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Cheese Mites (1903)


Main image of Cheese Mites (1903)
For The Unseen World, 35mm, 150 feet, black & white, silent
Production CompanyCharles Urban Trading Company
Director of PhotographyF. Martin Duncan

A magnified shot of cheese mites.

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Cheese Mites was the sensation of the first public programme of scientific films in Britain shown at the Alhambra Music Hall in Leicester Square, London, in August 1903. Its claim to being scientific lay in its being shot through a microscope, revealing to a lay audience sights that would normally only have been available to owners of microscopes. The programme, billed as The Unseen World, also included the microcinematographic studies The Frog, His Webbed Foot, And the Circulation of his Blood; The Fresh Water Hydra; and The Circulation of the Protoplasm of the Canadian Waterweed. These were alternated with the observational and moralising animal behaviour films The Greedy American Toad; The Pugilistic Toads and the Tortoise Referee; Chameleons Climbing and Feeding; and The Boa Constrictor. The second part of the programme consisted of 15 short films on bee culture.

The context of its showing was typical of early cinema, where films were part of a culture of spectacular entertainments which served eager audiences keen to witness the latest novelty. In this case they squirmed in mock revulsion at the greatly enlarged creatures scampering around on the screen. The spirit of the entertainment is signalled by the other acts in the show, which included the illusionist Servais Le Roy, with his famous levitating woman illusion, 'Asrah the Floating Princess'.

But although promoted as scientific, these were not the products of the elite university laboratory-based science. Francis Martin Duncan, the 'scientist' behind the films, was an enthusiastic amateur natural historian who was making a living by taking still photographs through microscopes and publishing manuals and articles on the technique needed to do so.

Cheese mites as a species were very familiar to microscopists, frequently being included in beginners' kits as first subjects to be examined when the instrument was brought home. Percy Smith, who made Mitey Atoms (Secrets of Nature, 1930), a later film on the same subject, joked that a father buying a microscope could defray the cost by putting his family off their dinner. Charles Urban, the entrepreneur behind The Unseen World, chose to emphasise the revulsion factor by adding shots of a man so revolted by studying his Stilton lunch that he threw it away. Cheese Mites was such a sensation that it led to the production of a spoof; Percy Stow and Cecil Hepworth's The Unclean World (1903), which featured clockwork bugs.

Timothy Boon

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Video Clips
Complete film (0:49)
Cheese Mites or, Lilliputians in a London Restaurant (1901)
Science in Non-Fiction Film