Mapping London with Paul


Robert Paul was a Londoner. Born in Highbury, he attended the City of London School, newly based on the Embankment, and established his instrument-making business in Hatton Garden in the early 1890s – before film swept him into a new parallel career. And London inevitably provided his first subjects, not only because he had grown up with them all around him, but also because there was a ready market for London sights, around >Britain and further afield.  At least twenty of the first fifty film that Paul made in 1895-6 would have been recognisable as London-based.

Most are currently lost (like 90% of Paul’s catalogue of around 800 titles), which leaves a major gap in what could have been a unique record of late Victorian London. What if we had a goods train entering Highgate Tunnel, or a shoeblack at work on a city street, or a view of the Nelson Dry Dock at Rotherhithe, all from the end of ’95 and start of ’96? Or two films of the celebrated Alhambra Music Hall dancers, one of whom was Paul’s wife-to-be, Ellen?

Fortunately, one of the 1896 London scenes has survived, and in excellent condition. Traffic on Blackfriars Bridge dates from June, and an early advertisement noted its ‘beautiful detail’. It is indeed one of the most evocative of all early London views, shot diagonally from the south bank, with the neo-gothic roof of Paul’s old school just visible on the northern embankment (today this is J. P. Morgan’s London headquarters, rumoured to house a bullion cache). The traffic on the bridge is entirely horse-drawn, hansoms and omnibuses, while the passers-by are a fascinating cross-section of Londoners, from the toffs who smile confidently towards the camera to the elderly man who gives it a lingering look, and the boy who never looks up from reading his newspaper.

Visiting the London Transport Museum last weekend, I kept expecting to find Blackfriars Bridge on show, for its vivid transport record. No such luck. But surrounded by the museum’s wonderful imagery of the 19th and 20th century city, I was reminded of one of Paul’s sidelines, showing just how engaged he was with his milieu. In 1901 he published a free ‘folding card’ entitled What to photograph in London, which detailed six ingenious itineraries that would take the ‘visitor in a hurry’ around all the major sights of the city, with advice on how best to photograph them. In fact, users would have needed not to be in too much of a hurry, as each of these routes was reckoned to take a day, ‘according to the zeal of the amateur’.

The full contents of Paul’s photographic guide, illustrated with some fine vintage postcards and the film, are available on Roland-Francois Lack’s superb Cine-Tourist site:

Mr and Mrs Paul

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What do we know about Ellen Paul, wife of Robert? One thing for sure: that she co-starred in his – and Britain’s – very first acted comedy, The Soldier’s Courtship, filmed on the roof of the Alhambra music hall in May 1896 (and now happily restored, though as yet unseen in Britain).  She didn’t play the object of the soldier’s vigorous affections, but the busybody who intrudes and is duly punished. Fifteen months later, she and Robert would be married, after some dogged courtship on his part, according to a family friend. The story of their family life includes the grim fact of losing three children in infancy. But it also seems to have had a series of continuing collaborations between the former dancer and the novice filmmaker.

One of these is almost certainly a film that Bryony Dixon has recently turned up in the National Film Archive, Fun on the Clothesline, probably made around the time of their marriage. In this comedy featuring a slack-wire performer, Robert plays the supporting straight man in top hat and tattered tails, while an amused woman watches the antics. Identifying Ellen for certain isn’t always easy, since she was, after all, an actress. But there’s a documented hint that she and Robert played the couple in Come Along, Do! in 1898, both disguised as elderly folk. In this (above), the pair are sharing lunch outside an ‘art exhibition’ before deciding to take a closer look. When we cut to the interior, this is actually the very first such scene change known in film history – although unfortunately the second shot survives only in catalogue stills (which I used for the BFI DVD version). But what happens is that the man is pulled away from his close inspection of a nude sculpture by his wife, following the storyline of a well-known song of the same title (also used for other media, such as lantern slides and stereographs). Obviously a good subject for marital cooperation…

Ellen may well have appeared in a number of other films. But another family friend later confirmed that she played a major part in running the studio that Paul set up in Muswell Hill in 1898. Indeed she is also said to have managed the electrical instrument business while he was abroad. Early film history wasn’t only dismissive of Paul’s foundational role in creating British cinema – blame Rachael Low for that – but it has long ignored or underestimated the unrecorded work of many women. Alice Guy wasn’t the only female pioneer!

Tell a policeman?

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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. 





The Man who invented Christmas films

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So Dickens ‘invented Christmas’ as we know it, with his 1843 A Christmas Carol, according to Bharat Nalluri’s current movie? Well, if he did, then Robert Paul surely deserves to be celebrated for having invented the ‘Christmas film’ fifty-odd years later. His first in this new genre came in November 1898, with Santa Claus and the Children, in which presents apparently came down the chimney (like the majority of Paul’s films, it’s currently lost).

