British photographic history

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Film: Bristol’s Film 2021 marks centenary of death of Bristolian motion picture pioneer

Film 2021, is a new year-long programme of activity celebrating the many aspects of Bristol’s film and moving image credentials launched by Bristol Ideas and Bristol City of Film, supported by the city’s film studios, cinemas, filmmakers and festivals.

Marking the centenary of the death of Bristolian inventor William Friese-Greene (1855-1921), a pioneer of early motion pictures, Film 2021 will include film screenings across the city, walking tours exploring cinema buildings, photography exhibitions, talks and panel discussions, and the launch of a special publication recounting the public’s memories of cinema-going throughout the past 70 years.

William Edward Green was born in 1855 in a house that used to stand behind the current City Hall, in College Street. He won a four-year scholarship to Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital School on Brandon Hill, leaving on his 14th birthday and going on to an apprenticeship with Marcus Guttenberg, a successful photographer at what is now 67 Queens Road. A plaque there credits Friese-Greene as ‘the inventor of the moving picture camera’. In 1874 he married a German woman, Helena Friese, adding her name to his. In the ten subsequent years Friese-Greene went on to establish two studios in Bristol, one in Plymouth and another in Bath.

William Friese-Greene 

Friese-Greene and fellow inventor John Rudge collaborated to create magic lanterns that gave an illusion of movement by showing a series of photographic images in quick succession. There is a plaque marking the location of Rudge’s home and a larger joint plaque for Rudge and Friese-Greene on the corner of New Bond Street Place, Bath. Friese-Greene is credited here as ‘the inventor of commercial kinematography being the first man to apply celluloid ribbon for this purpose’. Around mid-1891, Friese-Greene filmed the street life outside the King’s Road studio. It is one of the earliest films shot of a London street currently known, pre-dating the films of Lumière, Edison, Birt Acres and Robert Paul by several years. There are eye-witness accounts from neighbours and colleagues of him projecting films in that basement workshop, including one of the street. From the late 1890s Friese-Greene was working on a variety of systems to create motion pictures in colour.

On 5 May 1921, Friese-Greene attended a meeting of film distributors to discuss the future of the British film industry. After giving a speech urging unity to an audience who had little idea who he was, he sat down and died of heart failure. At the time of his death the 1 shilling and 10 pence in his pocket was thought to be the only money he possessed. He was given a grand funeral, funded by the British film industry, and cinema projectors across the country were switched off for two minutes in tribute. A highly imaginative film of his life and work, The Magic Box, was released in 1951 for the Festival of Britain. Martin Scorsese said: “the film that I think created the biggest impression on me about film and about filmmaking – the one that prompted me to say ‘maybe you could do this yourself’ – was The Magic Box.”  

About Film 2021

Film 2021 is a programme of activity celebrating Bristol’s film and moving image credentials, coordinated by Bristol Ideas and Bristol UNESCO City of Film. It marks the centenary of the death of Bristolian motion picture pioneer William Friese-Greene (1855-1921).

Film 2021 will include:

  • Footage of Bristol on film being shown at sites across the city
  • Film screenings in the city’s cinemas and film festivals
  • A day of talks and panel discussions on the city’s links to film, past present and future, presented as part of Festival of the Future City
  • Walking tours of the city’s film locations and former cinema building
  • A new poem specially written by the City Poet, Caleb Parkin
  • Special events across the city as part of Bristol Open Doors (
  • More activity and events will be added to the programme as it is developed over the coming months.

Film 2021 is backed by Bristol Film Office, The Bottle Yard Studios, Cary Comes Home, Bristol Photo Festival, Watershed, Destination Bristol, Bristol Libraries, Encounters, South West Silents and many others. Follow Film 2021 on Twitter using the hashtag #BristolFilm2021 and on the Facebook page

Follow Film 2021 on Twitter using the hashtag #BristolFilm2021 and on the Facebook page

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