One of the iconic moments in dramatising early film history comes in The Magic Box, the British film industry’s collective 1951 tribute to the ‘inventor of kinematography’, William Friese-Greene. Willie has been slaving away on his efforts to make pictures move, and when he finally succeeds, he rushes out into the darkness to tell someone. The first person he meets is a stolid policeman, played by Laurence Olivier, in one of the many star cameos that decorate the film. Olivier’s disbelief turning to delighted recognition is an unforgettable moment – if only it had happened like this. Or indeed anything like it had happened for poor, desperate Willie Green.
The fact that it didn’t probably contributed to discrediting Friese-Greene’s claims as an inventor. But he wasn’t to blame for creating this scenario. That seems to have been the work of the self-proclaimed ‘historian’ Will Day, soon after Friese-Greene’s poignant, destitute death in 1921. And before long it had become central to the Friese-Greene legend, with the anonymous policeman recruited as ‘cinema’s first spectator’.
So was it sheer invention – dreamed up to glorify Willie posthumously, after the years of neglect? In fact, something like it really did happen, back in 1895, but to Robert Paul rather than Friese-Greene. Paul mentioned it in an after-dinner speech to the film trade in 1909, as a joking reminder of how far the business had come since those early days: It was 3am in the morning when they successfully finished their film and they made such a cheering over the fact that the police came in to know what was the matter. The delight that he then experienced had been maintained as it was a most interesting profession. No mention here, incidentally, that he would soon give up this ‘interesting profession’. But that’s another story.
The test film they were working on in Hatton Garden had probably been taken outside Birt Acres’ house in Barnet, and it certainly wasn’t shown on a screen at this early date, as imagined in The Magic Box and elsewhere, but seen in one of the Kinetoscope viewers that Paul was making. How the story got detached from Paul and attached to Friese-Greene has more to do with the aims of storytelling than of history, but it’s such a good scene that it would be nice to return it to its rightful owner some day.
My thanks are due to Stephen Herbert and Peter Domankiewicz for help in getting to the bottom of this mystery. More about it in the forthcoming Robert Paul tome.