Highlights from the Topical Budget newsreel of England beating Australia in the Fifth Test at Lords in 1926, thereby winning back the Ashes
Here in England the skies are grey, and when it’s not raining it’s sleeting and a cold wind blows. And yet there is a spring in our steps and sunshine in our hearts. We have beaten the Australians. For anyone outside the few countries that take cricket seriously, the news that England has won the Ashes – the name given to the periodic series of Test matches played between England and Australia – cannot mean anything much. But here in England it is glorious news, all the more so because the victory was in Australia (where four years ago Australia won 5-0), because it is so rare (the last time we won there was 25 years ago), and because it was done with such ruthless professionalism, which are not words always associated with English cricket. Damn it all, we played like Australians.
So how can the Bioscope – whose scribe is somewhat partial to the game – commemorate this great event? Well, how else but with a survey of cricket and silent film? There’s a rich history there, and some fine films to discover online, if you know where to look.
Cricket is not a game that lends itself easily to the motion picture camera, particularly for the era of silent film. Games can last up to five days, the action takes places at a distance in the middle of a large field, there are long stretches where nothing dynamic happens. For cameramen shooting with expensive film stock, and with limited lenses, cricket in the early years of film presented a huge challenge. It is no surprise to find that the earliest cricket films focus on individuals and illustrations of play specially set up for the cameras. In the 1910s and especially the 1920s greater efforts were made to capture periods of play, with remarkable success given the circumstances.
Arguably the first British film was a cricket film, since a test film made by pioneers Birt Acres and Robert Paul in February/March 1895 showed their colleague Henry Short dressed in cricket whites outside Acres’ London home (the film, of which a few frames survive, is variously known as Incident at Clovelly Cottage or Cricketer Jumping Over Garden Gate). However, the first true cricket films were made in 1897, and there is something particularly hallowed about those films from the 1890s which capture the end of the great Victorian sporting era. The first films were a set made by Australian photographer Henry Walter Barnett in December 1897 at the time of the England v Australia Test match in Sydney. Using a Lumière Cinématographe, Barnett filmed scenes of the England and Australia teams coming off the field of play and the English player (albeit Indian) Prince Ranjitsinhji shown practising in the nets. It shows the great stylist of his age going through a series of typically aggressive strokes, filmed from a position to the batsman’s right and of course far closer to the batsman than could have been possible were Barnett filming actual play. When the film was exhibited in Britain it was accompanied by sound effects of ball hitting bat, and when the film is shown today (it is the only one of the set to survive) the sound effect is faithfully reproduced.
W.G. Grace practising at Hastings in 1901, from BFI National Archive
The great figure of Victorian cricket was W.G. Grace, and he was a popular subject for filmmakers who looked to capture his celebrity as much as his play. Three films survive: and three films survive. Dr Grace’s Jubilee Procession, filmed by the Prestwich Manufacturing Company on 18 July 1898 on the occasion of the Gentlemen v Players match celebrating Grace’s 50th birthday at Lords shows a parade of cricketing legends passing by the camera: Grace himself, Arthur Shrewsbury, Andrew Stoddart, William Gunn, Arthur Lilley, Samuel Woods, Robert Abel, Edward Wynard, F.S. Jackson, J.T. Hearne, Gregor MacGregor, John A. Dixon, William Storer, William Lockwood, A.C. MacLaren, William Brockwell, Charles Townsend, Schofield Haigh, Alec Hearne, John Mason, Wilfred Rhodes, Charles Kortright and John Tunnicliffe – it’s practically the entire Victorian age of cricket captured in one fifty-foot film (the film can be found on the British Movietone site, albeit printed the wrong way round, though you need register beforehand). Film also exists of Grace in June 1899 walking past the camera, accompanied by Ranjitsinhji, at Trent Bridge on the occasion of the first Test v Australia. There is just the one film of Grace in action, filmed by Williamson in 1901, again in the company of Ranjitsinhji (clearly a popular subject for filmmakers) practising batting in the nets at Hastings in September 1901.
Other films exist of this period of the Australian team in England walking past the 70mm camera of the Biograph company, somewhere in England in 1899 (those on display are Joe Darling, Victor Trumper, Ernie Jones, Hugh Trumble, James Kelly, Frank Iredale and Frank Laver), and second Biograph film, Ranjitsinhji and C.B. Fry at the Wickets, made in 1901, which shows the two greats batting on the field of play in a sequence which clearly had to be set up, as the camera is postioned close to the action. But we must shed a tear for the films of this period whose descriptions we have but which are now considered lost. Just imagine, oh cricket lovers, what would be if we could see this set of Biograph films from the legendary 1902 Test match between England and Australia, as described in a theatre programme:
England versus Australia at the Oval:
(a) Return to the Pavilion after close of Australia’s 2nd innings
(b) Australians going to field for England’s 2nd innings
(c) Jessop batting
(d) Hirst plays Trumble
(e) Rhodes drives Trumble
Now there’s a holy grail for the cricket film archivist.
