Paul Merton’s Weird and Wonderful World of Early Cinema

Paul Merton with one of the later Muybridge sequences, animated. (c) BBC.

In 2000 I was asked to create a mutoscope installation for the National Gallery exhibition Telling Time. I converted an 1890s Edison kinetoscope film sequence of dancer Annabelle into paper prints mounted on a belt (tedious and time consuming work), and reduced the ‘mechanism’ to a bare minimum – a roller with a handle. This arrangement ran for three months or so in the exhibition, alongside collotypes from Animal Locomotion, before the picture belt was donated to Hove Museum as part of their interactive display. I was pleased to see in a scene from Paul Merton’s Weird and Wonderful World of Early Cinema, that a decade later, Annabelle is still dancing at Hove. Which is a self-centred link to the programme, but this is my blog after all. With its excellent displays Hove Museum has become a natural home for investigating such subjects. It was also pleasing to see Eric Lange and Serge Bromberg of the French company Lobster Films, so important to the preservation and distribution of early cinema, being involved in the production.

This programme was an example of how, with the passage of time, exact factual details become rounded off and smoothed out, supposedly to make access to the information easier for the general viewer. The unprovenanced camera that Hove Museum bought at auction some years ago because it was the type used by George Albert Smith, and retained the circular type of mask that Smith used, has now become ‘the camera specifically built for Smith’. Merton tells an audience that yes, films had been in existence before being projected onto a screen, you turned a handle on a peepbox machine – when in fact the pre-projection Edison Kinetoscope peepshow was electrically driven, and the handcranked Mutoscope appeared only after the first screenings, which is a bit inconvenient from a simplified-history point of view. The film of a gardener being tricked by a boy, L’Arroseur Arrosé, (aka le Jardinier) was not, I’m fairly sure, the version shown at the first Lumière shows, but a remake. We can forgive that, as the film has a confusing history. (Nevertheless if anyone tried showing the remake of Stagecoach as the John Wayne version all hell would break loose.) Oh, and we were told that the Lumières’ gave their very first demonstration of the Cinématographe in December 1895 (not). And, restricting coverage to European cinema ensured that nothing need be said about the awkward fact that there had been film screenings in the USA prior to this. Chronology here:

The Harry Larkyns shooting. (c) BBC.

And Muybridge? Well he’s in there, including modern animations of horse sequences (the Palo Alto one is 1878/79, not 1877), but with nothing about how he made images move before celluloid film. Well all right, Zoopraxiscope is a bit of a jawbreaker, but glass picture discs could have been mentioned; it’s only three words. And the ‘zoetrope’ shown was a praxinoscope. (Do nature programmes get confused between goats and sheep?) Does any of this matter? I don’t know, perhaps I’m too close to the subject. The Larkyns affair is there of course, including a special acted bit of a man being shot and falling over. (But then who hasn’t arranged a re-enactment of the Larkyns shooting some time in their lives? I know I have…..)

Hard to please, ain’t I? But picky reservations aside, these programmes are valuable. To quote from The Bioscope, the premier website for silent film aficionados,

“Such programmes – which are rare enough in themselves – not only open up largely hidden films to new audiences, but should be a lesson to those of us who may know these films well to see them in a fresh light, not least as a television commissioner sees them.”

I enjoyed the excellent quality of the prints, especially the tinted examples, and Paul Merton has a very genuine interest in, and enthusiasm for, silent film material – even if his attempts to convey this to non-specialist audiences here sometimes come across as just a bit patronising, to the material as well as to the new audiences. The Paul Merton shows are part of a long tradition – I grew up with comedians Bob Monkhouse and Michael Bentine presenting silent movie clips on tv – and this one will certainly make the often amazing and frequently strange (weird and wonderful indeed) material of early (pre-WW1) cinema better known to many viewers.

BBC4 – you might just catch it on iPlayer, here:

Stephen Herbert

One comment on “Paul Merton’s Weird and Wonderful World of Early Cinema

  1. urbanora says:

    All very true, and particularly useful for pointing out the Smith camera error, which passed me by. Merton is – I assume – aiming to see these films with the eyes of an audience totally new to them and a young audience at that. So he wants to avoid all that pedantic stuff with dates – but at the same time he seems to have a fascination with the historical facts as well, yet seems not to care about getting things wrong time and time again. I’m not sure what his motives are.


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