The Balancing Bluebottle (1908)
A delightful programme was broadcast today on BBC Radio 4, The Balancing Bluebottle. It’s a 30-minute documentary on the life and work of Percy Smith, pioneering naturalist filmmaker. It’s presented by Tim Boon, curator at the Science Museum, whose recent book Films of Fact is a history of science documentary on film and television.
Normally I would pen you a paragraph or three on Smith’s career, but it’s been a long week (it’s been a long month) and I’m going to take a short cut by giving you this section from my Charles Urban site:
F. Percy Smith (1880-1945) was a modest but brilliant pioneer of scientific filmmaking. He was a clerk with the Board of Education whose hobby was photographing nature, notably magnified pictures of insects. One of these, a photograph of a bluebottle’s tongue, came to Urban’s attention, and in 1907 he invited Smith to do similar work with a motion picture camera. Failing to persuade his employers of the value of film as an educational tool, Smith joined Urban full-time in 1910. Smith’s films soon gained considerable attention, notably The Balancing Bluebottle and The Birth of a Flower, showing plant growth through stop-motion cinematography in Kinemacolor. Smith’s films were made at his Southgate home and involved meticulous preparation over many months. When war broke out in 1914 he made a series of animated war maps for Urban’s Kineto company before becoming a photographer with the Navy. After the war he did a little more work for Urban before he found greater fame with the Secrets of Nature series of nature films, made for British Instructional Films, which gained wide acclaim and were popular for two decades. He is one of the great names in scientific filmmaking.
Smith’s films entrance and instruct to this day. The Balancing Bluebottle itself featured bluebottles performing seemingly extraordinary feats of strength. Tied down with silk (and released unharmed afterwards) the bluebottles juggle a cork, a ball and a stick. The film caused a sensation at the time and can still leave an audience open-mouthed today.
- A 1910 re-edited and reissued version of the film, under the title The Acrobatic Fly, is available on YouTube, courtesy of the BFI
- A further retitled and reissued version from 1911, under the title The Strength and Agility of Insects, is available on WildFilmHistory
- Smith’s 1910 film The Birth of a Flower is available to view at WildFilmHistory
The programme features Sir David Attenborough, Bryony Dixon from the BFI, Jenny Hammerton from AP Archive, and (recorded in a windy side alley off Leicester Square), one Luke McKernan. It’s available for the next seven days on BBC iPlayer, and is warmly recommended for its charm and insight.