Christmas presents


The time has come, as Lewis Carroll’s Walrus said, to speak of many things. One is that my long-promised book about Paul is finally available – to order online now, and in shops early in the New Year. I’m deeply grateful to Chicago University Press (and specifically Susan Bielstein) for having waited so long, and proud to mark the end of Tom Gunning’s CUP series ‘Cinema and Modernity’. The ‘big book’ as it’s known in our family, was preceded by a graphic novel, or comicbook, which has accompanied the exhibitions marking this Paul 150th anniversary year. And for this, I’m incredibly grateful to Ilya (aka Ed Hillyer), for bringing to it his energy and imagination, and to Martin Melarkey at the Nerve Centre in Derry, for inspiring the idea and backing it when no-one else would.

The BFI has emerged from its apparent lack of interest in Paul’s anniversary in time to deliver online a spectacular cache of new discoveries in the archive – including the very first Paul title to be found in its original tinted colour (THE DANCER’S DREAM above). I’m planning to encourage other archives around the world to look more closely at their early ‘unidentifieds’, armed with a new  ‘spotter’s guide to Paul productions’. I’d also like to persuade IMDb to revise and correct their listings, especially the wholesale unverified attributions to Walter Booth as ‘director’.

Bradford’s National Museum of Science and Media exhibition, ‘The Forgotten Showman’ continues until the end of March 2020, and is well worth a visit, to see some of Paul’s original equipment and experience a simulation of the ‘Time Machine’, as well as our replica Kinetoscope next to the real thing (sadly not operable). Radio Four’s Film Programme will be visiting Bradford on 6 January to report on the exhibition – and meanwhile you can view the short film here [coming soon]

There will be a symposium about ‘re-mapping early British cinema’ at Birkbeck College in Spring 2020 (details to follow). And hopefully more chances to see the great new Paul discoveries that continue to come to light at festivals such as Pordenone. Meanwhile, here are some catalogue records of Paul’s regular Christmas films.   RWP.Xmas.19.a



Putting pictures on the screen


And so to Bradford, for the National Science and Media Museum show marking the end of this Paul 150th anniversary year. What Bradford can offer, uniquely, is a range of Paul’s original equipment, which he donated to what would become the Science Museum. We will never know for sure how much he contributed to the cameras that he and Birt Acres used to make their Kinetoscope subjects in 1895. Although it seems likely that Paul, with a machine-shop at his disposal in Hatton Garden, would have played a leading part.

But when it came to projecting these films onto screens, running neck and neck with the Lumières, he was on his own – and managed to show his mk.1 Theatrograph on the same day as the Cinématographe made its debut in London: 20 Feb 1896. Which explains the boxing ring concept in the exhibition – Paul vs Lumière – except you couldn’t buy a Cinématographe, whereas you could join the queue to buy Theatrographs as fast as Paul could produce them (Méliès bought a batch, as seen here in the Cinémathèque Française collection, one of which he converted into a camera).


Toni Booth, Bradford’s curator of early film, has also put on display the 1898 model camera, as used for filming Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, and a later ‘Reliance’ projector (below), which apparently had provision for carbon-arc illumination.


Seeing these in Bradford’s exhibition really brings home just what a foundational part Paul played in getting cinema off the ground, not only in Britain but also around the world. This was the earliest equipment available to buy, and Paul would continue to develop and improve it for over a decade, offering a comprehensive range – as well as constantly expanding the repertoire of what there was to show, with his studio’s innovative output.

The replica Kinetoscope we created for the London exhibitions continues to provide Bradford visitors with an impression of what it was like to look into the earliest moving-picture display, to see Edison’s as well as Acres’ and Paul’s first efforts. And the museum has added an entertaining ‘time machine’ display, realising part of Paul’s 1895 proposal for an H. G. Wells-inspired concept (the moving seats) with a flash-forward to George Pal’s 1960 film version. Altogether, well worth a trip to UNESCO’s first ‘city of film’ for this, and much else to see in Bradford.

‘The Forgotten Showman’ exhibition is open daily at NSMM until March 2020.

