Extracts From The Humorous History of Bristol by Jonty Morgan


In 1889 cinematography was invented by a Bristolian called William Friese-Greene. He first experimented with moving pictures in 1876 when he exhibited a series of still photographs on the theme of homeless people in Staple Hill. One critic called them ‘very moving pictures indeed’. This inspired the pioneering photographer. He thought it would be a splendid idea to make the pictures themselves physically move. So to this end he next staged the exhibition in San Francisco and waited for the next earthquake.

In 1888 it was announced that Friese-Greene had invented a machine that could take twenty-four frames per second. For this reason he was barred from entering the National Art Gallery. Removals firms also took a dislike to him. They feared that moving pictures would be the tip of the iceberg, with moving furniture next on the agenda, followed by moving ornaments, rendering them obsolete.

In 1889 came the awesome moment when Friese-Greene finally captured and displayed movement on film. It was a simple flickering movement, lasting barely ten seconds, of people strolling in a London park. He had moved to the capital because ten seconds wasn’t sufficient time to ever capture movement in Bristol. It was the birth of a new medium.

Instead of becoming a wealthy man, the new invention led to Friese-Greene’s ruin. The reason being that for several years he was the only person in the world making films. A Stroll in the Park swept the board at the Oscars ceremony in 1889. It cost him a bucket financially going to Cannes and California each year to receive all his gongs and it crippled him…because the mantelpiece collapsed on his foot under the sheer weight of all the awards it had to support.

It has been said that Friese-Greene’s films lack clarity because they are full of jerks and blurred people. Friese-Greene never liked to refer to his actors as jerks, and as for the blurred people, there just happened to be a lot more of them about back then. Indeed a law even had to be passed in parliament in 1885 to prevent blurred people from walking slowly, as other people were getting fed up with them appearing in the background in photographs. Friese-Greene was therefore the first director to bring social realism to the screen by using blurred actors. His most famous film was based upon the true story of Sam Whettens who had been blurred since birth and was sentenced to life imprisonment in America’s toughest prison for the offence of serial bar-hanging in an attempt to hit sales of alcohol. The film was called The Blurred Man of Alcatraz. 

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