British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

Electric Edwardians: The Story of the Mitchell and Kenyon Collection

The two chapters described above make up around one-third of the book. The lengthiest part of the text takes the form of a socio-historical examination of the dominant subjects represented in the collection, divided into chapter-length sections on entertainment, sport, the city space, work and militarism. The one aspect of this book which I found mildly exasperating is the lack of a full explanation of the aims which inform the organisation of these chapters and the approach taken. The closest thing we get to a statement of methodological intent is a sentence promising a demonstration of how the films ‘can be utilised as documents of social history’. The book certainly delivers on this score, repeatedly drawing attention to various nuances of detail which these remarkably pristine visual records reveal, such as the emerging forms of physical interaction between pedestrians and the new electric trams, or the scale of participation by the working classes in Boer War-related celebrations, which both expand and occasionally contradict existing historical knowledge of the subject.

… a major work of social history in its own right

But, speaking as an early cinema scholar, it seems to me that the most substantial achievement of the contextual analysis in the later chapters lies in a contrary direction. The hugely ambitious synthesis of ideas which Toulmin has drawn from a diverse body of existing historical studies and her own research on everyday life in Edwardian Britain ultimately helps to considerably deepen one’s appreciation of the intrinsic resonances of the films. Subjects that might otherwise appear mundane are recast as richly meaningful signifiers of a tentative acclimatisation to the age of modernity. Parades and ceremonies which seem quaintly traditional are shown to be thoroughly contemporary reactions to a period of dynamic transformation (commissioned by the exhibiting showmen themselves in some cases). In particular, by focusing on the ways in which acts of communal spectatorship rather than the spectacle attended are frequently privileged by the filmmakers, Toulmin interprets Mitchell and Kenyon’s oeuvre as a series of considered interventions into a process of affirming and renegotiating the concept of community which was taking place in the first decade of the 20th century. In this respect, the book constitutes both an invaluable interpretive ‘key’ to the collection for film scholars and a major work of social history in its own right. Its usefulness as a reference work in the latter field is further enhanced by the inclusion of around 400 previously unpublished frame reproductions.

Jon Burrows

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