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Came The Dawn  ... First Screen Depictions Of The Region

  Film centenaries usually celebrate the birth of cinema by naming, as ‘firsts’, films which were usually just brief primitive documentary scenes of ordinary life, the tradition being that within the following decade, ‘proper’ narrative films had developed and established the new medium as both art and entertainment.
Locally, the trouble is we don’t know exactly when the first film was made. The late John Huntley, to whom this page is dedicated for his invaluable work, created the Huntley Film Archive, whose database of such early films is now accessible online. These works are identified merely by decade rather than by year, since often the exact year is uncertain, the films being dated by the informed guesswork of the HFA’s intrepid cataloguer. And, in keeping with film-archive practice when dealing with primitive films, the actual copyright titles are not given, only descriptive catalogue headings and numbers.

About John Huntley
This web-page is dedicated to the late John Huntley (1921-2003), film enthusiast. I never met him, though we exchanged correspondence when I provided some info for one of his film books. He was a true film lover who was able to communicate his enthusiasm and experience to a modern generation. He had worked in British cinema in its heyday, at Denham Studios under Alexander Korda, as a music and sound-effects editor, and written early definitive textbooks on the techniques of film editing and film music, and on early British Technicolor films. He believed in cinema as an educational mass medium, and he also worked for the British Film Institute as regional-development officer until 1974, when it became too bureaucratic and elitist for his democratic instincts. To help preserve and make available early documentary film that he felt was in danger of being lost, in 1985 he founded the Huntley Film Archive in London, whose database of early films is now online. From 1974 on, he lectured and presented radio and tv programmes on British cinema, until shortly before his death age 82, from cancer.

The First Screen Depictions: 'Actuality' and 'Scenic' shorts
The Huntley Film Archive lists the earliest films shot locally, usually 'actualities'.
Film #35745, from the 1900s, is “probably Lulworth Cove, Dorset, a paddle steamer alights, passengers walk along a long walkway pontoon to the shore.” Film #11701 also shows “paddle steamers at Lulworth Cove.” Film #21455 is a 4-reel compilation Huntley used for tv programmes he presented. Reel One includes some footage of The Solent (Cowes Week 1913, a ‘faked’ Titanic and Lusitania, film stars at Southampton docks, etc.) Reel Two, on transport films, includes (again) a scene of Lulworth Cove in 1908, one of Bournemouth, and another of the Bournemouth Belle [train]. Film #21456, a compilation reel of 71 films from the 1890s and early 1900s, also includes footage of the Bournemouth Belle. This is undated but is alongside footage of Queen Victoria (died 1901) at Balmoral, the 1900 Paris Expo, the Boer War, and three famous early British on-location efforts: Birt Acres’s Derby [1896], R.W. Paul’s film of Brighton seafront [1896], and [A Daring] Daylight Robbery, a 1902 prototype chase melodrama.
So while there are candidates for local ‘firsts’ from the 1890s and 1900s, it remains difficult to say exactly when the first local footage was shot.
The earliest known local-interest tourist-promotion ‘scenic’ (a then-common genre) seems to have been Bournemouth (1911). It is catalogued [as AV131/3/V1] by Wessex Film and Sound Archive in Winchester, as follows: “Lifts in action on the cliffs on the sea front. Sea bathing in the sea. Close up shots of people in the sea, children and adults. People wading in the sea, ladies sitting in deckchairs on the beach. Children playing on the beach. Bungalows (beach huts) on the sea front with people sitting outside them. Pine forest at Branksome Chime with children playing in the forest. Houses at Alum Chine.” (This description indicates it also shows Poole, and may be a ‘first’ there as well.)
There is still the quesion of when was the first dramatic film made locally? The definitive answer is not yet known, but it probably lies in the work of Cecil Hepworth at Lulworth.
Hepworth And Lulworth

Lulworth Cove

Lulworth Cove, one of Britain's early "repertory" filming locations. It was then a port of call, weather permitting, for paddle steamers - something which would have made it possible to transport crew and equipment directly to this then-remote location, where there was yet no modern road.


The Heart Of A Fishergirl, 1910. Along with the similar Grace Darling [qv], this one-act marine-rescue story shot at Lulworth in rough seas seems to be the first drama shot in Dorset which has survived - other earlier films may have been lost.

Hepworth's Elsinore Castle was built atop the bay west of Lulworth cliffs, which can be best seen in the background in this frame (thanks to the cameraman being unable to pan quickly enough to follow Hamlet as he exits stage left). A clip showing this scene was on view for years at the Museum Of Moving Image in London, until the government closed it down. A similar clip also appears in the 1996 documentary series Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood, with commentary by Kenneth Branagh (who criticizes Hepworth's static style). You can view the Ghost scene (on the battlements and then on the foreshore), via the BFI ScreenOnline site here, and on YouTube, here.

