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Decadent London and the origins of cinema

‘Let’s admit it: France invented cinema’ – thus proclaimed the director of the Cannes Film Festival, who also happens to head the Institut Lumière in Lyons, on 28 December, celebrating the ‘first public film show to a paying audience’ on that day in 1895. This has been repeated so often that it’s widely accepted as historical ‘fact’, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.1 Somehow, France and cinema seem to belong together, just as ‘Decadence’ seems quintessentially French, even though it was unquestionably an international movement. But if London was where Rimbaud’s and Verlaine’s stormy relationship played out in 1872-3, what if its notorious music halls also saw the true birth of cinema twenty-three years later?

Having recently published a book about the man who launched filmmaking in Britain, Robert Paul, this is an argument I’m keen to pursue.2 Not only to challenge Thierry Frémaux’s presumptuous claim, but also to challenge the prim view of early film as ‘family entertainment’ that the Lumières carefully cultivated. Their most famous poster showed a model bourgeois family enjoying the Cinématographe’s first comedy, The Gardener Watered. Good clean fun, indeed, adapted from a popular strip cartoon. But in London, also during 1895, a different kind of moving image entertainment was emerging.

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Lumière poster, with ideal bourgeois audience, featuring L’arroseur arrosé (The Gardener Watered)

Robert Paul and his initial partner Birt Acres had come together to deal with a business problem in the first stage of the film revolution. Thomas Edison’s peepshow Kinetoscope was sweeping Europe, with a number of operators trying to break his monopoly of both the machines and the film loops being shown on them. In fact it was a group of Greeks, headed by Georgiades and Trajedis, who first inspired Auguste Lumière to see the potential in moving picture entertainment – which led to him putting his sons back in Lyons to work on the Cinématographe – as well as commissioning replica Kinetoscopes from Robert Paul in London.

The Lumières’ device worked as a camera as well as projector, which left them free of any control by Edison. But when ‘The Wizard of Menlo Park’ refused to supply new films to independent operators, Paul struck up a short-lived partnership with Barnet photographer Birt Acres. Two of the dozen or so films they made were remarkable, and have survived. Rough Sea at Dover, showing waves breaking over the Admiralty pier, was an instant success and became the (unacknowledged) hit of Edison’s first projected show on Broadway in April 1896. Less well known was another of Paul-Acres titles Arrest of a Pickpocket, which shows a violent affray in a London street, with a pickpocket escaping from a policeman, only to be wrestled to the ground by a sailor. A very different miniature drama from the polite garden antics of the Lumières’ gardener and his boy (featured in their most famous poster) – one that perhaps reflects Britain’s reputation for rowdiness. As the historian Paul Langford recorded: ‘Anything that looks like Fighting is delicious to an Englishman’ according to a Frenchman living in London in the 1690s.

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Arrest of a Pickpocket, Paul-Acres, 1895. Preserved by the National Fairground and Circus Archive, University of Sheffield.

The Lumière show, which its inventors took remarkably little interest in – their father had been the driving force – would continue in its original form in Paris for some years. But it was soon in demand elsewhere, and by early 1896, London was definitely the place to see what this new entertainment form could offer. Indeed when one member of the Lumières’ first Paris audience, the magician and theatre proprietor Georges Méliès, had his offer to buy a Cinématographe refused, he soon headed to London to buy a job lot of projectors from Paul – the only manufacturer in Europe selling on the open market. One of these he managed to convert into a camera, and the results soon became a foundational part of cinema. But before that, on 20 February 1896, two rival demonstrations took place in London. In the afternoon, the multi-talented juggler and ‘shadowgraphist’ Félicien Trewey introduced the Cinématographe at the Polytechnic in Regent Street, and that same evening, Robert Paul showed his Theatrograph at the Finsbury Technical College, which was actually in Shoreditch.

Both of these shows had teething problems, which we know about thanks to a diligent reviewer in the electrical journal Lightning. Some of the Lumières’ fast moving figures were jerky, and Paul’s picture ‘joggled up and down on the screen’, due to poor mounting of the machine. But the writer was confident that both processes had a bright future. And before long, they would be competing head-to-head in London’s entertainment hub, Leicester Square. After the Cinématographe opened at the Empire Theatre in March, its neighbour the Alhambra Music Hall moved quickly to sign up Paul, renaming his projector the ‘Animatographe’.

