British Pathe – part one

British Movietone (see 26 February post) is one British newsreel now available in its entirety online, but the most important British newsreel collection – and one which goes back to the silent era – to be found on the web is British Pathe. Pathé newsreels ran in Britain from 1910 to 1970, while the company also produced cinemagazines like Eve’s Film Review and Pathé Pictorial, as well documentaries and other shorts. 3,500 hours of this collection was made available online in free low resolution download form four years ago, thanks to funding from the Lottery-based New Opportunities Fund.

The British Pathe site is therefore a superb resource for discovering silent non-fiction film, and in future posts I’ll be providing a guide to some of the treasures to be found. However, I’m going to start with the unexpected – fiction films. Pathé somehow picked up assorted pre-First World War films, some though not all made by its French parent company, and these got digitised alongside the newsreels and are available on the site. There is no index to these fiction films, so below is a list of some of the ones that I have been able to find, with descriptions and some attempts at identifying them, as few are given correct titles or dates:

(the first title given is that on the British Pathe database – enter this in the search box to find the film)

THE FATAL SNEEZE = comedy in which a man suffers from an increasingly violent sneeze. This is That Fatal Sneeze (GB Hepworth 1907).

THE RUNAWAY HORSE = comedy in which a runaway horse causes chaos. This is a famous comedy of its time, Le Cheval Emballé (FR Pathé 1907).

FLYPAPER COMEDY = This is a French comedy with Max Linder, in which Max has flypaper sticking to him which he then finds sticks to everything else.

THE FANTASTIC DIVER = early trick film in which a man dives into a river fully clothed then returns by reverse action in a swimsuit.

THE RUNAWAY GLOBE = Italian? comedy in which a giant globe intended for a restaurant runs away down a street and is chased by a group of people before being sucked up by the sun, only to be spat out again.

THE MAGIC SAC [sic] = French trick film in which an old man hits people with a sack and makes them disappear.

MYSTERIOUS WRESTLERS = French trick film where two wrestlers pull one another to bits. This is a brilliant George Méliès trick film, Nouvelle Luttes Extravagantes (FR Star-Film 1900).

ATTEMPTED NOBBLING OF THE DERBY FAVOURITE = section from a British racing drama, made by Cricks and Sharp in 1905.

THE POCKET BOXERS = trick film in which two men place two miniature boxers on a table and watch them fight.

ESCAPED PRISONER RETURNS HOME = guards wait while prisoner bids a tearful farewell to his sick wife. This must be a James Williamson film, perhaps The Deserter (GB 1904).

LETTER TO HER PARENTS = extract from a drama at which elderly parents are upset at a message they receive.

ASKING FATHER FOR DAUGHTER’S HAND = scenes from a film where a fiancée has to prove himself to the father.

HAVING FUN WITH POLICEMEN = British comedy in which two legs stick out of a hole in an ice-covered pond, placed there by boys to trick a policeman.

POINT DUTY = a policeman is run over by a car and put back together again. This is How to Stop a Motor Car (GB Hepworth 1902).

THE MOTOR SKATER = comedy where man buys a pair of motorised skates and causes chaos.

RUNAWAY CYCLIST = comedy where man buys a bicycle and causes chaos (as can be seen, this was a common theme for comedies of the period).

FIRE = mixture of actuality film of a fire brigade and a dramatised fire rescue. This is Fire! (GB Williamson 1901).

HAMLET = scene with Hamlet and his father’s ghost, using trick photography, from Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson’s production of Hamlet, a feature-length film (GB Hepworth 1913).

THE DECOY LETTER = early, rudimentary Western, where a soldier lures away an innkeeper with a decoy letter and attempts to assault his wife.

THE VILLAGE FIRE = comedy fire brigade film. This is The Village Fire Brigade (GB Williamson 1907).

THE RUNAWAY CAR = French comedy in which three men try to ride a bicycle and then a car.

RESCUED BY ROVER = a dog finds a kidnapped baby. This is of course the famous Rescued by Rover (GB Hepworth 1905).

Anyone who recognises the descriptions where the film has not been identified, or has the time to take a look at the films and identify them, or finds other fiction films on the site, do let me know.

Lights and shades on the South Bank

The British Film Institute has rebranded its exhibition operations on London’s South Bank as BFI South Bank. The National Film Theatre is still there, in the guise of the three cinemas NFT 1, 2 and 3, but there is a new entrance adjacent to the National Theatre, and major new space occupying part of what was previously the Museum of the Moving Image. At the centre of this new space is the Mediatheque, and the March/April programme for BFI South Bank indicates some of the programming that will be available for free via its ‘viewing stations’.

The films, all from the BFI National Archive, include some eye-catching silent material. The full list of Mediatheque titles has yet to be published, but the programme promises us such gems as A Kiss in the Tunnel (1899), Bradford Coronation Procession (1902), Pimple’s Battle of Waterloo (1913) (a hilarious Pythonesque spoof of the British and Colonial film The Battle of the Waterloo) and Anna May Wong in E.A. Dupont’s marvellous Piccadilly (1929). But it is in the ‘Pandora’s Box’ section that the real gems may be found. Here are some of the hidden favourites of the Archive. They include the mindboggling Lights and Shades on the Bostock Circus Farm (1911), a conventional ‘interest’ film about a circus which suddenly veers into high drama when the circus’ favourite elephant dies, and The Scarlet Woman (1924), a lurid amateur-made satire of the Catholic church starring Evelyn Waugh and Elsa Lanchester, before either became famous. The programme gets published online on 14 March.


The British Comparative Literature Association and the Centre for Film Studies, University of Essex are organising a conference on 24-25 March 2007 entitled ‘Cinematicity’ 1895: Before and After. The themes of the conference are the history of pre- and early film, the previsions of cinema as both technology and cultural form, and early cinema’s influence on twentieth-century art, literature and culture. The conference is to be held at the University of Essex, Colchester, and the keynote speakers are Ian Christie, Tom Gunning and Marina Warner. A registration form is now available, with programme to follow.