British Cinema History

Clovelly Cottage

Emergent British Cinema 1880-1900

Modern cinema is generally regarded as descending from the work of the French Lumière brothers in 1892, and their show first came to London in 1896. However, the first moving pictures developed on celluloid film were made in Hyde Park in 1889 by William Friese Greene, a British inventor, who patented the process in 1890. The film is the first known instance of a projected moving image. At the end of the 19th America had started to experiment in how to get a moving image onto a screen and in Britain Friese-Green was working hard at doing much the same thing on a commercial basis. The first people to build and run a working 35 mm camera in Britain were Robert W. Paul and Birt Acres. They made the first British film ‘Incident at Clovelly Cottage’ in February 1895, shortly before falling out over the camera's patent.

William Friese Greene

George Albert Smith
Early British Cinema 1900 - 1920

Another British fellow called George Albert Smith devised the first colour system, Kinemacolor, in 1908. But even now there was competition - Gaumont and Pathe had both opened film companies by 1909 and there were now films coming into England from Europe.

America was advancing at a similar pace to Britain at around this time (pre –war) and two Americans, Jupp and Turner, were staring to make American films in Britain. This of course was all halted by the Great War in 1914 and efforts were directed elsewhere. By this stage Britain was starting to lag behind the US. Post war saw the nearly the death knell of British cinema as the desire for American films, and lack of money in Britain saw the industry slow down and by the mid twenties it had practically stopped.

Plaza Piccadilly Circus

Lord Rank


The desperate 20’s and developing 30’s

But there was several embers of hope the careers of Ronald Coleman, Victor McLaglen, Leslie Howard and Charles Laughton were starting and although Howard was to be a casualty of WWII these actors along with Balcon and Wilcox were determined that British pictures should survive. Even the son of the Prime Ministers Anthony Asquith joined in to keep the industry alive. But in 1927 Parliament brought in an important piece of legislation the Cinematographers Trade Bill, designed to ensure there was a guaranteed home market for British made films. This meant that 5% of the total number of movies shown in theatres had to be from Britain this figure rose to 20% by 1936. Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail (1929) is regarded as the first British sound production.

All was not lost and in the 30’s the British Cinema Industry would start to rise from its knees. The advent of sound offered more challenges to the British Film Industry's financial stability., Some of the films that Britain was to make were pretty bad some of the exceptions were Juno and the Paycock (1930); Hindle Wakes, Tell England; (1931), Rome Express, (1932) and the brilliantly successful Korda production The Private Life of Henry VIII with Charles Laughton. ‘Wings of the Morning’ (1937) is widely accepted as Britain's first colour feature film.
Korda had failed in Hollywood, and when the boom started in the UK, he decided to try his luck there. He founded London Films and built, reputedly, the finest studios in the world at Denham. Here he made Katherine the Great; Don Juan, with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. The Scarlet Pimpernel, Raymond Massey and Leslie Howard; Things to Come Massey and Ralph Richardson; the Man Who Could Work Miracles; Rembrandt with Laughton

John Maxwell's British International Studios trained many of this period's notable directors, writers and cameramen. Among them were Sidney Gilliat, J. Lee Thompson, Ronald Neame, Jack Cardiff and Charles Frend. He also had some high calibre artists appearing with him, including Richard Tauber, Douglas Fairbanks Jn, Will Hays, John Mills and Carol Reed was one of Maxwell’s directors.

In 1933 J. Arthur Rank, who had started by making religious films, founded British National. In 1935 he went into partnership with Woolf to take over Pinewood Studios. Boom turned to slump in 1937. The year before, the British film industry had over produced, making 220 pictures. Studio space had increased seven fold in ten years. This mean that the overproduction gave rise to poor quality films and this in turn opened up the door to the American industry, and American companies moved into the UK to make quality British films that would qualify them for the home market quota.

All the major film producers started to take over studios. MGM-British, Warner, Radio, 20th Century Fox, they all moved in to virtually swallow up the failing industry. This was a period of classic movies. Some of these included The Citadel with Robert Donat and Rosalind Russell, Goodbye Mr Chips also with Donat; Pygmalion with Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller; Victoria The Great, Nell Gwynn and Glorious Days all with Anna Neagle; The Man Who Knew Too Much; The 39 Steps; The Secret Agent; Sabotage; The Lady Vanishes; and Jamaica Inn.

The British Board of Film Censors had been founded in 1912 primarily to keep the foreign imports ‘acceptable in terms of content and to be able to control their numbers on the pretext of unsuitability. Home grown productions had an easier time passing the censors. It was now that the certificates U, for universal and A, for Adult were introduced.

During the 1930's two other valuable assets came along; the British Film Institute and the National Film Archives. They maintained, and still do, a film library not just of British films, but International ones too. They restore damaged prints and transfer nitrate stock onto safety film, as well as funding projects. Without them, many classics would be lost today.




Leslie Howard



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