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Lumière film advertising their show at the Empire                 The Alhambra Music Hall with poster advertising Paul’s Animatographe.
Both in Leicester Square (the Alhambra site now occupied by the Odeon Leicester Square)

The large audiences of Leicester Square’s music halls would have had little interest in which device was playing at their favourite theatre, except perhaps for its novelty. What soon mattered was the actual sequence of subjects being shown as part of the rich programme of ballet, song and drama that catered for a surprisingly diverse audience at these vast halls. For many, they represented the fleshpots of depravity, hell-bent on ‘demoralising’ their audience. They were also known to cater for the West End’s large population of ‘ladies of the night’ and their wealthy clients. Which led to the Empire erecting a canvas screen to separate the sexes on its promenade, in response to Mrs Ormiston Chant’s morality campaign. On 3 November 1894, a group of military cadets from Sandhurst, led by the 19-year-old Winston Churchill, triumphantly tore down the screen, with Churchill proclaiming ‘Ladies of the Empire, I stand for Liberty’.

Nothing in the Lumière show at the Empire would have offended ‘prudes on the prowl’. But next door at the Alhambra, Paul’s Animatographe programme already included two films of the theatre’s own famous ballet troupe, celebrated by the poet and journalist, and self-styled ‘music hall aficionado’ Arthur Symons in his journal The Savoy.3 Symons defended his praise of ‘the charm of rouge on fragile cheeks’ and described in sensuous detail his delight in seeing the performers backstage, as well as from the front stalls ‘as the curtain falls on the last grouping [when] the front row applauds violently… and every man, as he applauds, is looking in a different direction’.

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An Alhambra ballet (photo V&A theatre collection)

In May 1896, the Alhambra’s manager, Alfred Moul, realised that the Animatographe programme needed something fresh and perhaps more in keeping with the style of the theatre. He proposed to Paul that they ‘add interest to wonder’, as Paul later recalled, and make use of the theatre’s resources to stage a comic scene on the roof. The result was The Soldier’s Courtship, starring the Alhambra’s leading dancers, Fred Storey and Julie Seale, as lovebirds whose passionate tryst is disturbed by a large matron installing herself on their park bench. When they fail to dislodge her, the soldier tips over the bench and she retreats furiously, leaving him and his girl to return to their lovemaking.

By all accounts, The Soldier’s Courtship was immediately popular, hailed by the showman’s paper The Era as adding ‘humour’ to the animated pictures by means of ‘clever invention’. How successful it was could hardly be appreciated until recently, when a restoration of this pioneering film was co-ordinated by the Cineteca Nazionale in Rome, using elements drawn from various archives.4 Compared with Edison’s contemporary The Kiss, a well-known rather tame and lugubrious moment from a play filmed in close-up, Paul’s three performers throw themselves into the action with style and commitment. And the production would have a lasting significance for Robert Paul, when eighteen months later he married the dancer who had played the ‘lady of mature years’, as described by The Era – Ellen Daws, padded up in her costume and just twenty-nine at the time.

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The Soldier’s Courtship, as restored by Cineteca Nazionale, Rome in 2010.

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Paul Clerget in La bonne de chez Duval in Paris, 1892. Photo Atelier Nadar.             Clerget and Ross-Selwicke in 2 a.m. or The Husband’s Return, 1896

There would be more ‘adult humour’ in another film made by Paul in August that year. 2 a.m. or The Husband’s Return was, like Edison’s Kiss, taken from a popular stage work of the day. In this case, it is the Parisian actor Paul Clerget, rolling drunk after a night out, who is coaxed into bed by his exasperated wife, played by Ethel Ross-Selwicke. But it would be a mistake to judge the few brief extant films of this period solely on what we see. Contemporary audiences were capable of reading much more into them, especially in the novel conditions of darkened theatres which early film projection required, unlike then normal levels of theatre lighting. A striking example of contemporary ‘evocation’ comes in an 1897 story by the multi-talented George R. Sims, described in his Times obituary as ‘a highly successful playwright... a zealous social reformer, an expert criminologist, a connoisseur in good eating and drinking, in racing, in dogs, in boxing, and in all sorts of curious and out-of-the-way people and things’.  

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The only surviving Alhambra playbill of Paul’s 1896 programme.   George R. Sims, popular playwright, journalist and bon vivant.

‘Our Detective Story’, published in The Referee, is narrated by a private detective who recalls a visit to the Alhambra, then showing Paul’s series A Tour in Spain and Portugal, where he sees a former client and his wife. The detective’s brief had been to shadow the wife, suspected of adultery, in Madrid; and as they talk, the lights go down and the pictures begin. When they reach a scene in a Madrid park, both the husband and detective recognise the wife with another man. ‘Stay madam,’ the husband hisses, ‘I will see the end of this.’ The story ends with a coda, ‘In Court’, where the divorce case is being heard, with the film as evidence of adultery. The idea that films could provide evidence of wrongdoing would be exploited often in the years to come, but this remarkable early example reveals a shrewd understanding of what Victorian imagination could bring to early film shows. And whether this scene from the Tour in Spain does include a kissing couple must remain a mystery, since most of the film is lost.5

