Electric Edwardians: The Films of Mitchell & Kenyon Review
For anyone who caught The Lost World of Mitchell & Kenyon on either its television showings or its release, the richness of the Mitchell and Kenyon collection cannot be doubted. After all the prolific output of these makers of the “actuality” film (read short form documentary) during the first decade of the twentieth century was enough to fuel three hour-long episodes without a single lull and only the slightest of repetitions (though this was a programme of populist aims and as such concessions were easily made). In many ways, though, The Lost World of… now feels like a warm up to this main event, a provider of social history so that we can now venture unaided into 34 examples of their work (39 if you include those hidden on the disc) with only In the Nursery’s score to accompany us.
Of course, 39 titles is only the merest percentage (less than five in fact) of those films housed in the collection, yet Electric Edwardians sees them broken down into categories – Youth and Education, The Anglo-Boer War, Workers, High Days and Holidays, and People and Places – so that a suitable cross-section is provided, whilst the five hidden shorts act as a kind of catch-all miscellany for those not easily classified. As such the years 1900 to 1906 are captured with a great sense of assuredness with all of the standard Mitchell and Kenyon settings – sporting events, factory gates, etc. – accounted for.
By chance, Electric Edwardians gains its DVD release only a week after the BFI have issued Andrew Kötting’s Gallivant. And whilst the two seem an unlikely pair, they do in fact make for strange bedfellows. Kötting’s film provides a visual essay of mid-nineties Britain with a highly distinctive, if idiosyncratic, voice. Mitchell and Kenyon do likewise for the turn of the last century in perhaps a less stylish but more pointed manner. Their focus may be the mundane – consider the non-descript titles, Lord Roberts’ Visit to Manchester or Alfred Butterworth and Sons, Glebe Mills, Hollinwood - yet in shooting them in an equally banal fashion (Torpedo Flotilla Visit to Manchester is three minutes of the camera rooted to spot as the titular flotilla cruises by) they manage to bring them fully to life. Indeed, without any sense of directorial voice, beyond getting the shot, there are no distractions and as such we are able to simply allow our eyes to wander around the screen catching the minutiae of this century-old footage.
Part of the enjoyment of this is that we are able to do so unguided. Whereas the snippets which peppered The Lost World of… had either presenter Dan Cruickshank or a distant relative pointing out certain aspects, here we are able to discover such pleasures for ourselves. A man in a queue flicking the fingers at the camera, or a boys’ brigade blighted by hats dropping off during a public exercise do everything they can to make sure that this footage never seems remotely dust or archaic; at times Mitchell and Kenyon’s cameras can be as unforgiving as Andy Warhol’s was when he made Paul Swan in 1965.
And yet the historical factors cannot be forgotten. Almost all of the films assembled here are at least a century old meaning that everyone captured has since passed away. Yet here we are watching their home movies as it were and as such there’s a definite frisson to proceedings. There’s almost a sense of voyeurism at times (made even more unnerving when those on-screen stare directly back) or a feeling that we really shouldn’t be watching these films given their age, and certainly not in such excellent condition. Only the footage of Manchester United’s first ever match under that name looks as though it’s auditioning for a spot in Decasia, otherwise the quality of footage is quite remarkable. Of course, The Lost World of… went to great pains to point out how it was the original negatives which were discovered and print copies (information reiterated again on the special features), though it should also be noted that we also get them in the original black and white (as opposed to tinted), in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios (as opposed to being cropped in order to fit widescreen TVs) and also speed corrected so that any unintentional humour courtesy of “wacky” looking motion is completely lacking.
Moreover, each film (save for four of the hidden titles) comes with respectful accompaniment from In the Nursery. As with the duo’s score for Man With a Movie Camera, the music is largely ambient, yet rather than render the films as simple background entertainment it instead encourages us to do some work. By never drawing attention to itself (the instrumentation is kept simple and lead only by a saxophone, flute or acoustic guitar) or the imagery, it instead creates a mood (a ghostly one, in fact, reflecting the age of the material) whereby we are forced to look at the screen and as such it slowly draws us in.
