William Friese-Greene and Me
Plaques can get you in a lot of trouble. The dead can change the course of your life. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
In the early 1990s, I had been living in Bristol for several years, getting ever more involved in film and video-making, when I stopped to read a plaque I’d often walked past. It was by a doorway, opposite Maggs department store on Queen’s Road, and it said:
ON THIS SITE W. FRIESE-GREENE THE INVENTOR OF THE MOVING PICTURE CAMERA SERVED HIS APPRENTICESHIP AS A PHOTOGRAPHER FROM 1869-1875
Now, by then I’d picked up a little about how moving pictures began, but I’d never heard of this guy – and he had a name you’d be unlikely to forget. So how could he be THE INVENTOR? Little did I know then how prodigiously and wantonly plaqued – if such a verb exists – the man had been. Yet still forgotten, it seemed.
So, who the hell was this William Friese-Greene guy?
I turned to the Bristol Central Library and there encountered the welcoming arms of Bristol As It Was by Reece Winstone, a local historian whose books of photographs of Bristol through the decades I’d seen knocking around the city’s bookshops. This told me a little of the Friese-Greene story – how he’d started as plain Willie Green, had been a charity scholar at Queen Elizabeth Hospital School, trained as a photographer where that plaque was, then married Helena Friese, joined their names and started photographic studios in Bath, Bristol and Plymouth. From there to London, success and the invention of a very early motion-picture camera, years before Edison or the Lumière brothers. And there were many more plaques, apparently.
It was clear Reece was passionate; it was clear he was an unwavering Friese-Greene fan; it was clear he had found some interesting images. But it wasn’t clear how deeply he’d really studied the subject. Asking around, someone suggested I talked to Andrew Kelly, who had just started a new organisation to nurture the arts in Bristol (Bristol Cultural Development Partnership, now Bristol Ideas) and who was well-versed in cinema history.
We met. He seemed somehow taken with my naïve enthusiasm. He gave me a book and a warning.
The book was Friese-Greene: Close-Up of an Inventor by Ray Allister – who, confusingly, turned out to be a woman called Muriel Forth. This 1948 work was the only biography of Friese-Greene in existence but was considered romanticised and unreliable. Andrew lent me his own copy, which I still have, even though it has now been joined by three close relatives of assorted editions. This book was made into a movie, The Magic Box, for the 1951 Festival of Britain, which was apparently considered even more misleading, viewed as some kind of orgy of tub-thumping and Union-Jack-waving which enshrined Friese-Greene as The Inventor of Cinema.
The warning was that Friese-Greene had already been scrutinised by a highly respected photographic historian, Brian Coe, and found to be severely wanting. All authorities on early cinema lined up behind Coe’s conclusions. Andrew cautioned me that trying to reopen the Friese-Greene affair would be kicking an historical hornet’s nest.
Now I knew exactly where I was. I was at that scene, about 20 minutes into any good detective movie, where the private eye is warned off pursuing a case that’s come to him and told it would be better for everyone if he dropped it. He doesn’t, of course, and we wouldn’t want him to, otherwise it would be a short film instead of a feature. Now I knew I was onto something. Now I knew what I had to do, even if I barely had a clue how to do it.
I read the book, of course. It was full of fascinating detail about the life of Friese-Greene and had some intriguing photographs of equipment and test films but included invented conversations and seemed hazy on technical details. Coe’s articles from 1955 and 1962 were the complete opposite. They focused rigidly on the examination of material in photographic journals during the narrow period of Friese-Greene’s initial inventing and concluded that he was a scientific ignoramus who stole other people’s ideas and had zero to do with the invention of moving pictures.
So here were two ‘definitive’ versions of his achievements whose sources barely overlapped and whose conclusions couldn’t be more opposed. Both were written with a sense of something to prove and both protested too much. The truth was clearly in between or somewhere else entirely.
I began hunting down the Friese-Greene family, in search of clues. The trouble was, sudden death ran through the male side and not even a grandson survived, but I found two of the widows. The first, Sylvia, had recently donated a collection from Anthony Friese-Greene to the Science Museum in Bradford, but she still had some materials. As we chatted in her cosy London apartment, she suddenly asked me, ‘Would you like to see the purse?’. I was confused. ‘You know,’ she said, ‘THE purse’. As she went off to get it, I finally understood – and now I was spooked.
Allister’s book ends emotively and dramatically. At 65-years old, for some reason the forgotten Friese-Greene decided to attend a stormy meeting of film trade associations, intended to thrash out a raging price war. He insisted on giving a speech urging unity, then sat back down in his seat. Suddenly he slumped forward, dead. His heart had failed. A great movie scene, if ever there was one. Allister tells how Friese-Greene was taken outside the room and his clothes gone through to identify him: ‘There was also a soft leather purse. It contained one shilling and tenpence. That was all the money the founder of cinema possessed in the world. It was also at the time, by coincidence, the price of a cinema seat.’ Now, the death at the meeting was documented fact, but I assumed her final flourish was pure romantic mythmaking.
