was issued to him. But there is also no doubt whatsoever that the two were, at least for the nonce, equal partners at the time. The aformentioned pissing match centered on who, exactly, was the real engineering brains behind the operation, with Acres (a non-engineer but arguably the better publicist) voluably maintaining, perhaps with some justification, it was his ideas that made all the difference.
While, again, Acres is indeed a genuine and noteworthy pioneer, the argument is perhaps best put to rest by considering the simple facts that it was Paul who continued to devise and build ever-better cameras as well the first movie projection system in Britain, exported his gear throughout Europe for many years, continued to produce films long after Acres gave up the ghost (fostering numerous other later-important early British filmmakers along the way). Indeed, Paul’s company lasted until 1920, when it was amalgamated with Cambridge Scientific Instruments Ltd.
Whatever the case, it is very good news indeed that this precious piece of cinema history has been found and preserved…an incredible 111 years after it was shot. (The expected lifespan of nitrate film is only 50 years.)