A Short History Of British Film

For most normal film goers and home cinema buffs, it's easy to sit back and enjoy our favourite films without thinking about their heritage. We want to relax and get stuck into the latest big budget  blockbuster or made for TV action and suspense thriller. But the British film industry has a tradition that goes back a long, long way. And for all you film and history buffs out there, here's a brief account of how it all began:


In the beginning

Generally regarded as originating from the 1892 efforts of the Lumière brothers, the Frenchmen first brought their invention to London in 1896. But guess what? We Brits beat them to it. The first moving pictures developed for celluloid film were made by the British inventor William Friese Green in Hyde Park in 1889. This was the first known instance of a projected and moving image, and Green patented the process in 1890.


But it didn't take long for the Americans to get in on the act. By the end of the 19th century our cousins across the Atlantic had begun experimenting with moving images, at much the same time that Green was moving into the commercial phase of his brain child. The first working 35 mm camera to be found in Britain was built and run by Robert W. Paul and Birt Acreso, who are credited with the making of ‘Incident at Clovelly Cottage’ in February 1895—the first British film ever made. Shortly after, the two cinematic trailblazers fell out due to an argument over the patent of the camera.


The Origins of British Cinema

The first colour system was devised by the Brit George Albert Smith. Called Kinemacolour, Smith patented the process in 1908. But already the competition were hard on the heels of the fledgling British film industry. Just one year later, both Pathe and Gaumont had founded film companies and European films began to flood into the UK.


But America was desperate to keep up. Shortly before WW1, US film makers, Jupp and Turner began making their films in Britain. And while their budding enterprise was interrupted by the outbreak of the war, the two Americans had made enough progress to overtake the efforts of our home-grown films. The subsequent massive influx of 'movies made in America', plus a chronic lack of investment, almost dealt a death blow to the British film industry.


New Rays of Hope

But the British film industry refused to role over and play dead. In the 20's and 30's, a host of talented actors rose from the ranks to throw a lifeline fans of UK cinema. Stars like Charles Laughton, Leslie Howard, Victor McLaglen and Ronald Coleman took up the gauntlet to make British cinema great. It was however, an uphill struggle and eventually Parliament was forced to take action. In 1927 a bill was passed that ensured at least 5% of all films shown in cinemas had to be of British origin. By 1936, the percentage had risen to 20%.


Watch and Listen

The 1929 Alfred Hitchcock production 'Blackmail' is widely considered to be the first ever film with sound. But rather than providing a new lease of life, the advent of sound threw even greater financial challenges at the British film industry. To be honest, a lot of the early 'talking' films made in Britain were pretty awful.


But there were some exceptions: Juno and the Paycock from1930 is one classic. The 1931 production of Tell England,  Rome Express from 1932 and the internationally recognised masterpiece, The Private Life of Henry VIII with Charles Laughton are all seen as milestones in the early history of British film.


Then in 1937, colour was finally added to sound and Wings of the Morning became Britain's first colour feature film. Colour sparked a new enthusiasm in film goers and the industry experienced a substantial boost. Classics such as The Scarlet Pimpernel, Things to Come, Don Juan and Katherine the Great enthralled the British public and made huge stars of the actors and actresses who played the roles.


Rank, Pinewood and Another Slump

J. Arthur Rank had started his career making religious films, but in 1933 he founded British National and in 1935 he took over Pinewood Studios. His timing couldn't have been worse. In 1937, the apparent boom in British cinema turned to slump. One of the reasons for this was that in the year before, the British film industry had churned out over 200 films, a massive over production. At the same time, space in Britain's film studios had more than doubled, which led to a deluge of low quality productions. Seeing the mess the UK film industry found itself in, American film bosses used this opportunity to  move into Britain and make quality films that would qualify for the home market quotas.


And once the floodgates had been opened, there was no holding back. British studios were taken over by just about every major American movie company; 20th Century Fox, Radio, Warner, MGM. They practically swallowed the British film industry whole. The average film goer, however, soon reaped the benefits of the highly polished US productions. Films like Sabotage, Jamaica Inn, The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes were huge hits at the British box office and stars like Robert Donat, Leslie Howard, Rosalind Russel and Wendy Hiller became household names.


Most of the classic films of that period are still available in their original pressings today. For this we can thank the National Film Archive and the British Film Institute. These organisations not only keep an extensive library of British and International films, they are also responsible for the restoration of damaged prints, transferring stock from the dangerous nitrate material to safety film,  and the funding of many new projects. Without them, many British Classics would be lost forever. And many future classics would never be made.


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