The investigation begins….
“Louis Aimé August (sic) Le Prince came to Leeds in 1866 where he experimented in cinematography. In 1888 he patented a one-lens camera with which he filmed Leeds Bridge from this British Waterways building. These were probably the world’s first successful moving pictures”
So reads a blue heritage plaque on a building overlooking Leeds Bridge. This is the starting point for Wilkinson’s investigation, a quest to finally discover whether that word ‘probably’ can be removed.
There are three surviving film scenes, shot by Le Prince, in Leeds. Being able to definitively date and place these scenes is the key to Wilkinson’s case that Le Prince’s work preceded that of the Lumiere Brothers or Edison.
His detective partner is Irfan Shah, a Leeds-based researcher. Shah had discovered an original pamphlet written by E. Kilburn Scott after Le Prince’s death, which he shares with Wilkinson. Scott had worked with Le Prince and was outraged that Edison, in particular, was taking the credit and benefitting from the advances that Le Prince made. Sadly it was a privately produced pamphlet and not widely distributed at the time. Wilkinson must go on to find the corroborating evidence that will prove Le Prince’s legacy.
Louise Le Prince was born in Metz in 1841, so Wilkinson travels to France to meet up with Jacques Pfend, the world’s foremost authority on Louis Le Prince.
Le Prince received an extensive education, studying in Paris and at the Universities of Bonn and Leipzig. It was at Leipzig that Le Prince was introduced to John Whitley, who was to be influential in bringing Le Prince to Leeds.
John Whitley’s father had established an engineering firm in Leeds and was looking to expand into European markets, particularly France. John knew how useful Le Prince could be and invited him to Leeds in 1866.
There, Le Prince met and fell in love with John’s sister Lizzie. He married, started a family and established his career in the Yorkshire city, which was gaining a reputation for innovation.
Wilkinson goes on to investigate the links between Le Prince and various prominent local figures – artists, industrialists, inventors, etc. – to try and discover what sparked his interest in the moving image.
His search continues to reveal many clues to his life and career in Leeds and the development of Le Prince’s artistic ideas, which ultimately culminate in the technological breakthroughs that will bring moving pictures to the world.
Background – The beginning
Over 45 years ago Wilkinson was a pupil at Benton Secondary Modern, Rawdon in Leeds and he remembers being told that film was invented in the city. At the time he, like many others, did not believe it. However, he would later change his mind when he came to know more about Louis Le Prince, a French man who came to Leeds in 1866 and started experimenting with cinematography. In October 1888 he recorded the very first moving images on a single lens camera in the city, seven years earlier than the Lumiere Brothers in Paris.
The people of Leeds have long regarded Le Prince as a local hero. There have been many local newspaper articles and the book ‘Made In Yorkshire’ which was written by local film expert Tony Earnshaw. However, despite this recognition of his pioneering work from his adopted home city his fame has not spread and he has not been formally acknowledged by any official body.
Wilkinson has witnessed the incredulity that this story is met with first hand. Convinced that the birthplace of the moving image was the city of his birth, Wilkinson has tried to convince the filmmaking world of this fact. On visits to Hollywood, New York, Paris and the Cannes Film Festival he has told the tale of Louis Le Prince and his Leeds invention but it has been met with disbelief. “Almost no one knew who he was. The typical response was ‘well if that was the case I would know about it’ “.
Wilkinson believed that this is was a story that must be told and he joined up with a team of film professionals who shared his vision to right what they perceived to be a great wrong – Co-producer Bill Lawrence (former Head of Film at the National Media Museum in Bradford and former board director of Screen Yorkshire, and now a board director of Creative England) and Leeds-based Researcher and Co-writer Irfan Shah.
Those helping to tell the story are Quentin Dowse a former senior policeman from East Yorkshire, film historians Stephen Herbert, Michael Harvey, Mark Rance, and Daniel Martin at Armley Mills Industrial Museum, with contributions from leading IP lawyer Louise A Handley, American historian Carol S Ward, CEO of Film London Adrian Wootton and Professor Tony North.
