The BFI has just released its latest silent DVD, The Open Road. This is the colour footage of a road trip from Land’s End to John O’Groats filmed by Claude Friese-Greene 1924-25, which formed the basis of the 2006 BBC2 series, The Lost World of Friese-Greene, already released on DVD. The series was an attempt to emulate the success of The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon, with the same presenter, Dan Cruikshank, but without any of the social history or the great sense of revelation.
This BFI release presents the footage sans Cruikshank in what it calls a “special compilation of highlights”, which presumably means the extant footage from Friese-Greene’s footage minus the boring, repetitive bits, where he tests out the colour system and films rather too many rose bushes.
Claude Friese-Greene was the son of William Friese-Greene, the not-quite British film pioneer whose efforts to create motion pictures in the early 1890s were romantically but misleadingly portrayed in the film The Magic Box. Having failed to invent motion pictures, Friese-Greene tried to invent motion picture colour instead. It’s a convulted story that I’ll be telling you some other time, but essentially his experiments with a two-colour process (alternate frames stained red and green) were taken up by his son Claude, who improved the system signficantly and launched it as a 26-part travelogue in 1925. It made little impact at the time (the whole series was probably never released), and has been absent from practically all histories of colour cinematography. But restoration work by the BFI National Archive has demonstrated that, with a little bit of help from modern printing methods and digital technology, the results are really quite beautiful, and give a sweetly nostalgic view of Britain in the 1920s.
The 64mins DVD comes with a score by pianist Neil Brand and violinist Gunther Buchwald. It’s very interesting to see how the BFI is both getting documentaries made out of previously little-known archive film, and then following up with DVD releases of the original footage. It’s worked well with Mitchell and Kenyon, and I hope it works for them again.
Read here on the BFI’s site about The Open Road and the history of its restoration (which involved much re-editing of hat was originally very jumbled material.
Read this account of the Friese-Greene Colour process on the BBC History site.
Or read the shotlist of the pre-edited Friese-Greene footage (all 11,821 feet of it) in the BFI National Archive, diligently done by someone, somewhere, a long long time ago…