In two brief periods of filmmaking activity, 1898-1900 and 1913-1915, Bamforth and Company, of Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, was responsible for producing a modest but historically significant collection of films.
James Bamforth is among a select group of early British filmmakers, which also includes Cecil Hepworth, George Albert Smith, and Robert Paul, whose work is justly celebrated for its role in the early development of the story film. The company had come to prominence during the 1890s for its industrial mass production of magic lantern slides and, after 1904, for its expansion into the international market for postcards. Bamforth's excursions into the film industry were relatively brief, and its business interests in other media significantly influenced many of its films.
James Bamforth started in business in 1870 as a studio photographer and began the production of magic lantern slides around 1883, photographed at its studio at Station Road, Holmfirth. At first a small-scale enterprise, Bamforth's production of photographic lantern slides was so successful that by 1898 a factory extension to the studio in Holmfirth was built, enabling production on an industrial scale. At first, the company specialised in 'life model' slide sequences in which simple narratives, usually conveying moral, temperance, and religious themes, were photographed in front of a painted backcloth. Typically, a lecturer accompanied the screening. By the late 1890s, Bamforth production became increasingly dominated by slides intended to accompany popular songs and hymns.
The manner in which these life model lantern sequences were made and exhibited had a profound influence on the company's first period of filmmaking. Unlike other early British production companies, Bamforth already possessed a studio, painted backcloths, and an available pool of local performers, not to mention years of experience in constructing visual narratives for projection on screen. Possibly in response to this expertise, Riley Brothers of Bradford, who had been involved with moving picture technology since 1896 and had already begun to make films of their own, commissioned Bamforth in 1898 to produce further films to be sold exclusively to purchasers of their equipment. Although the exact business relationship between the two firms and the production dates of the films remains unknown, the subsequent advertisement of these productions in a 1903 Hepworth catalogue as 'RAB' films acknowledges their partnership.
A large proportion of the fifteen RAB films advertised in the 1903 catalogue were comic regional subjects. Among these were several, most likely intended for local audiences, depicting mischievous local children playing schoolyard games, such as Boys Sliding, and Leap Frog. Bamforth films of this period also include an unusually high proportion of fiction subjects, such as Kiss in the Tunnel, Women's Rights, and The Tramp and the Baby's Bottle, and these are of greatest significance in terms of the early development of British narrative film. For example, Kiss in the Tunnel contains an early example of continuity editing in which an amorous scene from inside a darkened train is placed between shots of a train entering and departing a tunnel. The existence of another, almost identical, version of Kiss in the Tunnel, produced in 1899 by Brighton filmmaker George Albert Smith, suggests that one of these producers had 'borrowed' substantially from the other, as was common practice at the time.
However, Bamforth also adapted some of its own life model lantern material to the new medium. For example, the Bamforth film Women's Rights replicates an earlier comic lantern lecture, in which 'Mr Niggle' and his son humiliate his suffragette wife and her friend. Indeed, a similar lecture may well have accompanied the screening of the film. The film depicts two men nailing the women's skirts to a fence, and contains the earliest known example of a continuity cut to a different perspective within the same scene. In fact, the shots, apparently taken from either side of the fence, are achieved by turning the fence and the performers through 180 degrees. Although the principle of spatial and temporal continuity implied by this cut was new to film, it had long been present within the magic lantern tradition, in which the detailed arrangement of contiguous spaces, supported by the description of a lecturer, was already fully developed.
James Bamforth, increasingly supported by his sons, concentrated his efforts on postcard production from the 1900s and the company only returned to film production, briefly, from 1913. For modern viewers, the most notable of the Bamforth films in this second period is the bizarre comedy Finding His Counterpart, in which a man visits a phrenologist, and then attempts to discover his ideal mate by feeling the heads of a succession of unlikely paramours.
In 1914, Bamforth and Co. engaged the Music Hall comedian 'Winky' (Reginald Switz), who became the star of their most successful films, including productions such as Winky's Weekend, Itching Powder, and the worryingly titled Winky Causes a Smallpox Panic (all 1914). By 1915, other comic performers such as Lily Ward, Alf Scottie and the child star Baby Langley were briefly signed up, but shortly afterwards, perhaps due to the impact of the war, Bamforth films were absorbed by the short lived London-based Holmfirth Producing Company. Bamforth and Co. survived until the 1990s, and is now chiefly remembered for its production of cheeky seaside postcards.
Barnes, John, The Beginnings of the Cinema in England, vol. 4: 1899 (Exeter: EUP, 1996)
Brown, Richard, 'Film and Postcards - Cross media symbiosis in early Bamforth films' (2002)
Herbert, Stephen and Luke McKernan, Who's Who of Victorian Cinema (London: BFI, 1996)
Robinson, David, Stephen Herbert and Richard Crangle (eds), Encyclopaedia of the Magic Lantern (London: The Magic Lantern Society, 2001)
Sutherland, Allan T., 'The Yorkshire Pioneers', Sight and Sound 46:1, 1977, pp. 48-51
Joe Kember, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors