The Lost World of Mitchell & Kenyon Review

The Lost World of Mitchell & Kenyon is a wonderfully fitting title. A three-part documentary, this BBC/BFI co-production offers a window into a hitherto rarely seen Edwardian existence. At its centre are 850-plus reels of film shot by Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon between 1897 and 1913, all of which had lain undiscovered in the basement of a Blackburn shop for almost a century. Now preserved and fully restored by the British Film Institute, these relics offer a fascinating glimpse into the everyday lives of those living at the turn of the last century.

But as presenter Dan Cruickshank is at pains to point out, Mitchell and Kenyon were not historians or artists, but rather businessmen who would film anything that could possibly gain a profit. However seemingly mundane their then popular concepts may sound, these short pieces made outside of factory gates or of a tram ride through Blackpool prove oddly enticing, presenting as they do a world that is at once both familiar and strangely alien. The filmmaking partners would also venture into fictional pieces and private commissions, but it is these non-fiction endeavours that provide The Lost World of Mitchell & Kenyon with its primary focus.

With this in mind it is understandable that the series moves beyond mere cinema history. And so, as well as an insight into Mitchell and Kenyon’s lives and working methods throughout their filmmaking careers, Cruickshank also narrates a social history of Edwardian Britain and its people, primarily those of the North of England where the company was based. It’s a broad subject to take on, but then The Lost World...’s collection of film snippets is equally wide-ranging. As such, you never get the impression that one documentary has been shoehorned into another, rather the piece is far more organic than that. Moreover, one of the major selling points is that the makers of the series have made contact with the descendents of various Mitchell and Kenyon “stars” thereby providing a more personal set of histories, and, as if to demonstrate the diversity of the discovered footage, they prove a wide-ranging bunch from all ends of the class and occupation spectrums, much like their war hero/mill working/rugby playing forefathers.

Their presence also underpins the fact that The Lost World... is very much a populist work. When the series was first announced for BBC2 I presumed there had been a mistake, as a documentary series about early 20th century filmmakers would surely seem better suited to BBC4. But then with the more universal subject at its heart, the move, in retrospect, makes sense. Yet whilst this has resulted in a relative ratings winner for the BBC, it may prove problematic for the more knowledgeable viewer. For whilst the series never oversimplifies its subject, it does have a tendency to over-explain. We are informed, therefore, that the films were all hand-cranked and silent, surely common knowledge for anyone with the slightest interest in cinema, and its a hindrance that marks many of the areas, such as football, The Lost World... ventures into. It helps that Cruickshank, surely the master of the overexcited lisp, is such an affable host (who else, after all, could infuse the line “filmed from the top of a tram” with such enthusiasm), but the temptation on repeat viewings is to skip over the offending parts.

That said, there is also a similar urge to make full use of the pause button, such is the quality of the BFI’s restoration work. The various excerpts have all been speed corrected (having been filmed at 16 frames per second) and possess a startling wealth of detail owing to their sources being, fortuitously, the original negatives. Indeed, The Lost World...’s most pleasurable moments come when Cruickshank points out a hitherto unnoticed figure in the background doing the most extraordinary or unexpected thing. It’s during these instances that you immediately want to go back and delicately peruse the footage frame by frame, which of course bodes well for the BFI’s next Mitchell and Kenyon release, Electric Edwardians : The Films of Mitchell & Kenyon.

The Disc

Sadly lacking in extras (these will hopefully turn up on the next M&K release), the BFI’s disc does however offer a presentation quality that is more than the equal of its television counterpart. The original 1.33:1 ratio is adhered to - an excellent choice as it means that none of the original 1900s footage has been cropped - as is the stereo soundtrack. Yet the clarity of both means that the DVD immediately becomes a superior prospect to a personally assembled VHS and, of course, allows for the aforementioned use of the pause button. The only genuine disappointment is a lack of subtitles, English or otherwise.

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