Geoff Brown comments in his book All Our Yesterdays that "the Ghost was let loose on the stones and boulders of the Dorset shore." This frame blowup, of the scene where the ghost of Hamlet's father appears, first on the castle battlements, as in the play, then on the foreshore, doesn't show the cliff as it is today, since the 1913 cliff-face would have eroded away since. However sources indicate it was at St Oswald's Bay just west Lulworth, just below where the castle facade was erected on the clifftop.



Hepworth's Comin' Through The Rye, 1922

Hepworth's Comin' Thro' The Rye, 1923 remake. The location here certainly isn't Lulworth and doesn't appear to be elsewhere in Dorset (the closest matchup would be just west of Milton Abbas).

Hepworth's Tansy, 1921Hepworth made a number of 'pastoral dramas', which offer some prospect for having the exteriors of some of thse filmed locally, on his annual summertime Lulworth excursions. Hepworth was also friendly with American expatriate filmmaker Larry Trimble, who was commissioned in 1915 to script and direct a full length feature version of Far From The Madding Crowd.


Further Information - Hepworth Picture Plays
Volumes 1-4 of Rachael Low's 7-volume The History Of British Film (1948-73) has details of his work - Hepworth was Chairman of the British Film Institute's History Committee, and reportedly helped with the research Low later drew on, though ironically his own 1951 memoir, Came The Dawn, is not considered reliable as to dates etc. There seems also to have been an 1985 TV documentary called Came the Dawn - The Story of Cecil Hepworth. There is now a website devoted to Hepworth, here. See also this site. The IMDB has a filmography, though the links don't lead to any locations info. Biographical and film details, including some stills or frame blowups, and video clips, are available via the BFI bio-page, which has links to some of his productions.

