Clearly there are people out there who cannot get enough of Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon. Firstly there was the discovery of the lost haul of their actuality films of life in northern Edwardian Britain, an astonishing collection of 800 films in pristine condition, which were restored by the British Film Institute, with research undertaken by the National Fairground Archive. Then there came the 2005 BBC series The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon, which opened people’s eyes to past lives in a way probably never achieved before by a television programme. That was followed by the DVD of the series, then an accompanying book, then a second DVD Electric Edwardians, and then another book of the same title. And there have been public screenings, and countless newspaper articles.
And now there are two more DVDs, and both look amazing. Mitchell and Kenyon in Ireland, narrated by Fiona Shaw, includes twenty-six films taken by Mitchell and Kenyon 1901-1902, and covers Dublin, Wexford, Cork and Belfast. There’s an eighteen-page booklet, and a score by Neil Brand and Günter Buchwald. The second DVD, Mitchell and Kenyon Sports, is the one for me. Narrated by Adrian Chiles (clever choice), this has scenes of football, rugby, athletics, swimming and cricket. There’s film of Liverpool, Everton, Blackburn and Hull Kingston Rovers. A particular highlight is film of Lancashire bowler Arthur Mold demonstrating his action to prove that he didn’t, as was alleged, throw the ball. The camera never lies… Stephen Horne and Martin Pyne provide the musical accompaniment.
How will these sell, and what else lies in the vaults ready for release? It’s still extraordinary the excitement that has been generated by this collection of films. The ‘local topical’ film of the 1900s, in which Mitchell and Kenyon specialised, has long been well-known to film archivists. They are films with particular charm because of their artless style and the way in which the people in the films address the camera. They have always been seen as having largely regional appeal, the sort of films that few would ever see or appreciate. Then along came 800 in one go, negatives, with an underlying history connecting them with town hall showmen and fairground operators who commissioned the films and exhibited them across the country. And one musn’t forget the drive of Vanessa Toulmin, of the National Fairground Archive, in pulling all of this activity together.
Mitchell and Kenyon weren’t the only producers of local topicals at this period, but they were the most important. It has be stressed that we knew nothing of these films before they were discovered. My reaction, when I first saw a list of the films when I was working at the National Film and Television Archive, was disbelief – such a number of previously unknown films simply couldn’t exist. M&K were know for a handful of ‘fake’ newsreels of the Boer War, but none of the actualities films turned up in filmographies – they are completely absent from Denis Gifford’s British Film Catalogue, while Rachael Low’s The History of the British Film barely mentions the company. We know better now.
Will there ever be such a film discovery again?