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British Pioneers

How the British helped create a new art form

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Despite the fluctuating reputation of British cinema in subsequent decades, there is little doubt that between 1895 and 1905 the best British pioneers fully deserve to be ranked alongside their counterparts in France and the United States in terms of their resource, innovation and overall contribution to the creation of a new art form.

Although the Lumière Brothers in France got there first, R.W. Paul and Birt Acres were projecting their films to enthusiastic audiences as early as January 1896. Over the next few years, Paul and other British innovators such as G.A. Smith, James Williamson, Cecil Hepworth, William Haggar, Esme Collings and their more anonymous counterparts in the Bamforth and Sheffield production companies would take the medium from its crude one-shot origins to a remarkable degree of sophistication a decade later, both in terms of technique and narrative.

Watching these early British films, one can see the building blocks of the cinema's grammar being pushed into place: close-ups, editing and special effects - all of which pushed the medium away from its theatrical and photographic origins and towards something entirely new. A simple visual gag such as the one that makes up The Miller and the Sweep (d. G.A. Smith, 1897) could be reproduced on the stage, but the one in Extraordinary Cab Accident (d. W.R. Booth, 1903) would have been hard to bring off in any other medium - and the flights of fancy in The Big Swallow (d. James Williamson, 1901) and the curiously titled The "?" Motorist (d. Booth, 1906) wholly impossible.

But it's the less flamboyant films that ultimately had more to offer. If the situation of Grandma's Reading Glass (d. Smith, 1900) - a small boy examining various objects - seems prosaic, the way the film cuts between long shots and extreme close-ups is of huge historical importance in the way it establishes the principle of multiple angles and viewpoints.

Similarly, A Daring Daylight Burglary (d. Frank Mottershaw, 1903) looks like a conventional chase thriller, but it was one of the first films to trace the course of a single piece of action across multiple locations, and went on to influence The Great Train Robbery (US, d. Edwin S.Porter, 1903), the film credited with inventing the action movie (Porter's earlier The Life of an American Fireman (1901) had been similarly inspired by James Williamson's Hove-based Fire! from the same year).

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Daring Daylight Burglary, A (1903)Daring Daylight Burglary, A (1903)

Pioneering action movie that influenced American film-makers

Thumbnail image of Derby, The (1896)Derby, The (1896)

Footage of the famous horse race, first screened the day after it was shot

Thumbnail image of Grandma's Reading Glass (1900)Grandma's Reading Glass (1900)

Short silent film experimenting with close-ups

Thumbnail image of Rescued by Rover (1905)Rescued by Rover (1905)

Animal rescue drama that was a major British cinema breakthrough

Thumbnail image of Rough Sea at Dover (1895)Rough Sea at Dover (1895)

One of the oldest British films, a study of water in motion

Related Collections

Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Acres, Birt (1854-1918)Acres, Birt (1854-1918)

Pioneer, Cinematographer

Thumbnail image of Collings, Esmé (1859-1936)Collings, Esmé (1859-1936)

Cinematographer, Director

Thumbnail image of Friese-Greene, William (1855-1921)Friese-Greene, William (1855-1921)


Thumbnail image of Hepworth, Cecil (1874-1953)Hepworth, Cecil (1874-1953)

Director, Producer

Thumbnail image of Paul, R.W. (1869-1943)Paul, R.W. (1869-1943)

Director, Producer

Thumbnail image of Smith, G.A. (1864-1959)Smith, G.A. (1864-1959)


Thumbnail image of Williamson, James (1855-1933)Williamson, James (1855-1933)

Director, Producer, Cinematographer

Thumbnail image of Bamforth and Co.Bamforth and Co.

Production Company