Britains Pioneer Colour Filmmaker Exposed

Written by James MacGregor on . Posted in Documentary

Bathing belles of Plymouth  Following the enormous international success of the BBC/ bfi collaboration on The Lost World of Mitchell & Kenyon, the BBC and the bfi are launching a new co-production, this time following in the footsteps of British pioneer colour cinematographer Claude Friese-Greene.

Friese Greene's process was colour replication rather than colour photography and managed to get the colour of London buses pretty accurately  The Open Road is a series of films made in 1924-26 by Claude Friese-Greene using an early colour process partly developed by his father William Friese-Greene and which his son Claude perfected. The film traces a journey by car from Land's End to John O'Groats and offers an extraordinary vision of Britain in the 1920s in colour.

William Friese-Greene had died penniless in 1921, but his son Claude had worked with his father from the age of 12 and took on the challenge of perfecting an entirely British process for colour cinema after his father's death. In 1923, the All-British Friese-Greene Natural Colour Process was unveiled by Claude's new company, Spectrum Films.

This fascinating early colour process was achieved using colour-sensitive panchromatic negative film that was shot through a red filter on every other frame. This meant that alternate frames were exposed to the red component and then all the light from a scene. When this negative film was processed and printed, the alternate frames were tinted orange-red and blue-green so that the orange-red exposed frame was projected in orange-red light and the alternate frame in blue-green light.

When the films were projected at sufficient speed the alternating orange-red and blue-green frames combine to trick the eye into seeing an image in naturalistic colour. Attaining correct speed for the colours to be able to show correctly on screen was a bit of an issue when hand cranking cameras were involved.

This colour process was considered a huge breakthrough at the time - 'Britain's greatest technical film triumph' according to the Daily Expressof the time - and Friese-Greene travelled to America to show his new process to Hollywood studio chiefs who were duly impressed.

 Unfortunately, cinema audiences of the time were much more impressed by the new “talking pictures.” Although this system was a significant step forward, future colour processes would provide even greater technological advantages. These would include being able to shoot indoors, better representation of colour and more efficient filmmaking processes than Friese-Greene’s system.

Another drawback of the Friese-Greene colour film system was that it not only needed a specially modified cine camera, but it also needed a special kind of cinema projector, which was an extra cost many cinemas would be reluctant to bear when the vast majority of films they rented were screened using a universal 35mm projector.

When the Friese-Greene colour process failed to take off, its champion carried his camera skills making conventional black and white films as a cinematographer. His films became well-known even if the colour filmmaking process he perfected didn’t.

When Friese-Greene died in the 1940s his son donated all his unmarked reels to the bfi National Film and Television Archive where the challenges of its preservation and restoration proved extremely demanding. In the 1990s the films were all catalogued and transferred to tape.

The films themselves have considerable impact on people used to seeing archived Britain as only a world of black and white. For the first time they see, not a monochrome view of Britain, but a richer more vibrant Britain of the 1920s - in colour.

“They are a powerful legacy,” says programme presenter Adam Cruickshank. “They show us the way Britain has changed and remained the same for eighty years. What strikes me is that so much beauty survives; the views that Claude selected and recorded are often still there, unchanged. It’s wonderful!”

The bathing belles of the Plymouth swimming club were clearly pleased to pose for Frieze-Greene's cameraThe Open Road was filmed by Friese-Greene between 1924 and 1926 when he loaded one of his father’s early colour cine-cameras into the back of a D-series Vauxhall tourer and set off to drive on a 1,500 mile car trek from Land’s End to John O’Groats, filming life in Britain along the way. There were plans to use the process to film Mallory's ill-fated ascent of Mount Everest in 1924, but following a rapturous reception in America, Friese Greene set out on his epic Land's End to John O'Groats road movie, The Open Road.

The young women with their parasol were also happy to be filmed in this Devon villageThis glorious travelogue of 1920s Britain was completed in 1926. Among the memorable sequences he captured is a lively scene in the picture postcard village of Cockington Forge in Devon and captures to flappers posing with a parasol. He captured a ladies bathing club in Plymouth, footage of keepers and visitors in Edinburgh Zoo and in Oban filmed fish workers dealing with the daily harvest from the seas. Children are seen talking to a policeman and at play.

