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Friese-Greene, Claude (1898-1943)

Cinematographer, Director, Producer

Main image of Friese-Greene, Claude (1898-1943)

For much of the twentieth century, Claude Friese-Greene was known for two things: as a cinematographer of early British sound films, and for being the son of moving image pioneer William Friese-Greene (even to the extent of making a brief appearance, played by David Oake, in The Magic Box, John Boulting's sentimentalised Technicolor biopic of his father made for the 1951 Festival of Britain). However, his posthumous reputation has increased substantially in recent years, following the rediscovery, restoration and first public presentations of The Open Road, a series of silent travelogues of Britain made to promote the colour process his father had been working on at the time of his death.

He was originally born Claude Harrison Greene in London on 3 May 1898, the year his father first started experimenting with colour moving images. Claude worked closely with his father from a very early age, even leaving school at fourteen in order to help him perfect his colour system, which was based around colour-sensitive black and white film shot and projected through alternating red and green filters. At about the same time, the Friese-Greenes won a legal battle with fellow Brighton pioneer G.A. Smith, whose very similar Kinemacolor process was judged to infringe their patent.

However, this victory ultimately counted for little. War broke out shortly afterwards, and Claude Friese-Greene joined the army in 1915, serving on the front line with the First Battalion of the London Scottish the following year. After being wounded at the Battle of the Somme, he retrained as a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps, and continued as a commercial aviator after the war ended, becoming technical manager for Aerofilms, the world's first aerial photographic company - and it was during this period that he conceived the idea of creating a visual record of Britain on a grand scale. As early as 1920, he had started shooting tinted portraits of Cornwall under the generic heading Beauty of Britain.

Both his parents died in 1921 (legend has it that his father's possessions consisted solely of a reel of experimental colour film and the price of a cinema ticket), and Friese-Greene resolved to continue his father's experiments with colour cinematography. He successfully applied for a patent entitled 'Improvements Connected with Colour Cinematography', and then sought to market what he called the All-British Friese-Greene Natural Colour Process through a company evocatively named Spectrum Films.

Spectrum's initial output consisted of short films with titles like Moonbeam Magic, Dance of the Moods and Quest of Colour (all 1924), after which Friese-Greene attempted something far more ambitious. The Open Road, shot between 1924 and 1926 by Friese-Greene and assistant-cum-chauffeur Robin Haworth-Booth, was planned as a series of ten-minute travelogues of Britain, to be shown before the main feature in cinema programmes, though it was designed primarily as a means of licensing the technology to other countries. He even crossed the Atlantic with the aim of capturing the US market, only to find his work outclassed by the technically superior two-strip Technicolor process. Following that disappointment, after a few trade screenings in 1925 The Open Road was abandoned, and after its creator's death the footage was donated to the National Film and Television Archive.

Claude Friese-Greene spent the remainder of his career working as a cinematographer for other filmmakers. Most of his output consists of relatively minor British sound features, though he worked with Alfred Hitchcock, Adrian Brunel and other luminaries on Elstree Calling (1930), and also briefly dabbled in production on the comedy Uneasy Virtue (d. Norman Walker, 1931). Although he generally shot in black and white, he contributed colour sequences - via the Dufaycolour process - to Radio Parade of 1935 (d. Arthur Woods, 1935), and finally embraced Technicolor on The Great Mr Handel (d. Norman Walker, 1942). On this, he shared a credit with the much younger Jack Cardiff, who would go on to become Britain's leading colour cinematographer.

By contrast, Friese-Greene's reputation, thanks partly to his early death in 1943, just before the British cinema really embraced colour, spent the next few decades languishing in obscurity. However, the highly successful three-part television series The Lost World of Friese-Greene (BBC, 2006), a celebration of his colour cinematography in general and The Open Road in particular, has led to a rewriting of the official history of British colour cinematography, and a far greater public acknowledgement of his pioneering work.

Michael Brooke

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