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Yorkshire: the birthplace of film?

Any assertions of ‘firsts’ in cinema are open invitations to rebuttal, but the BBC has recently broken news of a claim that the West Yorkshire city of Leeds was in fact film’s birthplace. Louis Le Prince, a French engineer who moved to Leeds in 1866, became one of a number of late 19th-century innovators entering the race to conceive, launch, and patent moving image cameras and projectors.

There is plenty to be said about Yorkshire’s contribution to cinema; and film historians have long been aware of the groundbreaking contributions of the moving-image inventors working in the county’s great cities around the turn of the twentieth century.

Between us we can claim a number of connections—by birth, residence, and education—with Yorkshire, and when writing the Oxford Dictionary of Film Studies, we thought it would be amusing to include a secret entry on film in ‘God’s own county’ to sit cheekily (if mutely) alongside our entries on national cinemas. There are no pointers to “Yorkshire, film in” from other entries in the dictionary. Readers have to come across it serendipitously. What might they make of our offhand joke? So far we’ve had no feedback.

Our entry is circumspect in its reference to the pioneering role of Louis Le Prince. Much more widely acknowledged in this regard, for example, are the Lumière brothers (mentioned in at least ten topics, from “Action film” to “USA, film in the“) and Thomas Edison (referred to in six or more, from “Biopic” to “Trick film“).

As National Media Museum associate curator Toni Booth cautioned in an interview with the BBC: “I think it comes down to definition. The definition of film and the definition of cinema…. As a piece of moving image recording live action–yes I would say [Le Prince] was the first one to do that” (Le Prince’s camera and footage are kept at the National Media Museum in Bradford).

In The First Film, a documentary released on 3 July 2015, filmmaker David Wilkinson sets out the case for Leeds as the birthplace of film and for Le Prince as the father of the new medium, citing not only the Leeds Bridge footage but also a shot of Le Prince’s son playing the accordion and a short actuality filmed on “14 October 1888, when a family gathered in the garden in the Leeds suburb of Roundhay. Among the group was Louis Le Prince, who had with him a curious mahogany box. He asked the others in attendance–his son, parents-in-law and a friend–to stand in front of the box and walk in a circle.”

See below for an abridged version of the “Yorkshire, film in” entry:

French cinema pioneer Louis Le Prince (1842-1890) from the New York Public Library's digital library. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
French cinema pioneer Louis Le Prince (1842-1890) from the New York Public Library’s digital library. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Yorkshire is one of several UK regional film production centres that can claim a pioneering role in early cinema. In 1888, Louis Le Prince shot Traffic on Leeds Bridge, showing ‘animated pictures’ of horses, people, and trams crossing a bridge in the West Yorkshire city. At the beginning of the 20th century, Frank Mottershaw of the Sheffield Photographic Company made the first of many short ‘story films’, A Daring Daylight Burglary (1903) a 4-minute prototypical chase film featuring 10 shots, some parallel editing, and a train. Mottershaws also made comedy films, crime films (such as The Life of Charles Peace (1905)), and at least one western (A Cowboy Romance, 1908).

At around the same time, the Captain Kettle Film Company made a number of films in and around Bradford, including some westerns; while also in Bradford the Pyramid Film Company made newsreels and a five-reeler, My Yorkshire Lass (1916). Like many regional film production companies, these firms did quite well for most of the 1910s, benefiting from their links with local audiences and exhibitors. However, by 1918 virtually all of them had ceased production in the face of the globalization of the industry and the increasing dominance of US films worldwide.

However, filmmaking in Yorkshire carried on. A 1920 adaptation of Wuthering Heights (A.V. Bramble), filmed 9 miles north of the Brontes’ home in Haworth, was hailed in The Biograph as ‘a real triumph of film art’. Turn of the Tide (Norman Walker, 1935) was shot on Yorkshire’s east coast, and featured the cliffside village of Robin Hood’s Bay.

We of the West Riding (Ken Annakin, 1945), a British Council documentary about the daily lives of workers in the textile industry, was translated into 23 languages and screened in 100 countries.Anderson’s British New Wave feature, This Sporting Life (1962), was shot in and around Wakefield; and Ken Loach’s Kes (1968) was filmed in nearby Barnsley. Rural railway stations in different parts of the county have featured as locations in such films as The Railway Children (Lionel Jeffries, UK, 1970) and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Chris Colombus, USA/UK, 2000).

The Leeds International Film Festival, which claims to be England’s largest film festival outside London, has run annually since 1986, and the Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival (DocFest) has been on the festival calendar yearly since 1994.

Featured image credit: Yorkshire country side by gpmg. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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