The Pioneering Years: 1896-1910

Black and white photograph of a camera

Last updated: 05 March 2010

Most modern cinemagoers in Wales might be astonished to know that films were projected here 17 years before Chaplin's screen career even began. The scale of the achievements of certain of these remarkable pre-Hollywood pioneers beggars belief.

The first Royal visit film in Britain was filmed in Cardiff in 1896, and by 1902/03 Wales boasted, in William Haggar and Arthur Cheetham, two of Britain's most remarkable screen exponents of the pre-Great War period. It's chastening to note that no other Welsh-based cinema film directors of comparable status were to emerge pre-World War Two.

The first projected films in Wales were no more than 40ft-80ft long due to camera-design limitations, and the first films shown in Wales weren't projected at all, but screened on single-viewer "peepshow" machines - Thomas Alva Edison's Kinetoscope at the Panopticon, the novelty hall within Cardiff's Philharmonic Hall, St Mary Street, in December 1894. The films included a barber's shop sketch.

Projected cinema arrived when Edison's fellow American Birt Acres, then living in Barnet, north London, screened films privately for Cardiff Photographic Society in April 1896. Acres became the first to exhibit his films to a public audience in Wales, at the Great Industrial, Maritime and Art Exhibition in the city's Cathays Park from 5 May that year.

He pipped, by a week, the renowned Lumiere Bros. for the honour of that first screening. They still became the first to show films - on their famous Cinematographe - in a commercial entertainment venue in Wales, Cardiff's Empire Music Hall, Queen Street, on 11 May 1896. The following month Acres shot, on 27 June, the first film on Welsh soil: a Royal Visit of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) to Cardiff.

Later in 1896 Robert William Paul - the so-called "Father of the British cinema" - shot scenes in Cardiff's Queen Street.

In 1898 north Wales was the chosen location for one of the most remarkably cinematic films seen up to then - a 70mm film shot from a truck in front of a locomotive (a sub genre of film known as a 'Phantom train ride') approaching Conway Castle. The train ran through a tunnel and the film opened out in a spectacular panoramic vista of the Castle.

This still-extant film, with early hand-colour, was a huge hit in New York and Rochester (home of Eastman House and Kodak) and paid repeated visits to the Palace theatre and music hall in London's Shaftesbury Avenue through 1898 and 1899, by popular demand. The film was supervised, perhaps even shot, for the British Biograph Company by William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, the inventor who created Edison's Kinetoscope.

The first 'shorts' made by a Welsh-based director also emerged in 1898, from Rhyl's Arthur Cheetham (1864-1938), a maverick, who styled himself an "electric hygienist". He shot non-fiction (actualities or 'topicals') mainly of local processions and events, including a blackface minstrel show, EH Williams and his Merrie Men at Rhyl (1899), and a visit of the Duke and Duchess of York to Conway (1899).

Both films survive but his great coup, perhaps, was the extant 1903 film of a Rhyl visit by the great Western showman and comic book hero William (Buffalo Bill) Cody.

Important visits to Wales were paid by Mitchell and Kenyon, the hitherto-unsung Blackburn pioneers who languished in the footnotes of British film history until a remarkable find in the 1990s of more than 800 of their films helped us to appreciate their great contribution to British screen history. M and K's surviving films shot in Wales included a colourful May Day procession at Llandudno 1907, a Royal Visit to Wales in 1902 and numerous shots of steamships transporting holidaymakers between Liverpool and Holyhead and Llandudno.

M and K also filmed the Wales v Ireland soccer match at Wrexham, 1906, the oldest extant international game footage (capturing four of the goals in a 4-4 draw). The film completed a rare double for Wales, as a few long shots (possibly outtakes) from Cheetham of a Blackburn Rovers v West Bromwich match of 1898 are the oldest known "surviving" football images in the world.

The arrival of Wales' first fiction filmmaker William Haggar (1851-1925) on the scene was the most significant Welsh development for British film progress and coincided with the first years when fiction films at last outnumbered non-fiction ('actuality' and 'topicals') in Britain.

He ran a travelling cinema (a 'bioscope') in fairgrounds mainly in south and west Wales from 1898, and made more than 30 documented fiction films between 1902 and 1908. His highly influential A Desperate Poaching Affray (1903) was the most popular British Gaumont film in the days before film rental to cinemas and his The Life of Charles Peace (1903), a film of disarming gusto, centred on exploits of an actual murderer executed at Armley prison, Leeds, in 1879.

Haggar was noted for his chase films, and A Desperate Poaching Affray, and the Sheffield Photo Company's A Daring Daylight Burglary (1903) were said to have influenced the development of American narrative drama films and particularly Edwin S Porter, of the Edison company, when he made the highly influential The Great Train Robbery in the US in 1903.

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Mark Kermode

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