No road movie would be complete without a shot of the car in a petrol station - It's a D-series Vauxhall open tourerOn the Road seems to paint an idyllic world – a Britain recovering now from the tragic losses of the Great War, but one where the great depression, the general strike and World War Two are as yet unknown, which simply increases the magnetic attraction of these scenes.  

The bfi is hoping that following this television programme Claude Friese-Greene's contribution to the development of colour film will be more widely recognised and that audiences will enjoy these vivid records of the 1920s - a historical view of Britain which has all but vanished from popular memory.Children talking to the local "bobby" on his beat - something a little unusual in our world

During the first two weeks of July2005, a BBC Learning bus retraced much of Friese-Greene's original journey, showing local people the films and how their part of the country looked in the 1920s.

Programme presenter Dan Cruickshank and archivists from the bfi were also at 5 separate The harbour at St Ives, Cornwallregional events to spend longer talking to audiences and attempting to piece together as much detail as possible of the people, towns and landscapes featured in the film. Although only selected clips are being used in the TV programme, all Friese-Greene’s footage can be viewed via broadband on the BBC history website

The Lost World of Friese-Greene comes out on DVD on 3rd May 2006

Separately the bfi has begun a full-scale colour restoration of The Open Road for preservation in the bfi National Film and Television Archive. The retoration project has been supported by the Eric Anker-Petersen Charity.

The Lost World of Friese-Greene is broadcast on BBC 2 on Tuesday18th April at 9.00pm

Claude Friese-Greene (1898-1943)

Filmography as Cinematographer

1. On Approval (1944)

2. The Great Mr. Handel (1942)

3. Hard Steel (1942) ... aka What Shall It Profit

4. Banana Ridge (1942)

5. East of Piccadilly (1941) ... aka The Strangler (USA)

6. The Farmer's Wife (1941)

7. The Flying Squad (1940)

8. Bulldog Sees It Through (1940)

9. The Middle Watch (1940)

10. She Couldn't Say No (1940/I)

11. At the Villa Rose (1940) ... aka House of Mystery (USA)

12. Meet Maxwell Archer (1940) ... aka Maxwell Archer, Detective

13. Just Like a Woman (1939) ... aka Sweet Racket

14. The Saint in London (1939) (photographed by)

15. The Gang's All Here (1939) ... aka The Amazing Mr. Forrest (USA)

16. Murder In Soho (1939) ... aka Murder in the Night (USA)

17. Black Limelight (1938)

18. Jane Steps Out (1938)

19. Star of the Circus (1938) ... aka The Hidden Menace (USA: new title)

20. Let's Make a Night of It (1937)

21. Our Fighting Navy (1937) ... aka Torpedoed (USA)

22. Gypsy Melody (1936)

23. Public Nuisance No. 1 (1936/I)

24. The Scarab Murder Case (1936)

25. You Must Get Married (1936)

26. No Monkey Business (1935)

27. Drake of England (1935) ... aka Drake the Pirate (USA) ... aka Elizabeth of England

28. I Give My Heart (1935) ... aka The Loves of Madame Dubarry (USA)

29. Invitation to the Waltz (1935)

30. Music Hath Charms (1935)

31. Girls Will Be Boys (1934)

32. Give Her a Ring (1934) ... aka Giving You the Stars

33. Menace (1934/II) ... aka Sabotage ... aka When London Sleeps (USA) ... aka While London Sleeps

34. The Old Curiosity Shop (1934)

35. A Political Party (1934)

36. Fires of Fate (1933)

37. Happy (1933)

38. The Pride of the Force (1933)

39. The Song You Gave Me (1933)

40. A Southern Maid (1933) ... aka Love Wins Again (USA: video title)

41. For the Love of Mike (1932)

42. The Maid of the Mountains (1932)

45. Cape Forlorn (1931) ... aka The Love Storm (USA)

46. The Flying Fool (1931)

47. Shadow Between (1931)

48. Uneasy Virtue (1931)

49. The Wife's Family (1931) ... aka My Wife's Family (UK)

50. Loose Ends (1930)

51. The Yellow Mask (1930)

52. Elstree Calling (1930)

53. Song of Soho (1930)

54. The Romance of Seville (1929)

55. Under the Greenwood Tree (1929) ... aka The Greenwood Tree (USA)

56. Tommy Atkins (1928)

57. The Open Road (1926)

58. Dance of the Moods (1924)