The result is THE FIRST FILM, filmmaker David Nicholas Wilkinson’s 33-year quest to prove that in October 1888 Louis Le Prince produced the world’s first films in Leeds, England.
Directors Notes by David Nicholas Wilkinson
In 1981-82 I had pioneered the BBC Reverse Drama Co-Production, which apparently made me the first real independent producer to work with the BBC. After the success of that first film TO THE LIGHTHOUSE, which was nominated for a BAFTA, I tried to interest the BBC, and everyone else, in the Le Prince story. The approach was just an A4 pitch and occasionally face to face. Back then I only ever knew the basics of the story from information freely available at the Central Library in Leeds. Nothing more. If anyone had bitten I would have undertaken more work however no one ever showed any interest.
For decades when someone in the film industry in Hollywood, New York, Cannes or Berlin would ask me where I was from, I would say where the first film was made. People would reply, “You don’t sound French/ American”. Most would laugh when I said the first film was shot in Leeds.
In 2007 I was working with the film critic for the Yorkshire Post Tony Earnshaw on the book ‘Made In Yorkshire’. The book was a celebration of all the feature films shot in the county. We started the book with the Louis Le Prince story. It was this opening chapter that renewed my obsession with the Le Prince story and so I began to sound out potential Directors and Presenters but it soon became obvious that no one else was quite so engrossed with the story as I was.
My vision for the documentary was a quest, via a thorough investigation of the evidence, to discover the truth – was Le Prince robbed of the recognition he deserved because of his untimely disappearance? It became noticeable to others that I should be the person to present the investigation – after all I was the one who kept telling everyone that film was invented in Leeds and needed proof to back up my claims.
A well-known actor friend was asked once if he would be willing to take part in ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ He said yes. They delved into the history of his family going back several generations and reported back that because there was nothing interesting in his family’s past they were not going to feature him. Any producer would have done the same. They need to know the outcome before they started filming.
This was a dilemma for me. I genuinely wanted the film to discover the elements as we went along, finding the facts and information in real time but as the producer I should know all of the components beforehand. However I was also the presenter. I don’t like the artifice of some documentaries where they already know what they are discovering and therefore the “discovery” is a kind of dramatic reconstruction.
In 1989 Christopher Rawlence made a Channel 4 TV drama documentary about Louis Le Prince based upon a long researched book. I decided not to read the book or watch the TV film as they would undoubtedly come to conclusions and make assumptions and I felt I would be influenced by what someone else had found.
When Irfan Shah joined me as researcher and co-writer he read this and a great deal more to make sure I would not make any huge mistakes. However much of what I discovered on camera for the first time Irfan had already known for sometime. I did all my own research from scratch. Irfan would often point me in the right direction and sometimes wait for me to discover I was going down a cul-de-sac.
With a small production budget and the need to fit around other people’s availability, filming was stretched out over a 20-month period. This worked in my favour greatly, as it allowed me to make further discoveries as we went along, especially towards the end. In other circumstances we may have filmed in one block over a short period but I think the film would have been less interesting. Sometimes a lot less money can produce a great deal more.
Of the over 50 people who worked on the film in one way or another (excluding those who appear in it) just 4 of them knew the story beforehand. Three were studying at Leeds Beckett University where Louis Le Prince’s photo hangs in the film department another was a Russian woman who lives in France. Even filmmakers within Leeds had never heard the story until I told them during the production.
With the Vox pops, although we feature only 7 people in the film we asked 89 men and women in the entertainment industry if they had heard of Louis Le Prince from directors, producers, actors, writers, journalists, executives and only one person had but not because of his work inventing cameras but because his disappearance is on a great unsolved murders website. This person, a film festival programmer recalled that Le Prince was a photographer, not the world’s first filmmaker.
Film history is made by just two sets of people – those who write about and those who work in it.
In 1888, no one of course wrote about film.
By making the THE FIRST FILM I hope it will be written about and thus the name of Louis Le Prince become better known but also how important Britain was to the birth of cinema.