Mitchell & Kenyon in Ireland Review

All but forgotten until recently, Mitchell & Kenyon was one of the most prolific film companies in the first decade of the twentieth century. Founded in 1897 by Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon and based in Blackburn, Lancashire, the company specialised in actuality shorts, billed as “local films for local people”, often shot in a particular town during the day and shown to the people of the same town in the evening. Other films were reconstructions of topical events, sports footage and some comedy shorts. By the end of the decade, the fashion for such films was declining as the cinema tended more towards telling fictional stories and at feature length. James Kenyon died in 1925. Sagar Mitchell carefully stored his film negatives in the basement of the shop he and his son ran, until Sagar’s death in 1952 and John’s retirement in 1960.

Mitchell and Kenyon may have remained forgotten film pioneers if fate hadn’t intervened. In 1994, workmen clearing out the basement of a shop in Blackburn found three large metal drums containing hundreds of spools of film. These found their way into the hands of film historian Peter Worden, who looked after them until he passed them on to the British Film Institute in 2000. A selection of the films provided the basis of a 2004 BBC TV series, The Lost World of Mitchell & Kenyon and the BFI has released more of the footage in a series of thematic collections beginning with Electric Edwardians. Mitchell & Kenyon in Ireland and the simultaneously-released Edwardian Sports are the next two releases.

Lost world is right: watching these films you realise that no-one in them is still alive, unless someone shown as an infant is now well into his or her eleventh decade. Also, the fact that many of the young men we see here would die a decade or so later in the First World War gives the films an added, unwitting poignancy. Although they only appear on screen themselves briefly, you can somehow sense the filmmakers’ engagement with and enthusiasm for, this new invention less than a decade old.

Mitchell & Kenyon in Ireland contains twenty-six films shot between May 1901 and December 1902. They were made in association with three travelling film exhibitors: the North American Animated Photo Company, the Thomas Edison Animated Photo Company and George Green, a fairground showman. Although they spent some time in the North, much of their time was spent in what is now the Republic. It certainly wasn’t then: you will note the Union Jacks on display. Whether deliberately or (more likely) inadvertently, the films support a British perspective on their rule in Ireland. We don’t see the dirt-poor parts of the country, but the middle classes living in the towns and cities. Dublin and Cork especially are seen as places on the cutting edge of progress, with their new electric tramways. In fact, much of the disc is devoted to the International Art and Industrial Exhibition, which Cork held in 1902. Other signs of approaching modernity abound: spot the advertising hoardings alongside the road in Belfast. Incidentally, fans of James Joyce’s Ulysses will take a particular interest in the Dublin footage, as at least one person featured in the novel makes an appearance.

The final section, on Sport, does encroach on the territory of the Edwardian Sports disc, but here it has a particularly Irish slant, even though two of the films are of the national football team playing overseas. The first film in this section is notable as the earliest footage of a Grand National winner, Ambush, owned by King Edward VII, who had won the race in 1900. He’s here shown in training for the 1902 race, for which he was the favourite – though sadly he suffered a fracture and could not compete.

Street Scenes
Ride on a Tramcar Through Belfast (1901)
Cattle Market in Derry (1902)
Congregation Leaving Jesuit Church of St Francis Xavier, Dublin (1902)
Panorama of College Green, Dublin (1902)
Congregation Leaving St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, Dublin (1901)
Wexford Railway Station (1902)
Life in Wexford (1902)
Life in Cork
Ride from Blarney to Cork on Cork & Muskerry Light Railway (1902)
Panorama of Queenstown Harbour (1902)
Albert Quay in Cork (1902)

Tram Ride from King Street to Patrick’s Bridge, Cork (1902) [above]
Views of the Grand Parade, Cork (1902)
Workers Leaving Lee Boot Factory – Dwyer & Co. Ltd, Cork (1902)
Cork Fire Brigade Turning Out (1902)
Congregation Leaving St Patrick’s Church in Cork (1902)
Congregation Leaving St Mary’s Dominican Church in Cork (1902)
Regiments Returned from Boer War to Victoria Barracks, Cork (1902)
Cork Exhibition
Preparation of the Cork Exhibition Grounds and Erection of Buildings (1902)
Panorama of Cork Exhibition Grounds (1902)
Trade Procession at Opening of Cork Exhibition (1902)
Arrival of VIPs for Official Opening of Cork Exhibition (1902)
Lord Mayor of Cork Arriving for Official Opening of Cork Exhibition (1902)
The Visit of the Duke of Connaught C-I-C Forces in Ireland and Prince Henry of Prussia to Cork Exhibition (1902)
Ambush II at Eyrefield Lodge, Curragh (1902)
Sports Day at Queen’s College Ground, Cork (1902)
Two-Oared Boat Race, Sundays Well, Cork (1902)
Crews Practicing on River Lee at Cork Regatta (1902)
Final of International Cup at Cork Regatta Between Leander and Berlin (1902)
England v Ireland at Manchester (1905)
Wales v Ireland at Wrexham (1906)

Mitchell & Kenyon in Ireland is presented on a single-layer disc in PAL format, encoded for Region 2. The contents are divided into thematic groups, which have their own menus with “play all” options, while there is an overall “play all” as well.

As you might expect from films so old, all the footage here is black and white and silent, in a ratio of 1.33:1. Shot at sixteen frames a second, the films have been speed-corrected for this DVD. Picture quality does vary – some of the films have clearly suffered damage – but on the whole it’s astonishingly good: films half their age have looked far worse. Blacks are solid and whites don’t bloom too much, and there is greyscale to spare in between.

As these films are silent, a music score by Neil Brand and Günter Buchwald has been provided, and you can watch the films with just this as an accompaniment. I found it better to watch with the commentary switched on, written – as was Electric Edwardians – by Dr Vanessa Toulmin but here read by Fiona Shaw. Shaw’s voice is front and centre, but the music can be heard in the surround speakers as well as the fronts. If, like me, you’re not well up on the life and times of Edwardian Ireland, this commentary is very informative, and Toulmin expands on it in her booklet notes. Commentary subtitles are available.

Apart from that booklet, there are no other extras. Electric Edwardians had some additional films as Easter Eggs, but I found none on this disc. It’s the shortest Mitchell & Kenyon DVD by some way at an hour and a quarter, but there’s enough to intrigue, inform and fascinate on this disc that you can’t really complain.

8 out of 10
8 out of 10
8 out of 10
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out of 10

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