Joe Darling (batsman) and James Kelly (wicketkeeper) from 1905 film of the Australian team. Note the regulation fearsome moustaches. From www.movietone.com
It is at this point in cricket film history, however, that the available archive starts to lessen. As films started to get a little longer, ironically it became more of a challenge to film cricket, because short portrait shots were no longer enough, while films of five minutes or more struggled to capture anything of the game, or – presumably – to find an audience keen to seen such films. Combined with the usual losses to history of films from this period anyway, and there are sadly few film records of cricket 1900-1910. The most substantial is to be found in a renowned 1931 early sound film called That’s Cricket!, made by Australasian films, which has a section showing the 1905 Australians, showing Joe Darling, Sydney Gregory, Frank Laver, Warwick Armstrong, Tibby Cotter, James Kelly, Albert Hopkins, Clem Hill, Alfred Noble, Reginald Duff, Charlie McLeod and others, posing for the cameras and at practice. The 1905 film (some seven minutes of it) can also be found on the British Movietone site (again, you need to register first with the site to use it, but it is free). A much shorter version is also on the British Pathé newsreel site. Who originally produced I have not been able to find out.
Mitchell & Kenyon’s Arthur Mold Bowling to A.N. Hornby (1901)
However, in the 1900s there were attempts to provide local coverage of cricket matches; that is, films which would appeal to the audience of a particular town or county instead of aiming for a national audience. The Yorkshire filmmaker Jasper Redfern made a number of such films (he probably made the film of W.G. Grace at Trent Bridge but otherwise none of his cricket films are known to survive). Mitchell & Kenyon, now well-known for their actuality records of Edwardian life chiefly in northern England, regularly filmed cricket matches, though as with their football films the emphasis was on the crowds and the occasion as much as the play. An exception is the intriguing film illustrated above, showing Lancashire bowler A.H. Mold attempting to demonstrate that his controversial bowling action was legitimate (it looks OK to me), a very early example of a film being set up as evidence in a dispute. The batsman is A.N. Hornby.
The film record is not that much better for the 1910s, partly because the intervention of the First World War meant a lot less top class cricket and consequently far fewer cricket films. The newsreels were still finding their feet as a form, and they did not really take up the challenge of filming cricket at this period. A number of films from the teens exist at the BFI National Archive, while some interesting examples are held British Pathé, available to view on their site (do note that Pathé’s dating of these films is very approximate):
Sometimes films can be found which are no longer films. I’ve previously posted on film strips to be found in a cricket instructional book, A.C. MacLaren’s The Perfect Batsman: J.B. Hobbs in Action. Though published in 1925, the films of Hobbs it uses were made in 1914 by Cherry Kearton Ltd. It’s not the same film as appears on the British Pathé site, noted above. I’ve re-animated the clips, albeit crudely, and have placed two sequences on YouTube, adding a small something to the meagre archive of cricket films in the 1910s.
Re-animated plates 2, 8 and 10 from The Perfect Batsman: J.B. Hobbs in Action, showing Hobbs in 1914
Plates 3, 6 and 9 from The Perfect Batsman
It is when we get to the 1920s that the cricket film record starts to become very rich indeed. The British newsreels started to cover the game avidly, sometimes county games but especially Test matches. The films were not long – generally two or three minutes at most, and thus had huge challenges trying to document a day or more’s sport in such a tiny space. And yet they did, with a good amount of skill, luck and sleight of hand.
The Topical Budget newsreel film at the top of this post from 1926, when England regained the Ashes from Australia after fourteen years (and humiliation five years earlier in 1921), is a good example. It shows the procession of Australian wickets at the Oval ground on the final day’s play, neatly cutting between action on the pitch and the scoreboard. Sometimes the camera encompasses both the bowler and the batsman in the single shot, so that we know we are witnessing a complete action. More often, however, we see the bowler, then there is a cut to the batsman playing the shot. Most of the time the ball the batsman plays is not the bowl that we saw bowled to him in the previous shot. The art of editing to make us believe what the filmmaker wants us to believe extends beyond the fiction film. With up to ten wickets scheduled to fall in an innings that lasts several hours, it was an impossible for a cameraman with a few hundred feet of film at his disposal to capture every one. The film shows on a number of occasions a ball bowled, then a batsman walking away disconsonantly, without showing us how he got out. Remarkably on a couple of occasions we do see the actual fall of a wicket – a triumph for the quick-witted cameraman.
