The 36 short films assembled on Electric Edwardians were shot by British motion picture pioneers Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon. Divided into five sections — “Youth and Education,” “The Anglo-Boer Wars,” “Workers,” “High Days and Holidays,” and “People and Places” — these one to three minute movies (or “topicals,” as they came to be called) were early newsreels, 1910-1913, information for viewers unused to mass communications.
Mitchell and Kenyon were the premiere recorders of rural England. Their cameras captured processions of graduating University students, as well as daily activities at the Torpedo Flotilla, the Sea Fisheries at North Shields, and the Blackpool Victoria Pier. Their work appeared in town halls and self-styled bioscopes, and included local promotions such as factory openings or holiday festivities. Customers for the films queued up to listen to speakers, comics, novelty acts, skits and — the pièce de résistance — their own faces up on the screen for everyone to see.
For us, however, the thrill lies elsewhere. Luckily, the DVD set offers helpful commentary by Dr. Vanessa Toulmin, National Fairground Archives, University of Sheffield. She describes the speed with which filmmakers worked (they would record an afternoon event, then have the projection ready for exhibition just four hours later), as well as Mitchell and Kenyon’s hard-sell techniques (they advertised movies with the pitch, “Come and see yourself on the screen”). Like a carnival sideshow or a state fair midway, these “cinemagraphs” constituted the early stirrings of commercial cinema.
Toulmin also explains that many of the images were staged, pointing out instances where Mitchell or Kenyon himself is running around in the crowd, trying to drive certain individuals toward the lens. As their cameramen helmed the handcranks, the directors would look for a group of ladies to pass by during a scene, or convince bystanders to move in some way, as literal “standing” did not make for compelling motion pictures. Used to posing for portrait photos, which at the time took long minutes to process, these early performers appear reluctant to budge.
Yet the films feature much activity, be it in the crowds swirling around at an annual egg rolling contest or the astounding shots of fairground attractions and rides. With an average running time of one to three minutes and minimal editing, these monochrome moments in time are mesmerizing. Watching rugby players during a typical scrum or footballers battling for territory argues for the timelessness of athleticism (very little has changed in sports over 100 years) while shots of smoking children suggest a backward perspective on the importance of offspring.
Toulmin does explain that, before 1903, most youngsters worked in factories, helping out their struggling families and picking up the habits and the mannerisms of their more mature coworkers. Once sweeping reforms were passed, children became protected and rightfully positioned as the responsibility of their parents. In much of the Youth and Education material the DVD provides, we can see how the future of Britain went from scruffy urchins to well turned out little ladies and gentlemen. As they parade around their school grounds, or partake of some early morning calisthenics, they instantly transform from sources of income to sources of community pride.
Because of their localized nature and specialized subject matter (rarely, if ever, did these films get seen beyond their intended local audiences) It’s difficult to recommend watching the films without Toulmin’s commentary, as it adds so much clarity and context for the viewer. But one can also view them as glimpses into Edwardian England. Presented with a mellow musical accompaniment, this trip through time is like a drugless hallucination. We find ourselves marveling at the military processions (celebrating victory in the Boer War) and imagine what it was like to ride down the center of a Northern township on a horse-drawn tram.
Yet there was anther meaning in many of these movies, a chance for politicians and officials to raise awareness of issues important to the country. The films of Electric Edwardians frequently indicate the broadening of the British Empire, in battles commemorated and colonialism championed. One film recreates a particularly proud moment during the Anglo-Boer conflict when English soldiers stopped an enemy sneak attack, while heroes like General Baden-Powell and Lieutenant Clive Wilson are featured in patriotic pantomime, delivering proclamations and showing off their medals.
Hints of the growing industrial age also appear in a couple of Mitchell and Kenyon’s films, as landscapes are peppered with smokestacks and soot. Panoramic views of tiny company towns suggest prosperity and optimism that the next few decades would more or less destroy. This is England before the World Wars, the decline of the Empire, and the start of the troubles. True, it was premised on child labor, an entrenched class system, and lack of gender equality, yet the tone is more nostalgic than critical.
In bonus materials, the National Archive shows how carefully these images were preserved. The most stunning admission comes from the project coordinator, who tells us that these brittle and badly damaged nitrate prints were pulled from a dumpster. An employee of the company disposing of the canisters had a feeling something valuable was enclosed inside rusting containers, and called the institute before the trash was picked up.
The 100-odd films discovered that day reveal a civilization on the brink of a new century. Electric Edwardians gives us a chance to step into a cinematic time machine and bring this distant past a little closer, one intriguing three minute visit at a time.