By 1898, after Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee had given the film business a temporary boost, attracting camera crews from around the world, Robert and Ellen Paul made an important decision. Buying a field on the northern outskirts of London, in today’s Muswell Hill, they built a studio, with provision to fly scenery around a stage and a processing laboratory. In a trade advertisement later that year, Paul declared that the public ‘had been surfeited Trains, Trams and ‘Buses’ – and with a dig at ‘scenes whose humour is too French to please English audiences’, no doubt aimed at Méliès as his major rival – he announced that his staff of ‘Artists and Photographers’ had produced no less than 80 films, ‘each of which tells a tale, whether Comic, Pathetic or Dramatic… with such clearness, brilliancy and telling effect that the attention of beholders should be riveted’.

Over the next five years, Paul became the recognised leader of the British film industry, ably supported by Ellen, putting her theatrical experience to good use as studio manager and occasional actor. Fewer than a tenth of the films they made survive, but many of these demonstrate the ways in Paul laid the foundations for future cinema, starting with the production of multi-scene narratives, such as Come Along, Do! (1898), adding titles, and developing a range of ingenious special effects, as in The Magic Sword (901) and The ? Motorist (1906). The great French film historian Georges Sadoul believed that Paul’s films were closely studied by Méliès and especially Pathé's emerging filmmakers, shaping the directions they would follow.

Cinema has always been about much more than its technical basis. Louis Lumière famously described it as ‘an invention without a future’, and took no interest in developing its dramatic potential. Paul meanwhile foresaw ‘the capacity of animated pictures for producing BREATHLESS SENSATION, LAUGHTER AND TEARS’ as early as 1898, when few would have thought this possible. To claim that Lumière’s Cinématographe created cinema comes close to claiming that the typewriter produced modern literature.

But there’s also a coda to this argument. Rimbaud famously liked London, spending much longer here than Verlaine, and describing Paris as ‘provincial’ by comparison. He seems to have admired its imperial ‘energy’ and bustle, which was also the background to the electrical engineer Paul throwing in his lot with the new business of ‘animated photography’. Paul didn’t exactly’ run away with the circus’, but he had at least several years of backstage life around London’s music halls, racing from hall to hall every night by cab, and getting his ever-growing programme of films onto improvised screens. And while researching his somewhat mysterious life, I was surprised to discover from a family friend’s memoir that he and Ellen were the life and soul of parties at the Café Royal. That friend, Irene Codd, rightly called it ‘the haunt of Bohemian London’, with habitués that included Oscar Wilde, Aleister Crowley and Max Beerbohm. To learn that the Pauls often visited ‘that exuberant vista of gilding and crimson velvet set amid opposing mirrors and upholding caryatids’, as Beerbohm described it, gives an unexpected new perspective on their life. No, the movies weren’t born in Lyons, or in Paris: they really got started in the ‘city of dreadful night’ that had welcomed Rimbaud and Verlaine, and so many other refugees from everyday reality.


Ian Christie
Professor of Film and Media History at Birkbeck, University of London

Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema by Ian Christie was publiched in 2019 by
University of Chicago Press, ISBN 9780226105635

 

Footnotes

1 There were at least two other public shows to paying audiences during 1895. In New York, the Lathams’ Eidoloscope opened for business in May 1895, and in Berlin the Skladanowskys launched their Bioskop in November.

2 Ian Christie, Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema (Chicago University Press, 2019). See also a comicbook version of Paul’s career, with artwork by ILYA, available online at https://simplebooklet.com/YqicBlR7tUKyUpguZBJS9S#page=0

3 See ‘At the Alhambra: Impressions and Sensations’, The Savoy, no 5, September 1896. The same issue included drawings by Aubrey Beardsley, a translation of a poem by Jean Moréas, a poem by Ernest Dowson, and a poem and article by W. B Yeats. Online at the Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/savoy02symo/page/n219/mode/2up.

4 The restoration was made in 2010 by Omnimago in Germany, with elements from the Portuguese archive, Bradford’s National Science and Media Museum, and the Rome archive, but was not seen in Britain until my presentation in a Gresham College lecture in February 2019, and subsequently in exhibitions celebrating Robert Paul. The lecture remains available online at https://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/robert-paul-native-london 

5 Sims had presumably seen the whole series, which included Madrid: Puerto del Sol. Only two scenes from A Tour in Spain and Portugal, filmed by Henry Short for Paul, are currently known to survive: A Sea Cave near Lisbon and Andalusian Dance. See Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema, pp. 127-8.

Posted on:Wednesday 13th January, 2021