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Book review: ‘Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema’ by Ian Christie

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The fascinating story of an elusive yet crucial figure in the early history of cinema technology.

It’s tempting to think of the early history of cinema technology as a kind of late 19th-century new-media arms race dominated by household name pioneers such as Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers. While this is accurate up to a point, it is also to make the mistake of overlooking the contribution to cinema’s technology landscape made by the British electrical engineer and scientific instrument-maker Robert Paul.

We can’t call him ‘forgotten’, because as Ian Christie says early on in his excellent ‘Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema’ (University of Chicago Press, £26, ISBN 9780226105635), this innovator in the field of ‘animated photography’ has never fallen out of the film historian’s orbit. It’s just that when it comes to the more widely accepted ‘story of cinema’, Paul seems to have failed to register in the public consciousness as a founding father.

In terms of the technology timeline, cinema came along at a point when innovation was booming at an unprecedented rate. There was the emergence of telegraphy. There was electric lighting, the automobile and x-rays. There was also the “new collective pastime for the whole of the world – the pleasure of spending time, travelling far and wide, without leaving one’s seat in a darkened room.”

The short and jerky beginnings of the Kinetoscope would evolve into a mighty empire that would dominate the way we saw the world. It wasn’t simply a case of an upstart technology replacing the printed word or the theatrical drama; neither was it a fashionable technology fad. Moving images changed everything, with a ‘new media’ revolution strikingly similar to today’s electronic multimedia explosion. As Christie says, no one could have predicted that moving pictures would become “the cornerstone of a new social and industrial order”, let alone a multi billion-dollar global industry.

Tucked away in all this is the man who effectively launched Britain’s film industry, from the early days of improving Edison’s Kinetoscope to innovating technology of his own in the form of his cinematograph, the first British-made movie camera. Paul expanded what we think of today as cinematography and film editing, building England’s first film studio and generally playing a key role in the emergence of cinema as an art form.

The fact that Paul has remained such an elusive figure ultimately rests on there being little in the way of documentation for the historian to work with. Christie, who is the anniversary professor of Film and Media History at Birkbeck College, University of London, has done an extraordinary job in creating an objective account of a moment in cinematographic history where there is often more emphasis cast on the importance of the early directors than the technologists that created the tools used to create the movies. It emerges that Paul was both; a combination that makes him unusually fascinating.

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