New Paul discoveries online

rwp.Player.menuGood that the BFI is getting enthusiastic about celebrating Robert Paul’s 150th anniversary. After a ‘birthday’ screening at what some still refer to as the National Film Theatre (aka BFI Southbank) on 27 October, a new release has appeared on BFI Player featuring many of the recent discoveries from foreign archives – and a batch of what appear to be recent finds in the BFI’s own National Archive.  There seem to be about 45 titles (although the Player interface makes navigation awkward and listing impossible).

Perhaps the most exciting of these is the first Paul production in its original colour: The Dancer’s Dream (1905). Here the dancer falls asleep before a fire and passes through four dream sequences: one that recalls Reynaud’s Autour d’une cabine for his Theatre Optique (could someone working for Paul have seen that in Paris?); an underwater scene, recalling the fish-tank effect already used in Diving for Treasure; a third involving a good fairy who costumes the dancer; and finally a dramatic red-toned dance set on a rocky seashore. Altogether a magnificent discovery, which will hopefully become available in a more displayable format.


Equally interesting are two more of the Reproductions of Incidents of the Boer War  that Paul published at the end of 1899, adding to those already on the BFI’s Collected Films DVD. Although unfortunately presented as if they were one – with a blurb invoking the ‘fake news’ cliche –  these appear to be British Capturing a Maxim Gun immediately followed by Nurses on the Battlefield (below). This was described in some detail in Paul’s catalogue, as showing ‘a doctor and his orderly, who are tending a wounded Boer, while a British soldier is carried down by his comrades to the other nurses’. Specially recommended, adds the catalogue; and we can now see some real effort has been made by Paul’s adviser, an ex-officer with South African experience, to convey the complexity of a battlefield albeit on the Muswell Hill golf course.


Along with some other troop parades, this array includes the two splendid restorations, A Miner’s Daily Life (1904) and The Fatal Hand (1907), originally identified by Camille Blot-Wellens in the Swedish Archive. Viewed alongside what we already know from the 70-odd titles extant in 2009, these new discoveries show Paul’s studio continuing to break new ground through the Edwardian period. Time for a new Collected Films blu-ray – and a ‘spotter’s guide to RWP’ to help other archives discover more?

And below a happy souvenir of the the BFI Southbank Paul birthday show, with a spontaneous line forming to peer into the replica Kinetoscope specially brought in for the occasion – which might recall Paul’s own start in moving pictures in 1894, making replicas of Edison’s and Dickson’s machine. Soon to go on show again in Bradford!



Happy birthday, Mr Paul!

This seems to be Robert and Ellen clowning with the slack-wire music hall star Harry Lamore in Fun on the Clothesline in 1897, recently discovered in the BFI Archive collection. Possibly an early Muswell Hill back-garden production? Viewable free on BFI Player from next week.














Robert Paul was born on 3 October 1869, in a street off Holloway Road just north of Highbury. It was known as Albion Road then, before becoming the modern Furlong Road. The family moved around London during his youth, living in Stratford and Stamford Hill at various times. By the 1890s, when he started his business at 44 Hatton Garden, he was living in High Holborn, and it was here that he brought Ellen Daws when they married on 3 August 1897. They moved to Muswell Hill in the following year, living at a number of addresses near Sydney Road, where they built the studio and laboratory in 1898, which Ellen played a major part in running.

How would the Pauls have celebrated a birthday? Thanks to a memoir by a family friend, we know that they were keen theatregoers and regulars at the Café Royal near Piccadilly Circus, known at the turn of the century as ‘the haunt of Bohemian London’. Recalling the lively atmosphere of its domino room, Max Beerbohm drew a deep breath and thought to himself, ‘This indeed is life!’.

In 1906, Paul entertained ‘his numerous staff’ at their ‘country retreat’, with cricket, fishing and boating, finishing with an al fresco concert in the twilight before the drive back to ‘dreary London’. But don’t be deceived by that gloomy portrait of Paul so often reproduced! Irene Codd was sure many of the old gang would ‘smile when they look back and remember the little shed with the glass roof, and Mrs Paul with her sewing machine’. If you know the films, you’ll realise that much fun was had both on and off-screen at Sydney Road.

