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Yorkshire: the birthplace of film?

Any assertions of ‘firsts’ in cinema are open invitations to rebuttal, but the BBC has recently broken news of a claim that the West Yorkshire city of Leeds was in fact film’s birthplace. Louis Le Prince, a French engineer who moved to Leeds in 1866, became one of a number of late 19th-century innovators entering the race to conceive, launch, and patent moving image cameras and projectors.

There is plenty to be said about Yorkshire’s contribution to cinema; and film historians have long been aware of the groundbreaking contributions of the moving-image inventors working in the county’s great cities around the turn of the twentieth century.

Between us we can claim a number of connections—by birth, residence, and education—with Yorkshire, and when writing the Oxford Dictionary of Film Studies, we thought it would be amusing to include a secret entry on film in ‘God’s own county’ to sit cheekily (if mutely) alongside our entries on national cinemas. There are no pointers to “Yorkshire, film in” from other entries in the dictionary. Readers have to come across it serendipitously. What might they make of our offhand joke? So far we’ve had no feedback.

Our entry is circumspect in its reference to the pioneering role of Louis Le Prince. Much more widely acknowledged in this regard, for example, are the Lumière brothers (mentioned in at least ten topics, from “Action film” to “USA, film in the“) and Thomas Edison (referred to in six or more, from “Biopic“to “Trick film“).

As National Media Museum associate curator Toni Booth cautioned in an interview with the BBC: “I think it comes down to definition. The definition of film and the definition of cinema…. As a piece of moving image recording live action–yes I would say [Le Prince] was the first one to do that” (Le Prince’s camera and footage are kept at the National Media Museum in Bradford).

In The First Film, a documentary released on 3rd July this year, filmmaker David Wilkinson sets out the case for Leeds as the birthplace of film and for Le Prince as the father of the new medium, citing not only the Leeds Bridge footage but also a shot of Le Prince’s son playing the accordion and a short actuality filmed on ‘14 October 1888, when a family gathered in the garden in the Leeds suburb of Roundhay. Among the group was Louis Le Prince, who had with him a curious mahogany box. He asked the others in attendance–his son, parents-in-law and a friend–to stand in front of the box and walk in a circle.’

See below for an abridged version of the “Yorkshire, film in” entry:

French cinema pioneer Louis Le Prince (1842-1890) from the New York Public Library's digital library. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
French cinema pioneer Louis Le Prince (1842-1890) from the New York Public Library’s digital library. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Yorkshire is one of several UK regional film production centres that can claim a pioneering role in early cinema. In 1888, Louis Le Prince shot Traffic on Leeds Bridge, showing ‘animated pictures’ of horses, people, and trams crossing a bridge in the West Yorkshire city. At the beginning of the 20th century, Frank Mottershaw of the Sheffield Photographic Company made the first of many short ‘story films’, A Daring Daylight Burglary (1903) a 4-minute prototypical chase film featuring 10 shots, some parallel editing, and a train. Mottershaws also made comedy films, crime films (such as The Life of Charles Peace (1905)), and at least one western (A Cowboy Romance, 1908).

At around the same time, the Captain Kettle Film Company made a number of films in and around Bradford, including some westerns; while also in Bradford the Pyramid Film Company made newsreels and a five-reeler, My Yorkshire Lass (1916). Like many regional film production companies, these firms did quite well for most of the 1910s, benefiting from their links with local audiences and exhibitors. However, by 1918 virtually all of them had ceased production in the face of the globalization of the industry and the increasing dominance of US films worldwide.

However, filmmaking in Yorkshire carried on. A 1920 adaptation of Wuthering Heights (A.V. Bramble), filmed 9 miles north of the Brontes’ home in Haworth, was hailed in The Biograph as ‘a real triumph of film art’. Turn of the Tide (Norman Walker, 1935) was shot on Yorkshire’s east coast, and featured the cliffside village of Robin Hood’s Bay.

We of the West Riding (Ken Annakin, 1945), a British Council documentary about the daily lives of workers in the textile industry, was translated into 23 languages and screened in 100 countries.Anderson’s British New Wave feature, This Sporting Life (1962), was shot in and around Wakefield; and Ken Loach’s Kes (1968) was filmed in nearby Barnsley. Rural railway stations in different parts of the county have featured as locations in such films as The Railway Children (Lionel Jeffries, UK, 1970) and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Chris Colombus, USA/UK, 2000).

The Leeds International Film Festival, which claims to be England’s largest film festival outside London, has run annually since 1986, and the Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival (DocFest) has been on the festival calendar yearly since 1994.