Indeed, it is practically impossible to pop in the disc and merely watch one or two of the films. Little three to four minute bursts simply aren’t enough, rather there’s a cumulative build-up over the 39 titles. Which only makes us want more – and, of course, there are plenty more to choose from. Would a full 28 hour multiple-disc collection be worthwhile? Perhaps, as if this particular compilation has a flaw then its in the fact that it omits anything made between 1907 and 1913 – exactly half of Mitchell and Kenyon’s careers as filmmakers – whilst the non-fiction titles are limited to only two titles, one of them hidden.
That said, such a collection would no doubt suffer from not having Dr. Vanessa Toulmin’s commentary. Discussing each of the shorts (and Diving Lucy of the hidden titles). Toulmin, of the National Fairground Archive, is able to fill in the social history of each title, explaining them within the context of both Mitchell and Kenyon’s output and of the Edwardian era as a whole. When the commentary works best is in its specificity; each title is given its own individual chat allowing us to skip to a particular title without missing out. The only problems with this is that Toulmin is therefore given only a matter of minutes with which to discuss each one, whilst there’s also a disjointed air which makes it difficult to enjoy the complete commentary in one sitting.
In this respect, here liner notes and 14-minute interview prove more immediately pleasing. Given her knowledge of fairgrounds and showmen her insights are considerably different to those offered in The Lost World of… and as such there’s little of the repetition that may have been expected as well as plenty of new titbits of information. The latter is especially entertaining in this regard as she regales us with the chutzpah of certain showmen or such strange ideas as the projection of films within a lion’s cage.
There’s also a sense of avoiding cross-over with The Lost World of... in the remaining extras. The first sees Paul McGann reciting an abridged version of Tom Gunning’s erudite essay on Mitchell and Kenyon, ‘Pictures in the Crowd’, whilst the second, entitled ‘The Road to Restoration’ (and presented anamorphically at a ratio of 1.78:1), provides an in-depth look into the restoration process at the National Film and Television Archive. This latter featurette is particularly noteworthy for containing the input of NFTVA employees themselves (though some are quite clearly more comfortable in front of the camera that others), whilst its Mitchell and Kenyon style finale is an unexpected delight.
All special features, including the commentary, are available without optional English subtitles.
Youth and Education
· Audley Range School, Blackburn (c.1901)
· Special March Past of the St Joseph’s Scholars and Special Parade of St Matthew’s Pupils, Blackburn (1905)
· Morecambe Church Lads’ Brigade at Drill (1901)
· University Procession on Degree Day, Birmingham (1901)
The Anglo-Boer War
· Torpedo Flotilla Visit to Manchester (1901)
· Lord Roberts’ Visit to Manchester (1901)
· Lieutenant Clive Wilson and the Tranby Croft Party, Hull (1902)
· Opening of the Drill Hall in Accrington by General Baden-Powell (1904)
· A Sneaky Boer (1901)
· Messrs Lumb and Co Leaving the Works, Huddersfield (1900)
· Pendlebury Colliery (1901)
· 20,000 Employees Entering Lord Armstrong’s Elswick Works, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1900)
· Alfred Butterworth and Sons, Glebe Mills, Hollinwood (1901)
· Parkgate Iron and Steel Co., Rotherham (1901)
· North Sea Fisheries, North Shields (1901)
· Cunard Vessel at Liverpool (c.1901)
High Days and Holidays
· Whitsuntide Fair at Preston (1906)
· Manchester Band of Hope Procession (1901)
· Blackpool Victoria Pier (1904)
· Leeds Athletic and Cycling Club Carnival (1902)
· Dewsbury v Manningham (1902)
· Sedgwick’s Bioscope Show Front (1901)
· The Great Local Derby : Accrington v Church Cricket Match (1902)
· Halifax Catholic Procession (c.1905)
· Burnley v Manchester United (1902)
· Sheffield United v Bury (1902)
· Preston Egg Rolling (c.1901)
People and Places
· Living Wigan (1902)
· Tram Ride into Halifax (1902)
· Electric Tram Rides from Forster Square, Bradford (1902)
· Jamaica Street, Glasgow (1901)
· Ride on the Tramcar Through Belfast (1901)
· Wexford Bull Ring (1902)
· Manchester Street Scene (1901)
· Panoramic View of the Morecambe Sea Front (1901)
· Diving Lucy (1903)
· Race for the Muriatti Cup, Manchester (1901)
· Comic Pictures in High Street, West Bromich (1902)
· Royal Proclamation of Death of Queen Victoria, Blackburn (1901)
· Bradford Coronation Procession (1902)