BFI archive footage of 1920s London goes viral

Kevin Spacey and Stephen Fry are among the thousands of tweeters captivated by beautiful colour footage of London in 1926, restored by the BFI. 

Samuel Wigley
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Extract: ‘London Bridge’, The Open Road (1926)

While Gatsby fever grips the film world in anticipation of the release of Baz Luhrmann’s new F. Scott Fitzgerald adaptation, the internet has been abuzz with an authentic vision of life in the 1920s. Colour footage of London in 1926, filmed by pioneer filmmaker Claude Friese-Greene for his cross-country travelogue The Open Road, has captured the imagination of online viewers, with an extract from the BFI’s restoration going viral following a tweet from actor Kevin Spacey.

Artistic director of London’s Old Vic theatre since 2003, Spacey’s enthusiasm for this enchanting glimpse of bustling life in the capital nearly 90 years ago was shared by his Twitter followers, who have so far retweeted his comments over 2,000 times. Actor Stephen Fry and Daily Telegraph film critic Robbie Collin are among the other tweeters to have fallen under the unique film’s spell.

The footage was also picked up by The Huffington Post, which called the extract “nothing short of exquisite” and “a gorgeous preservation of English urban life at the time.” The article has been shared over 3,000 times via Facebook and has received 200+ comments.

Extract: ‘Petticoat Lane’, The Open Road (1926)

Friese-Greene’s London footage was filmed on his homecoming after an 840-mile road trip across Britain from Land’s End to John O’Groats. An early innovator of colour technology, Friese-Greene developed a system initiated by his father, using colour-sensitive black and white film shot and projected via green and red filters.

His 1925 road trip exploited this method to capture a precious record of British life, intended to be shown in cinemas as 26 separate episodes. Deposited for preservation with the BFI National Archive in the late 1950s, selections from Friese-Greene’s footage were featured in the TV series The Lost World of Friese-Greene, a co-production between the BFI and the BBC broadcast in 2006. The full restoration of The Open Road was released on BFI DVD in 2007.

Extract: ‘Kensington Gardens’, The Open Road (1926)

While conventional histories of film herald the arrival of colour film in the 1930s, restorations such as The Open Road have shown the beauty of far earlier colour technologies, often surprising modern audiences with the immediacy with which archive film conjures the past.

“Seeing familiar places in archive film can have a quite eerie and unsettling effect on us,” says Bryony Dixon, the BFI’s curator of silent film. “As restoration techniques improve, that quality becomes stronger. An era we associate with grainy black and white images seen in high resolution and in colour is brought tangibly closer to us – you can feel the realness of people and places from nearly 90 years ago.”

Assuring 1920s cinema exhibitors of the spellbinding appeal of Friese-Greene’s films, the original publicity for the film read: “These beautiful novelties … will make your audience gasp with wonder and keep your patrons talking about them for weeks.”

What was true of the 20s cinemagoer remains so for the 21st-century internaut, transported back to 1920s London via their smartphone or tablet. Shared on social media and across the web, these archive scenes have reached a new audience in ways that Claude Friese-Greene, pioneer though he was, could scarcely have imagined.

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Available to buy

  • The Open Road

    The Open Road

    Groundbreaking travelogue by colour cinematography pioneer Glaude Friese-Greene, documenting life on the road from Land’s End to John O’Groats.

  • The Lost World of Friese-Greene

    The Lost World of Friese-Greene

    Presenter Dan Cruickshank traces the route taken by pioneering filmmaker Claude Friese-Greene in a series of remarkable films from the mid-1920s.

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