Struggling to keep up with the BFI

Lights and Shades on the Bostock Circus Farm

The British Film Institute employs so many different outlets for its films these days that it’s difficult to keep up. What with the Mediatheque, Creative Archive, Screenonline, European Film Treasures, filmarchives online, its vast website and MySpace page, alongside the traditional outlets of DVD, book publishing and cinema exhibition, it’s becoming hard to escape their mission to inspire us all. Yet it’s still possible to overlook some of their activities, such is their number, as I’d done until now with their YouTube channel.

The BFI has contributed to several other YouTube sites, wittingly (e.g. 10 Downing Street and The Royal Channel) or unwittingly (take your pick), but for a few months now it has also had its own channel. And what gems are there.

There are sixty-four titles at present, and all are films which the BFI owns or for which there is no rights claimant, and so there’s an emphasis on silent shorts. Several of these are available from other BFI outlets, and all are featured in the Mediatheque, so the site serves as a taster, and no harm with that. So, for example, there are numerous clips from The Open Road, Claude Friese-Greene’s two-colour travelogue of 1924/25, which has already seen the recent light of day as a television programme and two DVD releases.

So let’s recommend a few old favourites. None more favoured to my mind than Lights and Shades on the Bostock Circus Farm, featured above, an astonishing 1911 production from the Warwick Trading Company (the print comes from a German source, hence the German titles, but it’s nevertheless a British production). I shan’t spoil the surprise – just to let you now that what looks like a conventional interest film about a touring circus and its animals suddenly turns to heart-rending drama…

Oyster Fishing at Whitstable, England

Or here’s another old favourite, Oyster Fishing in Whitstable, England – apparently an American production from 1921, though actually it’s a repackaging of a pre-First World War British film. An old favourite firstly because I was brought up in the fair town of Whitstable (and it hasn’t changed much), secondly because it’s a harmoniously accomplished example of early non-fiction ‘interest’ film, and thirdly because the subject of much of my research work, Charles Urban, the film’s producer, can be seen towards the end as one of a crowd on the beach sampling oysters (he’s the one crouching down on the right, wearing a hat).

The films all come with knowledgeable background descriptions from one or other of the BFI curators (a marked difference to many YouTube offerings). There are newsreels, magazine films, travels films, phantom rides, actualities, a recreation of Kinemacolor (more on that at another time) and much more. There are also several sound films of course (check out Geoffrey Jones’ glorious Snow, a brilliantly edited 1963 piece from the esteemed British Transport Films)). Fascinatingly, the most popular title so far is An Otter Study, with its underwater photography (the titles comes from the 1920s, but the original film was made by Urban’s Kineto company in 1912). Others are bound to feature in later posts. Go explore.

3 responses

  1. This is right up my alley! I love it.

    On a related topic, recently I’ve been frustrated when I have specific early silent cinema stuff in my mind that I want to share on my blog, and I can’t find it on YouTube or elsewhere. For instance, I’m extremely desirous of posting D.W. Griffith’s The Curtain Pole and sharing my love for it. But alas, I can’t find it. (It does appear on the DVD about Fort Lee, NJ, albeit talked over by the narrator. I didn’t want to try uploading something like that to YouTube myself, but perhaps that is the only way.)

    I also saw some amazing Italian early cinema at a showing at the Egyptian Theatre here in L.A. several years ago. I’d have to research the titles of the ones I’m dying to see again, but in the meantime do you have any online sources, like this BFI stuff, for early Italian cinema? I’m thinking around 1905 – 1911, especially comedy. (Short stuff, not Cabiria/Spartacus stuff.) Another example is I was looking for American silent comedian Lloyd Hamilton short films, and there’s basically none on YouTube. (At least not any of his starring or co-starring efforts.) I’m not saying I love him. I just wanted to check him out again, because I remember he was pretty decent.

    -Editor A

  2. P.S. – How about “Struggling to keep up with The Bioscope”?! Man, you are a diligent poster. Whenever I get busy, I find myself about 12 posts behind on your site. I kind of have to let that go and just check in with your site when I can.

    -Editor A

  3. Very simply, there isn’t that much silent film material available online – particularly fiction material. I don’t touch BitTorrent-type sites, and I’m very disappointed at YouTube clips which have been ripped from DVDs. Some may believe the product of the multinationals and broadcasters to be fair game for sharing, but it is very hard on those dedicated small companies who release silent material which is never going to make their fortune. Anyway, I’ll produce a post some time on the legitimate online sources that I know of for silent films, though you can trace those I’ve already covered through the Online Video category. As for early Italian comedy, already lionised on the Bioscope, sadly I don’t know of any online source.

    And as for the diligent posts, well it’s become my outlet for writing. Will I ever produce another book? I don’t know.

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