Appellate Judge James A. Stewart thinks Electric Edwardians would be a good name for a rock band, but it's actually a look at lost footage of everyday life in the early 1900s, or at least of people waving their hats at the camera.
"The effect is as if H.G. Wells' marvelous time machine had come to life."
Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon aren't household names today. But around the turn of the last century, their film company was well-known in England for "actualities," showing slices of life in a community which paid to see them. Back before TV, silent shots of the crowd lining up to see a political speech were exciting stuff. Dr. Vanessa Toulmin, who provides the commentary, adds an even more amazing fact: showings were "less than four hours after the films were made."
Found in Blackburn, England, in the 1990s, the Mitchell and Kenyon Collection "consists almost entirely of actuality films commissioned by travelling fairground operators for showing at local fairgrounds or other venues across the UK," according to the British Film Institute, which has been preserving the films. BFI sent the films on tour across England and is bringing them to more people on DVD.
The films mostly show life in Edwardian England (1900-1913), although there's one early dramatic re-enactment of Boers sneaking up on a British soldier. They are divided into five categories: "Youth & Education," "The Anglo-Boer War," "Workers," "High Days and Holidays," and "People and Places."
Highlights include a short film of 1902's Burnley v. Manchester United match in "High Days and Holidays," perhaps the first film of the future football powerhouse. Ironically, commentator Dr. Vanessa Toulmin notes, the film was never shown because Manchester United won—it was commissioned for local showing in Burnley. There are two other football matches in this collection, including one (Dewsbury v. Manningham) in which I only caught glimpses of the ball amid the players running and colliding. There's also a cricket match film which consists largely of crowd shots.
The streets of Bradford, Glasgow, and Belfast, as well as the Halifax countryside, are preserved on film with movies taken from moving trains or streetcars in "People and Places," which also features street scenes from Manchester and the Morecambe sea front. These are among the most interesting, since they show the transportation of the time—streetcars, bicycles, and horse-drawn wagons—and show cities before suburbs and shopping malls.
There are a lot of films of crowds here—at times even waving their hats at the cameras, especially in the first three sections of the DVD presentation. During the "Youth & Education" segment, I began to suspect that queueing up was a major part of the British curriculum.
Lines and processions (the best is one for Gen. Baden-Powell in "The Anglo-Boer War," since the march music accompanying it does give you a sense of being there) also feature prominently. "Workers" shows several scenes of shifts leaving or arriving at factories. The best segments here feature the North Sea Fisheries and a Cunard vessel at Liverpool.
As you'd imagine, the picture quality isn't perfect here. There are lots of lines, spots, and marks on the film, which definitely has enough of a flickering quality to make you understand how the early British term for movies (flickers) came about. At points, the aged film has enough fading and stuff floating through that you'd think the people were caught in a windy fog. The silent-film style score by In the Nursery provides good background music, occasionally adding too much drama—as when ships arrive at Manchester—or hitting spot-on perfect—as with the Baden-Powell procession.
The films tell you a lot about how people dressed and what the buildings and landscape at the time looked like. You'll get glimpses of how they traveled, and scenes of work life and leisure activities. The commentaries by Dr. Vanessa Toulmin do a good job of providing additional background on the filmmakers and on aspects of turn-of-the-20th-century culture like the first graduating class with female members at the University of Birmingham.
With all this looking back in time going on, it's only natural that one of TV's Doctor Whos is involved; Paul McGann reads "Pictures of Crowd Splendour," an essay on cinema and the working class in the extras. Dr. Vanessa Toulmin sits for an interview to share her thoughts on "factory-gate films" and same-day screenings. "Road to Restoration" shows the work involved in restoring these films. It ends with a clip of today's archivists leaving their facility; since they're still in their lab coats, it's too obviously staged.
The extras also present several more clips from the original Mitchell and Kenyon collection. The last two—"Royal Proclamation of the Death of Queen Victoria" and "Bradford Coronation Procession"—are the most interesting. You might wonder why they didn't make it into the main body of the DVD presentation.
If you'd hop a ride on the Doctor's TARDIS just to see the adverts on a streetcar from the early 1900s, you'll probably be fascinated by Electric Edwardians—but be left with a feeling of wanting more, since these rare clips are short, only a couple of minutes apiece. If you'd rather have Salvador Dali poke out your eyeball than see footage of people leaving a factory shift, you should steer clear of this one.
I would have liked to have seen more of the actual events and places, with less hat waving. Still, I appreciate that these films are a rare find. As Toulmin puts it: "Mitchell and Kenyon made these films as throwaway films. They were never meant to survive."
Not guilty, since Electric Edwardians helps preserve life in the early 20th Century. Even so, I'm not hoping the factory-gate films make a comeback.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Commentary by Dr. Vanessa Toulmin, National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield
Review content copyright © 2006 James A. Stewart; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.