The newsreels dramatise cricket as much as they document it. The films are composed as battles; the assault by the one side with the ball, the response by the other wielding the bat. The Oval Test film expresses in its construction the pressure exerted by the England team’s bowling and the crumbling of the Australian resistance, cultminating in the joyous invasion of the crowd (no such scenes allowed these days) at the film’s climax. It is a triumphal film about a sporting triumph.
There are hundreds of British newsreels of cricket available to view online, on the British Pathé and ITN Source sites. For Pathé, click on the Advanced Search option, type ‘cricket’ into the Description box, then select 1920s from the Decades option lower down the screen. There are some 200 films available. For ITN Source, click on Advanced Search, type ‘cricket’ into the search box, tick the box marked New Classics, then select 1920s as the decade – there are 58 results. For anyone who knows their cricket history (and it was a golden period for cricket – Hobbs, Sutcliffe, Rhodes, Gregory, Grimmett, Woodfull, Woolley, Hendren, Bardsley, hammond, then in 1930 the arrival of the phenomenon that was Don Bradman), there are such riches to be found.
A blatant recreation of Hobbs hitting the runs by which he achieved his 126th century, from The Life of Jack Hobbs, from http://www.britishpathe.com
And it’s not all newsreels. There are training films, interviews (silent ones), and longer films. British Pathé has one of the most notable longer cricket films of the period, The Life of Jack Hobbs (1925), a biographical documentary of England’s greatest batsman of the period (or arguably any other period). The film shows Hobbs relaxing at home, demonstrating shots, playing in games, and securing his famous 126th century, thereby beating a record set by W.G. Grace. The film is available in four reels – one, two and three plus offcuts. It doggedly follows Hobbs round the country while he kept on not quite scoring the 100 runs the nation was willing him to score, before he did so at Taunton. The film captures the moment, but also gets Hobbs to recreate the shot in close-up with the camera hanging right over him mid-pitch.
This illustrates the degree to which cricketers were willing to co-operate with the cameras to show themselves to their best advantage. Hobbs had signed an exclusive deal with United International Corporation, producers of the film, and in his autobiography he has some interesting things to say about working with film companies as the price of fame.
The largest collection of cricket films from the silent era is that held by the BFI National Archive, which holds the Topical Budget newsreel, something of a cricket specialist, plus amateur films, documentaries, local topicals, animation films and advertisements. The BFI also holds one or two fiction films with a cricket film. The 1925 feature film A Daughter of Love features a cricketing hero (played by John Stuart) whose marriage at the end of the film sees the happy couple process between two lines of cricketers with their bats raised to form a row of arches. Just a few of the BFI’s cricket films are available online, alas, a couple of them included here.
The other major source of cricket films from this period is Australia, of course. There are twenty-five silent era cricket films given on the catalogue of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, and clips from a number of these can be seen on the excellent australian screen site. Here are some examples:
Just last month the NFSA unveiled a new digital master of the earliest known surviving film of test cricket action in Australia, filmed in December 1910 by Pathé’s Animated Gazette at the Sydney Cricket Ground when they were playing South Africa. Tantalisingly brief, it does at least show good camera positioning at an angle to the pitch to impart the right amount of dynamism.
South Africa v Australia, 9 December 1910. The film is described in loving detail on the NFSA blog
For a number of years I used to programme cricket films at the National Film Theatre in London. Others more expert than I would present the films on the stage, talking through the films and identifying every player, while noted cricketers from not quite such bygone ages sat in the audience and everyone sighed nostalgically for an era when giants seemed to walk the pitches of England, when times were nobler, the game was better played, and everyone shown in monochrome was so much greater than those wretched souls who toiled so desperately for England in the real world. I’ve never cared so much for a nostalgia which always places the past above the present, and believe firmly that the present generation of players would very probably humble the greats of yesteryear were they ever able somehow to have the two compete on the pitch.
But very fleeting nature of the early cricket film records enhances the greatness somehow. The sturdiness of a Hobbs off-drive, the beguiling spin of Clarrie Grimmett, the stylish nonchalance of Ranjitsinhji, the imperious confidence of W.G. Grace – so little of them survives on film, yet what is there, played over and over again, encapsulates the legend. We see just enough to have the tale told. Film is a romantic medium, and actuality film can sometimes be the most romantic of all.