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The Story of Victorian Film by Bryony Dixon: experiments that changed the world

A quick note to tell you about a book you will want to read. The Story of Victorian Film by Bryony Dixon is published by BFI Bloomsbury on 7 September and it is available to pre-order now. I was lucky enough to read an advance copy earlier this year, and I can tell you that it this book is an absolute delight. It’s an excellent introduction to the concept of 19th-century British cinema, but there is plenty here to intrigue people who are already familiar with the topic.

The earliest of early film comes to life on these pages as Dixon describes how ingenuity, imagination and sometimes necessity created the cinematic concepts we take for granted now. Dixon’s book covers everything from actualities to comedy, erotic films to literary adaptations, trick photography to early sound. It was as early as the Victorian era that British filmmakers learned how to introduce narrative continuity, special effects and suspense into their short films. One is tempted to think that progress has been much slower in the decades since.

Kitty Mahone (1900)

This is a story of how the cinematic apparatus became mass entertainment – how a technological innovation demonstrated in February 1896 in Britain became the basis for a new, and overwhelmingly popular form of entertainment. These Victorian experiments are the reason why I am going to see Tom Cruise ride his motorcycle off a mountain tonight, along with millions of others, and more significantly, you might say, the backbone of one of our most successful industries. It’s impossible to imagine the world as it is today without the results of these adventures.

Herbert Campbell As Little Bobby (1899)

If the tales in Dixon’s book fascinate you, the great news is that many of these films, once considered very obscure, are available to watch, digitised and restored, for free on BFI Player, so you can take an interactive approach to exploring early cinema. Dixon puts it best:

“It’s the privilege of generations alive today to be able to see more of the past in moving images than any before them, and in better quality, too. Through the surviving films we can immerse ourselves in the world of the late Victorians – it is inspiring to spend time in their company.”

Bryony Dixon, The Story of Victorian Film

Bursting with great stories and enterprising characters, The Story of Victorian Film makes a convincing, and very entertaining, case for pausing to savour cinema’s first decade. In this page-turning survey of innovations, ingenuity and vital sparks of imagination, we see the seeds of all cinematic life to come.

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