Paul’s 150th anniversary is being marked by a special show at BFI Southbank on the afternoon of Sunday 27 October, which will include many of the newly-discovered and restored films, introduced by Bryony Dixon and Ian Christie, with accompaniment by John Sweeney. Come and help celebrate Paul’s birthday!

Back in the City


The Robert Paul exhibition opens its second run at London Metropolitan Archives on Monday 2 Sept. Hours are 9.30 – 16.45, Monday – Thursday, and Wednesday evenings until 7.30. Open Saturdays 14/9 and 12/10. Come and see how moving pictures first reached London in Kinetoscope viewers. Discover the inventive man behind Britain’s film industry in Animatograph! Robert Paul: an early life in Film. Look out for special events during the exhibition, and pick up a free copy of the graphic novel Time Traveller.

After the exhibition’s very successful opening at Bruce Castle Museum in modern Haringey, where Paul would build Britain’s first film studio, London Metropolitan Archives takes us closer to his starting point – running a small scientific instrument business in Hatton Garden in the early 1890s. Hatton Garden wasn’t yet ‘diamond street’. It housed the Italian immigrant community, which included a number of street musicians, and many businesses, ranging from the games manufacturer Jaques (Staunton chess pieces, ping pong, Ludo etc) to Hiram Maxim, inventor of the machine-gun and powered flight pioneer. Amid these, young Robert launched his instrument business in 1891, aged just 22, very much against his father’s advice.

After getting into moving pictures through a commission from two visiting Greek-Americans, which catapulted him into the forefront of developments that would bring full-scale film shows to London’s music halls in early 1896, Paul needed space to build the equipment that was in demand on all sides. Soon, he was forced to rent extra space in nearby Great Saffron Hill – immortalised (if that’s the word) as the ‘emporium of petty larceny’ and the site of Fagin’s squat in Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838).

Cruickshank’s classic illustration of  the squalid apartment of the ‘pleasant old gentleman, and his hopeful pupils’

In 1895, Paul tried out a small display of his Kinetoscopes at 39a Leather Lane, which was no more salubrious, before committing to a major up-market exhibition at Olympia, which would lead to realising that projection made more sent than rows of expensive viewers. And after the launch of his Theatrograph in February 1896, kings’ emissaries, magicians and future filmmakers such as Georges Méliès would converged on the modest premises at 44 Hatton Garden, sometimes camping out on the stairs to stay in line for the Theatrograph projectors.

No photographs have been found of what 44 Hatton Garden looked like in 1896 (the current corner block is mid-20th century, built after a major fire destroyed many buildings around the junction with Cross Street in 1914). But Tallis’s street view drawing records what it must have been like. Since the plaque on no. 44, put up during the 1996 ‘centenary of cinema’ celebrations, is too small to read, time for a new, bigger one!


Paul’s other lives: helping science education and medicine


By the 1930s, Robert Paul had been away from film for over twenty years – although people were increasingly keen to ask him about the pioneer days. He was helping to manage the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company, but he was still very much a hands-on inventor, as he had been since the 1890s. In the basement of his large house in Addison Road, he maintained a fully-equipped workshop, where he was often helped by apprentices from the Muswell Hill factory (which the studio had now become).

A project that engaged him in 1931 was the exhibition held at the Albert Hall to mark the centenary of Michael Faraday’s discovery of electromagnetic induction, the basis of all modern electrical science. As one of the first generation of electrical engineers, Paul revered Faraday, and took responsibility for creating a practical part of the exhibition. He built replicas of historic electrical instruments and organised demonstrators to show what they measured and how they worked.


In 1933, he became involved in a highly contemporary issue: the need for low-cost portable equipment to help those unable to breathe naturally. His friend, the Nobel winning physicist William Bragg appealed to Paul to help create a device that could be used over long periods. The Bragg-Paul Pulsator (at top) consisted of a waistcoat-like belt that was rhythmically filled with air from electrically driven bellows (although it could also be water-powered).

