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BFI launches unprecedented Victorian Film collection of Britain's earliest films
Britain's Best Bicycle, 1901.

LONDON.- The BFI celebrates 200 years since the birth of Queen Victoria (born 24 May 1819) with the launch of the BFI’s entire collection of British Victorian Film made between 1895 and 1901, available to all, for free on BFI Player from 13 May. The online collection is complemented by a Victorian Film Weekender programme of screenings and events at BFI Southbank (9-12 May) including TV previews for broadcast collaborations between BFI and Victorian Sensations (BBC Four) and Horrible Histories (CBBC), plus innovative BFI education courses offering access to explore the Victorian era and discover more about our earliest films.

Held and preserved by the BFI National Archive, the Victorian Film collection is a vast resource with more than 500 films newly digitised from the best quality source materials thanks to £36,700 of National Lottery funding from The National Lottery Heritage Fund. With existing Victorian era titles filmed by Mitchell and Kenyon, this gives free access to over 700 films.

BFI silent film curator, Bryony Dixon says “Early British film is a legacy to be proud of, these rare moving pictures document the last years of Queen Victoria's long reign with a vividness that no other kind of historical artefact can bring. These incredibly rare, fragile film fragments speak volumes, adding colour and texture to our understanding of the Victorians vibrant and rapidly progressing world"

Film historians the world over acknowledge the crucial contribution of Britain’s early filmmakers in developing the new medium. The Victorian Film collection showcases the incredible range and inventiveness of these dynamic and youthful Victorian pioneers, most of whom were in their twenties and thirties at the birth of film. The story of British filmmaking in this period is one of technical innovation and invention, bravura showmanship and unbridled creativity.

Britain’s earliest filmmakers came from a variety of backgrounds, combining an interest in technology and engineering (RW Paul, WKL Dickson) a knowledge of photo-chemical process (Birt Acres, James Williamson), performers and magicians who had an eye for entertainment (Walter Booth, GA Smith, Charles Goodwin Norton, Cecil Hepworth) as well as salesmen with an entrepreneurial flair for new business opportunities (Charles Urban, Walter Gibbons).

In the first five years these young British filmmakers put the new medium through its paces, embracing the rapid expansion in technology across a range of genres and formats, even experimenting with early colour and sound; all nascent forms that would later emerge in moving image media across cinema, television and online platforms and shape how we perceive moving image culture today. This new collection gives us the opportunity to marvel at their technical and creative ambition.

Crucially, these new media pioneers recorded the world of the late Victorians themselves with an avid curiosity in the world opening up around them. 120 years on these films give modern audiences an immediacy and deeper understanding of the Victorian period than has been felt before. Like HG Wells’ time traveller we are transported back, you almost feel you can reach out and touch the past. The intimate demonstrations of humour, un-guarded tenderness and spontaneity expressed dispels any preconceptions of the sober, austere, buttoned-up Victorians.

The first moving pictures were short in length. At under a minute long their concise capsule storytelling probably has more in common with YouTube and our online and social media culture today than with later films from the cinema industry. Film was a moving picture revolution, literally changing people’s perception of reality. Today, as a revolution in the art and technology of moving images is again transforming the way we see the world, it’s a good moment to reflect on how the first film audiences saw their own world projected on a big screen.

The collection includes incredibly rare 68mm large format films that have been superbly restored in 4K from the original nitrate prints, under the meticulous supervision of the BFI National Archive’s conservation team in partnership with archive colleagues at EYE Filmmuseum and Haghefilm in the Netherlands. At four times the size of 35mm, the quality and clarity of these films is extraordinary.

So many aspects of Victorian life are represented within the collection, there is Queen Victoria herself, including the earliest known moving image of a British monarch, Scenes at Balmoral (1896). Filmed on the occasion of a visit by the Tsar Nicholas II the Queen is shown accompanied by members of the royal household and a pack of canine companions, including the Queen’s favourite Pomeranian Turi. There is the simple movement of the natural world in popular images of sea waves, including the earliest film in the collection, Rough Sea at Dover (1895) and animal life including Pelicans at the Zoo (1898), Feeding the Tigers (1899), Spiders on a Web (1900) and a strong contender for the world’s first cat video, the charming four second, Me and My Two Friends (1898).

