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Film History And Film Locations

Electric Cinema in Portobello Road, London, Britain's oldest working cinema

As this is a web site about British history, it would make sense to talk about British film history. But film has always been international in outlook. It is a visual medium, and has an ability to cross borders between people in a way that spoken or written languages cannot. Spoken language is designed for communication, but is also designed to differentiate people from one another. Stand three men together dressed in suits and it will be difficult to tell where they come from. Once they start speaking all will become clear. As language expert David Crystal says in English as a Global Language this is actually how language works, defining groups of people as much as it allows communication between them. Film is different. Most films made in the first forty years of cinema's existence had no recorded soundtrack. The technology existed to record sound, but somehow people were so enthralled by moving images that sound and language were slow to be incorporated. As film historian Mark Cousins writes: "Absence of language barriers ensured that the birth of cinema was truly international and the films of the first decade were shown all over the world" (The Story Of Film by Mark Cousins P 18).




Fittingly for such a popular and international art form, no one person invented cinema, and there is no clear date for its beginning. There are a number of people of different nationalities who contributed to what would become the most influential cultural form of the early twentieth century. In 1884 a New York industrialist named George Eastman invented film on a roll, as opposed to individual slides. A few years later New Jersey inventor Thomas Edison and his assistant W.K.L. Dickson found a way of spinning a series of still images in a box, known as a Kinescope, to give the illusion of movement. In the late 1880s Louis le Prince patented a machine which used film rolls to take moving pictures. In 1888 he took his invention to Leeds, and shot a short film of traffic on Leeds Bridge. The first screenings of this film took place through a single viewer in Leeds later that same year. Then the Lumiere brothers of Paris noticed that the action of a sewing machine pulling fabric in a rapid staccato stop go motion beneath a needle could be applied to a film camera. On 28th December 1895, a date which many film historians claim as the birth of cinema, the Lumiere brothers showed a short programme of their documentary films in a room at the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris. Their bill included The Arrival of a Train at Ciotat Station. As the train appeared to loom nearer on the screen many of the audience ducked and shouted out in fright. A programme for this first film screening can be seen at the Bill Douglas Centre, Exeter University in Devon.

In its early days the social status of cinema was uncertain. Lumiere Brothers films were often shown to royalty, and were considered in Cousins' words, something of a "courtly novelty". But then in a crucial step, Enoch J. Rector filmed the 1897 Corbett-Fitzsimmons boxing match in Nevada. Filmed in wide screen, Rector showed his boxing film at his cinema, Tally's Phonograph Parlour in Los Angeles. Terry Ramsaye says that it was this film, its subject matter and subsequent widespread popularity, which confirmed cinema as "definitely lowbrow, an entertainment of the great unwashed commonality" (see A Million And One Nights P286). In France theatre adaptations started to be made for the screen, and the early film business of Scandinavia, Germany and India had high brow cultural ambitions. But in the United States The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight set cinema in the populist mould, which eventually allowed America to dominate world cinema. And this is really where the story of British cinema comes in. While America followed a popular line in its film making, the British were one of those countries who were frankly embarrassed about doing so. Kenton Bamford in his book Distorted Images makes much of the fact that early British film makers sought cultural and social acceptance in using theatrical and literary models for their cinema. Unfortunately this did not usually make for cinema which a lot of people wanted to see. Crucial cinematic effects depended on breaking with a theatrical tradition. In a theatre people watched action from their seats in an auditorium at a fixed distance from the stage. In film there could be close ups - first seen in G.H. Smith's The Little Kittens 1903 - sudden spatial jumps between places - first seen in Edwin Stanton's The Life of an American Fireman 1903 - actors turning their back to the audience - first seen in Charles le Bargy's The Assassination of the Duc de Guize 1908. You could switch viewpoints between characters, and so enter into their experience, a technique known as reverse angle cutting - first used in Ralph Ince's His Last Flight 1913. None of this was possible in theatre, and if cinema was to fulfill its potential it had to break with past traditions. This happened most powerfully in America. British audiences much preferred American films, and in response to this, 1927 saw the British government introduce a Cinematograph Films Act to try and protect Britain's film industry. Under the terms of the Act exhibitors were obliged to show a quota of British made films. But even with a quota in place, and in the face of nationalistic attitudes which usually would have insisted that British was best, nothing could stop British audiences wanting American films.


Blenheim Palace designed by dramatist James Vanbrugh

Since the 1920s the fortunes of the British film business have ebbed and flowed, but America's early lead in film making has never been relinquished. Cinema began as an international medium and continues as such, dominated by Hollywood, with top British film talent going to work there, and with some major Hollywood films being made at British studios, such as Pinewood, or at British locations.

As a final note it is worth having a look at the type of place that tends to be used in an historical film. Once you start looking at the choices directors make it becomes apparent that some of the most widely used historical film locations in Britain have often been built to look historical, rather than being historic in themselves. It is almost as though the location is a bit of an actor too. Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire and Castle Howard in North Yorkshire are good examples, both being designed by John Vanbrugh, a gentleman dramatist turned architect. Both have been used extensively for filming. Other frequently used locations which might fit into the historical fantasy category are Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire, Wardour Castle in Wiltshire, Basildon Park in Berkshire, Kentwell Hall in Suffolk, Osterley Park in London, Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, and perhaps most striking of all, Eilean Donan Castle in Scotland. Eilean Donan Castle, one of the most famous landmarks in Scotland, with all the air of countless centuries, is actually a 1920s recreation on the site of an older castle. The places used in historical filming have much to say about how history is viewed in general. What is thought to have happened in history is often more influential than what actually happened, the stories more influential than the bare facts which sit there without a story to give them life. See below for a list of film locations.


Film Locations