The most likely prospect for the first dramatic film shot locally is one of a set produced (and often directed) by Cecil Hepworth (1874-1953). Hepworth was a pioneer British producer, scriptwriter, director, editor, studio owner, inventor, artist, and later lecturer on film. His first hit was coverage of Queen Victoria's funeral in 1901. This may well be the one mentioned in the Huntley documentary reel mentioned above.  As Roy Armes's A Critical History Of British Cinema notes, Hepworth was also a pioneer of location filming and "made annual excursions to Lulworth Cove" as his favourite English location - making it probably British cinema's first "repertory" locations area. (As indicated above, it had often appeared in early 'scenics'.)
Unfortunately most Hepworth films were lost when he went bankrupt in 1924, and we don’t know when the first one shot at Lulworth was. We do know that he became successful enough after his 1905 chase melodrama Rescued By Rover became his greatest hit to afford location trips.
In fact, Hepworth at that time wanted to set up a studio on Brownsea Island, which he had discovered one of his sailing trips around the coast on his yacht. (He mentions the idea in his memoirs, but not why nothing ever came of it. Presumably he realised proper road access is needed to transport cumbersome film equipment to a location.) We don't have any dramatic films listed however until 1910, when he made at least 3 films there. Grace Darling was a fact-based drama which juxtaposed shots of the sea at Lulworth depicting her heroic rescue of some 1838 Northumbrian-coast shipwreck survivors (which made her a national heroine) with a scene of a cottage at West Lulworth village (inland) which had shingle laid over its garden and a lifeboat hauled to lie alongside to make it appear it was right on the beach. From its IMDB synopsis ("A fishergirl saves her sweetheart from drowning."), another 1910 short, The Heart Of A Fishergirl, was a similar type of sentimental 'rescue' drama. (Complete synopsis here. For those with UK library access, it survives almost intact online at the BFI site.) Hepworth of course had made his fortune with a "rescue" story, Rescued By Rover. The apparently now-lost Hawkeye Swims The Channel was a comedy short, part of Hepworth's 'Hawkeye' series of comic misadventures, filmed in the sea off Durdle Door next to Lulworth without a stunt double (which nearly cost the lead actor his life), and on the clifftop for a comic chase scene.
His biggest and best-known Lulworth film was the £10,000 1913 feature-length production of Hamlet, produced by Hepworth and directed by Hay Plumb. For this, he built a plaster-and-lathe Elsinore Castle (supposedly an exact replica of its facade) atop the cliffs at Dungy Head, overlooking the bay just west of Lulworth Cove.
According to the film’s own publicity, ‘on the cliffs of Lulworth Cove is being built a magnificent castle, which is to be an exact replica of the famous old pile still standing in Denmark. This is being erected absolutely regardless of expense, the only condition laid down for the builders being that it shall be an exact copy of the original.’
In an era when films were made for £100, this Gaumont production, which featured its financier, stage-star Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, cost a staggering £10,000. Hamlet was almost the first full-length feature shot in England - that distinction went to Hepworth's David Copperfield, made the same year, one of Hepworth's five Dickens adaptations.
At least two other 1910 films, The Princes In The Tower (presumably a historical drama about the infamous incident in the early days of Richard III) and Tilly And The Coastguards (part of his "Tilly" series about a schoolgirl's adventures), used the same set before wind and rain demolished it over the winter. His production company Hepworth Picture Plays reportedly visited Lulworth annually until 1922, suggesting there no lack of other locally-shot films, for the company produced dozens of films a year. However he also filmed elsewhere, other productions being shot in Sussex.
The year 1923 was the culmination of Hepworth's own directorial career, when he remade his 1916 Comin' Thro' The Rye. Hepworth regarded this as his finest work, though film histories cite it as a quintessential example of the sentimental Victorian romance genre. (A clip of it is seen in the 1957 comedy The Smallest Show On Earth, where the elderly staff of the old fleapit cinema tearfully watch silent films on their evenings off.) That, however, was the last hurrah for Hepworth Picture Plays. He over-invested in building a film studio, his stock offer went under-subscribed and bankruptcy followed the next year, his films melted down for their silver content.
Despite making many early 'trick' films, and his greatest hit being a chase melodrama (his 1905 Rescued By Rover), Hepworth preferred "frontal staging with action played out in pantomimic gestures in a single long-shot tableaux." [BFI article here.] Hepworth was an innovator in many ways, developing the star system in Britain, even making films with synchronised sound in the 'silent' era. However he had one blind spot: he obstinately refused to use straight cuts between shots, saying these were 'visually disruptive,' instead filming scenes in single shots and using fadeouts to black between shots, even in Rescued By Rover (these being cut from reissue prints). This made his films increasingly seem dated.
The BFI ScreenOnline bio adds, "His interest remained in scenic photography and he brought this pictorial style into his films. ... His presentation style barely changed from the early melodramas to the features of the 1920s, but it was a specific style which he deliberately fostered. ... He was justifiably proud of his place in cinema history, and toured in later life with a lecture programme telling the story of the birth of cinema. As Variety said of him on 19 May 1922, he was apt to allow the artist in his nature to conquer the commercialism of the showman, but his pictures were always worth watching."
His autobiography was published just before his death in 1953, called Came The Dawn. ("Always I have striven for beauty, for pictorial meaning and effect.") Given that his work is criticised by those who have seen his films for being more picturesque than dramatic, these films would be rich in scenic background ... if only surviving prints could be located, for Hepworth's own print library did not.
Matthew Sweet's studio history Shepperton Babylon explains: "when Cecil Hepworth went bankrupt in 1924, his entire back catalogue of negatives was bought by a dealer who melted them down into resin for water-proofing the canvas of aircraft wings. Two thousand films, which had showcased Britain's first generation of stars, were liquefied ... Next time you see a Spitfire in a museum, run your fingers over its skin. You might be touching a vanished masterpiece."





The 'Alas, poor Yorick...' scene from Hepworth's 1913 Hamlet, filming location unknown.

  A New Forest vignette shot
The New Forest, with its Gypsy presence, uncultivated heathlands and several thousand free-ranging ponies, attracted film-makers early on.
As both Bournemouth and The New Forest have attracted film-makers from early on as scenic locations, there are other possible shoots where local filming details are not yet ascertained.
The New Forest has been a favourite of filmmakers from at least 1903, when the Warwick Trading Company (then a market leader) filmed the short "actuality" Scenes Of A New Forest Pony Fair there. British cinema pioneer GA Smith, who was interested in mesmerism, joined a New Forest religious commune called the Girlingites, and may have filmed there in the 1900s. British film pioneer J. Stuart Blackton (1875-1941) shot scenes for his 1921 Prizmacolour epic The Virgin Queen at Beaulieu Abbey before returning to Hollywood. A few early literary works part-set in Bournemouth were filmed in the silent era, location details as yet unconfirmed. An adaptation was shot in 1922 of Compton McKenzie’s bestselling pre-WWI novel Sinister Street, set partly in the Bournemouth area. Also filmed was The Wrong Box by Lloyd Osbourne & RL Stevenson, which they co-wrote after leaving Bournemouth in 1887, and is partly set there and in the New Forest.
According to a BFI film history, in the 1920s an American producer scouting England for the ideal place for a “British Hollywood” announced the Bournemouth area would be ideal. Sadly, it was not to be ....
  Lulworth Cove ... So, we have as yet no confirmed pre-1910 local shoot beyond short "actualities," and we’ll be covering film and tv dramas made in this region from 1910 onward in our chronological index. If you have info on any early films shot here, please contact me.
Go to:
Film Chronology, 1910-
Production History
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