Featured image credit: Yorkshire country side by gpmg. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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How well do you know the James Bond songs? [quiz]

Very soon now, we’ll find out who sings the next James Bond song. SPECTRE, the superspy’s twenty-fifth outing, will be coming out in the fall. But the song will be more like the thirtieth or so, depending on how you count. Most of us don’t remember most of these … “Goldfinger,” sure, sure, the one that Madonna did, “Live and Let Die.” But beyond that things can get iffy surprisingly fast. So why not make sure you’re ready for the announcement, for the release, and for the film by taking our quick quiz? How well you know the Bond songs?


Featured Image: Sean Connery as James Bond. (c) Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. and Danjaq, LLC. via 007.com

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Great Expectations: novel vs. miniseries adaptation

Because Great Expectations is one of many literary classics, it’s a popular candidate for adaptations into a number of movies, television series, and even a musical. After finishing this season’s Oxford World’s Classics reading group season, I obsessed over the characters and Dickens’s literary finesse– nothing was out of bounds of curiosity. The adaptation that caught my attention the most was BBC’s television miniseries that broadcasted on PBS in the US. In only three hour-long episodes, we’re granted a delightful adaptation of the novel. After binge-watching the series, I’ve compiled a few of my comments on the 2011 adaptation compared to the novel. But beware: spoilers lie ahead!

The missing time element

When we first follow Pip into Miss Havisham’s eerie home, the Satis House is seemingly frozen in time; the clocks are all stopped at twenty minutes to nine. But the show never makes a mention of the significance of 8:40AM, not even so much a hint or b-roll footage of a stopped clock. The forced stoppage of time highlights Miss Havisham’s unhealthy obsession over the past. Without that time element, we only get a glimpse of how deeply affected Miss Havisham is by Compeyson’s betrayal.

The lack of Biddy

Personally, I enjoyed Biddy in the novel, and while the adaptation did quite well without her character, I thought there was quite a lack of gentle firmness that she ultimately represents. Biddy is Pip’s first teacher and is, in a sense, his first “benefactor”. She teaches him to read and write without expectation for any repayment, and when Mrs. Gargery was injured, Biddy took charge of the house while Joe kept at the forge.

Some call Biddy the “anti-Estella”, and there is some credit to the claim. Biddy was not overly beautiful in the way Estella was, but her solid character, intelligence, and compassion for others gave me someone to cling onto empathetically (arguably, most people probably would identify with Biddy before Estella). She’s a strong character that could have done so well to round out the adaptation, but alas, Biddy never had a fair shot.

Joe’s “defensive and disappointed father” persona

Something about Joe’s character in the BBC adaptation didn’t quite sit well with me. He was scornful of Pip’s leaving home and refusing to become a blacksmith, but I suppose realistically, that would be a father’s natural reaction. The Joe in the adaptation alienates Pip, which is a huge leap from the Joe in the novel, who would give Pip his unconditional love so long as Pip accepted him.

For the purposes of the adaptation though, Joe was portrayed especially well. He’s much more confrontational with Pip than in the novel. I couldn’t help but feel a pang of hurt when, after Pip’s first few visits to Satis House and Pip begins to change his behaviors, Joe says, “Don’t know who I’ve got sitting in front of me sometimes.” Their relationship is strained throughout the series, which, given that Biddy isn’t there to leverage high-strung emotions, makes way for great dramatics.

Cold, cold Jaggers

After finishing this season’s Oxford World’s Classics reading group season, I obsessed over the characters and Dickens’s literary finesse– nothing was out of bounds of curiosity

Perhaps one of the more disappointing portrayals in the adaptation, Jaggers was terribly cold towards Pip. I was looking forward to the dinner at Jaggers’s house with Herbert Pocket, Startop, and Bentley Drummle. In the novel, Jaggers actually takes an interest in Drummle’s character, showing us a more human side of the lawyer. But in the adaptation, he’s quite brutal; in fact, he admonishes Pip at one point, barking at him, “Curiosity killed the cat. And nature can be most brutal.” We never get any other side of Jaggers other than his cold left shoulder and his cold right shoulder.

Antagonism of Orlick

One of the aspects I thought the novel lacked but that the adaptation did quite well was portray Orlick as the annoying, villainous pest. I didn’t grasp quite the same level of horridness of his character until closer to the end of the novel (when Pip is tricked into entering the lone house in the middle of the marshes) when Orlick reveals to Pip he had hit Pip’s sister. But throughout the adaptation, we see Orlick lurking in the corners when he isn’t arousing conflict with Mrs. Gargery or Pip.

