Early film pioneer who opened Britain’s first movie studios in Muswell Hill has been edited out of cinema history
PUBLISHED: 11:35 05 April 2019
Crouch End film professor Ian Christie’s new exhibition and book tells how Robert W Paul jointly made Britain’s first motion picture and recreated the Boer War on Muswell Hill Golf course
The Lumiere brothers may be the best known early film pioneers, but what about Robert W Paul who produced scores of ground-breaking films at the UK’s first studios next to Muswell Hill golf course?
In March 1895, Paul collaborated with Birt Acres on Britain’s first motion picture, shot on their co-patented 35mm camera.
And on February 20, 1896 the electrical engineer demonstrated his ‘theatrograph’ just hours after the Lumieres first showed off their cinematographe at Regent Street Polytechnic.
“I did a TV series for the centenary of cinema and I realised we know about Edison and the Lumieres, but the name that kept coming up was Robert Paul,” says Crouch End film professor Ian Christie, who has written a book about the unsung film pioneer and stages an exhibition at Bruce Castle Museum. (April 5-July 28.)
“We know nothing about him but he made the first films in Britain, which were shown around the world.”
Born in Higbury 150 years ago, Paul was running a successful scientific instrument business - and displaying the peephole kinetoscopes that allowed a single viewer to watch moving footage - when it was suggested that projecting films for larger audiences would be more lucrative. Christie says:“No-one had the faintest idea whether this was going to be a big success or a nine day wonder but he was an engineer, had a good business sense, and he was very decisive.”
With Edison’s films restricted to official Kinetoscope owners , Paul and Birt had to make their own. They soon parted company and Paul went on to produce around 800 genre-defining films; from elaborate comedies like The Unfortunate Policeman, shot on the streets of Muswell Hill, to the first drama, The Soldier’s Courtship.(1895)
“They shot it on the roof of the Alhambra in Leicester Square using the theatre’s dancers,” says Christie. “He did just about anything we think of today as cinema, on a similar scale. He was very inventive, always seeing how it could be done bigger or better.”
Christie says Paul’s wife Ellen has also been unfairly edited out of the frame.
“She was much more important than people realise, she had been a music hall artiste, had a theatre background and I think she said ‘let’s do more interesting stories’.”
In 1898 the Pauls were making ever more ambitious films and needed more space.
“Someone must have tipped them off about Muswell Hill which was just being built. They bought two fields on Sydney Road and built a studio. In October 1898 Paul puts an ad in the Showman’s Paper seeking a team of craftsmen and artists to make films that were a quantum leap from what everyone else was doing.
“Come Along Do! (1898) has the first two shot scene – an old couple outside an art exhibition, then cut and they are inside – no-one had done that before.”
Performers were summoned by telegram to Muswell Hill which by 1901 was a hub of production activity. “There’s a reference to Ellen managing this booming studio. The films are incredibly ingenious, someone worked out how to rewind the film, use multiple exposures and the invisible edit to make them funny and magical like The ? Motorist which takes off into the planets.”
For one, they recreated the Boer War on Muswell Hill golf course.
“Paul realised the war was happening a long way away and people wanted to know what it was like for the troops. He sent cameras to the Transvaal, but they coudn’t get close to the action so the best solution was to recreate typical scenes from the war on the golf course.”
Christie blames snobbery for Paul’s pioneering contribution to cinema being forgotten.
“The French state was assiduous in promoting the Lumieres, they are on bank notes, have museums to them, but Britain doesn’t do that, and certainly not with cinema, we are quite sniffy about film.”
Eventually it was the cut-throat nature of the film industry that made Paul quit in 1910. Pathe was ruthlessly slashing prices and Edison was creating a cartel to control the business.
“He took a careful look at the prospects and I think he made a smart business decision.”
By 1916, when Germany France and Britain were too busy at war to make movies, the U.S had largely muscled Europe out of the motion picture industry and formed big companies.
Like 80 percent of early films, most of Paul’s movies are lost.
“When the sound revolution happened no-one thought silent film was of interest, there were no archives, few collectors and no-one was really looking after the fragile stock,” says Christie.
After retiring from the movies the Pauls lived at No 43 Sydney Road, but when Robert died in 1943 it was a galvanometer, which measured electrical current, that was on his tombstone.
“The 1890s were like the digital age we are living through today. Technology was moving at high speed, people discovered that it had an audience. They were selling hundreds of copies of these films, people flocked into music halls to watch them. No-one knew what was driving the business or where it was headed. Like today, people were trying things out to see what worked.”
Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema by Ian Christie will be published by Chicago University Press.
Animatograph! How cinema was born in Haringey runs at Bruce Castle Museum from April 5 until July 28