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A century of British cinema

Film is little over 120 years old, and lives in film seem to fall into three phases. The first comprises those who were born before the era of film, and whose different experiences and expectations helped shape the young medium. The second comprises those who grew up with film, in the era of the studios and mass cinema-going. The third consists of those who saw the bastion of the film world assailed by new technologies, from television to video games, which divided the audience’s attention and changed professions. All three phases are reflected in the latest batch of film lives to be published in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

The first film exhibitions in Britain took place in the mid-1890s, so it was the Victorians who could have had no imagining what direction their professional careers were to take, who form the first phase. They include William Haggar (1851-1925), a Welsh fairground showman who ended years of penury when he added the cinematograph to his shows, then discovered a gift for dramatic film construction with films such as The Life of Charles Peace (1905), which made him a pioneer of the chase film. George Pearson (1875-1973), an unassuming school headmaster, threw up his career in his mid-30s to become a film director at a time when those of his class generally shunned the lowly cinema, becoming one of Britain’s leading film producers for the next two decades. Joseph Brooke Wilkinson (1870-1948) trained as a scientific instrument maker, got involved in the early film industry through an interest in projectors, and ended up becoming a leading figure in managing the British Board of Film Censors. Albert E. Smith (1874-1958), son of a market gardener from Kent, who took up magic tricks as a precarious profession when his family emigrated to the USA in the 1880s, added motion pictures to the entertainment, and within fifteen years was head of the leading film company in America before the First World War. The freshness and invention of the early film business derives from these diverse experiences.

The second phase was made of those who determined from the outset to make film their profession. For actors such as Ivy Duke, Moore Marriott, Alma Taylor (1895-1977), or John Gregson, this was on obvious choice – if the screen liked them, then they were obliged to like the screen. Ida Lupino (1918-1995) appeared on film from the age of 14, moved to Hollywood, and then found further success behind the camera as a director on film and television. Others turned from the careers their parents might have chosen for them to pursue this exciting new art form: Robert Stevenson (1905-1986), a president of the Cambridge Union who went on to flourish as a director of family entertainments, most notably Mary Poppins; Arthur Woods, who studied medicine at Cambridge but discovered his gift as a director making low-budget thrillers; or Pen Tennyson (1912-1941), great-grandson of the poet Alfred Tennyson, who quit Oxford without a degree to pursue film, making a handful of imaginative works such as The Proud Valley (1940) with Paul Robeson, before – like Woods – being killed  during the Second World War. Other filmmakers had established careers outside of Britain but came to leave their mark on its industry: Erich Pommer and Max Schach were fugitives from Nazi Germany, Conrad Veidt had been lured over to Britain before the rise of Nazism, while Cecil Parker – seemingly the epitome of the English gentleman – was born Schwabe, the son of a German hotel manager in Hastings. Director Marcel Varnel (1894-1947) came from France, Gabriel Pascal, who dedicated himself to bringing Bernard Shaw’s plays to the screen, hailed from Romania; Carl Foreman (1914-1984) escaped the Hollywood anti-communist witch-hunt to script Bridge on the River Kwai and The Guns of Navarone. All of these lived their lives in film.

Film strip by Bart from New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Film strip by Bart from New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The film industry today is being challenged by other industries and other screens, but perhaps it has always been this way. The first generation of screen actors either transferred from the stage (often disdainfully, but welcoming the extra money) or shared their working lives between stage and screen. Radio and then television came in to widen the range of opportunities – Kenneth Connor (1918-1993), star of the Carry On comedies, first found success as a radio performer; Harry H. Corbett (1925-1982) veered between stage, film, and television, the latter giving him his greatest fame as the star of Steptoe and Son. Oliver Reed (1938-1999) was too large a presence for the television screen, but his final performance in Gladiator, posthumously realised through digital ingenuity, shows how a performer can now be literally translated into new media.

Film itself is disappearing as a medium, replaced by digital production and digital projection. What was previously immortalised through celluloid is now a row of ones and noughts in DVDs, Blu-Rays, and Digital Cinema Packages. Lives in film were a twentieth-century phenomenon, but lives on the screen will endure.

Featured image: Film strip by Bart from New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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