Literary adaptations have a rather tall order to fill; in addition to meeting the standards of those who have read the book, these adaptations must also make as much sense as possible to someone who’s never picked up the book. On top of that, certain plot points must either be adjusted or removed altogether, which is sure to ruffle some feathers.

Admittedly, I’ve plenty more notes on the differences between Great Expectations the novel and the miniseries, but overall it’s done a fair job of telling a story of a boy who unexpectedly came into fortune and how it ultimately plays to his downfall.

Have you watched this adaptation? If so, what did you think of it? Are there aspects you really enjoyed or disliked? Let us know in the comments below.

Headline image credit: Great Expectations by Todd Anthony. (c). BBC via PBS.com.

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The top ten films all aspiring lawyers need to see

Preparing for law school doesn’t have to be purely academic; there’s plenty you can learn from film and TV if you look in the right places. We asked Martin Partington, author of Introduction to the English Legal System, for his top ten film recommendations for new law students and aspiring lawyers. Iconic cases, legendary lawyers, fact and fiction – which films would make it on to your list?

1. Twelve Angry Men (1957)

This US film is set in the jury room, where 12 jurors have to decide the outcome of a seemingly open and shut case. In the UK, no one knows precisely what goes on in the jury room. Direct participant research is prohibited by law. So dramas like this offer a version of what might happen. One question to ponder: how do you think the verdict might have differed if the jury had been told it could reach a majority verdict (possible in England and Wales) rather than a unanimous one?

2. The Paper Chase (1973)

Another US film features a first year law student’s experience of taking a class in contract under the supervision of the fearsome Professor Kingsfield. It shows how the much vaunted socratic method of legal education – where students are fiercely quizzed by their professors – works in practice. You may end up relieved that your course is demanding in different ways! The intellectual limitation of the film is the suggestion that all legal education is about textual analysis of cases and statutes. It takes no account of the social importance of law. For a different take on the law school experience, you could try Legally Blonde (2001).

3. In the Name of the Father (1993)

Image Credit: ‘To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)’, Trailer (Cropped Screenshot), Image from Universal Pictures, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

This is an Irish-British-American film based on the story of the Guildford Four, four people falsely convicted of the 1974 IRA‘s Guildford pub bombings, which killed four off-duty British soldiers and a civilian. The story is important as it formed part of the background to major changes in the criminal justice system of England and Wales, including the creation of the Criminal Cases Review Commission and the Crown Prosecution Service. Warning: its portrayal of the trial process is a travesty of reality – it should not be taken as any sort of representation of what happens in practice.

4. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Based on Harper Lee’s classic novel, this tells the story of attorney Atticus Finch’s defence of a black man falsely accused of rape. The recent publication of Harper Lee’s follow up novel Go Set a Watchman brings a new dimension to the tale. How does the new book change your perception of Finch?

5. Erin Brockovich (2000)

A great ’cause lawyering’ film. A clerk in a small law office pursues an action against a huge corporation, suspected of widespread land pollution. It’s a pity no similar UK film was made about the Sunday Times classic investigation into the thalidomide drug.

6. Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

Post World War 2 trial of 4 Nazi judges, accused of using their position to support German state goals of cleansing the country of Jews. Worth seeing both for its own sake, but also as the back drop for the more recent creation of International Criminal Tribunals charged with the hearing of cases against those accused of war crimes.

7. Reversal of Fortune (1990)

Image Credit: ‘Noose’, Photo by Patrick Feller, CC by 2.0, via Flickr.

Based on a true story it centres on the appeal by Law Professor Alan Dershowitz in the case of Claus von Bulow, a wealthy Dane found guilty of the attempted murder of his wife. An interesting film: not least because it shows the engagement of legal academics in real litigation – something which does not often occur in the UK.

8. 10 Rillington Place (1971)

A film about the trial for murder of Timothy Evans: one of a number of high profile miscarriage of justice cases that ultimately led to the abolition of the death penalty in the UK in 1965. Worth watching as a reminder of why the death penalty needs to remain abolished.

9. A Separation (2011)

Iranian film focusing on an Iranian middle-class couple who separate, and the conflicts that arise when the husband hires a lower-class care giver for his elderly father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. I’ve included it here because it features some proceedings before courts in Iran, although it is hard to know how accurate the representation of the working of the Iranian court system truly is.

10. 10th District Court (10e Chambre – Instants d’Audience) (2004)

Documentary on the work of a Paris Criminal Court. Worth viewing to compare how the French criminal justice system operates to the work of Magistrates’ Courts in England and Wales.