Then in November 1901, Paul offered a double treat, both parts firmly linked to Dickens. Mr Pickwick’s Christmas at Wardles recreated a scene from the serial that had launched the novelist’s career. And in the same month Paul’s issued his longest film to date, the multi-scene Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost, in which the miser is mortified by scenes from his disappointed youth, before making ghostly visits to his employees enjoying their Christmas, like the Cratchits (above). With the Anglo-Boer war dragging on, Paul may well have felt that some seasonal cheer was needed, especially in the English idiom, as he proposed in another film released at the same time, The Magic Sword, which offered a kind of condensed pantomime, full of impressive stop-motion magic.

The latter two you can easily find online, more or less complete. But Paul’s last seasonal special is still among the lost. For 1905, he offered The Christmas Card; or the Story of Three Homes, billed as ‘a film specially devised for the present season’. A hand opens a Christmas card to reveal ‘The Home of the Rich’, where a ‘well-dressed little girl’ invites a ‘poor waif’ who has been sweeping snow from her steps into the well-provisioned house, from which they ‘mysteriously float away’ to the Home of Santa Claus. After he has obligingly morphed out of a Christmas pudding, the trio proceed to ‘The Home of the Poor’, where the waif’s mother is greatly relieved to have him back, even of the cupboard is bare – until S. Claus magically stocks it with Christmas fare, pulls a cracker and ‘drinks a toast to all the world’. Advertised as ‘the ideal picture for Christmas’, this is confidently described as ‘full of the good old-fashioned sentiment and pathos which Dickens loved to picture’.


Paul and Russian coincidences

Robert Paul’s films travelled all over the world between 1896 and 1909 – how widely we can only guess. But proof that one at least reached Russia came when Yuri Tsivian identified the films that had inspired Andrei Bely’s 1907 essay ‘The City’. When this leading Symbolist wrote of ‘a car rushing up a wall in defiance of the laws of gravity’, then ‘zooming higher and higher among meteors’, we know he must have seen Paul’s The ? Motorist, made the previous year.


But Paul actually made several films about Russia, including a drama, Goaded to Anarchy, most likely inspired by reports to the revolutionary uprisings across Russia in 1905. This is unlikely to have been distributed in Russia, but its climax, in which ‘a young patriot’ throws a bomb into a palace reception, assassinating the general ‘who has shown no mercy’ to his sister when condemning her to exile in Siberia. The film is lost, but we have an image of this scene – which eerily anticipates the explosive climax of Bely’s great novel Petersburg.

Last week, I was able to reintroduce Paul as a key pioneer filmmaker to students at the Moscow Film School, under the benevolent eye of director Alexei Popogrebsky. But who knows how many of his films might have circulated in movie-mad Russia before 1910?


Once in glorious colour…


For at least the last hundred years, Robert Paul’s films have only been known in black-and-white, and often very inferior monochrome, after several generations of copying from used projection prints that somehow survived Paul’s own purge of his stock in 1909. But he was one of the first filmmakers in Britain to show and offer for sale coloured prints. The earliest mention of this was in April 1896, when he showed at least one hand-coloured film in his regular programme at the Alhambra Music Hall, which was noted in the London Evening News.

These prints were hand-painted by Edward Doubell, who had long been colouring the famous lantern slides shown at the Royal Polytechnic Institution, now apparently willing to apply his skills to the much smaller scale – and larger quantity – of film frames. The 40 foot films Paul was making at this time would have each had 456 frames! And the price quoted by Paul (in one surviving letter) wasn’t cheap, but there were clearly exhibitors who thought the attraction worth paying for.

Can we judge how good the effect might have been? No coloured prints by Paul are known to survive – except for one fugitive fragment, shown here. This is part of Paul’s coverage of the 1897 Diamond Jubilee, showing the great procession of carriages and troops that wound its way to St Paul’s on 22 June, which can be seen in many illustrations (such as But these few original coloured frames were already disintegrating when photographed on their way to deposit in the National Film Archive. This may be the only authentic coloured image from Paul we’ll ever see, and it’s a beauty!


A Rodchenko photo of Barnet directing ‘Moscow in October’.

From one little-known filmmaker to another… found this great photo of Boris Barnet directing his ‘lost’ 1917 commemoration MOSCOW IN OCTOBER, by Rodchenko, no less. Most of this survives, and has some great scenes as I recall, including an overhead shot of two mobs rushing towards each other from opposite ends of the same street.

Boris Barnet

Rodchenko Barnet

The film ‘Moscow in October’ is a Boris Barnet film that is very rarely shown (partly because much of it is missing). And yet along with Eisenstein’s October and Pudovkin’s The End of Saint Petersburg it was one of this trio of films with which the Soviet state marked the tenth anniversary of the 1917 Revolution. Moreover, though its reputation has been sullied by a supposition that it wasn’t Barnet’s ‘type of film’, it does, nevertheless, have its champions.

One of the most impressive post-Soviet film critics and historians, Oleg Kovalov, wrote for the Seance journal an article suggesting that the Barnet was not necessarily the weaker of the three. Moreover, the list of those who worked with Barnet always impresses. Regarding this film, two of the greatest Soviet photographers were associated with it. Alexander Rodchenko was art director and his name needs little introduction to historians of the art…

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