The birth of cinemaHow a film studio in Muswell Hill played a pivotal role in pioneering cinema
Where was cinema invented? If you ask most people this, in my experience, they either don’t know, or believe it was those clever brothers Lumiere in France. This has been so often repeated that it usually comes as a complete surprise that the answer lies much closer to home – in Muswell Hill, as a matter of fact, during the summer of 1898.
The Animatograph Works was developed by an electrical instrument maker, Robert Paul, with his wife Ellen, a former dancer at the Alhambra music hall in Leicester Square. Paul had been commissioned to make Kinetoscope peepshow machines when these were a novelty in 1894. When he saw the queues forming to sample moving pictures, he was hooked, and moved quickly to develop a projector and camera.
He wasn’t the only one to see the potential of this new apparatus. Thoma Edison had developed the Kinetoscope, and there were other American pioneers who saw that projecting with a magic lantern was the way forward.
And those Lumiere brothers in Lyon? Like Paul, they were inspired to improve on the Kinetoscope; and their Cinematographe – which is where we get the word ‘cinema’ from – actually made its debut in London on the same day that Paul showed his Theatrograph, in February 1896.
Hold on, you’re probably thinking – that doesn’t make Robert and Ellen Paul the inventors of cinema? What does, is their decision to move from central London to the new suburb of Muswell Hill, in search of enough space to make films that would realise the potential of the new medium. Films that told stories, as Paul insisted in his trade advertisements that autumn.
Sadly, almost none of the 80 films that Robert and Ellen made during 1898 have survived. However, one of these, Come Along, Do!, inspired by an old musichall song, has been restored to show the direction they were moving in. Paul was already offering his films with colour tinting, and even better, the prudish wife in the film is played by Ellen herself, reprising a role she’d played two years earlier in one of Paul’s first films, The Soldier’s Courtship.
Paul’s surviving films include a glimpse of one of Alexandra Palace’s Victorian attractions, a Switchback Railway ride, and a madcap chase through the streets of Muswell Hill as angry citizens chase The Unfortunate Policemen.
I want to encourage the local community to discover more about how cinema started. It wasn’t far away, in France or in Hollywood. It was actually in North London, with Robert and Ellen showing other pioneers what was possible.
And producers around the world were quick to take note, producing many early remakes. Sadly, Britain has been slow to recognise that we were indeed first off themark. But then, we don’t take movies as seriously as France and America…
Ian Christie is Professor of Film and Media History at Birkbeck College, University of London. His book, ‘Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema’ is published by Chicago University Press.