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A Year in Film: 1906

An overview of a turbulent year for the British film industry

Main image of A Year in Film: 1906

The year 1906 was the beginning of the second era of film development - between this year and the outbreak of war was "a period of experimentation from which crystallized the eventual structure of the trade" (Rachael Low, A History of the British Film, 1906-1913). The film business was expanding, films were getting longer and more sophisticated, and news film was becoming more regularly available and established. In 1906 films were still shown principally as a turn in music halls and in fairground shows, although a variety of other venues showing just films were being explored, such as the news film show at the Daily Bioscope in Bishopsgate just outside the City of London which opened on 23rd May, and Hale's Tours (a 'ride' in which the spectator experienced a journey by film in a reconstructed train carriage). Daily attendances for film shows in 1906 has been estimated as just short of 4000 in London alone. Audiences would have been mixed, with a high proportion of children and largely working class. Admission prices started at a penny.

Films were now hired rather than bought directly, changing the balance of power between producer, distributor and exhibitor. The business was becoming increasingly competitive, and in September 1905 the world's largest producer of films, Charles Pathé, started a calculated move to put the small producers out of business by undercutting their prices from 6d per foot to 5d. During the course of 1906, British producers mounted a campaign to counter this manoeuvre. In the long term, the result of this move by the French company was ironically to lead to the failure of the Europeans to capitalise on their early success. But that was yet to occur: in 1906 it was still business, if not quite as usual, then differing only in the ferocity with which the price war was conducted.

In 1906 too, the British trade began to organise. The reaction to Pathé's price-cutting was the setting up of the Kinematograph Manufacturers Association on the 19th of July. Signatories included Charles Urban, Hepworth Manufacturing Co., Warwick Trading Co., Mitchell & Kenyon, Walturdaw, Alpha Trading Co., Williamson & Co., British Gaumont, Sheffield Photo Co., Cricks and Sharp, R.W. Paul and Clarendon. But this gentleman' agreement had no effect on Pathé's dominance of the market and in December he reduced his price again to 4d a foot forcing the British producers to follow or go out of business. The exhibitors and renters also set up trade associations at this time.

The survival rate for British films made in 1906 is not high: of 250 fiction titles (with series contributing an additional 46), just 22 survive, or less than 10%. Gaumont Chronophone films which were a particular feature of the year and matched sound discs to on-film performances of music hall acts, light opera and other songs and recitations were produced in considerable numbers but none survive that we know of from this year. Of the 264 nonfiction titles (with series an additional 75 titles) only 28 are known to survive.

But these few survivors, of which this is a selection, provide a fascinating insight into life in Britain in the mid Edwardian era and its developing film industry. Many of the pioneer filmmakers were still in business, G.A. Smith now experimenting with colour for Charles Urban, R.W. Paul and W.R. Booth still producing inventive comedies, Cricks & Martin, Alpha, Clarendon, Warwick and Hepworth were still in the picture. The types of film they were producing were becoming slightly more sophisticated, slightly more polished, year on year but in terms of genre remained largely the same. The trick film, the chase comedy, the costume drama and adaptations of famous literary and theatrical works continued to form the staples of the film trade.

On the non-fiction side things were more dynamic. World events such as the eruption of Vesuvius and the great earthquake in San Francisco were brought to the screen by an increasingly well organised industry. There were even a few cinemas offering news only shows for London's city clerks during the lunch hour. There was a thriving market too throughout the land for local films. Producers such as Mitchell & Kenyon were still executing commissions for the fairground showmen such as Sydney Carter's films of S.S. Mongolian leaving Glasgow with its load of emigrants on their way to Canada and a film of a visit to McIndoe's fairground show by Lord and Lady Overtoun was presumably similarly destined for a local audience. Unknown filmmakers recorded the crowds attending the opening of a transporter bridge at Newport in South Wales. The interest film, the mainstay of the trade in factual film was flourishing.

These films were documentary, though perhaps not in the way we would understand the term today. They recorded people, places and processes that would be 'of interest' - perhaps more equivalent to television programmes than to the 'classic' documentary of the sound era which has a mission or a message. Often these interest films would be travelogues or would concern themselves with industrial or commercial processes - for example, tea growing in Ceylon, from the picking of the leaves to the processing, packing and transporting to it's final destination the consumer in a European home. Cricks & Martin's film of the workers at the Peek Frean biscuit factory in London's Bermondsey is one of the finest of this type.

Bryony Dixon

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of '?' Motorist, The (1906)'?' Motorist, The (1906)

Comedy about a motorist going to extreme lengths to evade the law

Thumbnail image of Aberdeen University Quarter Centenary Celebrations (1906)Aberdeen University Quarter Centenary Celebrations (1906)

A procession through Aberdeen headed by Edward VII and Queen Alexandra

Thumbnail image of Arlberg Railway, The (1906)Arlberg Railway, The (1906)

A journey through the picturesque Austrian Alps

Thumbnail image of Cabby's Dream, The (1906)Cabby's Dream, The (1906)

Trick film in which a cabby gives a lift to a magician

Thumbnail image of Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight, The (1906)Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight, The (1906)

English Civil War melodrama about a race against time

Thumbnail image of Flying The Foam and Some Fancy Diving (1906)Flying The Foam and Some Fancy Diving (1906)

Trick film about a bicycle stunt

Thumbnail image of Is Spiritualism a Fraud? (1906)Is Spiritualism a Fraud? (1906)

Comedy-thriller about the exposure of a fake medium

Thumbnail image of It's Not My Parcel (c.1906)It's Not My Parcel (c.1906)

Comedy in which people try to return a parcel to the wrong owner

Thumbnail image of King Edward VII Launches H.M.S. Dreadnought (1906)King Edward VII Launches H.M.S. Dreadnought (1906)

Launch of a powerful new battleship

Thumbnail image of Lively Quarter Day, A (1906)Lively Quarter Day, A (1906)

House-moving chaos is resolved with a touch of magic

Thumbnail image of Lord and Lady Overtoun's Visit to McIndoe's Show (c.1906)Lord and Lady Overtoun's Visit to McIndoe's Show (c.1906)

Lord and Lady Overtoun visit a film show at a fairground booth

Thumbnail image of Motor Pirates (1906)Motor Pirates (1906)

Crooks in an armoured car wreak havoc in the countryside

Thumbnail image of Opening of Transporter Bridge at Newport, Mon (1906)Opening of Transporter Bridge at Newport, Mon (1906)

The Mayor of Newport and Viscount Tredegar perform the ceremony

Thumbnail image of Return of T.R.H. The Prince and Princess of Wales (1906)Return of T.R.H. The Prince and Princess of Wales (1906)

The future George V and Queen Mary return from a British Empire tour

Thumbnail image of Tartans of Scottish Clans (1906)Tartans of Scottish Clans (1906)

Pioneering colour guide to various Scottish tartans

Thumbnail image of Visit to Peek Frean and Co.'s Biscuit Works, A (1906)Visit to Peek Frean and Co.'s Biscuit Works, A (1906)

Unusually sophisticated early marketing film.

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