There are bustling street scenes showing the rapid expansion of ever-growing cities and towns across the UK including Tram Ride at Southampton (1900), children at play, Children Dancing With Barrel Organ (1898) Lassie and Her Dog (1901), and adults at work including the much publicised Launch of the Worthing Lifeboat (1898) and a wealth of popular factory gates films including the currently unidentified Workpeople Leaving a Factory (1900). The films also record the events of the Victorian calendar, from thrilling sporting fixtures such as the Derby (1895) and Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race (1899) and early football matches, Blackburn Rovers V. West Bromwich 1898 to covering more extraordinary events, such as the pomp and ceremony of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the first modern mass media event to be captured on film with 40 cameramen from 20 companies covering the 22 June 1897 procession, of which 11 films survive.

In 1899 WKL Dickson took the Biograph camera to South Africa to film the Boer War, the first conflict to be recorded on film. Capturing the action on the very large, very heavy camera, with batteries and tripod all weighing in, would have been extremely challenging. But the precious fragments that have survived are remarkable, giving us a previously unseen insight into life on the front line including footage from Battle of Spion Kop: Ambulance Corps Crossing the Tugela River and Gordon Highlanders in Ladysmith, both 1900. As well as sending filmmakers abroad to cover the conflict there were also examples of UK-filmed reconstructions of international stories from the Boxer Rebellion, Attack on a China Mission (1901) as well as the Boer War, Nurses Attending The Wounded (1899). Inspired by the popular illustrated news these films could be seen as early examples of ‘fake’ news.

The films feature travel extensively as the world opened up to the Victorians. These include the earliest known surviving films of exotic locations such as Venice (Panoramic View of the Vegetable Market at Venice,1898), Paris (Panorama of the Paris Exhibition No. 3, 1900) The Alps (Mount Pilatus Railway, 1900), Egypt (Women Fetching Water From The Nile, 1897), India originally mis-titled as a Panorama of Calcutta (1899), the film has been identified as the Ghats at the holy city of Varanasi, and Singapore, Coolie Boys Diving for Coins (1900) including exhilarating ‘phantom rides’ from trains, trams, funicular railways and boats.

The collection includes film records of Victorian entertainers including Percy Honri’s banjele-playing Mister Moon (1900), Herbert Campbell, Dan Leno’s professional partner, promoting their Jack and the Beanstalk adaptation, Herbert Campbell as Little Bobby (1899), acting legend Herbert Beerbohm Tree emoting the death scene of Shakespeare’s King John (1899) and the acrobatic spectacle of the internationally known Deonzo Brothers (1901). A truly unique record of a major Victorian music hall star, Kitty Mahone (1900) allows us to experience American born Lil Hawthorne, (later involved in the Crippen case). Performing one of her hit songs, this is the only surviving example of a synchronised Victorian sound film.

There are thrilling flights of fantasy, Magic Sword A Mediaeval Mystery (1901), The Haunted Curiosity Shop (1901), literary adaptations, Scrooge or Marley’s Ghost (1901), entertaining trick films, Upside Down; or, the Human Flies (1899), Artistic Creation (1901), important for its use of animation, comedy sketches from the visual pun of Miller and the Sweep (1897) and The Barber Saw the Joke (1900) to the absurd and grisly Explosion of a Motor Car (1900), playing on Victorian viewers fears of the new ‘horseless carriage’. Capsule dramas developed the origins of film language including milestone moments such as continuity editing to move narrative action on in Fire! (1901), and exploring meta in The Big Swallow (1901), by playing with the internal logic of film and point of view. This period also records the earliest example of screen advertising for Rudge-Whitworth Britain’s Best Bicycle (1901) and product placement for Vinolia Soap (1898).

As well as Queen Victoria herself there are appearances from a host of popular figures in Victorian society including Edward VII (King Edward’s Arrival at Helsingor, 1901), his son, The Duke of York (later George V) (Afternoon Tea in the Garden of Clarence House (1897), after the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee procession), Kaiser Wilhelm II (Funeral of Queen Victoria: Procession starting from Victoria Station, 1901) Pope Leo XIII (Pope Leo XIII Being Seated Bestowing Blessing, 1898) as well as English cricketing legends WG Grace (WG Grace Celebrates at Lord’s on his 50th Birthday, 1898) and Prince Ranjitsinhji in the first ever cricket film, Prince Ranjitsinhji Practising Batting at the Nets (1897).

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