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The Victorian films that give a rare glimpse of life over a century ago

Painstakingly restored large format 68mm films give an astonishingly clear glimpse into the earliest days of cinema.

British troops involved in the Boer War, which raged in South Africa from 1899 to 1902.

When we think of the early days of cinema, we might think of grainy, foggy, flickering black-and-white images. But some of the first films from the Victoria era offer an astonishingly clear glimpse into the lives of princes and princesses, entertainers and everyday people living at the end of the nineteenth century -- clear enough to be shown on an Imax screen, in fact.

In Victorian times, the Biograph moving picture system began recording films on large format 68mm film. Each frame is a huge size, almost double the 35mm film that later became standard in the movie industry, which means surviving Biograph films are incredibly rich in detail.

Many of these century-old nitrate films have been painstakingly restored by the British Film Institute to high-resolution 4k digital format. They're among the 700 films made between 1895 and 1901 that you can see for yourself on streaming service BFI Player, for free, from May 13.


An early advert filmed by Biograph.


The Mutoscope and Biograph Company 

"Everyone invented film in parallel," BFI silent film curator Bryony Dixon says of the breakthroughs taking place in the USA, France, Britain, Germany and elsewhere. "America and France were the biggest, but Britain got a lot of firsts". Crucially, London was still clinging on to its position as the most important city in the world, a trading powerhouse acting as a gateway between Europe and the US.

And one of the people drawn to Britain was dapper engineer William Kennedy Laurie Dickson.

W.K.L. Dickson worked for Thomas Edison and had come up with the idea of perforating the edges of celluloid film so it would move through Edison's Kinetoscope, an early form of moving picture device that could be viewed by only one person at a time. Dickson arrived in the UK in 1897 to photograph Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee, and ended up staying to develop a system that projected images on a screen for lots of people to watch.

The royal family take tea, a glimpse into the lives of the privileged that few Victorians would otherwise enjoy.


Dickson was a co-founder of the Mutoscope and Biograph Company in 1896. Like many early cinema companies, Biograph sold its proprietary movie system to theatres and then produced short films for the theatres to show. Dickson took his Biograph camera to film things normal people wouldn't otherwise get a chance to see: the British royal family taking tea, for instance, and the Pope in Rome. It might not seem like much to us in our celeb-saturated times, but many Victorians would never have seen such luminaries before. "This is unheard of," says Bryony Dixon. "The idea of photographing, let alone filming, the Pope in the 1890s is extraordinary."

Dickson also journeyed with his camera to South Africa to film the front lines of the bloody and brutal Boer War. We've grown inured to footage of faraway wars since televisions began bringing Vietnam into living rooms, but this was one of the first times citizens at home would have seen war for themselves.

Filming was no easy task. The heavy Biograph camera was an unwieldy device about the size of a fridge, placed on a tripod with no way of moving it -- which made things tricky when you had to shoot outdoors because that was the only way to get enough light.

All that effort also yielded what we'd consider rather limited results. Because of the weight of the film and the complexities of moving it through the mechanism, the camera held only enough for a minute or two of footage. As a result, these short films rarely had a story; narrative features didn't become a thing until decades later.

The larger size of 70mm Biograph film compared with standard 35mm film.

The larger size of 68mm Biograph film compared with standard 35mm film.


Despite the limitations of the technology, the ingenuity and technical prowess of Dickson and his ilk was clear. For example, they mounted cameras to the front of trains to give audiences an exciting new sense of movement -- though the tales of viewers diving out of the path of an onscreen train is probably a myth. "There would have been a little frisson," says Dixon, "but I doubt anybody actually ran out screaming."

Dickson himself often operated the camera, with the help of two assistants. As well as filming royals and wars, he recorded slice-of-life vignettes, like men at work at factories and foundries.  

In one film, Biograph recorded lifeboatmen giving a demonstration of their lifesaving techniques on a stony British beach. While play-acting the recovery of a "casualty", the rescuers carry the prone actor out of shot. Several of them suddenly turn to the camera as if reacting to a shout from the camera operator, and quickly bear their casualty back into the frame -- because it was easier to move an injured person than shift the camera itself.

Biograph also recorded visually interesting entertainment acts, such as quick-change artists and other music hall turns. And the truncated length of the films meant they were usually shown as part of live variety shows in Biograph theatres, interspersed among singers, comedians and performing animals. "Variety was what people liked and expected," says Dixon. "If you didn't like this, there'd be another one along very quickly. It seems much more equivalent to a night of watching telly -- or YouTube."


Music hall actor Herbert Campbell in a short film shown in theatres.


On occasion Biograph did flirt with narrative, filming extremely short sketches or even adverts. One comic vignette depicts a barber laughing so hard he cuts a customer's ear -- take note, fans of Quentin Tarantino's ear-slicing Reservoir Dogs.

While fleapit cinemas and film screenings in fairgrounds or working men's clubs came to be considered fairly downmarket, a night at the Biograph was a rather more classy affair. Among the many Biograph venues around the world was the opulent Palace Theatre opera house in London's West End, today home to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Audiences were well-behaved, the acts and orchestra extremely well-known.  "It's very like going to the Imax today", says Dixon. "You'd go there for spectacle."

It may've been black and white (it took decades to figure out colour), but the quality of the large format 68mm films was excellent, packed with detail stretching into the distance. "That's what Victorian people would have expected", says Dixon. "They had very high standards." 

Dickson's short films also provided audiences with unprecedentedly speedy access to current affairs. Events filmed in Britain could be in New York in seven days.

People around the country saw the famous Grand National horse race for the first time thanks to Dickson's films. Amazingly, the film was whisked under police escort onto a train carriage with a specially designed developing lab to be watched by audiences in London, some 300 miles away from the racecourse, by 11 p.m. that very same evening.

Family troubles eventually prompted Dickson to drift away from show business, which hadn't earned him the fortune he probably hoped for. At the time, it was thought that the way to make money from movies was to sell expensive projectors to theatres, tying them into proprietary systems. In effect, this was an early format war. It was only later that 35mm film became standard, narrative features took over, and the movie industry as we know it began making money from the films themselves rather than the equipment.

The work of Dickson and other cinema pioneers provides an insight into the way new technology grows and disseminates today. For example, Dickson himself made a film with synchronised sound, but it took another 30 years for all the technological elements to fall into place so the age of the talkie could begin. Similarly, present-day technology like 3D films and virtual reality keep emerging and re-emerging but haven't yet captured the public consciousness. "Their time will come, no doubt," says Dixon, "but it'll be a technological breakthrough 20 years from now ... I want holograms, that Star Trek stuff. I can't believe they haven't invented it yet!"

This article was first published on October 16 2018.