'Picture Shows': The Early British Film Industry in Walthamstow

The unlikely setting of the East London suburb of Walthamstow was a centre for the infant British cinema industry at the turn of the century. Margaret O'Brien and Julia Holland chart its course, aided by interviews with and recollections of local people, many of whom were involved as 'extras' in the early silent films.

The first public picture film show in Britain was in 1896, when the Lumiere Brothers projected their strips of film at Regent Street Polytechnic, The novel impact of this event was the life-like projection and the size of the screen. As The Times reported in 1896:

The spectator no longer gazes through a narrow aperture at the changing pictures but has them presented to him full size on a large screen.

Experimentation with the movie camera was taking place in Europe and America during the 1890s. Early-film makers in Britain tended to be travelling showmen, exhibiting their films at fairgrounds, music halls and 'penny-gaffs' (shop shows). Theatres devoted specifically to film were rare. Most films before 1910 were one-reelers, that is 1,000 feet of film running for fifteen minutes or less, and presented as part of a package of entertainment. Very few of these early films survive. Film was treated as if it were cloth - a commodity to be bought and sold at a price so much a foot. A second-hand market arose and both copies and negatives literally wore out. At first any movement on screen thrilled audiences; trains stopping at a station, men demolishing a wall. Narrative films soon developed and films were sold as types or genres. Short comedies, based on simple visual gags were standard products, as were short dramas which often had strong moral messages - for example against the evils of drink.

Most films people watched before 1914 were foreign films - American, French and Italian - but there was a burgeoning British film industry. Successful pioneers formed their own production companies and studios. Walthamstow, on the borders between Essex and London, was one of the first centres of the new film Industry.

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