The first reported showing of a Mitchell & Kenyon film was a film of Blackburn Market, shown at 40 Northgate, in Blackburn, on 27 November 1897. The company produced films either on their own initiative or as commissioned by local businesses. In April 1899 the travelling showman George Green commissioned them to film workers leaving factories, to be shown at the Easter fair, thus beginning the showing of their films by a network of showmen.
Three Norden fiction films released in September 1899, The Tramp's Surprise, The Tramps and the Artist, and Kidnapping by Indians brought them to national attention. The success of their early films encouraged Mitchell to give up his shop and in September 1901 Mitchell & Kenyon moved into premises in Clayton Street, Blackburn, to concentrate on film production. Fiction production was not as extensive as their production of topicals, but by 1903 the company had an outdoor studio at its premises at 22 Clayton Street, Blackburn, which was used in addition to outside locations. The Cinema Museum in London currently preserves 65 Norden fiction films.
The showmen became self-publicising travelling cinematograph operators. Films taken during the day were shown on the same evening in fairground tents or local meeting halls and music halls with slogans like "see yourselves as others see you". Dramas took a while to catch on and the non-fiction actuality films were more popular. A typical 2 hour programme would show drama, comedy, live actors and then the main attraction, local "topicals", with a brass band and the showman's commentary during the silent films, plus occasional sound effects from guns and members of the audience paid to scream and faint to add to the excitement.
Workers now had one week's holiday each year, albeit unpaid, and films were made in the thriving holiday resorts including Blackpool and Morecambe Bay. Leisure activities shown include boating on rivers, promenading in pleasure gardens and rolling Easter eggs.
The parades and processions include carnivals with participants blacking up and doing 'golliwog' dance routines, and men dressed as both Dutch men and women doing a clog dance. Others show religious processions, [carnival processions) charity parades and marches, and Temperance parades featuring their children's section, The Band of Hope. Military marches and parades were featured, as well as marches by the Boys' Brigade and the Church Lads' Brigade
Fictionalised scenes from the South African war and the Boxer Rebellion were filmed in the countryside around Blackburn. These are described as fakes, but the audiences may well have accepted them as dramatic re-enactments. Screenings were enlivened by smoke bombs and guns being fired.
Mitchell & Kenyon's most innovative film was The Arrest of Goudie in 1901, which is arguably the world's first filmed crime reconstruction — the film incorporates the actual crime locations and depicts the arrest of Thomas Goudie, a Bank of Liverpool employee who embezzled £170,000 while involved in a gambling ring. The film was shown at the Prince of Wales Theatre in Liverpool only three days after Goudie's arrest. Goudie was subsequently jailed for ten years. A full detailed history of this film by Vanessa Toulmin can be found 'An Early Film Crime Rediscovered: Mitchell & Kenyon’s Arrest of Goudie (1901), in Film History Vol 16, no 1 (2004): 37-53.
Rugby and cricket matches were also featured, and when A D Thomas, who styled himself "the picture king, the master mind of the world", heard of a cricketing scandal where the respected Lancashire bowler Arthur Mold was repeatedly given no ball by the umpire, he promptly commissioned a filmed re-enactment of Mold's bowling to prove that his technique was valid — the first action replay, which was a popular success.
Other films featured rowing events, horse trotting, athletics, cycle races and motor tricycle races.
To enliven some street scenes the showmen arranged for mock fights or hosing down a spectator, and slapstick was added to park scenes with male actors dressed as women falling off a donkey or in the water from a boat, revealing their petticoats under the long skirts of the time.
Gregory knew of local businessman and historian Peter Worden's interest in cinematography, he phoned up and offered to arrange for the drums to be delivered to him. The films were then looked after by Peter Worden until their transfer to the British Film Institute in July 2000
Peter, along with another local historian, Robin Whalley, researched the films and provided an invaluable introduction into the firm and their films in an article published as Forgotten Firm in Film History, Volume 10, Number 1, 1998, (ISBN 1-86462-031-5).
The Peter Worden Collection of Mitchell & Kenyon Films has now been preserved by staff at British Film Institute's National Film and Television Archive, carefully storing the dangerously inflammable 35 mm nitrate negatives. Painstaking film preservation techniques were used to produce remarkably clean and scratch free positives, adjusting the speed to smooth out the variations in these hand-cranked films. The results are fresh and natural, offering an unparalleled social record of early 20th Century British life.
The University of Sheffield's National Fairground Archive and the British Film Institute were awarded a three year research grant by the Arts and Humanities Research Board to research, catalogue identify and contextualise the 800 plus films. This has culminated in a collection of essays The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon: Edwardian Britain on Film, edited by Vanessa Toulmin, Simon Popple and Patrick Russell and published by the bfi in October 2004 (ISBN 1-84457-046-0, paperback, ISBN 1-84457-047-9, hardback) and over 15 articles. The major catalogue and interpretation of the Collection has just been published by the British Film Institute titled Electric Edwardians: The Story of the Mitchell & Kenyon Collection (London: BFI, 2006, by Vanessa Toulmin, it contains over 431 stills from the collection, an impressive array of handbills and posters from the National Fairground Archive and 100,000 words of text and filmographic references. Also available is a companion DVD entitled the Electric Edwardians featuring two hours of highlights from the Collection with extras on the archiving of the films, an essay by film historian Tom Gunning and an interview with the lead researcher on the Collection, Dr Vanessa Toulmin. Forthcoming film releases include Mitchell & Kenyon in Ireland and Edwardian Sport on Film (both to be released in late spring 2007)
A prime-time three-part series The Lost World of Mitchell & Kenyon was shown on the BBC in January 2005 with enthusiastic commentary by historian Dan Cruickshank and interviews with descendants of people shown in the films, and is available on DVD from the BBC or the bfi.
The BFI and the NFA have toured the Collection extensively presenting over 100 shows in venues throughout the North of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales and proving once again that local films for local people are as popular today as they were a century ago. Dr Vanessa Toulmin of the National Fairground Archive has also presented specialist feature shows on the history of Rugby League with Professor Tony Collins, seaside entertainment with Professor John Walton and football history with Professor Dave Russell.