Sylvia came back into the room and held out something towards me. I took it. An old leather coin-purse. Nervously, I opened it and tapped the main section to dislodge its contents. The coins slid forward, some covered in Verdigris. I counted them with my eyes: one shilling and tenpence. I handled them: they were all coins that would have been in circulation at the time of his death. Holding that purse meant so many things at the same time, it was making my head swim.
I’m sure any historical researcher would tell you what a thrill it is to handle objects belonging to the subject you are investigating or to read what they had written in their own hand. It feels like being plugged into an electrical circuit that joins you directly to them. I felt something similar when, a while later, I found myself at the Science Museum in Bradford handling some pieces of scrap paper dated the day before Friese-Greene’s sudden demise, on which, in pencil, he had written what was clearly the outline of a speech. In it, he wonders if a film would be made of his life and speculates about what scenes might be included.
There was a bigger message from that purse and those notes, and the way that Coe was so strangely determined to judge a man and his life with no more than a keyhole view: I could neither assume that stories which appeared mythical were fictional nor that accounts which appeared rooted in fact were actually true. I was on my own, starting from zero.
For a decade, I kept researching, encouraged by others in the field and requests to contribute to significant reference works. On a script-development programme, alongside Andrea Arnold (director of Red Road and Fish Tank), I even wrote a screenplay about the six months Friese-Greene spent in New York, summoned to help beat the Edison monopoly of the film industry. I spent time in New York researching it. And then my energy ran out. I knew I had to either write a book or stop – and who would fund a book? It was a crazy amount of time to devote to a personal obsession.
For 12 years I left it all alone.
In the November of 2016, I joined a friend and 2,000 other people at the Royal Festival Hall to watch a screening of Abel Gance’s silent epic Napoleon, accompanied by an orchestra led by Carl Davis. It was the third time in my life I had experienced this, and it put me in mind of how my father recalled seeing a version of the film as a child in Poland. He always remembered the extraordinary snowball fight. In the bar afterwards, still floating on air from the exhilaration of it, I began recounting to my friend how a long, long time ago I had done all this research about the beginnings of moving pictures.
The next day I idly wondered if I had any of my Friese-Greene research files on my current laptop. I did. I opened some.
That was all it took. The game was afoot again and since then I have immersed myself ever more deeply, not simply in investigating Friese-Greene but gaining a detailed view of what led to the phenomenon we would call ‘cinema’. So, what have I learned so far?
That Friese-Greene came from a working-class background but turned himself into a brand as a photographer who was sought out by high society. And that he helped others do the same.
That his attitudes to women were atypical of his profession and his time – and that had an effect.
That by September 1889 he had not only co-patented a moving-picture film camera but had a second, more advanced version which encapsulated five of Edison’s six later patent claims and, indeed, many of the fundamentals of what a typical movie camera would be.
That he didn’t succeed in projecting these films as early as his supporters had claimed, but in 1891, whilst in social purdah after a catastrophic bankruptcy, he was experimenting with using perforated film and witnesses recall seeing it projected.
That the supposed evidence of him stealing other people’s ideas doesn’t hold up, but there is evidence of other people taking credit for his ideas.
That to depict him as some kind of embarrassing incompetent in the field of invention is nonsensical, given both the number of scientific figures who supported him and records showing that between 1896 and 1903 he earned the equivalent of over two million pounds solely from his inventions in a wide variety of fields.
That The Magic Box is a downbeat film that neither bangs the drum for Britain nor claims Friese-Greene as THE inventor of moving pictures. It gets things wrong – what biopic doesn’t? – but it captures the man. You should watch it.
That his obsession with continuous inventing led to the loss of multiple fortunes and the loss of his family life.
That despite everything, William Friese-Greene remained optimistic, engaged, always thinking about the next great idea. I think perhaps it is my identification with this quality that has kept me hooked.
So, I’ve surrendered myself to what increasingly feels something like fate or destiny but may rather be an inexorable fascination with a complex and contradictory figure. At a certain point in life, I also had to surrender myself to the ever-mounting evidence that, whether writing or making films or having a conversation, I am fundamentally a storyteller. And that desire to tell stories and reflect the world back at others is so strong that it overwhelms logic and common sense. If it didn’t, creative people wouldn’t get a damn thing done: books would never be finished and films would never be started.
From the earliest days, Friese-Greene saw the potential for moving pictures to open up a window on the world. After three years of trying, I have been awarded funding to undertake a PhD about the work and influence of Friese-Greene. Now, telling his story has become my story.
I could ask myself what would have happened if I’d never read that plaque but, let’s face it, it’s way too late for that.
Peter Domankiewicz is a film director, screenwriter and journalist with an abiding interest in the beginnings of moving pictures. He has written for the Guardian and Sight and Sound, as well as contributing to reference works and academic publications. He left his heart in Bristol and intends to pick it up.