Over fifty of these were in use in hospitals around Britain and Ireland during the polio and diphtheria epidemics of the late 1930s, helping to save many lives, according to grateful physicians. Below is one is use at the Cork Street Fever Hospital in Dublin. Compared with the Both Respirator and the Iron Lung, the Pulsator was easily transported and did not impede nursing care. Some were still in use in the 1950s.

70. Bragg-Paul Pulsator, Cork Street Fever Hospital, 1935

Thanks to the Wellcome Collection, the Paul exhibition at London Metropolitan Archives includes an extract from a 1938 film that demonstrated the Pulsator in action. One of Paul’s Unipivot Galvanometers is also featured in the exhibition, along with the souvenir catalogue of the Faraday Centenary exhibition.

From 2 September at LMA,  Northampton Rd, Farringdon, London EC1R 0HB


Ghostbusting with the Pauls


How rife was spiritualism at the turn of the 19th century? There was certainly no shortage of the great and good (plus quite a few rogues) happy to declare ‘belief’ in communication with the spirit world. One of the leading believers, featured in the Wellcome Collection’s current Smoke and Mirrors exhibition about magic and psychology, was Arthur Conan Doyle. Like the GP he once was, Conan Doyle declares reassuringly in a late filmed interview that it’s no matter of mere ‘belief’, but evidence he’s gathered from countless séances. Somewhat disconcerting from the creator of the forensic Sherlock Holmes.

Several of Robert Paul’s early customers were magicians who’d built their acts around ‘exposing’ fake mediums, notably the Egyptian Hall impresario Nevil Maskelyne. And Paul’s studio produced several sceptical films based the spiritualism vogue, two of which happily survive, with one included in the Wellcome show (above). Their early Upside Down, subtitled The Human Flies (1899) remains one of the most perfect two-shot trick films, and possibly the earliest screen appearance by Paul’s new hiring, the conjuror Walter Booth.


In this satirical take on ‘table turning’, a ‘professor of spiritualism’ (Booth) first makes his umbrella stand up and then has his hat ‘fly onto the ceiling’. The party of four are invited to stand, before they too fly up, and start dancing on the ceiling (a trick recapitulated by Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding).

By 1906, the tone has changed, and it’s Is Spiritualism a Fraud?, subtitled The Medium Exposed,  that appears in Smoke and Mirrors as evidence of contemporary scepticism. Here, we see the mechanics of setting up a fake séance in some detail, with an accomplice hidden in a chest and a spectacular ‘spiritualistic’ display, before the light is turned on by a suspicious member of the group to reveal the deception. Then the fake medium is bundled into his own coffin-like chest by indignant clients, and paraded on a cart through the streets of Muswell Hill, appropriately in the style of a modern-day witch.

By this date, George and Weedon Grossmith had extended their hugely successful Diary of a Nobody, first serialised in Punch in the 1890s and steadily republished through the Edwardian era (and set in Holloway, north London, where Paul was born). Séances were evidently as fashionable in middle-class social life as Tupperware parties would later be. Their anxious anti-hero, Charles Pooter, is sceptical, but intrigued by his wife’s and her friends’ fascination, and by Chapter 22 he too is taking part.


The moment I turned out the gas, and almost before I could get my hands on the table, it rocked violently and tilted, and began moving quickly across the room. Gowing shouted out: “Way, oh! steady, lad, steady!” I told Gowing if he could not behave himself I should light the gas, and put an end to the séance. To tell the truth, I thought Gowing was playing tricks, and I hinted as much; but Mrs. James said she had often seen the table go right off the ground. The spirit Lina came again, and said, “WARN” three or four times, and declined to explain. Mrs. James said “Lina” was stubborn sometimes. She often behaved like that, and the best thing to do was to send her away.

We have no idea if the Pauls ever witnessed a suburban séance. But they must certainly have been aware of what was going on around them, and had probably read Diary of a Nobody, one of the period’s most popular books. Having fun with filmic ghosts was part of the studio’s stock in trade, in films like The Haunted Curiosity Shop and The Magic Sword, but taking mediums as seriously as Conan Doyle and the Society for Psychical Research seems to have been a step too far for this worldly-wise couple and their colleagues.