Featured Image Credit: ‘Hammer, Books, Law’, Photo by succo, CC0 Public Domain, via Pixabay.

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The mystery of Meryl Streep

In Ricki and the Flash, now in theaters, Meryl Streep plays an aging rocker, managing in her fourth decade atop the star pile to once again give us a character unlike any she has played before. Raymond Durgnat attests that, “the stars are a reflection in which the public studies and adjusts its own image of itself…. The social history of a nation can be written in terms of its film stars.” So what does Streep’s capricious, unpredictable style reflect?

Although it may now be difficult to imagine, Streep’s predilection for altering herself from role to role caused anxiety early on in her career. While Molly Haskell, for example, welcomed her ability to give unprecedented dimension to characters outside traditional bounds of sympathy, she worried that audiences did not have access to the real Streep. “The aura of the old stars radiated out of a sense of self, a core identity projected into every role,” she wrote; “[h]owever varied the performances of Bette Davis, say, or Katharine Hepburn, or Margaret Sullavan, we always felt we were in the presence of something knowable, familiar, constant,” whereas “Streep, chameleon-like, undercuts this response…. Instead of merging with her roles, [she] metamorphoses, changing herself completely, tying up all the loose ends so that she is perfectly hidden.” Pauline Kael openly disdained Streep for similar reasons. When Silkwood was released in 1983, she complained that, “[p]art of being a good movie actress is in knowing what you come across as … [Streep] has been giving us artificial creations. She doesn’t seem to know how to draw on herself, she hasn’t yet released an innate personality on the screen.”

Haskell’s chameleon metaphor has stuck to Streep. Chameleons hide in plain sight, their exteriors mutable, visible and invisible at the same time. Why have critics wanted to think of Streep as camouflaging herself, or, rather, why does it matter that “Meryl Streep,” unlike “Humphrey Bogart” or “Katharine Hepburn,” lacks a clear referent? I know of no better place to look for an answer than Postcards from the Edge, a film that considers Streep’s effect on the stardom game, and one, not coincidentally, directed by Mike Nichols, with whom she has worked more than any other director. Streep has repeatedly cited Nichols as her most influential director, though theirs was not the muse/Svengali relationship one often hears about between actresses and male directors. By this time, the two had collaborated on Silkwood and Heartburn (and he prepared The French Lieutenant’s Woman before departing due to a scheduling conflict). They would later make Angels in America together, and were planning an adaptation of the hit play Master Class when Nichols died.

Adapted from Carrie Fisher’s rehab-to-riches novel/memoir, Postcards follows Suzanne (Streep), a recovering drug addict struggling with her acting career and her relationship with her mother, the aging — and alcoholic — Hollywood musical star Doris Mann (Shirley MacLaine). Suzanne’s story can only resolve when she figures out how to separate from her mother and to be the actress she wants to be, aspirations that she must learn coincide. She triumphs in the end, winning a role as a country singer — a woman not at all similar to the other roles we have seen her play, or to Suzanne herself. The film marks this transformative performance as successful, opposing it to Doris’s old-fashioned stardom, which promises to display the essence of the performer. Rather than modeling the old injunction to be true to oneself, Streep/Suzanne fashion a more modern idea of being as becoming. Streep teaches us that potentiality and contradiction are not at odds with a workable notion of personal identity — and may even be necessary to it. They need not be excluded from realist performance, or from the individualities that become stars. Postcards argues for Streep’s mode, for versatility, for flux over stasis. Sundering actor from character creates distance between them, inspiring a desire to plumb the depths of these figures before us, and to ponder their relation.

While there were certainly actors before Streep who refused to disclose themselves or solidify into a type (say, Greta Garbo or Charles Laughton), it is testament to her influence that we now commonly applaud actors for departing from their previous expressions of ways of being. But Streep is not just important within cinema history. As the nation’s culture wars essentialized and politicized stable identities — that is, hypostasized kinds of experience as non-fungible commodities predicated upon certain types of bodies — she cracked open the epistemological identity of actor and character, of star and type, in America’s most prominent medium for thinking about personhood. In this way, Streep’s stardom indicates a public willing to think capaciously about personal identity, to ask difficult questions about individualism, selfhood and otherhood, the relation of self to self, and about the dangers of making becoming into a brand. Is it any surprise that she remains as relevant, as necessary, as ever?

Featured image: Meryl Streep in Ricki and The Flash. (c) Sony Pictures via rickiandtheflashmovie.com.

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